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2020 - Out There


2020 – Out There


This is a tough one to write, and I wonder what is really the value of looking back on this year and how it changed….everything. I guess it is a form of therapy, since I didn’t go to a therapist this year, which I probably should have (or so my children tell me).


Let’s start with the gratitude stuff, and I don’t mean to make light of that – I have lots to be grateful for, and even to celebrate (a kind of guilty celebration I guess). I am healthy and my family is healthy – I could stop right there and be really, really grateful. Like everyone I know, Covid 19 has come close and I have lost friends to this terrible virus. I am still playing my horn and if the reed is working, it still gives me pleasure. There is lots of new recorded music coming out in 2021, and I am confident that live performance will start to come back in some form during the year, though nothing like how it was in that past – but that may not be a bad thing either.


Many of the changes in how we produce, share and hear music that have happened this year are ultimately going to be lasting, and positive. This year I have seen many young musicians who are connecting Jazz and Black American music to it’s historical and sociopolitical context in a visceral and personal way that is incredibly important, and it’s a perspective that has been overshadowed by the huge growth of Jazz as a market segment of the University tuition dollar racket over the last 50 years. It’s been good to see that whole “America’s Classical Music” bullshit give way to a more real view of Jazz as a music of clear voiced cultural expression and opposition to systematic oppression. It’s been really exciting to see, and I’m looking forward to a new life for Jazz outside of academia going forward. Maybe a life outside – period.


Living in NYC, this year I have seen and been a part of music on the street again in a way that I haven’t experienced since my first decade in the city (the 80’s). When I arrived in NYC, one of the first gigs, and most important both artistically and financially was in the parks, before Giuliani came in and crushed unlicensed music making with his “quality of life crimes” initiative. The best gigs were at certain spots in Central Park and City Hall Park downtown. Bands were organized, and had fixed repetoire and set personnel, though it was a rotating cast – the part the never changed was the generator guy, the person who owned a small gas-powered generator that powered the amps. This person was, by default, the bandleader. I can remember clearly playing Horace Silver tunes side by side one afternoon with trumpeter Dave Douglas in City Hall Park which left an impression on me as Dave was also actually playing with Horace Silver’s band at the time. The street gigs taught me to play loud, taught me to shape a solo, taught me how to engage with the audience and the other members of the band in a gut-level way that has served me well over the years. The only downside of the experience was that the saxophone player by default was the one who went around and solicited money from the crowd with a bucket, and counted the change throughout the set, which was dirty work – I remember going home from the gig with hands soiled from the street money.


Both as part of Black Lives Matter protests, and in other contexts outdoor music has returned to NYC. Let’s be real here, it’s not always good, but it’s out there. We miss our venues terribly of course – saddened by the loss of the Jazz Standard, I also miss the smaller venues that had been the victims of NYC’s gentrification long before Covid – the Latin music dance clubs in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan I used to play at incredibly loud volumes and incredibly late hours, “Showman’s Lounge” on 125th street (which I hope will return after pandemic but whose owner Al Howard passed away from Covid this year) where I would play Tap-dance night on Thursdays for years with a group led by trumpeter Joey Morant from 8pm-2am (with Rahn Burton on organ and Tootsie Bean on drums). Detour on E. 13th street where drummer Matt Wilson developed his band’s bravado in a long-standing residency. Sure, Covid was incredibly destructive to our scene, but a virus called Gentrification has been silently infecting New York’s cultural life for years in a more insidious but equally destructive fashion.


I miss our great grass roots community organizations, but I see them still carrying on; Non-profits like Jazz St. Louis, Jazz Arts Group in Columbus and many many others continue to do their work and their role will become increasingly relevant as the shift away from Universities as the hub of Jazz education unfolds. Mostly I miss my own Visionary Youth Orchestra, which is on hiatus in this, it’s 10th anniversary year, but will return.


Yes, things are changing, and I am too. I always detested the phrase “Keep Jazz Alive” that was bandied about during various fund-raising campaigns – the vital essence of the music will thrive as it always has, pushing back against bullshit that wants to frame the music as a model of Democracy or some other shit – It’s not a model of democracy, the music is a model of social action in sound and it’s the sound of pushback against inequity, oppression and the lies that have formed the American narrative for too long. The music is Out There – to stay.

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