The Independent Ear

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

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:

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.


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.


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:

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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

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Anatomy of an alternative space for jazz

When friend and colleague Gail Boyd recently established the Facebook group Alternative Venues for Jazz it got me thinking about a series of interviews I conducted in 2010. The interviews were part of a jazz oral history project for the Weeksville Heritage Center, which honors Brooklyn’s oldest African American homes settlement.

Back in the 50s and 60s Brooklyn had a rich, vibrant scene of jazz performance venues. In succeeding decades the borough experienced the development of several alternative venues for jazz performance, including the legendary The East, The Muse, Jazz 966, and most notably Sista’s Place. Our Weeksville oral history interview series, working in conjunction with my former Weeksville colleagues Jennifer Scott and Kaitlyn Greenidge, included several notables responsible for those spaces, including two of Sista’s Place founders Viola Plummer, Roger Wareham, and its music director, trumpeter-educator Ahmed Abdullah.

As food for thought in the ongoing discussion of alternative venues for jazz, this is the first of 3 interviews on the development of Sista’s Place, which continues to present exceptional Saturday evening concerts at its lively and inviting Nostrand Avenue converted storefront space, under Abdullah’s distinctive artistic direction.

How long have you been residing in Brooklyn.
I came to Brooklyn to live in 1970. But I had an uncle who lived on Macon Street from the time I was born, so I’ve had a close relationship with Brooklyn throughout most of my life. I lived in Crown Heights from 1970 until 1978.

Are you a native New Yorker?
I’m a native New Yorker, born in Harlem.

How did you happen to migrate to Brooklyn?
I was working at a day care center at 1310 Atlantic Avenue and I was commuting at that time from the Bronx to Brooklyn. The day care center was at 1310 Atlantic Avenue between Nostrand and New York, and I was living in the South Bronx and it was quite a commute. So we found a place in Brooklyn on Crown Street, it was just much more convenient.

Prior to moving to Brooklyn did you have any awareness of jazz in Brooklyn?
Not really, I don’t think I had an awareness per se of jazz in Brooklyn. But I shouldn’t say that because I was studying with Cal Massey and he lived in Brooklyn on Brooklyn Avenue, going way back in my memory. Certainly he was very much involved in the [jazz] history of Brooklyn. Actually I introduced him to the day care center I was working at and he wound up doing several benefits, one for the Black Panther Party in 1969, and one for the day care center. He had to do it for the day care center after doing it for the Black Panther Party because the donor to the center decided to take funds away from the center after he did the benefit for the Black Panther Party at the center. It was a great event, called Jazz on Brass, in Staten Island, as was the fundraiser for the Black Panther Party. If you know anything about Cal Massey, his events included a cast of thousands they would all come to perform for his benefits. I was able to bring him in to do that. So I did have some awareness of jazz in Brooklyn and was involved in it even before I moved here.

Once you moved to Brooklyn, in 1970, what was it like here for jazz at that time?
I came in on the decline of the golden era. I’ve talked to other people who were involved in the earlier jazz in Brooklyn when all the other clubs were around. During that time [1970] we had the Blue Coronet, there was Muse on Bedford Avenue near Lincoln Place; people like Bill Barron, Reggie Workman, Roland Alexander, and [poet] Louis Reyes Rivera [who passed on to ancestry in 2012] were all at The Muse. Bill Barron ran jam sessions there and it was one of the places that I got my roots in music because he was very gracious in allowing musicians to come and play. There were some great musicians who played there; Danny Mixon for example would come and play there all the time, all of the cats that were part of the [Muse] staff would also come and perform in these jam sessions. So the Muse was a very important cultural institution, and Reggie Workman was in fact the administrator of Muse at that time.

I got to play at the Blue Coronet as a young man, I was like 20-something years old at the time, studying with Cal Massey and playing at these places that are historic landmarks. The East came up right around that time; the East and this day care center I was working at were aligned together, they were both dealing with kind of a head start program for young black minds and trying to train them towards a cultural awareness at an early age. The day care center was called 1310 New Directions Day Care Center, and The East was just blocks away, so we worked together in a lot of different ventures.

Going back to the Blue Coronet, describe that place physically.
When you came in you came to a long room, there was a bar to the right, the bandstand was in the back, there were seats much like [restaurant booths] seats in front of the bandstand, and so you played out to either the bar if you were on the bandstand to the left, or you played to the row of seats that were situated right in front of the bandstand. I played there with Roger Blank, Ronnie Boykins, and an alto player named Bugs Dyer, that was my connection to Sun Ra.

We used to rehearse… in the 1970s many of the musicians lived around Williamsburg, around Broadway and Bedford. Rashied Ali had a group there called the Melodic Art-Tet, and the group actually consisted of Charles Brackeen, Ronnie Boykins, and Roger Blank and we used to rehearse at Rashied Ali’s place; he had a loft in Brooklyn. This was before he got his loft in Soho that became Ali’s Alley that was the mid-70s; this is early 70s [in Brooklyn]. Also there was Art Lewis, a drummer from San Francisco, they all lived right along Broadway in Williamsburg; Roger Blank, Daoud Haroun a trombonist; there were many musicians, there was a musicians’ enclave right there around Broadway [in Brooklyn].

Would you say those enclaves of musicians and subsequent performances in such spaces were kind of an outgrowth of the Black Arts Movement?
Oh definitely, because there was a lot of cultural awareness happening in the 1970s and we were definitely picking up on what had happened in the 1960s and in fact instituting some of those actions in institutions. The 70s was a realization of the activities of the 1960s in many ways. The East certainly was that and certainly what we were doing at 1310 Atlantic Avenue was that; it was a very rich time.

I played The East a number of different times; I played The East with a group called the Brotherhood of Sound, with a group called the Master Brotherhood, with the Melodic Art-Tet, and I played there with Sun Ra. My very first performance with Sun Ra was at The East, in April 1975. This is a very unusual thing: I played at The East, I’m now teaching a block away from The East at PS3, and a block away from that is Sista’s Place. So there’s this spiritual connection, I don’t know what it is and I’m not trying to figure it out right now, but I know it’s happening like that. I came to The East in 1975, to Sista’s Place in 1998, and I started teaching at PS3 in 2005. All of these things are stacked up in a row on that avenue.

In the 70s when all these things were happening, at The East, at the Blue Coronet, were there other places where the music was happening in Brooklyn at the time?
People would have music in apartments. There was a fellow named Joe Noble, he lived in South Brooklyn – it could have been Bergen or Dean Street – but he would have sessions in his apartment and we would go by and play. A lot of that activity was happening, where people would say ‘hey, I’ve got some cats coming over’ and we would play.

Was there an audience for these sessions?
Not usually an audience, it would just be the musicians working on their craft, a jam session basically. There were audiences at The Muse people would come to hear… The Muse was on Bedford Avenue and Lincoln Place; there were certainly audiences there.

Who would be playing at The Muse?
Any young person who wanted to learn how to play; Bill Barron would put charts up for the cats to play on and people would take their turns improvising on the songs, like that…

What was The Muse like physically?
It was a big loft building. Someone told me that there was another historical landmark that was there before The Muse. The Muse had several floors and jazz was on the second or third floor. Reggie Workman is one of the few people still around to talk about The Muse; he had a big band there as well. This was around the time of the Collective Black Artists, who had a relationship with The East. We would meet in Manhattan but we would have a relationship with The East. I was involved in The Collective Black Artists at the time, that’s how I met Roger Blank and Charles Brackeen, and the Melodic Art-Tet came out of that Collective Black Artists.

It was just a coalition of musicians who were trying to move the music along in some way. There was no locale that anybody belonged to, I was living in Brooklyn and other cats were living in other places. We would meet at Warren Smith’s loft on 21st Street in Manhattan, but we had a relationship with Long Island University; we would do performances at LIU, and we had a relationship with The East, so we were very much involved with The East as well. Jimmy Owens and Reggie Workman were the major instigators around the Collective Black Artists.

How would you compare the Collective Black Artists to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago?
I don’t know much about the internal structure of the AACM, but the fact that it was an organization, and the fact that there is a real dire need for organization in the music… I would say they compare on that level. They (CBA) were musicians who decided that we needed to be organized, that we needed to do something for ourselves because it was obvious that nobody else was gonna do for us what we could do for ourselves. I wasn’t even aware of the AACM until much later. When the CBA was being created maybe some of the people who were spearheading the CBA did know about the AACM, but I was a much younger musician.

By that point of the CBA, hadn’t Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie and some of the AACM musicians relocated to New York?
They didn’t come to New York until the mid-1970s, in fact around the “Wildflower” series [of recordings] in 1976, that was really the initial time when many of them came to New York, but some of them didn’t stay. [AACM] People like Steve McCall and a few other people had been here, but there was a real influx of the AACM musicians around 1976.

Who was in the Melodic Art-Tet?
Roger Blank and Ronnie Boykin were former members, they were not in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the 1970s when we formed the Melodic Art-Tet; they were in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the 1960s. So they had formed this collective group we called the Melodic Art-Tet, which consisted of Charles Brackeen, Roger and Ronnie. In 1974 we went and played at Germantown Park in Philadelphia and it was at that point that I met Sun Ra. I had met him years before when I was a young kid, about 18 or 19 years old and full of myself. In fact I went up to him and gave him a record I had bought of his and gave the record back because I thought it wasn’t any good, with my young dumb ignorance. I tried to get my money back but he gave me a lesson then which was one of the shortest lessons he ever gave me; he said ‘it’s all in there,’ and that’s all he said. I needed to take my young, dumb ass back home and listen to it, which I did for many years.

I bought that record “Traveling the Spaceways” in 1966 but it had actually been recorded in 1956. When I heard him in 1966 he had been far advanced from where he had been in 1956, so what I heard on the record wasn’t indicative of what he was doing at the time. So I was saying ‘what is this’? This is not the adventurous music I heard. But he was right because the fundamental idea of his music philosophy was right there in that record, he just had moved beyond that but it was all right there. I just needed a clearing out of my ears to hear that it was all in there, and in time I did hear.

I saw Sun Ra first in the 1970s, when he had the dancers, the film, the light show and all that and it was mind-blowing. Was that the nature of the Arkestra when you were playing with Sun Ra?
Yes, absolutely, and just as it was mind blowing to you as a member of the audience, it was mind blowing to me as a young student coming in to perform with the band. I can remember very clearly the first [Sun Ra] concert I did at The East. I can remember just looking around and it was like wonderland, it was fantastic and absolutely amazing. He was doing things that I had never seen anybody do with music and nobody has ever done it since.

When I started playing with Sun Ra in ’75 he was still in Philadelphia, because I would make the commute. In fact my wife at the time looked at me like I was crazy, I was going down to Philadelphia to rehearse with him and she was 7 months pregnant. She was like “who is this Sun Ra? I’m pregnant!” That was the beginning of me understanding about the Sun Ra culture, and how folks really did follow him sometimes without questioning. It wasn’t really a very healthy thing to do; I don’t think it is any way healthy to follow anybody without questioning, because on that level it’s just a matter of intelligence.

How did you evolve from a musician to an activist musician?
That’s a good question and it goes back to my work with the Sun Ra band in fact. I lived in Manhattan from 1978-1988 on the Lower East Side, and I was involved in many organizations and a lot of self-determined efforts as far as the music was concerned at that time and I spent 10 years working with Sun Ra during that time; I worked with him from 1975-1978 almost consistently, I made every gig. And then from ’78-’88 the stuff that I had seen about just following the leader without really questioning, that stuff really got to me and I said I need to get out of here for a moment and find my own way, and I did, and developed some groups of my own. But then I came to understand that [Sun Ra] really was a great leader, and I needed to understand something about the leadership that he involved himself in, so I went back to the band and formed several groups along the way.

About 1988 I moved back to Brooklyn. In 1988 Brooklyn was very different from 1978 Brooklyn. In fact it was so different that I didn’t even spend any time in Brooklyn because there weren’t places to play in Brooklyn in 1988, at least that I knew of. And the places that had music, the music was like 1950s music. What I had seen in Brooklyn in the 1970s had retarded, it had gone way back, so I knew where the hip music was, so I’m going to the hip music.

Sun Ra passed in 1993 and before he left the planet, this problem that people had of following him became very obvious because he was not able to negotiate anything in life, he couldn’t get on and off the bus without someone carrying him; he was not able to deal with business at any kind of level. But these cats that were with him all those years, they believed that he still came from outer space and that somehow everything would be all right. I’m like ‘ya’ll better smell the coffee because this cat is leaving.’ And sure enough when he left the band went way down, we could hardly get a gig if we paid to play somewhere.

John Gilmore was leading the band and he was about to die, so at that point my wife and I had just gotten married in 1992 and my wife and I started producing gigs for the band, we had the task of resurrecting the Sun Ra Arkestra and making it the viable entity that it is today. We didn’t get any thanks for that by the way, but we did it anyway because at that point I knew that my life was completely bound up in that particular music. I had spent 22 years in the Sun Ra Arkestra, so I spent a lot of time in helping to build that institution, so I’ll be damned if I was going to let it fall and I didn’t care what anybody else said or felt, that was my commitment to make it work. So we did, and after we did that we got so much flack from the cats that were still stuck in the mud that we had to leave, so I left in 1997.

Meanwhile I’m still going out in Brooklyn trying to hear music and I’m saying ‘this music ain’t happenin’, but I began to write a book on my experiences with Sun Ra, my memoirs. Amiri Baraka suggested a poet, Louis Reyes-Rivera, as a person who could help me write the memoirs. Louis was involved with Sista’s Place at the time; he would do a thing called jazzoetry. So I went by there to work with Louis and he became my editor for the book. We would work out of Sista’s Place.

The people who run Sista’s Place, I had met them years before as the New York 8, they’d been arrested in 1986 [stemming from a civil insurrection case; stay tuned for our forthcoming Independent Ear interviews with Viola Plummer and Roger Wareham]. I had gone to their trial because I thought they were really amazing: Viola Plummer, Coltrane Chimurenga, Roger Wareham, Latifah Carter… the same people involved with Sista’s Place now. I took my son to see their trial because this was 1986 and there was a dearth of activity around anything black, but they were standing up and I thought they were amazing. I knew who they were, they didn’t know who I was. I came and worked with Louis on the memoirs and then they heard me play one day and they asked me if I would become the Music Director, that was 1998 and I’ve been doing that ever since.

A year after they made me the Music Director we went to Freedom Plaza [in DC], where I had played in 1999 on the 4th of July festival [produced by Bill Warrell of District Curators, for many years producers of jazz performances at alternative venues], 104 degrees, hot as hell. Craig Harris and I were headlining and I again met Paxton Baker [architect of BET Jazz]; I originally met Paxton Baker through Sun Ra. Sun Ra weaves through all of this stuff that’s happened in my life. Paxton Baker told me he was working at BET, I told him I was working at Sista’s Place, and he said ‘we’ve got some money for you.’ He actually gave us a stipend over 8 years, which helped Sista’s Place to do what it has been doing; no strings attached, just put down BET is supplying the money.

Out of being the music director of Sista’s Place, Viola Plummer and Torrie McCarthy, who started Jazz 966, had already started talking about combining the efforts of Jazz 966 with Sista’s Place. They had already made an agreement where Jazz 966 would happen on Friday and Sista’s Place would happen on Saturday, so there would be no conflict. It was just a matter of time before talks occurred around coming up with the idea of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium. Viola had gone to some of the first meetings, but she’s very political and is a no nonsense person and she was like ‘Ahmed, you got it, I’m not doing this anymore.’

So I started going to the [Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium] meetings and from then on – 1998-1999 – we started building this organization. I stayed in it as long as I could, probably to 2006 or so, and then basically there were too many differences that I couldn’t reconcile so I moved on from there and I just do Sista’s Place now.

Talk about the performance policy at Sista’s Place.
When I started we were doing jazz every two weeks and from then we went to jazz every week, and then we added different forums; like a forum we called “Conversations with Artists”, where we would interview the artists before they came to play, or after they came to play so that there would be an outreach to the community, so that the people would know who these artists were. These were things that I saw as very important because of what I said earlier; I saw nothing adventurous in music in Brooklyn in the 1980s into the 1990s when I was at Sista’s Place and I come from musical adventure. So I said I wanted to bring some of this [adventurous] music into Sista’s Place, and I said ‘how could I do it’?

You gotta talk to black folks; if you don’ t talk to black folks… it’s a personal thing. ‘Do I know you’? If I know you, then I might come to see you, if I don’t know you then ‘later for you,’ I’ve got other things to do, I’ve got enough pressure on me.’ So that [the artists conversations] became a real forum to help us bridge the gap to do what we do in Brooklyn because basically we’ve never advertised. We get advertised, the New York Times will give us some play… any number of magazines will write a blurb on us. We’ve always been trying to tap into the community and get the community to support what it is that we’re doing; we call it ‘jazz is the music of the spirit’ and we believe that is the music – and this goes way back to The East and seeing the symbiotic relationship between the community and the artist that was there, and to know that was a very important part of really moving the music forward.

The music has to be rooted in the people in order to move the music forward. All of the things I was involved with in Manhattan never really had that. We were Bohemian artists, we weren’t people who – we may have been culturally aware but we weren’t involved in our culture in any way, except to play music. The difference in what we’re doing in Brooklyn now is that there is an understanding of the need – there is an active involvement with the community, there’s an active outreach to the community, and it’s making a difference. That’s been the real difference.

How many nights does Sista’s Place present jazz?
We only do it one night [per week], Saturdays. Usually we start in August when we start planning for September to December. Then in December we plan from January to March, and sometime in February we work on our festival – which runs April-June. We’re still trying to do things that we feel are adventurous, still cutting edge, on Saturday nights. And I do book myself in twice a year. I teach a class at the New School on Sun Ra, and I’m teaching the little kids Monday-Friday.

We have many different forums at Sista’s Place; I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to get people in the place. As you said, the music is still a mystery; we, artists, work at honing our craft for hours and hours… most people don’t do that with what it is that they do in life. So to expect that somebody’s gonna come and really be open to what you’re doing, when you’re doing something that they’re not necessarily involved with is absurd. You’ve gotta be able to bridge that gap, and if you are the smartest person in the room – or so you think – then you need to reach out and try to personalize what you do. I think that the artist onstage has to be able to talk the people through the music.

[Drummer] Andrew Cyrille, when he played there with the Haitian Fascination, was a classic example of that. He talked about his background, his parents coming from Haiti, talked about the musicians that were there and how he had a relationship with them, where they came from, where they met… All that is important stuff that makes you as a member of the audience feel a part of what it is that person is doing. This music requires an educational forum.

When I started working at the New School I realized that we didn’t have a lot of black kids coming there, we still don’t and probably never will because of the amount of money it takes to go there. So my thing is to start them at a young age with music. At PS3 we have instruments there, we have a very, very advanced elementary school music program and I pride myself in having done that for the last five years. I’m trying to get these kids to know; they know about Sun Ra, they know about Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Benny Carter… right in Bedford-Stuyvesant, right down the street from Sista’s Place.

It is a very important thing, the educational part of the music. I’m going up now to Lehman College to teach a class on jazz, I call it Jazz a Music of the Spirit. I didn’t call it that until 2004 when a promoter in Milan asked us to bring what we were doing at Sista’s Place to his venue, Teatro Manzoni in Milan. He took five different groups; he wanted us to broker a relationship with the artists we have come to Sista’s Place to have them come to his larger stage, a 1,000 seat, beautiful venue in Milan. The first group we took over was one we had put together at Sista’s Place called One for Trane, with John Hicks, Reggie Workman, Sonny Fortune, Odean Pope, and Rashied Ali. And we had several other groups; my group went over, Hamiet Bluiett’s group…

One of the things that we realized was that they saw an opportunity in what we were doing, and what we had to do was name what we were doing; so that’s when the name Jazz a Music of the Spirit came about. So we say this is what you like so much about what we are doing at Sista’s Place; there has to be a relationship between the artist and the audience for that to happen.

How do you structure these “informances” or education sessions for your audience?
An artist who would be coming in, we would have them come in a week before and we would find as much information as we can on them and have them talk to the audience; we would do an interview with them in front of the (free) audience. We also tape these interviews so that we have them as historical records; or we do it in the middle of a show, we’ve done it different ways. [For example] We would have a first set and at intermission we would have a conversation, then the second set.

What kinds of residual effects have these artist conversations had?
Right now we get full houses for almost anybody that shows up [to perform]. Twelve years down the line, most everybody that comes [to perform] packs the house, and that wasn’t always the case. We’re doing that without a great deal of advertising; with Internet, fliers, etc.

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Meet The Artist interview with Jason Moran

…Just in case you missed it, here’s our interview with pianist-composer-conceptualist Jason Moran, part of our DC Jazz Festival Meet The Artist series:

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