New York shamelessly proclaims itself as the capital of the better things in life, like art, fashion, theatre and literature. London and Paris might legitimately object to some of those, but when it comes to jazz, New York has a strong argument. Although the term 'jazz' was first coined in New Orleans 100 years ago, many of the key figures in its development like Parker, Coltrane, Monk and Miles Davis, all gravitated to New York, making it the epicentre of this most American of art forms.
When I first moved to the city in the early 1990s, I was already a jazz fan, having spent many afternoons in Glasgow listening to Bobby Wishart at the Halt Bar. But an early experience of sitting in an East Village club, mesmerised by the raucous improvisations of the Mingus Big Band, was a true revelation.
While the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, and other smaller clubs still play a central role in the vibrant New York jazz scene, the high temple is now clearly Jazz at Lincoln Centre (JALC), where I worship regularly with my 15-year-old tenor-sax-playing son. JALC was founded 30 years ago by virtuoso trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, and its mission has always gone beyond presenting the music to encompass education, advocacy and preservation.
JALC's zeal to protect and sustain what, by its improvisational nature, is a transient musical form, is sometimes taken to extremes. During a recent Dizzy Gillespie-themed big band night, a stylishly-dressed narrator walked on to the stage mid-tune, holding an old radio microphone, and brought the music to an abrupt halt by starting to talk loudly about a Yankees baseball game. The explanation was that there were never any written charts found for this Dizzy composition, so the only trace of it was a radio recording that ran over and got cut off by the sports news. Not knowing how it was meant to end, the JALC arrangers just transcribed it up to the point where it was so rudely interrupted.
I love these big celebratory and educational nights in the Rose Theatre, but often the true joy of music comes from unexpected gifts – the stochastic stumbling into something new, exciting and truly memorable. I received such a gift a few weeks ago. I had arranged to stay in New York on a Tuesday night rather than going home to Connecticut, but the business dinner I was attending got cancelled at short notice. I could have gone home, but I had a 7am breakfast meeting arranged in the city the next day, so I popped open my favourite 'what's on' guide and started browsing. Nothing at the Blue Note or the Vanguard caught my eye, but Dizzy's Club at JALC had an interesting event. A one-night-only, one-set-only, debut album launch by a drummer-led trio I'd never heard of, and it had the added attraction of being free.
Unlike most other NY jazz clubs, Dizzy's isn't in a basement. Instead, it looks out over Central Park at Columbus Circus. Usually, it's a three-sets-a-night place, but for this album launch it was a single early show at 7.30pm – an hour at which many jazz musicians are still at brunch, even on a Tuesday. Dizzy's offers typical cabaret-style seating at small tables for four, but along the bar and the back wall there are single high stools, and that's where I perched myself, just one more suspect in a jazz-loving line-up.
With nothing much to do but sip a glass of wine and people-watch, it soon became clear that I was gatecrashing a friends and family party, and that I would be in a white minority. I was even a minority within that group, as a fair number of attendees appeared to be part of the affluent Upper West Side Jewish community that's the bedrock of many jazz audiences in New York. As groups of three or four people came in, many would weave through the crowd, hugging and fist-bumping their way to their seats. Many of the statuesque African American women could easily have been extras in 'Black Panther,' complete with shaved heads, while many of the men in their 20s and 30s were impeccably dressed in light summer suits accessorised by pocket squares. Unlike my random materialisation at Dizzy's, this was clearly an event that had been marked in their calendars for a while.
As the club filled up, I watched a young black guy, maybe in his late 20s, be shown to an empty table for four, where he took the seat directly facing the stage. An older white couple, maybe in their early 60s, were then ushered to the same table by the hostess. Rather than have one of them take the seat with their back to the stage, the duo just sat down facing each other, bracketing the solo fan. Before long, the three of them were deep in conversation and sharing a laugh, with jazz clearly transcending any visible cultural divide.
We were all there to see the Henry Conerway III trio launch their album 'With Pride for Dignity.' I'd taken a cursory look at Henry's biography, but beyond 'young jazz drummer from Detroit,' I hadn't dug much deeper. On the low stage, back-lit by the setting sun illuminating the stone buildings across the park on 5th Avenue, were the usual Steinway, a stand-up bass, and a drum kit sitting on a blue-tasselled rug. When the trio walked onstage, some of the genes and dress sense of the audience were visible in Henry: tall and slim, shaved head, glasses and goatee, wearing a pin-striped dark suit, with blue velvet slip-on loafers and no socks. He was joined by pianist Kenny Banks and bassist Kevin Smith, sporting more beards, braces, and a pork pie hat between them, with each of them acknowledging plenty of people in the crowd as they walked on.
The lights dimmed, and the hour or so that followed was an impressive showcase of modern jazz, powered by the octopus-like drumming of Henry, that was in turn propulsive, lyrical and innovative. At one point he started a tune with a tambourine and then proceeded to use that tambourine to hit the cymbals, conjuring a shimmering wall of undampened fizzy vibrations that he then punctured with the whip-like crack of his snare drum. On another tune, he started by eschewing the drumheads altogether, and instead just clicked-clacked his way around the rims in some obscure time signature, evoking the sound of the late summer cicadas outside. Kenny Banks was no slouch either. He kept the Steinway lid almost closed throughout the set, creating a series of dense, rumbling, blues chords that rippled around the room.
The centrepiece of the set was the extended title track of the album, which turned out to be a potted history of the spiritual journey of African Americans. Starting with a Joplinesque ragtime piano introduction, the tune evolved into a multi-part mini-suite, including what sounded like faint echoes of both the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' and Gershwin's 'Summertime'; the latter eerily reflecting the Jewish-African American mélange of the audience.
As the piano carried the narrative, I spent more time watching Henry. Rather than his foot just going up and down on the hi-hat pedal, it was also moving side to side in a circular motion, as if two dimensions weren't enough to contain his energy. As the song progressed, Henry traded sticks for mallets, with each of his four limbs appearing to inhabit a distinct rhythmic universe, but somehow still working together to assemble a rich syncopated mille-feuille of drum textures, while he bounced and shimmied on his stool.
As they transitioned into their last song, Henry took the mic and asked the audience if it was okay to play the blues; a rhetorical question if I ever heard one, that elicited a quasi-religious chorus of 'hell yeah.' As the set came to an end, it was now fully dark outside, with red car tail-lights twinkling along 59th Street. Diagonally opposite JALC is the Trump International Hotel. In the day time, the windows are mirrored, creating a reflective gold tower, but at night you can see into rooms that have the lights on and curtains open. As the final blues unspooled from Henry and his band, I could see a single white female dancing in one of those rooms, twirling to some unheard music like a flower child from 50 years ago in San Francisco. Whatever music she was hearing, it was clearly out of sync with the laid-back groove infusing Dizzy's Club. With the current political and cultural crisis affecting the US, it seemed an apt metaphor to cap a special night – a night that I was fortunate enough to have been a part of.
As I walked back to my hotel, my steps were synchronised with the sounds of Henry's drums, as I'd downloaded the album on to my phone before I left the club. I know that being a professional musician is a tough career choice. If it's sage advice to never put your daughter on the stage, it's even better advice to never put your son in a jazz trio if you value a steady income. So, I had a big smile on my face when I noticed the following morning that Henry's album was sitting at #1 on the iTunes jazz chart. I'm sure Henry had a lot of pride in that, but for this casual observer, the whole event also had a sense of much-needed grace and dignity about it.