Terri Lyne Carrington
Photo: Tracy Love
The State Of Jazz In NYC With Terri Lyne Carrington, Ben Allison & More
Tucked down a squeaky staircase on a side street in the heart of New York City's Greenwich Village, Mezzrow Jazz Club is shaped like a subway car, long and narrow with some of the finest jazz musicians in town playing nightly at the far end of the room. You can feel the passing subway rumble beneath your feet as you file into the listening room for the late set. Sure, you might be knee to knee with the occasional table of tourists, but the band is having a musical conversation up there — laughing, arguing, confessing, and gossiping — all without using words.
For anyone who has experienced this rush in person, there's little question whether jazz is alive or not in New York City. But for those who have not had the opportunity, the scene might appear a bit more mysterious.
"Some people think of jazz as a musical style of a bygone era. It's so much more than that," says bassist Ben Allison. "The hundreds of jazz musicians who live and create in NYC are part of a continuum — an intense and beautiful musical conversation that has been happening for decades and continues to this day. It's a very vibrant art form, and it's easy to find in NYC if you know where to look."
"We adhere to our mission of supporting this music, and also supporting the late-night culture of New York City, Greenwich Village and jazz itself," says Spike Wilner, a professional pianist since age 19 and co-owner of Mezzrow and its sister club, Smalls. "Never to make a lot of money. We never really think about it. As long as our bills get paid."
New York has been operating as a fertile ground for cultivating jazz and the culture around it for longer than most music fans realize — since about 1900, according to Wilner, who names the likes of pianists Art Tatum and Bud Powell and saxophonist Charlie Parker as the genre's key innovators.
"New York was always the mecca of jazz, with 52nd Street from the '30s to the '50s … and before that, in Harlem," says GRAMMY-winning drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. "New York still has a vibrancy that to me has a special kind of residue from that time period. And if you're serious about playing, you have to put yourself in the environment where the competition is the greatest, and that's when you see if you will sink or swim."
In fact, several generations have pilgrimaged to New York not to gawk at jazz history, but to use it as a springboard. Vocalist Stephanie Layton of the traditional jazz group Eden Lane describes the extra pressure and inspiration she feels from the city.
"My infatuation with the Great American Songbook makes New York City the most inspiring place I could be," says Layton, who cites Tin Pan Alley and early musicals as her core repertoire. "With the type of material I do, lyrics are of equal importance when it comes to song interpretation, and knowing that a Gershwin or Hart colloquialism or witticism was written from a distinctly New York perspective makes me feel just the tiniest bit closer to it."
Through this type of connective spirit, New York truly has become hallowed ground. Within the city are several venues so iconic they've become synonymous with the genre. Blue Note, Birdland, Village Vanguard — locales where actual jazz history has been made. Today, they remain relevant, must-visit venues for the jazz connoisseur.
"I like the traditional venue like the Village Vanguard, owned by a woman, Lorraine Gordon," says Carrington. "In the trio that I played with Geri Allen and Esperanza Spalding called ACS, we tried to play the Vanguard in New York to support this woman-owned business, and because the Vanguard has so much history. So many great records were made live at the Vanguard with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and so many other people."
But beyond the well-known historical hot spots, knowing where to look in New York for today's hottest jazz can uncover the scene's real gems. Allison name-drops Jazz Standard as a favorite while heralding the aforementioned Smalls for the atmosphere.
"Smalls is where people actually hang out. It's kind of a basement, really casual, old school and a little funky," says Allison, who is President of the Recording Academy New York Chapter Board. "When I play there, I tend to get a much younger crowd just because of the vibe there and the [low] cover. When you play at Dizzy's, it pays 10 times as much [laughs], but none of the younger cats I know can afford to go there."
As a testament to that range of live jazz options in New York City, you can catch sets outside of the main stable of clubs, a phenomenon that is bringing the music to an even wider audience.
"Places like Rockwood Music Hall and Pete's Candy Store do a great job integrating jazz into their programing," says Eden Lane guitarist Dylan Charles. "They are saying to their audiences, 'Hey, jazz is worth your time and people are doing new and interesting things within the art form that you should check out.'"
"I feel like people are trying to be more sophisticated with their listening," adds Carrington, also a New York Chapter Board member. "For instance, Kendrick Lamar's [To Pimp A Butterfly] record had a lot of jazz in it, and to some people, it's considered a modern-day jazz record."
From the standards of the Great American Songbook to modern hip-hop, jazz weaves its way into so many different styles of music, which is fitting for a genre many argue is America's only true art form.
"The Latin jazz scene is really rich in New York, and you have players that are really influenced by R&B and hip-hop … indie rock, and rock, playing jazz and merging these other genres with jazz," says Carrington. "When I was coming up in the '80s, if people asked me if jazz was alive, I would say, 'Yeah, jazz is alive, but it smells funny.' Now I say, 'It's alive and thriving.'"
How do today's musicians cut through the thick history and seemingly endless possibilities of influences, styles and directions of jazz it's created? By being themselves.
"I've always been about New York jazz," says Wilner. "And it doesn't mean you can't be innovative. In fact … it's not about doing something new, it's about doing something you."
Given New York City's high living costs, making a living can be challenging for even the most talented musicians. Many professionals teach, produce, compose, tour, record, work as an accompanist, and perform in other genres, including as Broadway pit musicians, to piece a living together and continue to push their own musical boundaries.
Speaking of boundaries, like other genres such as rock and hip-hop, jazz has traditionally been male-dominated. But because jazz truly is about the music, the tides are changing. At the 56th GRAMMY Awards, Carrington became the first woman to win the GRAMMY for Best Instrumental Jazz Album.
"I see this whole male domination in jazz being something that is transitioning," says Carrington, who cites some of her favorite up-and-coming artists as tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, flautist Elena Pinderhughes and Kris Davis, whom she calls "one of the most important pianists of her generation."
In this light, today's New York jazz scene feels quite open and accessible, at least as far as getting a foot in the door. As Wilner explains, however, the key to how long you stay in the room is based on a simple notion.
"Jazz is the most democratic of all art forms," says Wilner. "It's really about the musicians who are inside voting you in or not based on your ability. The art form is the sound, it has nothing to do with form. It's just [about] what you sound like, and if you can play, you can play."