Parlor Advocates

Parlor Advocates

First, I’ll explain my prolonged absence from NewMusicBox. A medical emergency required that I temporarily relocate to San Francisco to act as my mother’s medical power of attorney. Fortunately, she’s doing better and should be home by May. With that said, it’s good to be back home in New York City! Please understand, I have nothing against San Francisco, but acting as an advocate for a sick parent can be like working two full-time jobs: one dealing with the infirmity and medical issues, and the other with the home life that might otherwise go ignored (mail, bills, pets, etc.). I only had the opportunity to hear music on three days out of five weeks. But, before the reader labels me a “devoted son” (which always conjures in my mind the image of Dick Shawn in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), I have to say that, besides getting to hang out together in a way that we haven’t since years before I reached the age of majority, acting as my mother’s advocate was an opportunity to return, in a very small way, the times she did so on my behalf.

Many parents aren’t exactly thrilled to know that their offspring, the representatives of their hopes and beliefs for the future of our species, have made up their minds to pursue careers that, usually, barely (if at all) can pay for the meanest necessities of life. This was certainly the case with my parents. When I made the announcement one weekend morning that I had decided to become a professional musician when I grew up, my father groaned and my mother sighed. I’m sure they both hoped that it was a phase, like when I wanted to be a secret agent or, later, when I thought I could be a great butler. But when it became clear that I wasn’t moving onto something else, like policeman, fireman, or dogcatcher, they both got behind my decision and advocated for me.

One example of my mother going to bat for me was when my best friend, Roger, and I were denied entry to the sophomore level music classes offered by our high school. Because he and I had already been playing professionally for several years and had been doing very well in our music classes, our parents wanted to know why we had been rejected by the music instructor and scheduled a meeting with him, us, and the school’s dean of boys. I’ll never forget that meeting. We assembled in the dean’s office with the music instructor seated to the left of the dean’s desk. My friend’s father was in his business suit and his mother in her Sunday best. My mom was in between jobs as a draftsman and a specialist for several Federal agencies, but arrived in business attire. Roger and I stood. The teacher explained that, in his opinion, we were not serious about music. Never mind that we were working, studying, and dedicating just about every moment we had to the subject; that I had been playing in the S.F. All-City Honor Orchestra (often as principal bass) and the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra for four years; that Roger and I had formed a group that was playing professionally around the city in addition to our other professional work; and that we were composing music as well. He felt we just weren’t really into music enough. His supporting evidence was that during lunch hours, Roger and I had taken up the habit of going into a practice room to work on our improvisation and would play jazz! He was of the opinion that jazz (and rock and funk and etc.) wasn’t serious music. This wasn’t at all an uncommon opinion in 1968, the year this occurred, even though it was one that was losing ground as student protests around the world were focusing on the lack of multicultural curricula in universities and public schools (as well as social issues like the Vietnam War and civil rights).

Without going into too much detail as to how the rest of the meeting went, Roger and I were accepted into the music courses and, at the beginning of the next semester, our high school had a new music director, a working musician with a strong knowledge of American music styles. It was a shame because the instructor who denied us tutelage was a very good theorist who wrote excellent arrangements for the school’s concert band, including one of the third movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (no other arrangement of this movement existed at the time). One of the things that I was particularly looking forward to in my sophomore year was studying harmony with him. It crushed me that, with our new music teacher, harmony classes were suspended. Still, our parent’s advocacy gave me permission to follow my muse and build a career out of what many consider a hobby.

When it comes down to it, though, we all exist as part and parcel of our advocacy networks. The canon of Western culture exists because of the advocacy of those who take it upon themselves to define and promote it. Impresarios, record companies, scholars, teachers, musicians, and fans all advocate for the artists and works that represent their musical ideals. Bob Theile advocated for John Coltrane by recording anything Coltrane brought into the studio, including the music of artists that he advocated for, such as Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. Record producer Teo Macero advocated for Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk in ways that could be considered more “hands-on,” like pretending to be Davis on the telephone in order to jack up a performance fee. In the case of Macero, he worked for a recording company that he also advocated for, Columbia Records, while Thiele, with Creed Taylor, ran the Impulse! label during the 1960s. It’s interesting to note that Theile’s magnum opus, A Love Supreme by Coltrane, and Macero’s, Kind of Blue by Davis, are among the 100 American musical works advocated for by NPR as the 20th century’s most important.

Since I think that, of Coltrane’s output, the album Giant Steps—because of its title track—is much more important to American music than A Love Supreme and of Davis’s work, the album Bitches Brew is also, arguably, more significant than NPR’s choice of Kind of Blue, it is clear that advocacy relies in no small part on the aesthetic and philosophical outlook of the advocate. NPR’s explanation for their choices include Davis’s purported cultivation of “creative instability by rolling tape [during] his ensemble’s first takes and refusing to rehearse” (disingenuous for the reason that the takes used were the first complete takes and that the band rehearsed before and during the incomplete takes) and that Coltrane’s four-movement concept album was “a soul-searching attempt to express his faith in God through music following a long battle with drug and alcohol abuse.” (It was actually the poem that Coltrane very likely wrote while on LSD that expresses his faith. The music on the album was part of a new direction he was taking his music in general, which is documented in the posthumously released LP, Sun Ship, recorded six months later.) But I believe that the tune “Giant Steps” introduced a set of chord changes that has become a standard for jazz improvisation (as well as a specific tool for reharmonization) and that Bitches Brew was the official break for Davis from acoustic jazz to experimental jazz-rock fusion music that marks an aesthetic chasm that is a salient feature of America’s musical landscape. We clearly advocate for different reasons.

Advocacy can be a two-way street and those being advocated will often advocate for their advocates as well. (And, of course, almost everyone advocates for themselves!) In the case of institutions, such as NPR, Columbia, and Impulse!, the underlying reason is to present a prolific artist who will produce a surplus of sellable products. This is in contrast to a parent’s standing up for their children’s self-expression, where the reason is to promote a happy and healthy family. But there is a kind of advocacy that has an altruistic underpinning and I would like to spend the rest of this post talking about it. I’m thinking of when a musician, or group of musicians, takes on the role of presenting artists in situations where they might not be heard elsewhere. Several have been mentioned in my posts before: Spike Wilner and Mitchell Borden of Small’s Jazz Club in New York or Tony Lewis at the now-defunct Reunion Club in San Francisco. There’s also James Carney of the Konceptions at Korzo series, Jamie Affoumado of the now-defunct Puppet’s Jazz Club (both in Brooklyn), Somethin’ Jazz Club (run by a family of musicians) and The Stone (founded by John Zorn with concert series curated by musicians) in Manhattan. Even Keystone Korner of San Francisco was run by musicians to encourage high quality jazz in an environment where music wasn’t incidental to dining or drinking.

Even more germane to the idea of a “music first” kind of advocacy are the concert series that musicians present in their homes. When I’m in San Francisco, I usually perform at one, Chez Hanny. Frank Hanny is a bass player and technology maven who, once a month, presents a concert in his home. For the first twenty years that he did this, the concerts were held in his living room, but after relocating to the city’s Excelsior district, they now take place in what was once an entertainment room and is now called the “manly room.” I’ll be appearing there in July in a tribute to bassist Chuck Metcalf.

There are two such venues in New York I’d like to mention that cater to vocalists. One, Perez Jazz, is run by vocalist Diana Perez at her apartment in Brooklyn. I was there on March 24 to hear the Australian-born singer, Anita Wardell. The Perez Jazz series features duo concerts and Wardell was accompanied by guitarist Ed Cherry. While Wardell is not an unknown quantity in the jazz community, the duo setting in such an intimate venue made for a very different kind of performance—much looser than a nightclub or concert hall and with quite a bit of interaction with the audience (who were mostly musicians). Perez opens her home for music one Sunday per month at 2 p.m. with the music starting an hour later. The suggested donation, $20.00, gives you admission and all the food you can eat, and the food is good! The “season” for Perez Jazz runs through May and picks up again in September. I highly recommend checking it out.

The other is a place I’ve mentioned before, Zeb’s in Manhattan. Presented in guitarist Saul Rubin’s loft, a different singer is featured every Wednesday. He originally started the series so that his daughter, who wanted to be a singer, would have a place to sing. Rubin has always been involved in his own music production companies and has wonderful instruments for artists to perform on. The groups can be any size, but usually include a piano trio to accompany the featured vocalist with the caveat that Rubin will also play. Fortunately, he is a very good musician (he currently performs with Sonny Rollins), so it’s not a liability. I heard another Australian-born chanteuse on Wednesday, Jane Irving. She performed with her husband, Kevin Hailey, on bass, Steve Williams on drums, and Rubin on guitar. The evening started slowly, but by the end of Irving’s set, the audience was filled with vocalists for the jam session that follows every concert. Several months ago, Rubin thought he was going to have to close the doors, but a philanthropically-minded landlord and a partnership with veteran music advocate Cobi Narita of the Jazz Center of New York has breathed new life into Zeb’s. The start time for Rubin’s jazz vocalist series is between 8 and 9 p.m., and the jam session starts around 10:30. The suggested donation is $10.00 and wine and chips are available at no extra charge. Narita’s concerts are usually held on Saturday. Her websites offers a list of upcoming events.

There are other “jazz parlors” around New York and San Francisco. Pianist Connie Crothers holds them in her apartment in Brooklyn and one in Half Moon Bay (just south of San Francisco), Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, has been putting on concerts for decades featuring international artists. I’m sure that every city has people who would rather not go to a concert venue where one has to negotiate over-priced food, loud table service, and noisy clientele who are only there to drink when all they really want to do is hear live music. These are usually the people who will put on concerts in their homes. It’s a wonderful way to advocate for live music … without tacitly advocating the worship of Mammon.

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.

One thought on “Parlor Advocates

  1. Neil McGowan

    This is powerful, convincing, and worthwhile argument! Congratulations on putting it into words so lucidly.


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