The MTA subway system–that claustrophobia-inducing web beneath our sidewalks– certainly encapsulates the grimiest, frenziest and the most democratic aspects of New York City living. Students, mothers, homeless snoozers and Morgan Stanley commuters are all crammed into the same steel tubes, often literally arm against arm, Birkenstock against patent leather. It’s also one place in the city where the performing arts, both sloppy and skillful, maintain a place, no matter how many regulations are tossed their way.

Browsing through Google News today, I came across a slice of life-story by Denis Murphy from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Reading about New York’s notorious and endlessly described rush hour from a visitor’s perspective is always fascinating, because although the observations might be nearly identical from one writer to the next, they are always remarked upon with the same joy of discovery. Murphy notes contrasts between the young and the old, between the rich and the poor, and, like others, notes both the unique coexistence of classes and the oddly thriving artistic spirit.

Murphy writes:

“Does the subway influence the New Yorker character? Does it not only make people cockier, but also more tolerant of human weakness, less tolerant of arrogance; does it somehow put people on the side of the underdog? Do the long, silent hours in the subway drive people to write, paint, play an instrument, draw graffiti, compose?”

I’m not sure if it’s the silence–I only seem to notice the cacophony of noises–but the inspiration is perennial.

(Image from Wikipedia)

If you happen to be in Los Angeles next week, this cultural event should provide a nice addition to your itinerary. 16 currently striking writers have put together a lineup of short plays, ranging from eight to 15 minutes, that will feature several recognizable faces from TV and film, Variety reports. Look for Cashmere Mafia‘s Bonnie Summerville, ER‘s Troy Evans and Kari Matchett, Reid Scott from My Boys, Melissa Sagemiller from Sleeper Cell and Ben Feldman from last weekend’s box office idol, Cloverfield. Proceeds from the event, straightforwardly titled “TV Takes the Stage”, will go to the Motion Picture and TV Fund that helps non-writers affected by the strike.

Besides the appeal of an affordable ticket price ($20-30) and a worthy cause, the short run gives audience members a rare chance to check out whether camera-trained actors can hold their own on stage. For an industry that’s facing canceled red carpet events and endless reruns, the event seems to carry a symbolic value: Cue your stars, without the glitz. You decide for yourself.

Ever since my high school years, when I drove from Los Angeles to Anaheim to catch a Matchbox Twenty show one night and to the Sunset Strip a week later to bop my head to an unknown band, I’ve been faced with a dilemma that I hope most culture lovers can relate to. When it comes to music, theater, literature or cinema, is smaller always better? When an artistic endeavor is surrounded by a larger machine that guarantees more exposure and box office gain, is it necessarily hollow in creativity?

Despite my love for independently financed projects that exist due to sheer willpower, I’ve always held an inherent discomfort with the term ‘sellout.’ The box office success of Garden State shouldn’t immediately warrant sessions of Zach Braff-bashing, and Billy Collins’ popularity and public fame shouldn’t make him unworthy of the poetry crowd’s attention.

And, as much as I understand the frustration of New York’s indie theater crowd, Disney’s blockbuster musicals aren’t necessarily void of real creative steam.

That Richard Zoglin’s article, The Little Mermaid: In Defense of Disney appeared in Time Magazine rather than New York Press is no surprise–after all, the piece was an example of one big dog defending the honor of another. It’s also hardly a shock that Leonard Jacobs of the Press posted a rebuttal to Zoglin’s article today.

Both critics make valid points: Zoglin wonders whether the journalists who dismissed Broadway’s Mermaid as “sparkly garishness” even saw the visually subtle show. On his end, Jacobs alleges that the problem with Disney Musicals isn’t their carefully orchestrated staging, but “spectacle at the total expense of a well-textured narrative.”

Zoglin “[wishes,] just once, that Disney might get a little credit for recruiting some of the most adventurous theater artists in the world to bring new ideas in staging and storytelling to a mass theater audience, kids and adults alike.”

“OK, nice, so Zoglin likes all the pretty pictures and he’s angrily that the critics call out crap as crap, if they think it’s crap,” Jacobs continues.

While I see Mr. Jacobs’ point–after all, the animated version of Beauty and the Beast felt more three-dimensional than the live-action show–I’m still not convinced that the entertainment giant’s spectacles are all that bad. There are worse things than envisioning beautifully staged and stunningly sung musical experiences for young crowds, and like all other theatrical productions, Disney musicals are a hit-or miss in their cultural value (even Jacobs takes his hat off to Julie Taymor’s The Lion King).

Perhaps Disney’s biggest crime is not the content of its musicals, but its tendency to hog the spotlight from the other side of the theatrical spectrum. Transformers might have been the target of my frustration this past summer when it occupied far too many of Manhattan’s screens, but there was nothing wrong with the film’s content. As an action flick, it succeeded on almost all counts, and comparing it to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would be both childish and impossible.

(image from Playbill.com)

In lieu of my last post, I decided to expand my blog coverage to all the performing arts phenomena I observe, both locally and in the news. Living in New York, I often come across inspiring (and at times depressing) stories that not only pertain to jazz, but pop and rock music, theater and even indie film.  I write for actorslife.com, a resource site for actors trying to break into the business, and thus frequently meet noteworthy characters in the theater world as well.

But don’t worry, jazz will stay on–as it, even more than most other art forms, is in need of a forum. 

No, it’s not exactly about local music….but it’s about remaining loyal to the kind of music that first pulled you in–even if its public cool-factor is considered nonexistent. And that, in the end, is the key to the survival of a diverse musical landscape.

I hope you enjoy the piece.

Portrait of a Hanson Fan

Back from a holiday hiatus….happy New Year!

Wynton might be the king of popular jazz in New York, but his brother, drummer Jason Marsalis, isn’t about to falsely praise the city’s music scene.

In an interview with the Toronto Star (Marsalis opens the Fair Trade Organic Coffee Jazz Concert Series tonight), he emphasized that his home town of New Orleans is doing a superior job at cultivating this musical form.

“I’m going to be honest, and this is probably controversial, but someone needs to say it: Really, New York being the big time as far as jazz music is concerned is actually over, because the major labels aren’t signing jazz and a lot of the jazz legends that were in New York, unfortunately, have died off now,” he told The Star.

“It’s a great city and there’s a lot of music, but it’s not what it used to be. Ironically enough though, New Orleans is a better learning town. The community is a little smaller and it’s easier to get around and there’s other music that you can learn, like a lot of the traditional jazz music, R&B, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music. Those kinds of things go on here. New Orleans has always been a great learning town,” he continued.

As many local musicians have told me, too many fish in a shallow pond makes it hard to stand out in this city–let alone find an audience.

I’d be interested in hearing Wynton’s response. 

Link to my magazine feature

December 7, 2007

I recently wrote a magazine-length feature about the way New York’s musicians are reacting to a fizzling live music scene. I met some charismatic individuals along the way, each of whom offered a particular angle into the situation. These are trying times for jazz, one might say, but at least its players aren’t lacking passion.

Read my story here:

https://lpalotie.wordpress.com/crusaders-of-live-music/ 

Say what you want about Wynton Marsalis’ impact on jazz, but as many professional musicians have pointed out to me, he has certainly done his part in returning this genre to the mainstream. Jazz at Lincoln Center is synonymous with luxury, talent, and–perhaps most importantly–a New York Landmark. Those who couldn’t direct you to the Village Vanguard or The Standard are likely to recall Lincoln Center’s logo, and the word ‘jazz’, on Columbus Circle.

The center has pumped a lot of money and effort into educational programs–including the WeBop! initiative for young children. Most recently it has added recordings of the center’s educational events onto its site, Jazz Times reported today. The five available videos include, for example, a master class with the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble, a jazz 101 session and a bebop overview, and a segment of Marsalis addressing the National Press Club about the importance of arts education.

The length of the segments (the videos range between an hour and two hours) might be a bit excessive for many attention spans, but one can only hope that the name of Marsalis and Lincoln Center will encourage music enthusiasts to tune in.

Links:

Jazz Times article: http://jazztimes.com/columns_and_features/news/detail.cfm?article=11302

Lincoln Center’s Educational Events Online: http://jalc.org/jazzED/streamin/index.asp

I recently made a separate page for the Michael Blake Q&A I created a couple of weeks ago. Below is a link to the piece:

https://lpalotie.wordpress.com/2007/11/24/q-a-with-saxophonist-michael-blake/

He has a lot of experience heading up ensembles and recording in this strange, sometimes fickle landscape, so he had a lot of valuable insights to offer.

Last month, I completed a podcast on Juilliard-trained jazz trombonist and composer Marshall Gilkes (read my introduction on Gilkes here). We chatted about the follow-up to his self-financed 2004 album, his training and influences and, as I have with other NYC musicians, his thoughts on the status of jazz music.

I used an external microphone on my Olympus digital recorder and stumbled into some sound feed problems despite testing the contraption at home–as you can hear from the occasional crackle, the mic was turned up too high during my interview (as this was my first stab at a podcast, I suppose that some technical issues were inevitable).

I edited the podcast using Audacity for Windows, and compiled a photo slide show using Windows MovieMaker. The pictures are courtesy of Gilkes, except a shot of the album’s back cover that I took using a Fujifilm digital camera, and a performance photo provided by Juilliard. The Michael Brecker photo is from Verve Music Group. The song on the background is Puddle Jumping, written and performed by Gilkes.

I welcome any feedback.