New York Retrospective

First of all, if I haven't already said it, Happy New Year! I hope you all had a happy and restful holiday. I'm finally returning to a more normal schedule after about two months of traveling which took me to Montreal, Amsterdam, Rabbit Lake (north-west Saskatchewan, where I spent a very relaxing two weeks with my wife's family) and, most recently, New York. All that to say you should hopefully be hearing from me more regularly now that the new year has begun.

I wanted to give a quick recap of my recent New York trip and issue a challenge of sorts. Details first; challenge later. I was in New York for the APAP conference - the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. I have difficulty describing what exactly APAP is all about, so I'll let their website do the talking:

"The Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), based in Washington, D.C., is the national service and advocacy organization with nearly 2,000 members worldwide, dedicated to developing and supporting a robust performing arts presenting field and the professionals who work within it. Our members represent leading performing arts centers, municipal and university performance facilities, nonprofit performing arts centers, culturally specific organizations, foreign governments, as well as artist agencies, managers, touring companies, and national consulting practices that serve the field, and a growing roster of self-presenting artists. APAP works to effect change through advocacy, professional development, resource sharing, and civic engagement."

The APAP conference is an outstanding opportunity to meet agents who represent the top performing arts talent (music, dance, theatre, etc.) from around the world. In other words, it is one big, overwhelming, mother of a conference. Over the five days I met a ton of people and saw some amazing music. (I didn't do any site-seeing at all, even through MOMA was only half a block from the hotel...) One of the highlights of my visit was getting to experience the Winter Jazzfest, which took place on the Friday and Saturday nights. Now in its seventh year, Winter Jazzfest each year features close to 60 acts performing 45-minute sets in five venues, all within a two-block radius of Greenwich Village in Manhattan. I'll spend some time talking more about Winter Jazzfest in a minute; for now, here is a list of bands I saw between the APAP conference showcases, Winter Jazzfest and other shows (in chronological order):

Amina Figarova sextet
Anat Cohen Quartet
Nguyen Le with Rudresh Mahanthappa
Refuge Trio (Theo Bleckmann, Gary Versace, John Hollenbeck)
Chris Lightcap's Big Mouth
Jason Lindner's NOW vs. NOW
Dominick Farinacci
Grace Kelly
Jacky Terrasson
Tineke Postma
Igmar Thomas and The Cypher
Nels Cline's Stained Radiance
Amir El Saffar's Two Rivers
Carmen Lundy
Kyle Eastwood
Terence Blanchard Quintet
Kurt Rosenwinkel Quartet
Overtone Quartet (Chris Potter, Jason Moran, Larry Grenadier, Eric Harland)
Tony Scherr Trio
Ravi Coltrane Quartet
Kurt Elling Quartet

And I got to see some venues that were new to me - I had never been to Le Poisson Rouge, Kenny's Castaways, Sullivan Hall, The Bitter End, the Jazz Standard, Birdland, the Living Room, or Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

So - about Winter Jazzfest. With an emphasis on emerging and established artists performing "new" jazz and creative music, it featured some of the most exciting and cutting-edge jazz happening on the scene. And their choice of venues reflects their desire to step away from the traditional side of things: although Le Poisson Rouge and Zinc Bar do present jazz with some regularity, they are far from full-time jazz venues; Kenny's Castaways and The Bitter End are unapologetically rock bars. This festival features interesting music in interesting places, and to be able to easily walk from venue to venue is ideal.

The one aspect of the festival which surprised me most, perhaps, was the crowd. After seven years of presenting great music in hip venues, the festival has clearly made a name for itself: although on Friday night I arrived early and picked up my pass without any trouble, on Saturday night I was a bit late and had to wait in a lineup around the corner from Le Poisson Rouge. On both nights, the venues were packed to capacity, regardless of who was on stage. When Nels Cline performed a solo set - 40 minutes straight of improvised guitar music along with live painting - he had a rapt audience of 600 people. I joked with colleagues that usually we're complaining about not enough people coming out to a jazz show, and on these night we were almost complaining about having too many people in the audience! Clearly, not everyone was there for the music - it never ceases to amaze me that people will pay a cover charge just to go talk and drink at the bar - but it was exciting to be around so many people checking out jazz. There was definitely a buzz in the air, and the number of musicians I met in the audience reinforced the idea, in my mind, that the organizers for Winter Jazzfest are doing several things correctly.

In addition to seeing some great music, my visit to New York allowed me to have some great conversations about jazz - the music itself, the state of the music at home and abroad, and the challenges we all face. I found two conversations to be particularly stimulating - one was with Michael Bates, a former U of T Jazz classmate of mine who's playing bass and teaching full-time in New York; the other was with Adam Schatz, who founded, an organization dedicated to the documentation and presentation of live jazz, improvised and experimental music in New York which just raised $75,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in support of their activity. Through these conversations, it began to dawn on me that I need to get over my own apprehensions and my perceived apprehensions of the jazz and jazz-loving communities here in Toronto and start presenting even more great music in Toronto, featuring great local musicians and the most important emerging artists from south of the border and across the pond. Why shouldn't we do a Winter Jazzfest here in Toronto? Why shouldn't we have venues here like Le Poisson Rouge or the Cornelia Street Cafe? Why shouldn't we use non-jazz venues to present jazz music?

And so now we get to my challenge. Usually at the end of my blogs I ask for your opinion on something. It might be, who's your favourite musician? Or, what do you think about the current state of jazz? That sort of thing. Well today I'm not going to ask your opinion. Over the past year, by speaking to and hearing from an assortment of people, I'm beginning to have a sense of how people are feeling about jazz in this city. So here's my challenge. It's time we start doing some more exciting jazz in Toronto year-round. It's time to inject some more energy into the scene. It's time we try something new. And yes, it's time we open a new space, however that might look. My challenge to you is this: help to make it happen. If you're interested in helping to take Toronto's scene to another level - really truly, if you're interested in talking less and doing more - drop me a line at [email protected]. New York will always be bigger, and will always have more musicians than Toronto, but that doesn't mean we can't boast a vibrant, exciting, important year-round scene here at home. We've got the musicians; now we need the time, energy and space to make it happen.

I look forward to hearing from you.


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