Don’t Hurt the Art

Don’t Hurt the Art

This week, as our nation of laws (regulations) continues to feel more and more like a nation of impulse—and not the Impulse! that producer Bob Thiele created as a forum for the improvised music of non-mainstream communities in America.—I was reminded of the time that the NPR station in Indianapolis, WFYI, decided it was time to revamp its broadcast schedule to reflect the national trend towards heavily weighted classical music, not the non-mainstream community-based programming that its charter (regulations) required. Before the program changes went into effect, jazz was played as much as ten hours a day. After the change, both of the on-air-hosts who programmed jazz were fired and jazz programming was reduced to 4 hours per week. There were protests, complete with signs and placards and letter writing to the press (where both daily newspapers are owned by the Quayle family), making the voice of the non-mainstream community heard. That voice was ignored. This happened in 1990, three years after Congress passed HR 57, which officially designated jazz as a “national treasure.” One might conclude that treasures, like due process, are not meant for those of the non-mainstream communities—no matter the source or the rhetoric.

While I was driving to work in Ossining on Tuesday, I got a call from the owner of my favorite improvised music venue in Brooklyn, Puppets Jazz Bar. Hoping that I was being called to good service of our National Treasure, I pulled the car over and returned the call. After the normal salutary ritual inquiries into the health of each other and our immediate families, the club’s proprietor informed me that, due to financial problems, the club was going to fold that night and would I like to attend the last rites.

So, after the Ossining job (at an extremely nice restaurant, Karma Lounge on 157 Main Street that has just begun a Tuesday jazz series), I drove as fast as regulations allow to get to Park Slope. By the time I arrived (about midnight) the club was about half full and pianist extraordinaire Arturo O’Farrill was playing with his regular bassist, Greg August, Jaime Affoumado (the owner of Puppets) on drums and Jim Seeley of the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra on trumpet. I was invited to sit in, as was pianist Delmar Brown. I did (which led to a revealing philosophical discussion with Greg August about placement of the bass in the “mix”), but Delmar opted to relax and listen.

I’m hoping to interview Jaime next week to get more details about Puppets Jazz Bar, but this week he’s too busy cleaning out the club to talk. I can say, though, that for several years Puppets has been presenting the best in live improvised music in Park Slope, and paying the artists for their work. The likes of Bill Ware, Alex Blake, Delmar Brown, Roseanna Vitro, Tom Lellis, Arturo O’Farrill, Judi Silvano, The Mahavishnu Project (Philadelphia), Ron Carter, John McNeil, Russell Malone, Roberto Poveda, Jim Seeley, Bob Albanese, Andrea Wolper, Ralph Hamperian, George Cables, and Jesse Lynch, just to name a very few, performed there in shifts of three bands a night (two shows and a jam session), seven nights a week. In addition, some days featured poetry and comedy jams as well the regularly scheduled music. The cover charge was tiered, so that one could, very affordably, listen to any or all of the shows. The menu was vegetarian, but you could bring in your own food if you wanted to, or the club would order it for delivery. This was done in a room that was elegantly decorated and clean.

The idea that a venue like Puppets closed is a testament to how little the “mainstream” jazz community tends to its affairs. The powers that have divided the American musical environment into a reflection of its corporate handlers, where a lucky 2% of the artists (and less than 1% of the venues) get 90% of the resources and exposure are not reflecting well on us. If jazz is the national treasure of our country, maybe there should be a national board that oversees the health of the jazz communities around the United States so that when venues like Puppets start to feel the crunch of economical hard times, something can be done to keep them going. As I was told a long time ago during my journeyman days, “It doesn’t matter much what you do to stay alive, as long as it doesn’t hurt the art.” When these venues close, it hurts the art.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Hurt the Art

  1. mclaren

    The situation you describe continues to worsen. However, ascribing the process of allotting 90% of resources to 2% of performers (or composers) does not result from evil corporatism.

    Rather, it’s a well known result of the power law which applies to all network effects in large networks. 2% of all web pages get 90% of all traffic; 2% of the population accounts for 90% of the wealth in American society; 2% of the people in the dating pool account for 90% of all sexual activity; 2% of Hollywood actors get 90% of all income made by actors…and so on.

    There’s a particularly good paper discussing the issue of power laws in networks here.

  2. philmusic


    In America the question of government support of the arts is a tough call these days and public support of commercial institutions like bars and clubs is perhaps even a tougher sell.
    Also one could be worried that any board or committee to oversee jazz would do just as much harm as good. On a hopeful note as institutions die new ones pop up.

    I hate classical radio and NPR which has the highest paid executives in the non profit world. Most of the music played has nothing to do with mainstream classical music at all–light classics not much opera tons of forgettable guitar music etc.

    As for ML pointing out a pattern exists doesn’t explain the social mechanics of how or why it happens in each particular case. Besides social laws were meant to be broken. Anyway I think you both get it wrong as there are plenty of jazz musicians working as academicians. Of course one could argue if they are authentic.

    Phil Fried Phil’s this time a long post page

  3. Ratzo B. Harris

    Hey Phil,

    I agree that the current state of government support for music has become pretty much limited to institutions and umbrellas. Individual support seems pretty sparse. But local music venues could be supported. The paradigm worked well in Europe until the same culture that led to NPR and PBS ignoring their community needs requirements exerted its influence there.

    While there certainly are jazz musicians who work as academicians, there aren’t that many opportunities in the academy. I don’t teach in an academic setting of any kind (although I did when I was a student) and, contrary to what some people think, I’m not pursuing a doctoral degree (at least not at the moment). And how does having some jazz musicians teaching in a college or university, where the resultant music is usually of student caliber, balance the loss of a place where master musicians are playing at their cutting-edge best? The academy is not the community. But the corporate culture elite does have its hands in both milieus (very arguably to the detriment of both) and the part that suffers the most is (inarguably) the art.

    mclaren, That was funny.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.