By Laura Palotie
The Stone, one of New York’s newest avant-garde clubs, stands on an unmarked street corner in Alphabet City. Besides a finely printed name by the handle of the outside door, only the sounds of a vibrating bass string and brushes spinning across a drum head give the venue’s existence away to a passerby. No food or drinks are served here; “only music,” its web site declares.
Trumpet player Steven Bernstein has just finished performing a Wednesday night show with bassist Mario Pavone. Bernstein’s instrument case hangs over his shoulder, and a rimmed felt hat sits on top of his otherwise bald head. Tiny silver hoops dangle from his ears.
“Being a jazz musician is like saying you’re a professional dinosaur rider,” he says, grinning.
Pianist Craig Taborn laughs in response to Bernstein’s joke and suggests that perhaps “mammoth rider” would be a more fitting analogy; the Symphony, after all, plays even more ancient music.
It’s perhaps Bernstein’s awareness of the outdated tendencies of jazz that, besides his talents, has granted him a usually endangered privilege: the ability to earn a living playing what he wants. He was part of punk and jazz-inspired Lounge Lizards revival in the 1990s, and has worked on soundtracks for films like Kansas City and Get Shorty. A mix of humor, unrestrained talent, and an awareness of pop culture characterizes Bernstein’s projects; his band Sex Mob, for example, is known for mixing original, hot-blooded jazz compositions with covers of tunes like Goldfinger and Macarena. Audiences dig the accessibility; the band has put out six albums in the past nine years.
As band leader, Bernstein cracks spontaneous jokes and steps playfully around the stage as he gives cues, but while playing with Pavone he has remained on the side of the stage, only his signature smile giving away his personality.
John Zorn, the owner of the Stone, allows musicians to pocket the $10 cover. Tonight only about 20 people occupied its rows of folding chairs, but when Bernstein last performed here with Sex Mob, the four-member group split almost $1000 in profits. For a club gig, this is a nice chunk of cash; many professional musicians say that they earn between $50 and $100 for an appearance.
Walking through the fall drizzle, Bernstein says that he first began frequenting this neighborhood as a college student in the early 1980s. The post-Warholian punk rock mentality ruled, he remembers, fueling Bernstein’s own jazz education. Even before an early morning rehearsal, he tended to stay in Alphabet City until dawn.
At NYU he refused to call himself a jazz musician—“they were trying to teach me the way people played in 1958, and I thought it was pointless, I was listening to Jimmy Hendrix and the Beatles and trying to figure out how I could make this music relate to that”, he remembers—but whether live music was punk or classical, it enjoyed a hipness factor.
“Cool people listened to jazz. You sit down, light a joint, have a drink and just let it happen, let in the music and let it take you,” he says, resting his hand on the side of a beer glass at a nearby bar. The speakers above him are blasting an assortment of the latest hiphop tunes, and Bernstein has to raise his voice to make his sentences heard.
Upon a short scroll through concert listings in local papers, it’s easy to conclude that a night without live music is still an anomaly in New York. If evening crowds at venues like the Stone, 11th Street Bar in the East Village or the Baggot Inn near NYU are any indication, however, Bernstein is right: the once-vibrant crowds are elsewhere. If the venue is a bar, it’s not uncommon to see more patrons lounging on the stools than in the performance space. Clubs that draw audiences on live music are dropping off the landscape; amidst the closing of rock havens like CBGB’s, Continental and Sin-é, many jazz musicians are missing Tonic, an East Village venue for experimental music that closed this spring.
As the live music scene dwindles, jazz has gotten the shortest end of the deal. Its chunk of album sales is already tiny: The Recording Industry Association of America reports that the sales of jazz dropped from 4.9% of records sold to 1.9% between 1989 and 1998. It has remained in the 2% range ever since.
An art form that’s already considered part of the history books has little hope of survival in a culture that doesn’t embrace live music, many local musicians say. Some certainly have hope; ask a musician stepping off stage after a gig, and he or she is likely to say that musical experimentation and a growing pool of talent coming out of conservatories keeps jazz alive. Ask this same musician what’s wrong with the music scene though, and frustration rises to the surface.
Bernstein points at the misty street outside, where the signs to pizza restaurants and lounges glow on the windows of passing taxi cabs. It’s a weeknight, and a bar across from us seems to be crowded with twenty-somethings clad in wrinkled dress shirts, fitted pants and tailored tops.
“That’s what the culture is about,” he says. “20 years ago, people spent $10 on a meal and $10 to hear music. Now people spend $100 on a meal, and nothing to hear music.”
“Or people go hear music and don’t want to pay a cover,” he continues. “Clubs pass a hat.”
For Bernstein, his strategy of blending genres has worked. Besides his soundtrack and band projects, he has collaborated with popular artists like Rufus Wainwright. Bernstein was inspired to turn his musical talent into a profitable career during his time at NYU, while studying with mentor Jimmy Maxwell (1917-2002). Maxwell had moved into the city as a young man and gone on play in the NBC and CBS orchestras, jam with Count Basie, and bring the now-legendary trumpet solo on The Godfather soundtrack to life.
“I’m infiltrating the culture,” Bernstein says. “You can’t hit a corporation over the head. In the corporate culture you have to sneak in.”
“I don’t know what it’s like for young musicians because there are no jobs, there are no recordings, there are no clubs, and no big bands that tour,” he says. “I have to hope that people will rediscover the beauty of live music. There isn’t much left in the world that’s that honest.”
While the Stone has decidedly stripped away all distractions from the music it cultivates, the Baggott Inn near NYU’s campus seems to be at ease in its status as a college dive. The bar advertises itself as hosting live music nightly in its back room, in which audience members sit by rows of low, creaky tables. Each is decorated by a small, lit candle that softens the otherwise worn feel of the space.
The room is nearly empty when guitarist Jason Rosen steps to the microphone. In celebration of Halloween, a paper skeleton hangs from the back curtain.
A self-proclaimed player of urban tribal funk, Rosen holds a jam session every Tuesday night for an assorted group of saxophonists, drummers, bassist and guitarists. Rosen, who was born in the early 1960s and lived with his parents in The Westbeth Artists’ Community in the Village, taught himself to play through open jam sessions such as this one. In short, he represents a time when a Berklee, NYU or Juilliard degree wasn’t needed: performing with more skilled musicians in venues around the city and practicing at home for the next opportunity to prove oneself was a rite of passage.
The selection of songs at Jason’s Jam is open and not confined to a genre; during the show, one could hear the group transition from a reggae selection to Born to Be Wild.
As they wait their turn to go onstage, 55-year-old saxophonist Chuck Hancock (no relation to Herbie, he says, “sadly”) and 36-year-old bassist Antar Goodwin huddle by a barside table with guitarist Pip Biancamano, 48. Hancock plays everything from jazz to metal and R&B, Biancamano’s focus is rock and blues and Goodwin is mostly a jazz player, but each plays a variety of genres to make a living.
When asked about the status of jazz, the topic initiates a nearly unbroken chain of dialogue, as each musician intersects his own perspective into teach pause. Amidst fellow musicians, the conversation has little need for direction. Biancamano and Hancock, both New York-born veterans of the jam scene, lean forward at opposite ends of the square table and occasionally react with grunts, shakes and nods as another speaks.
“What’s funny is that we are the old cats and he’s the jazz dude,” Biancamano says and laughs as he points at Goodwin, the youngest of the three.
“It’s kind of scary,” Goodwin says without breaking his smile. “When you get into it, you get all the stories about Miles and Train and Dizzy and all these people, and then you get out into the real world and realize that the world that they lived in doesn’t exist, it hasn’t existed for 50 years.”
“Now everyone becomes a teacher,” Goodwin continues.
“That’s not a bad thing, it keeps it alive,” says Biancamano.
Goodwin got his training at Berklee, but says that his most influential mentor has been New York-based Buddy Booker, who taught Goodwin after he received his music degree (Booker is a teacher at the New School and has his own band project). Goodwin has played with mainstream names like Lauryn Hill and Sting, and leads a band called The Antar Goodwin Group that blends light, groovy jazz with funk and soul.
“You used to learn to play jazz by going to a club. You listened to a bunch of people, you had a little jam session, get on stage, get your ass whooped, and you’d go home and practice and go back the next week and get beat up less, and sooner or later you’d learn how to play,” says Goodwin.
Hancock interjects, scrunching the muscles on his forehead. As he leans forward to speak, the shoulders of his long leather jacket make a faint squeaking sound.
“It’s not that I was requested not to return, but I got the freeze every time I showed up,” he says in a raspy, singsongy voice. “It’s planning, but it’s also trial and error.”
“Now you learn, you go to school, and I remember being in school and having people say things like ‘you can’t do that’. But if you look at the greats—Miles, Train, the big four that everybody always knows—they learned the rules and then broke all the rules,” says Goodwin, clasping his palms together between his knees. “Now players are really well-rounded but nobody writes as much as they did.”
“All the guys that we love wrote melodies but they grew up playing vocal songs. And now all the songs are based on harmonic concepts, and as a result, you can’t sing a melody back. If you’re not a jazz musician, you probably won’t like it unless someone introduces you to it, walks you through all the steps of it, and takes the time to teach it. Back in the day you could just turn on the radio,” he continues.
Sporting long dreadlocks, a black head scarf and a graphic t-shirt, Goodwin looks younger than his age. He speaks in long, articulate sentences, but compared to Hancock’s and Biancamano’s sharper tones, his voice provides gentle refrains into the conversation. By the time he became influenced by music, Goodwin remembers, he was buying cassette tapes and watching a brand-new network: MTV.
“That’s when the world changed. Before you could have these moderately attractive guys touring all around the world and people bought their records,” he says.
“Music became styled more than it ever had been. It became a visual medium,” Biancamano adds.
“It became more style than substance,” Hancock intercepts.
“I was being nice, he is absolutely right,” Biancamano says.
“In ’85, for three times the price of a movie ticket, you could see a massive concert. Now if you and a date want to go to Blue Note, you’ll pay $150. If it’s $15 for a hamburger, $8 for a beer and tickets are $60, why would you go see music? You pay $150 just for a relaxing night to hear some guy play saxophone for an hour, and then after an hour they kick you out to let a whole new group of people in,” says Goodwin.
“Music has become a huge, elitist thing to do and it costs a lot of money to be subjected to live music,” says Biancamano.
The music on stage pauses for a moment, and Goodwin gets up to grab his bass. The conversation turns to Jazz at Lincoln Center, trumpetist Wynton Marsalis’s controversial initiative that has put jazz in the high-end Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle but, as some say, has taken the final traces of improvisatory jazz out of the public eye.
“It’s a wonderful venue, it’s doing some really great stuff,” Biancamano says. If Bernstein looks like the endearing archetype of a musician, Biancamano would be difficult to place in the stereotype. A baseball cap tilts slightly upward on his head, and his T-shirt depicts Thing 1 and Thing 2 from Cat in the Hat chasing one another across his chest.
“Those places are great, but it’s like going to a ballgame. I mean think about what’s going on in here,” he says and points in the direction of the back room. “You didn’t pay shit to get in here, and there are cats playing live music.”
If the crowd is slim tonight—besides the musicians on call, only a handful of people are occupying the bar and the dark rows of tables—the band seems unfazed. Jason Rosen sings with a smile on his face, acknowledges the few ladies sitting in the audience and nods at his drummer to add a little funk to his beat. Goodwin plays with his eyes closed and mouth turned upward, occasionally stepping up to the side mic to provide background vocals.
“You need to stick around for a while, until someone takes over for me,” he calls out after a song and points at my table. “I told you about all the things wrong with jazz, but there is good stuff too.”
After his set, Goodwin pours himself a cranberry juice and sits back down at the low barside table, slightly removed from the music.
“Ok, one more bad thing,” he says. “People say jazz is not a job, it’s a lifestyle, you do it because you love it, but as much as people say you didn’t get into music to make money, you didn’t get into it to be broke either.”
“It’s like this weird paradigm where everywhere you go has music, everyone loves music, but nobody pays. And the excuse is always, don’t you love it? Of course I love it, but I like to eat, I like to put gas in my car. If I fill up my tank, that’s one jazz gig. The next jazz gig, maybe I can buy a couple of groceries and wash some clothes,” he adds and laughs. To make money, most instrumental musicians make money from weddings, private parties, and tours in Europe and Asia.
“But I can’t complain about my life. I get paid money to play with my friends,” he says.
The tables at the Baggot Inn are still mostly unoccupied, but the group of musicians sitting and waiting for their turns gives the space a vibrant feel. Outside on the sidewalk, the sound of a bouncing hihat, traveling bass line and buzzing saxophone fade into an atonal ring. Whether it’s jazz, funk or rock, it’s impossible to recognize. After only a few feet down the sidewalk, one can no longer hear the music: the sounds have already been lost in the stagnant ring of cab horns.