Hot House Culture: Pressures on the Jazz Club Scene

Hot House Culture: Pressures on the Jazz Club Scene

by Howard Mandel
Copyright © 1997 Howard Mandel

They are the fans, the curious, the walk-bys, the drop-ins. They are couples on dates who barely know each other and lovers who want to be together without having to talk, eat or follow a movie's plot. They are the restless and the lonely who cannot imagine, ask for or find a better place to go. They are the listeners, the heart and soul of the jazz audience. Since the '20s Jazz Age and for the rest of the 20th Century, they--you and me--have flocked to the jazz clubs.

Today we seem to be an endangered species. Like other such creatures, our ranks have been thinned, our way of life put on the line by new patterns of business and leisure, communications and habitation. Entertainment is now a commercial enterprise dominated more than ever before by international corporations, and the tidal wave of global electronic media has all but swept away the cozy local joints where jazz traditionally took root, grew and bloomed.

"You used to be able to work all the way across the country," recalls jazz laureate Jon Hendricks, who has celebrated his 75th birthday this fall at the New York City club Iridium, touring in Europe, performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and hosting a galaxy of guest artists in a season-opening Jazz at Lincoln Center concert in 2000-plus seat Avery Fisher Hall.

"Lambert, Hendricks and Ross"--the premiere vocal group of the pre-Beatles era--"in the early '60s did lots of concerts, but played clubs in every city, too: Minneapolis, Chicago, Dayton, Ohio, Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester, all the way down South.

"It's not that way anymore. Rock changed that, and our dwindling economy. The transportation, the lodging costs--it's hard to sustain jazz clubs under this economy. In Europe it's possible; there are lots of clubs. In the U.S., they're virtually nonexistent. And the expense of the once that survive! It used to cost maybe $50, $60 for an evening. Now if you have a baby sitter and include cover charges, dining, drinks and parking, an evening in a club can cost $150, $200. You have to save up for it. It's simply not viable to be in clubs."

"I do more concerts and festivals than club work," admits Joshua Redman, the tenor saxophonist. He maintains his quintet- with-road manager/soundman on a weekly payroll, and so tried to keep busy always. "I love playing clubs, but the percentage of jazz-jazz clubs as opposed to even a House of Blues or Bottom Line--mixed-music clubs--is very small in my total activity.

"It's not that the audience isn't coming out," he hastens to add, "we get great attendance wherever we go. But if I played only clubs there would be only a handful of places in the U.S. I could go. And I want to play everywhere."

There are apparently audiences for Redman everywhere, and, just as ubiquitous, people who would gladly attend jazz clubs.

"Oh, no, we're here because we have to be," jests Cho, longtime bartender at New York's Sweet Basil. "We're working," says Oliva, his alternate, sipping a beer, sitting on a barstool, on what's supposed to be his night off. He's kidding, too; these guys are jazz club loyalists. "You're writing about people who go to jazz clubs?" Oliva goes further. "It ought to be autobiographical."

He's got a point. Though on many Friday or Saturday nights the lines out front of the dedicated jazz-jazz Manhattan clubs (besides Basil, the Blue Note, Iridium and the Village Vanguard are those exclusively featuring nationally touring acts) suggest jazz audiences are diverse and legion, for later sets and on weekdays one encounters much sparser crowds, usually comprising jazz students, critics, record company types and music business professionals. Joshua Redman, James Carter or Branford Marsalis may indeed draw crowds. Other worthies--Dewey Redman, say, or Lester Bowie or Ellis Marsalis--can find themselves playing to hardly anyone, or a busload of foreigners.

"We get tour groups on a package deal maybe once or twice a week," Oliva mentions. "A lot of them are Japanese, and there used to be more. It's okay--they come in to experience the club, they eat and listen to whoever's here. The name 'Sweet Basil' means something to them, and they go away happy."

Which may be more than can confidently be said about the New York club regular who, in pursuit of good, true jazz, suffers the Blue Note's overcrowded tables and airline-schedule drink service, the Vanguard's dragon-lady owner, or Iridium's distractions. If Basil's bookings have been erratic, it's still the friendliest of New York's first rank clubs, and one can enjoy quality jazz time there for less than $25.

Yes, the Blue Note books stellar double bills and showcases newcomers on Monday nights, its sightlines are unimpeded and its sound is mixed by pros. There are no better room acoustics in the jazz world than at the Vanguard, oddly shaped like an ear laid flat, and its legacy of cultural history, advancing on a seventh decade, is unmatched: the ghosts of Coltrane and Dolphy, Kirk, Monk and Mingus lurk about. Iridium, the latest straightahead spot, smartly situated across the street from Lincoln Center, has Daliesque design notes that set a tone of chic fun. But a night at any of them, for the average jazz Joe or Jane, is on the order of a special event, rather than a casual neighborhood joint where one sees friends, nurses a beer, soothes the soul.

Maybe that's due to their top drawer New Yorkiness. Some secondary clubs in the Apple--Visiones, Birdland and all-night-long Smalls come to mind--are less pretentious and cheaper, with equally cool if less celebrated music. Maybe elsewhere the club scene's thriving.

"I'm staring at a map of the United States," says Rich Saylor, an associate of The Jazz Tree, an artists' management group, "and I can tell you where in the country the clubs that support national acts are.

"Boston has Scullers and the Regatta Bar, which are both in hotels. Washington, D.C. has Blues Alley, Seattle has Jazz Alley, Oakland has Yoshi's. In St. Louis, Barbara Rose has moved her Just Jazz series from the hotel it's been in for years to a restaurant, Jazz At The Bistro. In L.A. there's Catalina's, primarily a restaurant, and the Jazz Bakery. In Philly, Zanzibar Blue has less than 100 seats. In Chicago, there's Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase, and in Detroit a new place called the Magic Bag.

"Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams, Rockefeller's in Houston, and New Orleans' Tipitina's are part of what we call the 'reefer circuit,' rock bars that have survived 20 some years. Santa Cruz has Kuumbwa Jazz Workshop, presenting national acts on Monday nights. In St. Paul there's the Dakota, a restaurant; in Toronto, Sybil Walker's Top 'o' The Senator. That's just about it. A guy like bassist Ray Brown travels that circuit, goes to Europe and Japan, then starts the circuit over again.

"It's weird. Miami, for instance, is good-sized, has a tourist trade, lots of New Yorkers-in-exile and jazz performer-professors at colleges in the area. But I just read a Miami Herald article that said there's not enough audience to support a jazz club.

"There are at least a handful of jazz fans everywhere, even where there aren't clubs. Sometimes you have to reach them by playing concerts. We work with local promoters, jazz societies, community groups, fine arts presenters, colleges, not-for-profits, bookers of small theaters--they're all part of the network we stitch together.

"But there's a sense of community at a jazz club. It's built to be a viable entity every day, an outpost, a bastion where somebody made a career choice to promote the jazz cause. The club owners we know are mostly in their 60s or 70s now. They dug in a while back and established themselves for the long haul."

"I'm 70 now," says Joe Segal, who last March opened the Jazz Showcase at his umpteenth Chicago address in the 50 years since he first presented bebop sessions at Roosevelt College. "Bebop is still the music of the future. It will be to my dying day."

Segal's an archetypical jazz presenter who's ridden the ups and downs of the music's finances and fashions, nurturing strong relationships with his favorite artists and holding fast to certain principles: "Matinees on Sundays at 4 p.m. for kids. No smoking, modest general admission, no minimum and we don't push drinks. But we may have to start doing that soon, to stay open." Segal has encountered overhead fees at his present site, attached to a restaurant, he wasn't responsible for during the 15 years his jazz club was off the lobby of the Blackstone Hotel.

"The Blackstone took care of ASCAP and BMI licensing fees, and also the entertainment tax," Segal reports. The Happy Medium management did that for us at Rush Street, too," he says of the space he had under a disco on Chicago's gloss nightlife strip in the '70s.

"But at our new location we're seeing people we never saw during our 15 years at the Blackstone: older black fans who wouldn't go there and older white fans who wouldn't go to the 'South Side' even though it was really downtown, just a couple blocks from the Loop.

"We opened with John Scofield to draw the kids," he explains, smoothly savvy, "then had Hank Crawford for the South Side," i.e., the black community. "We tried a local band led by [pianist] Judy Roberts and she did well, I think because Marian McPartland touted it at her gig a few weeks before.

"Most owners of the new clubs in town are corporate types who don't care much about the music. They open beautiful rooms without sound systems and draw yuppies who don't care about the music, either. Their places are about cigars and noise.

"Too bad," he shrugs. "There used to be a lot of clubs for national jazz here. I think I'm the only one left."

"It's certainly not what it was," sighs pianist Marian McPartland, an annual visitor to Segal's club who credits her profile among current audiences to her National Public Radio program Piano Jazz. "There's a big change from when Jimmy [McPartland, trad-style clarinetist and her late ex-husband] and I first went into the Brass Rail in Chicago in the '40s. And I remember my first time in New York, walking up Broadway, turning into a club called The Aquarium where Satchmo was playing. Another down the street had Gene Krupa with Anita O'Day, and there was the Down Beat, and Jimmy Ryan's...Oh, these names make me very nostalgic.

"In New York we still have Bradley's and the Knickerbocker," she says of two clubs that have turned the city's arcane cabaret laws to their advantage by becoming piano jazz rooms. "It was sad that the Cookery went under, and Fat Tuesday's going out made me mad because the management there wasn't taking care of business, yet it's jazz that gets the bad name for not drawing.

"I think owners of jazz clubs have to be braver--like Joe Segal, who really loves the music, and Lorraine Gordon at the Vanguard, who loves it just as Max [her late husband and founder of the Vanguard] did. Jazz clubs have changed, certainly, but they haven't died. They charge more--it's not like the Hickory House, where you could nurse a beer all night--but they exist. You have to ferret them out. Ben Tucker, who was a fine bassist, has opened a club in Savannah, Georgia. I was even at a nice club in Juneau, Alaska.

"There are clubs, and people attend them. I'm not pessimistic about it. I think there will be another upswing. I feel it in my bones."

"We don't have a place right now, we're floating," concedes Marguerite Horberg, principal of Chicago's Hot House, which she calls "a jazz club, loosely: an Afro-centric club programming jazz, new music and rhythms from around the world.

"We lost our home because we were successful, and the landlord, seeing that, kept increasing our rent. So I'm producing concerts in different places, to stay alive until we find a new place we like. It's been more than a year now. We've kept our associations with the Jazz Institute of Chicago, with the AACM--who we mercilessly exploit however and whenever possible," she says dryly, "and we've produced a Women In Jazz Festival. We've done well with David Murray, and a lot of other musicians who otherwise don't get to Chicago, who Joe doesn't book, like Don Byron, Abdullah Ibrahim and Henry Threadgill.

"But we are not the new model jazz club," she emphasizes. "Most new clubs are interested in bop, post-bop, the young lions, cabaret and torch singers. Things that are inside. We're more interested in music that grew out of the '60s, jazz that's freer, more improvised--the dashiki and noise thing most traditional jazz listeners run from. We're similar to Koncepts Kultural Gallery in Oakland, the Knitting Factory in New York and District Curators in D.C.

"I've learned that to book so-called 'marginal' acts we need sponsorship or subsidizing. The gate won't pay for them. Without a subsidy, to pay a real wage to the musicians, the sound crew and ourselves, we'd have to charge $50 and up. We want to stimulate a new audience, so we charge $5 to $20." Horberg claims such audience stimulation and fundraising (her not-for-profit umbrella organization has received MacArthur Foundation grants), has been effective.

"The biggest change I've seen has been exponential growth of younger people turned on to outside music," she says. "It used to be I'd be one of 10 at an AACM concert, and now 250 to 300 people will show up at the club for one. This generation of club-goers got multi-culturalism in high school, they're used to a crossover or fusion--not the '70s commercial variety--of rock and jazz and other information. They're comfortable with all of it.

"To make money I'll book a local Latin dance band. People come and drink and jack their bodies. But I won't do that all the time," says Horberg, who's planned, in part, her floating fall schedule.

"We'll have the 21 piece Afro-Cuban Matanzas troupe and Spirit of Havana, with [Canadians] Jane Bunnett and Larry Kramer. We've got Cindy Blackman's quartet with Gary Bartz. Where, I don't know yet. Call for local listings. I'd say we're the Rave Hot House--we announce the location just hours before the event."

Welcome to the jazz club of the future. Should we worry jazz venues of the past are not what they were? Joshua Redman does, sort of.

"What's so special about clubs is the intimacy, the audience almost on stage so I can communicate with it directly," he says. "There's no substitute for that. Especially with jazz, which changes so much based on the rapport between the musicians and the audience, it can be incredibly invigorating. Also a club has the acoustic intimacy. However good a concert hall or festival sound system is, it's bound to lose some acoustic subtlety and shading.

"I love playing concerts, too, reaching so many people at once, concentrating on making one show my statement to a community. I play to three times as many people at a concert in the Bay area as in a week at Yoshi's. But I insist we alternate concerts and clubs there, and elsewhere, too.

"Because as much as I love to play concerts, I'd be distraught if there were no jazz clubs left. An intimate setting for a small audience in an acoustic setting over time is key to development for jazz artists. Jazz was born in the clubs, developed there, and needs the energy and special experience of clubs to remain vital. But jazz needs even more than that."


C o m m e n t s

Jazz Clubs 1 of 14
James Hale May 14, 97

Great -- and heartfelt -- overview, Howard, but Rich Saylor missed one of the great clubs in Toronto: the Montreal Bistro.

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