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The State of Jazz Clubs: Chicago and New York

 

I was attending a wonderful show by vocalist Arlene Bardelle and I reflected on the unique perspective that my wife and I (as well as a few others) have from observing the jazz scenes of both the windy city and the big apple.  As jazz clubs continue to financially tread water, refine their lineups to fit more popular tastes, or simply close down, many in the jazz community question what makes a successful jazz club.  Furthermore, what makes an artistically successful jazz club?  What makes a financially successful jazz club?  Are the two irreconcilable?

Many of the best New York jazz clubs such as the Village Vanguard, Birdland, Smoke, the Kitano, the Jazz Standard, and the Blue Note have what might be called a strict set policy.  Usually there are two or three sets per night, sometimes with a late night set by a different artist.  Individuals are sometimes allowed to step inside in the middle of a set but, often, they are not allowed to automatically stay through the next set (unless one pays extra).  Furthermore, extended stays by artists are becoming more and more unusual in New York.  Occasionally, one sees a week-long stay by Cedar Walton (thank goodness, he is one of the greatest living pianists and a constant inspiration) at the Village Vanguard, but artists rarely get more than a night or two at a given venue.  What is even more interesting is that many of these venues are outstanding at enforcing a quiet policy with the audience, thus allowing seminal artists such as Cedar Walton to focus on music making.

In Chicago, one gets the sense that things are a bit more “old school”…maybe it’s the Old Style beer and the Italian beef sandwiches.  Chicago also has its share of wonderful jazz clubs such as the Green Mill, the Jazz Showcase, Andy’s, Katerina’s, M Lounge, Pete Miller’s, and Serbian Village.  However, I can’t think of a club that has a strict set policy.  In fact, it’s almost like the way old movie theatres used to work.  Audience members can arrive at any point in a set and stay for as long as they want.  Extended stays are quite more common in Chicago clubs, particularly at a venue like the Green Mill, which features Kimberly Gordon every Sunday, the band Sabertooth every Saturday, the Deep Blue Organ Trio every Tuesday…you get the idea.

But, really how much similarity is there between the current crop of clubs and venues of yore such as the Five Spot and Minton’s Playhouse.  How do older, newer, hipper, fondly remembered clubs of the 80’s/mid-90’s such as Bradley’s figure into the mix?  Also, as I stated before, not all clubs can be pigeonholed in these unfair, snapshot city classifications.  Smalls, under the leadership of Spike Wilner, is one of the great New York small business stories in the history of the city.  Smalls does not have a strict set policy, has afternoon jam sessions, webcast concerts (which, happily, people from Chi-town can watch!), archived recorded performances, and a line of live CD’s recorded and sold at the venue….whew!  Other excellent clubs such as the Fat Cat and the 55 Bar also do not follow the model of Birdland or the Village Vanguard.  However, I feel that the structural elements of a jazz venue are always critical to the way that a jazz community functions and interconnects.  I also feel that this dichotomy is important fodder for discussion for those of us who love this music and wish to sustain venues that feature it.

Comments

  1. I think the different policies within the venues suit each respective city’s personality. Having spent my entire adult life playing in New York City until moving to Chicago 8 months ago, I have an appreciation of both cities’ dynamics. New York City is fast-paced, aggressive, and crowded. Chicago is mild-mannered, polite, and communal. There’s a sense of prestige to perform in many New York clubs. Perhaps it’s the legacy of the New York City Jazz scene and it’s musicians, perhaps it’s the formality that the club owners have set out, but either way it feels like more than a gig – but a sense of accomplishment and artistry.
    Chicago is a much more laid back, folksy city. One of the most surprising things I’ve noticed in Chicago is the sense of camaraderie among the musicians. The quality of music is great, there are a lot of gigs to go around, the pay is generally good and the audiences and club owners are appreciative of your talent and professionalism.
    For me, the key difference is this:
    In New York, many club owners (as stated before, excluding Smalls – truly an amazing place) make you feel as though they are doing you a favor by booking you. Perhaps that is so – they are employing you, and it’s a very competitive scene that features hundreds if not thousands of talented musicians. They, in fact, given you a leg up by booking you. But in Chicago, most club owners and managers show you a sense of gratitude for performing at their establishment, which is also a very valid thing.
    Do either have it right? I like to think they both have it right. If we, as a jazz community, can put forth an effort of mutual gratitude where people come out to support each other, listen, play, appreciate, spread the word to other people…then perhaps it doesn’t matter whether people show up at the beginning or the middle. Hopefully they will just want to be there and take it all in.

    • Since I have not performed in the New York city clubs, I can’t render an opinion about the Chicago vs NYC jazz scenes; however, that being said, I think there can be a meeting of the minds. – which boils down to – how to keep the clubs making money while offering quality music; and, providing a creative environment for the artists.
      When I’m playing a gig, people may come & go – or chat during my set – sometimes they even dance – and none of that bothers me (let’s all remember – people used to dance to Bird & Dizzie). As long as the audience members are respectful of the music, show their appreciation and “keep coming back,” it’s all good. I want folks to have an enjoyable evening of food, libations, good conversation & good music. And, if they do, chances are, I’ll see them again – and I’ll continue to get booked at that venue.
      I certainly understand the more structured environments for concert situations, but if people are going out on the town and want to hang out, the “sssssshhhhhh” policy of quiet limits your audience (I believe the Green Mill has a quiet policy – when I’ve stopped in to see Patricia Barber, you could have heard a pin drop – but at the Friday night jams, it’s a little looser). Andy’s is pretty quiet for the performers, but you can certainly have a conversation while the bands are playing.
      If I’m a club owner and I love jazz, but know that there is that “stigma” of jazz being for musical snobs or that it’s too intellectual, how can I attract an audience; and, have the music I want , while sill making money? And, let’s face it, the numbers show that jazz music (or variations thereof — big band, Latin, etc) gets very little airplay – so you don’t have the same draw and support for it, live, that you would have had in the 40′s, 50′s, 60′s or the early 70′s… Therefore, I have to make my club more accessible to my audience and try to attract a diverse crowd – I would offer food and drinks, encourage a quieter environment, but allow people to have polite conversations without distracting the artists. I would also allow people to come and go (no strict set policy) so that I could try to “turn the tables” throughout the night (biggest complaint from a club owner – “yeah the band brought a crowd and they stayed all night – but nobody was drinkin’ much after the first couple of sets). I would also book “regulars” during the week on a rotating basis (much the way Pete Miller’s does at both restaurants) – but then have different bands coming in on the weekends – keeps things fresh, brings in different crowds and maybe, just maybe, I can stay in business.
      As an artist, I want people to listen to my music, but I feel it’s my job to engage them and make them want to listen. Clubs are not concert venues, and vice versa… There’s a great story about Ella in NYC. She was playing at a supper club and Joe Louis came in. All of a sudden the room got louder and louder, as she was singing. Finally she stopped the band, mid song, and said, “I’ll start singing, when you stop talking.” Now, I would never do that, but if my show is interesting and people are digging it, if there’s a little background noise, that just comes with the territory. And once again, if people come to hear me, whether it’s during the first set, or last set, or last 10 minutes, I’m still going to give them a great show and appreciate the fact that they’ve come out to listen to me. “Who could ask for anything more…” And if that happens, I’ll continue to be a successful, working musician. T
      Hmm… well, “that’s all of I’ve got to say about that…” Great idea for a blog, Dan – thanks!

      • Daniel Healy says:

        Jeannie- Thanks so much for the insightful comments. I think in jazz, there is always the debate of how esoteric and “art music” we want the music to be. There are the stories of Cecil Taylor wanting his audience members to come “prepared”. In Ted Gioia’s “West Coast Jazz”, there is a story about Gerry Mulligan admonishing a talking audience member, essentially saying you are here to listen to my compositions. T

        That debate can go on forever. However, I’ve actually had a different Andy’s experience than you. I’ve found that the crowd is a little bit talkative and the musicians cope but it really seems to get tourists in the door. What’s really funny is when I was visiting Chicago last February, I was panicking because I was running late for a Scott Burns show at Andy’s. In retrospect, that’s pretty hysterical how I was in a Birdland/Blue Note mindset. You literally CANNOT be late for an Andy’s show, it’s sort of a revolving door and, sometimes, a hang. But it makes me wonder if we are trying to expand the jazz audience and I wonder if strict-set policies and strict quiet policies (which can be awesome for musicians, I was at the Jazz Standard once and I heard a drunk tourist sing along with Dena DeRose…there are no words). I definitely do not have the answers to these questions which is why I wanted the discussion.

  2. Hey there Abby and Dan. I think that you both have valid points, but I think you are oversimplifying a bit. For example, Smoke has the same policy of weekly gigs lasting many years that the Green Mill has–Monday night Bill Mobley big band, Wednesday Mike LeDonne. Smalls has Ari Hoenig on Monday, used to have Kurt Rosenwinkel on Tuesday, etc.–Green Mill has Sabertooth Late night, Smoke has Johnny O’Neal. So, while these tendencies about booking may exist, the lines are perhaps a little more fuzzy than it seems from Dan’s blog. Having said that, I always enjoyed playing in Chicago when i used to visit there–in recent years I’ve played at the Green Mill once a year and I love the vibe and the feeling in the audience. (The audience has gotten a lot quieter over the years there, especially when Dave Jemilo is in the house.) I really love Chicago–it’s a great city and people are warmer there on the average, I think. But the big thing about New York is the players. The depth of the jazz scene here is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. It seems to me that there is less opportunity than there used to be in New York–I’ve heard even Kenny Barron complains about that. But that disadvantage (for me anyway) is offset by the positive effects of being able to connect to this (mother of all jazz scenes) scene here.

    Actually, when I lived in Cleveland, there were a lot of long-running gigs at clubs there as well. That tends to be a difference between larger and smaller scenes. There are less steady gigs in Tokyo and more in Osaka. Don’t get me wrong–I am not attacking the Chicago jazz scene. There are many amazing musicians there (Kelly Sill, Joel Spencer, Larry Kohut, Ron Perillo, George Fludas, Von Freeman to name a few). It’s just not the same as New York. (Along those lines, I am kicking myself tonight for missing the Harold Mabern trio with Louis Hayes (and Chicagoan John Weber on bass).)

    Beyond that, something in the world has changed. Clubs where people and players come out and hang with no covers are a dying breed here, where years ago they were common: Visiones, Bradley’s, Lush Life, Augies, Showman’s, Pumpkins in brooklyn, the Kingston Lounge, Carl’s off the Corner, the Baby Grand, Detour, and back in the day according to what I’ve heard, the Village Vanguard were places that people hung out in, coming and going, talking, meeting friends and players on the scene, not the concert like jazz churches a lot of these places feel like now. Paul Motian spoke about that: about how the vanguard was open all day and cats drifted in and out, chatting and having a drink. Bill Evans’ trio was the house band but Miles, Cannonball Erroll Garner or whomever was playing opposite, alternating sets. There were comedians on the breaks. A lot of time it wasn’t full, or it wasn’t full all night. He said that now when he (Paul Motian) plays at the Vanguard, he gets nervous because the place is so hushed and everyone is so intent. But it’s hard to imagine that sort of world in these clubs. When Monk played at the 5 spot it was for 6 months of 5 sets a night. That’s just not a possibility anymore because the size of the audience (or maybe the high rents) make it impossible. Nowadays, folks hang out “in” facebook land or some other virtual jazz club, not the real life ones paying Manhattan rents.

    Another major difference though–and I think I mentioned this to you before you left–is that Chicago is a much more singer-friendly city than New York. Anyway, it sounds like you are having a great time there, so that’s wonderful.

    • Daniel Healy says:

      Dave – Great to hear from you. Can’t wait till you come to town. You’re completely right, my blog prompt totally stenciled over lines that are actually fuzzy (“you’re not the artist…you’re just the tracer”- for all the Chasing Amy fans out there). The last thing I want to do is promote an antagonistic New York vs. Chicago vibe when I’ve actually been amazed by the vitality of both jazz scenes.

      I’m actually really interested in the idea of the “hang” or the come-and-go clubs that you described. It’s interesting that the Vanguard used to be like that and now it is not. Do you think a lot of these type of Bradley’s/Visiones clubs don’t exist BECAUSE of that format or do you think it’s because of other reasons.

      I agree that there are immensely fuzzy lines in my original prompt, however, Abby and I have noticed a different “feeling” being in both cities.

      In New York, like you said, the depth and breadth of the players’ scene is awe-inspiring. I almost feel like if you are a NY musicians and you cannot find a bassist or drummer with whom you have a kind of musical synergy…you are not looking hard enough. There is every type of great musician in NY, it’s really incredible.

      One of the things that I have noticed in Chicago (and this might be because it is a more singer-friendly town like you said) is that the non-jazz club gigs at the restaurants, bistros, cafes can be a bit easier. This is as opposed to “we want music in our venue but we don’t want to hear you, see you, and we’re going to pay you less than promised at the end of the night.

      Like I said, I’m not interested in creating an antagonistic Wynton vs. Keith Jarrett debate. Perhaps the different “feeling” is due to the size of each scene like you said Dave.

  3. Before someone responds, I was referring to an interview Paul Motian did about 6 months before he passed away…

  4. Andy Brown says:

    Great posts everyone, you pretty much nailed it. Its fun to compare New York and Chicago, as well as other cities, and look at the pros and cons of various situations. I think the differences are pretty obvious, and each city, as well as all locations for performing music, have things to offer. They are so different! As our friend Kelly Sill says, generally I avoid generalizations, and that’s all we can do here: Generalize about vastly different situations.

    New York is certainly the Jazz Epicenter with all the pros and cons that that title brings. As David points out, the number of world class players is mind-blowing. And you can find specialists who are masters of every style of jazz, from King Oliver, through Ben Webster and John Coltrane, up to the latest innovators and trend-setters. As he stated, the problem is the multitude and over-abundance of players this scene attracts from around the world. Tons of world-class players + the reality of playing jazz in 2012=not enough gigs.

    Chicago’s “jazz scene,” if you can generalize about something that’s actually a collection of individuals and groups, is interesting. Obviously from a NYC standpoint every other city appears to be a “smaller scene,” and understandably so when seen from the vantage point of the jazz capital of the world. But of course to most other musicians from around the planet not looking at Chicago through the lens of New York, Chicago’s jazz community seems huge and vibrant.

    I think to get a proper perspective on Chicago’s wealth of jazz and creative outlets you need to talk to people from cities other than New York. Ask someone from Cincinnati or San Francisco about their perspective on Chicago’s music scene.

    To me Chicago occupies a funny place between a New York/LA type scene and a local scene. Its not really the place to launch an international career, but folks move here from all over the world to play music. I think Dan nailed it, its kinda old-school, without all the hype. Maybe that’s why I like it…

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