The Independent Ear

Meet the Artist: NEA Jazz Master Pat Metheny

As part of DC Jazz Festival’s ongoing series of Meet the Artist interview sessions, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with newly minted class of 2018 NEA Jazz Master Pat Metheny. This interview was conducted at the Abramson Family Auditorium of NYU in DC on Monday, June 12, 2017. That evening at his DCJF concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, to the audience’s delight and surprise, Pat Metheny was introduced by Ann Meier Baker of the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the 2018 class of NEA Jazz Masters. Although Pat had been notified in advance as part of the NEA’s process. he was clearly humbled by the experience of being introduced to our DCJF audience as a NEAJM. Obviously he was inspired because what ensued was a blistering performance just short of 3-hours with his latest quartet: drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and keyboardist Gwilym Simcock, about whom he speaks glowingly in our interview:

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Conversing with Charlie Haden

California-based veteran jazz writer Josef Woodard has contributed his prose to a prodigious list of periodicals, including the LA Times, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and the usual suspects… DownBeat, JazzTimes, and Jazziz. His current book, released last January, is the very revealing volume “Conversations With Charlie Haden“. One of the most complex, fearlessly and passionately human rights-astute of all jazzmen, the late NEA Jazz Master bassist-bandleader-composer was more than a little candid in his various conversations with Woodard, which span a considerable segment of Haden’s autumnal life in Los Angeles. The book was such a rewarding read we sought out Joe Woodard for some insights into his many encounters with Charlie Haden.

IE: When did you first become interested in learning more about Charlie Haden?
JW: Although my first interview and years-long relationship with Charlie didn’t begin until 1987, I realize that his sound has had a strong impact on me going back to my early days as a young teenager, discovering the power and breadth of jazz and other related musics. His unique voice and presence on those early records by Ornette Coleman, and on the “American quartet” records by Keith Jarrett in the ‘70s grabbed my ear, and not always in an obvious way. His sense of time, his folk-like directness and blend of freedom and solidity had a strong stamp on what he touched, and spoke to my own sensibilities as a music-lover and also a musician.

As I delved deeper into the music, and became a nerdy student of liner notes, album credits, avid concert-going, and family trees of who-played-with-whom-and-when… and why, I grew to have greater respect for Charlie and his distinctive place on the jazz—and indeed, musical–landscape.

THE INTREPID INTERVIEWER HIMSELF

IE: What was your interview experience with Charlie?
JW: I first encountered Charlie when I was a young-ish music journalist, in my late 20s, and when he was settling more deeply into life in Los Angeles, where he had moved back to be close to his children and to tend to his job as the founder of the CalArts jazz program. I had been writing for music magazines since the early ‘80s, and was just starting to focus more on specifically jazz magazines, pursuing my passion for that world.

I interviewed Charlie at the old At My Place in Santa Monica, where he was launching his new band Quartet West—which would fare well for him for over a quarter century. I was there to write a cover story on him for JazzTimes, my first story for that magazine. We immediately hit it off, I felt. Sometimes, an interviewee keeps a certain distance in an interview situation, which is understandable, but he was very warm to me from the outset—I think especially when he discovered what a long and deep fan I was of his work. I do remember a bit of tension when I expressed my surprise this new band would be a “straighter” endeavor than what I was used to from him, but that also became a point of reference in what was really a transition moment in his career.

After that point, around the age of 50, Charlie’s life as an artist who took charge of his own steady flow of interesting new projects, many under his name or creative guidance, really took off. And, partly because I was a member of the thinly-populated ranks of jazz journalists who actually live in Southern California, I was there to talk with him about many or most of these projects for the next twenty years. I think it was clear to him that I was particularly thrilled and plugged-in to his life with his greatest band, the Liberation Music Orchestra, and also plying him with yet more questions about Ornette, the man, the myth, the musical visionary. Charlie was happy to oblige.

IE: As opposed to the usual book of interviews, the title of this book is certainly an accurate reflection of its tone; over time these are indeed more conversations than interviews. Does that reflect an evolution of your relationship with Charlie, or was it pretty much always that way?
JW: This was my second book for Silman-James Press (well, third, after a book on the Montgomery Brothers, which is still on the shelf, but hopefully will see the light of day at some point). After the arduous process of writing my book on Charles Lloyd, which took seven years, I couldn’t really see going that exhaustive route again with Charlie Haden. As I went through my trove of interviews with him, and discovered more lurking on hard drives and in piles of interview tapes (cassette mode), I realized that our interviews really did have a more conversational quality than many of the interviews I’d done, borne of the easy rapport we had.

After discussing it with my editor, I decided to go for the “Conversations with Charlie Haden” approach and title, and keep the book in a fairly straight, chronological and academic format, with my own introduction and minimal intrusions on the back and forth between us. To my surprise, I thought the format worked nicely, and Charlie managed to cover the spread of his amazing, meandering and mercurial life over the course of those interviews/conversations.

IE: One year I had Charlie do a residency at the Tri-C JazzFest (Cleveland) where he played two concerts: Quartet West with Joe Lovano subbing for Ernie Watts, and a Liberation Music Orchestra concert with an exceptional group of Cleveland musicians under the direction of the saxophonist-educator Howie Smith; Charlie was extremely delighted with both evenings, particularly with how the musicians played his Liberation Music Orchestra selections. My wife still recalls times when Charlie called the house looking for me, she’d answer and hear “hey man, this is Charlie, is Willard there?” I’d imagine you were the recipient of such calls considering your many conversations. What were some of your more memorable personal moments with Charlie and Charlie Haden stories?

JW: I know exactly what you’re talking about, concerning Charlie’s social ease and flow. He lacked pretension and was happy to converse on matters of music, politics, the news of the day, or the history of his musical life going back to when he was a two-year old radio star, singing on his family’s influential Midwestern radio show. I think he would avoid idle chatter, but was happy to befriend true music fans and musicians far and wide—and from many cultures.

Personally, he would call up, outside of our official interview sessions, and want to share some new news, or ask if I had any pull with NARAS (he was fairly obsessed with the Grammy Awards, seeking to be represented for his work, especially once he started his Haden-led career chapter in earnest). I think he liked the fact that I was also born in Iowa (though have lived in Santa Barbara, California since I was one) and that I was a musician with a record label and was always working on some musical project or another.

“Hey, man,” he said more than once, “how’s your band Headless Horseman?” I kept correcting him: “thanks for asking. Actually, it’s called Headless Household.” And he’d say “oh, man. That reminds me: people always call my album Haunted Heart Haunted House,” with that classic, Haden-esque belly laugh.

I highlighted one passage in the book that really strikes to the essence of Charlie Haden’s diverse interests: (pg 225) “Whether it’s tango or bolero or fado or whatever it happens to be, I try to do it, and I’m not happy until I do everything that I’ve been thinking about.” I’d have to say Charlie Haden never half did anything. Is that an apt summation of the man?

That quote does get to the heart of what made Charlie such a unique and can-do figure in jazz, and music at large. He would just follow his heart into areas he might not know much about, at first, but his infectious passion drew musicians and record company execs, festival heads and other facilitators into his machinery in the making. He fit beautifully into the contexts of fado, with Carlos Paredes, and boleros with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and assorted genres folded into the wonder of his Liberation Music Orchestra projects—with the generous help of his great arranger-allie Carla Bley. And he had some truly magical piano-bass encounters during his lifetime, with Jarrett, Kenny Barron, and Hank Jones, to name just a few.

Ironically, one album which some thought was another stretch for him—his fantastic old school country project Rambling Boy, from 2008—was, in fact, a return to some very deep roots, going back to his family’s radio show in Iowa and Missouri. Ironically, again, that album—an amazing live show of which I caught at Disney Hall in Los Angeles—was also one of his best-selling albums. So much for genre-tagging, especially for an open-eared, open-hearted artist like Charlie Haden.

IE: If someone were new to Charlie Haden, what would you recommend they listen to in order to get the essence of the man?
JW: He has such a vast discography, as a sideman and under his own name—as well as with his bands Quartet West and the great Liberation Music Orchestra, it’s hard to whittle down to an essential list. To come up with a Top Ten—at least from what strikes me as the essential core of who he is—is a subjective thing. These are projects in which he was clearly the conceptualist and leader, but listening to his work on the early Ornette Coleman records or any to the ‘70s work with Keith Jarrett and Old and New Dreams are important.
Here goes:
Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!), 1969
Folk Songs, with Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti (ECM), 1979
Liberation Music Orchestra, Ballad of the Fallen (ECM), 1982
Quartet West, Haunted Heart (Verve), 1991
Haden with Hank Jones, Steal Away (Verve), 1995
Haden and Pat Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky (Nonesuch), 1997
Haden with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Nocturne (Verve), 2001
Liberation Music Orchestra, Not in Our Name (Verve), 2005
Rambling Boy (EmArcy), 2008
Haden with Keith Jarrett, Last Dance (ECM), 2014

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And then along came New Audiences

Spurred in part by artist manager and dear friend Gail Boyd’s Alternative Venues for Jazz Facebook page, this is the third installment in an occasional focus on alternative jazz presenters and their art of presenting. The benefits of having begun my career in jazz presenting as a founding member and later concert curator of the former Northeast Ohio Jazz Society gave me invaluable grounding and insights into presenting jazz performances, starting in 1977. We built up from presenting the late David Chertok’s wonderful jazz-on-film programs to packed, enthusiastic houses at Cleveland State University Auditorium (I fondly recall encountering an eager audience awaiting entry to the auditorium that snaked down the hallway all the way down the stairs, then proceeded to clap and cheer wildly during the program… for great jazz performances on film no less) to presenting such artists as Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw, the Heath Brothers (very near annually for awhile), Arthur Blythe, Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton (all coincidentally were recording for Columbia Records at the time; the label was virtually cornering the market on jazz mastery for a short window under Bruce Lundvall’s brilliant stewardship), a typically memorable experience with the Sun Ra Arkestra where afterwards Ra held court for a rapt crew of celebrants in his dressing room for hours), and a host of others, at CSU and later at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C, host of the long-standing Tri-C JazzFest, where I had my initial contracted experience as a jazz presenter).

Always anxious to connect with others who were presenting jazz in the not-for-profit arena (the organization featured in this interview’s not-for-profit is Audiences for the Arts), I was an eager registrant at both the JazzTimes and NAJE (later the ill-fated IAJE) conventions. One guy I’d generally see at those conferences, one who would always be in the same room for any panel discussions or lectures related to presenting jazz performances, was Julie Lokin, who was one of the principals behind the NYC-based not-for-profit presenting organization known as New Audiences. As part of our ongoing Independent Ear series on jazz presenting and presenters in the not-for-profit arena, through that ubiquitous 21st century connector known as Facebook, I sought out Julie Lokin for some questions on the whys and wherefores of New Audiences. But first, here’s a thumbnail sketch of how New Audiences began (you can read the complete account of their initial foray into jazz presenting at www.newaudiences.com).


Julie Lokin (left) with one of the Godfathers of jazz presenting, NEA Jazz Master George Wein

Julie Lokin, Art Weiner and Seth Willenson were all friends and jazz freaks who during the sixties had produced jazz concerts in college. Art and Julie met as members of the Jazz Society of Hunter College and Seth produced concerts at Cornell University. In 1971 while they each worked in related aspects of the motion picture industry, all three remained dedicated jazz lovers and decried what appeared to be the demise of jazz in the Big Apple. With youthful naivety and unbound enthusiasm, they decided that they would trigger the return of the New York jazz scene by organizing a major jazz event at a major New York venue. That event would prove to be a truly historic concert performance by the great Charles Mingus.

They sometimes call it the “jazz capital of the world, ” but in 1971 the scene in New York for live jazz was pretty dead. Thankfully, today a myriad of clubs in New York feature jazz, and jazz fans enjoy a regular cycle of jazz concerts in major venues. But in the early seventies there were only a handful of jazz clubs, notably, the venerable Village Vanguard and Slugs (known for being the place where Lee Morgan was shot and killed). There were virtually no jazz concerts of importance taking place. Somehow we got the idea that we could do something to bring jazz back. We decided to produce a week-long series of jazz events at a major concert hall, combining jazz with other arts and media.

We struggled with the selection of an artist with whom we could sell enough tickets to cover our investment and whose performance would attract the public attention we were seeking. As each of us had been fans of Charlie Mingus’ music, we talked about presenting him, but there were a host of reasons for rejecting the idea. Mingus’ reputation for being a volatile personality was well known. In the sixties, at the old Five Spot on the Bowery, we ourselves had witnessed Mingus storming into the club well after the time scheduled for the set and watched with amazement as he berated musicians and patrons alike. I had heard the story of his punching his trombone player Jimmy Knepper in the mouth. His famous Town Hall concert of 1962 was also on our minds, where Mingus continued to write out parts for his musicians on the Town Hall stage in front of the amazed paying concert audience. We recalled our experience in 1965 when we actually had a brief telephone conversation with Mingus. We were inquiring about Mingus’ interest in doing a concert for the Hunter College Jazz Society and it was a conversation, filled with nonsequiturs, which seemed to go nowhere. Mingus was saying that he didn’t want to do concert music, he wanted to play music for dancing. “I don’t mean any of that Lester Lanin shit,” he said, but he didn’t seem to grasp the great opportunity that the Jazz Society believed it had to offer.

The concert was a great success, both musically and commercially, and was the forerunner for many more great things in jazz. George Wein was so taken by the success of the event that it solidified his own thinking about bringing the Newport Jazz Festival to New York. Not long after the Philharmonic Hall concert Wein announced the inauguration of the Festival in New York which was to become an institution, a multi-venue two week event which, as it turned out, had many similarities in scope to our original concept for bringing jazz back to New York. Well, with Mingus’ help, perhaps we did. The concert reignited Mingus’ recording and performing career. Columbia produced a great 2-LP recording. Lokin and Weiner started a concert production company called New Audiences which for more than twenty five years has presented virtually every major jazz artist in concert.

Independent Ear: With the obvious and surprising success of your Mingus concert, what were your next steps?
Julie Lokin: Given the success of the Mingus concert, we immediately took the profits and put deposits down on two more dates at Philharmonic Hall (later to become Fisher Hall, now Geffen Hall). We presented Miles Davis on the next date. To change things up, on the third date we did a folk concert with Phil Ochs, Doc Watson and David Bromberg. All three shows were sold out. At this point Art Weiner, my long time friend and college buddy decided to give up our “day jobs” and tried to make New Audiences into a full time concert production company and music public relations firm.

Was New Audiences incorporated as a not-for-profit and when did you form your organization?
We incorporated New Audiences as a for profit corporation. We also incorporated a not-for-profit called Audiences for the Arts, Inc. with the thought of going after grants. The name actually belonged to my original partner, Art Weiner. He had a music and film PR company. When we together started the concert production company, we took the name. In our first concert with Mingus, we didn’t use the NA name. The ads said Bill Cosby presents… since we thought adding his name would lend credibility to the show.

We decided to go with New Audiences after that rather than using Lokin and Weiner Present since it created the allusion that we were big. We also, and perhaps the main reason, was that we wanted to attract folks to music they didn’t necessarily get exposed to in usual concert scene. It seemed to work. BTW I keep saying music but we did so much more.

We did comedy, dance, and various combinations. Like jazz and dance. We used blues and jazz on the same bill. We combined three styles of blues on the same bill. We combined jazz and classical. It was fun and we loved what we were doing.

New Audiences has presented a diverse mix of artists. What’s been the mission of New Audiences?
Our mission if you want to call it that, was to present concerts that people wanted to see. When we started, no one was catering to jazz, folk, world music fans. In the beginning we were very fortunate in doing shows with artists who’s music we personally liked. Also, there was an audience who enjoyed going to reserved seat, prestige concert venues like Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. Later, the Beacon Theater. Our audience and the artists were looking to enjoy performances out of smoky, uncomfortable, expensive clubs.

Is New Audiences still active in concert presentation?
Unfortunately the concert industry has changed dramatically. With major corporations like AEG and Live Nation it became hard to compete. Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Blue Note have become very active in concerts and have very deep pockets. After 40 plus years, it was time to move aside. Also, the real headliners grew fewer and fewer. We used to headline and sell out major venues with artists like Miles, Sonny, Monk, Mingus, B.B. King, Jobim, Nacimento, Muddy Waters, Weather Report, RTF. Now, there are very few legitimate headliners that can sell 2800 seats. The artists who can like Herbie, Chick, Metheny, Krall are often presented by the large rock promoters today.

What’s your sense of the whole jazz concert presenting scene in New York these days?
New York City is probably the most competitive markets in the country. There are about 10 clubs who compete for jazz groups. They are at a great advantage since they own their own real estate. It costs a fortune to pay the rent for the major concert halls. The concert halls all have contracts with the stagehands union. The clubs don’t. Also, as the jazz audience decreases, a club is a safer play. No performer wants to look out at half empty concert hall. Most New York clubs have much smaller capacities. A major factor is that smoking is prohibited so it’s a better environment to play a club.

Talk about your own current activities.
I love the music and go out as often as possible to see new artists. I like all kinds of music not just jazz.
Beyond music it will probably surprise folks to know I am very active as a volunteer EMT (emergency medical technician). I just completed a 15 year run as a commissioner in the Fair Harbor Fire District. My wife and I own a house on Fire Island. I was a volunteer firefighter but just do the medical work now. I also volunteer with the Central Park Medical unit. For a 5 year period I taught concert management in the music business department at NYU. I’d love to teach again.

There have been many DIY jazz presenting efforts at diverse places across the country; there is even a Facebook conversation page called Alternative Venues for Jazz as folks contemplate creating performance spaces for jazz. What advice would you give to anyone contemplating becoming a jazz presenter, whether at traditional venues or alternative spaces?
Gail asked me to join Alternative Venues group. I wish I could be more helpful there but my experience is in the established big venues. I think it’s a wonderful idea to present shows in alternative venues. of course, the artists need to compromise on their fees.

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Anatomy of an alternative space for jazz Pt2


Several years ago as part of a jazz oral history project exploring the rich history of the music in Brooklyn’s historic Bedford-Stuyvesant community, I conducted a series of oral history interviews with friend and colleague Jennifer Scott for the Weeksville Heritage Center. For those not familiar with Weeksville it is the oldest African American community in Brooklyn. Three of those interviews focused on the vibrant alternative space for jazz known as Sista’s Place, located at 456 Nostrand Avenue at the corner of Jefferson Avenue. You can find Sista’s Place complete Saturday night jazz schedule at:http://sistasplace.org.

Trumpeter-composer Ahmed Abdullah, a veteran of the Sun Ra Arkestra and music director of Sista’s Place was the subject of our Pt. 1 interview in this ongoing series on alternative venues for jazz (scroll down for that one). This second part includes excerpts from our wide-ranging interviews with longtime political activists Roger Wareham and Viola Plummer. These two no-nonsense human rights activists were part of a NYC movement known as December 12, which begat Sista’s Place. Fittingly, as part of Sista’s Place’s Saturday, April 22 evening, Viola Plummer will be honored with the Jazz Journalist Association (JJA) Jazz Hero of Brooklyn award.

ROGER WAREHAM

In the whole development of your efforts through the December 12 movement, what have been your activities in the area of arts and culture?
Roger Wareham: Politically one of our slogans or mantras is that “culture is a weapon.” For every struggle for liberation one of the most important components, if not the most important component, is culture. And that takes many forms. I always remember a lecture that Amilcar Cabral, who led the liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau gave in the Cape Verde islands; he started off the discussion talking about Goebbels, and how whenever the Nazis had a discussion and the issue of culture came up, Goebbels took out his gun and put it on the table because he was really clear that if you were going to suppress a people, to conquer them you had to destroy their culture. So we always saw culture as a key component for our struggle for liberation. So the theme of Sista’s Place is “culture is a weapon.” We opened up on September 23, 1995 on John Coltrane’s birthday; we start our [Sista’s Place jazz presenting] season around then and we’ve always had artists who reflect some degree of consciousness of the nature of our struggle.

So when we came here… our first music director was [saxophonist] Carlos Garnett, and certainly with [current Sista’s Place music director] Ahmed [Abdullah], I became aware about the places, and when the musicians started coming in and talking about the older [Brooklyn jazz] places, like the Blue Coronet and the different spots where people used to play [in Brooklyn], I became much more aware of the history [of jazz in Brooklyn]. I don’t know it chapter and verse, but I understand the richness of Brooklyn’s contribution to jazz and maybe more so than Harlem because a lot of folks who played there weren’t indigenous to Harlem, whereas a lot of folks emerged out of Brooklyn.

Our first spot [Sista’s Place] was on the corner of Jefferson and Nostrand. Jefferson begins at Claver Place, and Claver Place is where the East was, at 10 Claver Place. So you just walked from the East right up to Sista’s place, so its almost a geographic and physical part of that [East] legacy.

Many of the artists who have played [Sista’s Place] talk about the atmosphere when they play here, that they feel so comfortable they just enjoy playing. The artists are treated like royalty, they’re not background music for people’s discussions, people come here to hear the music. I remember when I was in college and I went to visit Cornell for some reason and we heard [poet-author] Don Lee reading – he hadn’t become Haki Madhabouti yet. I remember during his reading he had to stop at one point and tell [the audience] they had to shut up and listen because people were talking, it was disrespectful, and that was the first time I thought about that. People ought to respect the art, and so that’s what we do at Sista’s Place; the most important thing we have are the artists. We don’t always have the resources to pay them what they’re worth, but we always make sure we pay them what they agree to. Over time there have been a few grants that have helped out, but it’s really what walks in the doors that pay the artists.

Is Sista’s Place a not-for-profit?
RW: Yeah. And if not enough people walk through the door [artist fees] come out of our pockets. Like Abbey Lincoln said, ‘the artists gotta get paid’, so that’s our position. And I think the artists appreciate that, they know when they come here that they are treated and regarded as the important contributors and continuum of our culture.

What you’re saying about the artists’ perspective on a place like this – and there have been so few in this country – we got a good measure of that when we interviewed saxophonist (and Brooklyn resident) James Spaulding. He talked about playing at the East and playing at Sista’s Place. The first thing he talked about was looking out at a sea of faces that look like him. And he talked about the audience interaction. For him Sista’s Place felt much the same as playing at the East. This strikes me as a 21st century continuum of the whole idea behind the East. How would you compare the two?
RW: [James Spaulding is] great. I think it’s true. I went to the East a couple of times. The first time I saw Betty Carter, and the East was cultural nationalist with politics on the line and the whole atmosphere there was something that you immersed yourself in and you felt very comfortable, and it emerged out of the struggle of the 60s around black power, black nationalism, and black culture.
People come in [to Sista’s Place] and they feel almost like they’re listening to live music in their home. That’s what a lot of the artists say, that’s what people say, that ‘I feel at home here.’ We had a birthday celebration here for James Spaulding and he was so ecstatic. They performed and we had birthday cake and everything and the glee on his face was ecstatic, you can tell that he really enjoys playing here, and it is reciprocated – and that’s the continuation of the East. The performances here are a living interaction; the performers feed off the audience and the audience feeds off the performers.

Things have changed in a number of different ways since the East. Back then they established the place as purely for African Americans. That apparently isn’t the policy at Sista’s Place. Given the fact that Sista’s Place audiences are not exclusively black, does it still engender the same type of atmosphere?
RW: Yeah, because most of the time the white folks that come here are in the minority; this is not an organization or place where a minority can come here and dictate the atmosphere for the majority. And as long as folks don’t act rowdy, there’s not a problem. It helps pay the band. That’s not really an issue because the audience is predominantly black and we set the tone of what happens here. There are some [white] people who come here who are regulars and they’re real cool. Sometimes we get people who come here from abroad and there really haven’t been any problems.

Its gotta be a bit of a revelation for people who come here from abroad to experience a typical Sista’s Place audience, as opposed to going to some of the more traditional jazz clubs in Manhattan.
RW: Yeah, I guess for them it’s sort of like when they go to black churches on their tours. When we first started people would come here and say ‘oh, this place should be in the Village…’ Why can’t this place be in the black community in Brooklyn, why’s it gotta be in the Village?!? Why can’t we have this quality in our community? We charge $20-25 for what they charge $50 plus a minimum for at the Vanguard.

What is your jazz presenting season?
RW: Our season runs from Coltrane’s birthday (9/23) through the first or second weekend in June, then we shut down for the summer because there is so much stuff happening. But we usually do one or two shows during the summer. We open for the season on September 25. When we first opened I think it was Leon Thomas in ’95. Sista’s Place has become an institution in Brooklyn as a cultural spot. We’re going to continue it regardless of the intentions of the landlord or the powers that be; it is a continuation of a legacy of “culture as a weapon” that Brooklyn is famous for.

VIOLA PLUMMER

What was the decision behind determining that this place was going to have a real strong jazz presence?
VP: We thought that in this community, after the East was gone, after all the music places were gone… and remember, we had started that in Harlem with “Jazz Comes to Fight Back”, because we feel that it is jazz that really expresses, at least for us old people, our culture; it’s the music that grew out of struggle, that got interpreted, and that some of the brothers and sisters [jazz musicians] that are still alive didn’t play in our community, because there was no places to play when we started. I said the music I like best is jazz, so they called me the jazz policeman; I thought that was the music that was needed in our community.

When we were in the former location down the street, there was a brother who worked for the railroad who had three boys and he would bring them every night. Then there was another lady who has passed away, her nephew would come and they would be awestruck at how these brothers had conquered their instruments, and they would listen… they HEARD the music.

How is the audience at Sista’s Place different from the audiences at other places you’ve been?
VP: People come to hear the music, they experience the music, they understand what the music is saying, they celebrate the musicians… Other places I’ve been people pay their money and sit and talk and clink glasses and that kinda stuff… One night we had a fantastic band and there was a Chinese man who was visiting. I went up on the stage and he looked, I said CLAP… you didn’t like the music? So then everybody stood up and applauded. People really get into your being; say the sisters who are showing people to their seats, its like ‘we want to share this [music] with you.’ It’s something that is of great value to [the audience].

What’s the reaction from musicians who play here?
VP: Everyone says this is it, this is one of the best places they’ve ever played. Because #1 they get paid, #2 they appreciate that the people listen to their music and that we treat them like they’re artists, and like they’re contributing to our struggle, and then the way the audience responds to them.

I think Sista’s Place is wonderful, it has had the benefit of the history of the East; it has had the benefit of the coming together of jazz and poetry, and history… I think what Sista’s Place enabled us to do – the comrades that I worked with – it enabled us to meet people that they only read about. We do this thing for ‘Trane and people are so engrossed with the genius; and we did this thing for Miles, and now my grandchildren can now talk to me about some real music. Nobody gets paid here… we do it for the music; if we could just keep pushing this kind of network, it would be our path towards freedom.

Learn more about Sista’s Place, including their complete Saturday night jazz performance calendar here:http://sistasplace.org

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Chasing Trane


This must be the season for deeply penetrating jazz documentary films! In the midst of much – and well-deserved – positive buzz about the current Lee Morgan doc “I Called Him Morgan” comes the John Coltrane documentary “Chasing Trane”. Last weekend I had the pleasure of serving on a post-screening panel discussion following a “Chasing Trane” screening at the annual Annapolis Film Festival. For much of the audience that packed the house that evening, “Chasing Trane” was a real revelation, offering an in-depth look at a man many in the audience knew of as a jazz legend… but not much more.

The film follows Trane’s humble North Carolina family roots north to Philadelphia. The telling of his family bio offered such keen insights as the fact that both of John Coltrane’s grandfathers were preachers, which in at least one of the film’s testaments from the exceptional legion of intimates, scholars, writers and enthusiasts who offered their take on Trane’s impact, indelibly influenced the storytelling inflection and cadence of the man’s horns.

Filmmaker John Scheinfeld assembled a prodigious cast of talking heads to testify to John Coltrane’s greatness from several angles, including sons Ravi and Oran Coltrane, and his stepdaughter (daughter of first wife Naima; for whom Trane dedicated his piece “Sayeeda’s Song Flute”); musical intimates Sonny Rollins, Philly homeboys Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson, and acolytes Wynton Marsalis and Kamasi Washington; such writer-critics and historians as Ashley Khan (another who sat on that Annapolis panel), Ben Ratliff and Lewis Porter; Coltrane enthusiasts from across the imaginary musical divide as Carlos Santana, Common and Doors drummer John Densmore; and such socio-political figures as Bill Clinton and Cornel West. With such a broad cast of dialogue contributors, one might get lost in identifying each cogent bit of testimony; thankfully Scheinfeld cannily employed the introductory graphic each time this crew was called upon to offer their take on Trane’s arc, which may seem an insignificant touch but proved quite effective in enabling viewers to keep up with the source of such insights.

Apparently not enough useful footage exists of John Coltrane’s voice to include in this film (though one wonders whether they checked Frank Kofsky’s Coltrane interview from the Pacifica Radio Archives), so the actual words of John Coltrane were effectively narrated by actor Denzel Washington. Hearing Denzel express Trane’s words took this viewer back to the potent sequence in Spike Lee’s jazz film Mo’ Better Blues where Washington’s character rehabs his assault & battery ruined trumpet chops to a recording of Coltrane’s powerful spiritual gemstone “Tunji”.

John Coltrane’s career is detailed from his days as a road warrior and sometime bar walker on the chitlin’ circuit as an itinerant section tenor, to his time in Dizzy Gillespie‘s bop orchestra, to his early development as a recording artist, and his signature moments with Miles Davis quintet and sextet. That Trane succumbed to hard drugs was not surprising given the times he came up in, and how he triumphed over his habit is given new detail, including particularly poignant testimony from his stepdaughter on his cold turkey battle at home with the twin demons of heroin and alcohol abuse.

Among the more warmly revealing elements of “Chasing Trane” are the frequent glimpses of John Coltrane the family man. His life with Naima is explored in greater detail than previously known, expressed most lovingly by his stepdaughter. John meeting and courting his second wife, pianist Alice McLeod, is beautifully detailed, as is their married life together. Included are lovely still photographs of John Coltrane the family man, including family life in the home they shared in Dix Hills on Long Island.

We tend to think of John Coltrane in terms usually reserved for deities, but “Chasing Trane” provides a more nuanced sense the humanity of John Coltrane. There are several sequences of home family movies included in the film, including shots of an everyday John Coltrane enjoying his family, playing in the backyard with his dog, even a sequence of him taking a road trip respite at the side of some turnpike with Alice and one of their children. This film does much to humanize John Coltrane the man.

Each of John Coltrane’s musical touchstones are explored in this film, from the influence of Charlie Parker (the erudite Benny Golson recalling the impact of Bird when the two of them first saw Parker on the bandstand in Philly), to his Dizzy Gillespie tenure, to his early days as a recording artist, to his two Miles Davis band stints (the first sequence ending with Davis firing a drug-addled Coltrane, the second introducing a drug-free Coltrane invited back into the band and including Davis’ “Kind of Blue” monument). The passage detailing his hit recording of “My Favorite Things” elicited a moment of knowing recognition from the Annapolis screening audience as they recognized that familiar melody. Trane’s enduring classic spiritual high point, “A Love Supreme,” is explored in rich detail from his home sequestration as he developed that deep meditation, as is his assembly of the classic quartet of McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison who helped deliver that classic.

The impact of the final Coltrane working unit of Alice Coltrane on piano, Rashid Ali on drums, Pharaoh Sanders on second tenor, and holdover Jimmy Garrison on bass, which ushered in the freest of John’s music, was to some a bit unsettling. In the film Cornel West throws up his figurative hands at this period of Coltrane’s artistry, respecting Trane’s intentions but admitting lack of true understanding or appreciation for this late period Coltrane.

Another of the film’s laudatory sequences occurs as Coltrane is struggling with the liver cancer that took him out (with testimony from intimates about his noticeable health decline and the fact that he was often seen holding his side in pain, which is illustrated by a still photo of Trane doing just that), but not before a grueling but ultimately rewarding final tour of Japan. In Japan we see Trane praying before a Nagasaki memorial to victims of the devastating A-bomb, in part a testament from a Japanese survivor of that horror who ironically assisted and accompanied the band on their final tour, as well as somewhat humorous commentary from a Coltrane obsessive who amassed so much Trane memorabilia he needed a separate building to house it all!

Ultimately both “Chasing Trane” and “I Called Him Morgan” should receive serious consideration when the next film awards season rolls around. Kudos to the Annapolis Film Festival for bringing “Chasing Trane” to its audience. For those of you in the DC area “Chasing Trane” will screen April 28-May 4 at the E Street Cinema. For a schedule of U.S. screenings and additional information on “Chasing Trane” visit www.coltranefilm.com.

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