The Gig: Live at the Village Improv

Nate Chinen on Jazz and Comedy

Craig Taborn isn’t the first jazz name that comes to mind when you think of standup comedy. Articulate but withdrawn, the pianist doesn’t seek out attention or chase validation; he saves his abundant wit for the music. But that’s where my mind wandered one morning this April, when I learned that Louis C.K., the scabrous, brilliantly unsparing comic, had been spotted at the Village Vanguard for Taborn’s late Sunday-night set. As a fan of Louis C.K., I savored the thought of him huddled at a familiar little table in the dark, puzzling over Taborn’s beautifully abstruse inventions. The notion made some sense, given that Louie, his rightly acclaimed television series, uses an original jazz score. And it made me realize something I’d never previously considered: I wanted to see Louis C.K. on the Vanguard stage.

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Craig Taborn

What I had begun to fantasize about was a convergence between the worlds of jazz and standup comedy, at the practical, club-going level. I was envisioning a regular spate of inspired double bookings, in which wryness meets its counterpart, and goofiness does the same. Jen Kirkman and Jenny Scheinman. Aziz Ansari and Robert Glasper. Jim Gaffigan and Matt Wilson. Dane Cook and—nobody, never mind Dane Cook. Forget I mentioned Dane Cook.

This isn’t a new line of thinking for me, any more than it’s a novel idea. If you were around during the heyday of American nightclub entertainment, you know all about intermission floorshows. You probably know that Milt Gabler, of the Commodore Music Shop and record label, was Billy Crystal’s uncle. You certainly don’t need me to remind you that the Village Vanguard was once a home to comedy, playing a not-insignificant role in the early careers of Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May.

So what happened? I’m sure there are many contributing factors, but an especially important culprit was jazz’s climb toward respectability, toward “art.” One way to understand it is to compare Storyville, the 1950s Boston nightclub run by George Wein, with the Newport Jazz Festival, which Wein founded in ’54. Whereas Storyville often featured leading comedians—like Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Wein’s personal favorite, the irrepressible Professor Irwin Corey—they were almost a non-presence at Newport, which put forth an intently serious air. The festival’s first program booklet included a satirical essay by Charlie Bourgeois, Wein’s publicist, titled “What Time Is the Next Floor Show?” (Eventually Bill Cosby would enter the picture, though less as a comic force than as a sort of onstage celebrity überfan.)

Jazz has won the battle for respectability, though at an invisible, insidious cost. The music hasn’t relinquished its ability to engage a lay audience, but it now has the reputation of something edifying and noble, even (gulp) medicinal. Standup comedy, meanwhile, has diversified and evolved just as thoroughly since the 1950s, though without losing sight of its function as entertainment. I don’t think it’s total coincidence that the money is so much better for a top comedian than for a comparably accomplished jazz artist.

But did you ever notice that standup comics, in their artistic process, actually behave a lot like jazz musicians? There’s the acute awareness of history and the pursuit of personal innovation; there’s the focus on timing and delivery; there’s the craft forged in solitude, honed among peers, and finally tested before an audience demanding to be impressed. (Sometimes, there’s the heroin addiction.)

Now, before you come at me with a logical counterargument: I’m not suggesting that every comedy-club audience is a jazz audience waiting to happen. As any comic will tell you (often with a wounded vehemence), some comedy-clubgoers seem to specialize in hostility, and there’s no real jazz provision for disarming hecklers. Yet as I survey the current standup scene, I see not only a lot of lubricated yahoos but also a growing subculture of earnest connoisseurs: comedy nerds, as they’re often called, who obsess over routines, dissect the mechanics of a joke and subscribe to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, which delves deep into the unvarnished comic psyche. Some of these fans are already into jazz, I’m sure. Others might just need a push.

The indie-rock and hip-hop constituencies have already gotten with the program, to one degree or another. You may recall Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, the riveting 2006 concert film; you may know the Roots for their nimble role as house band and frequent sketch accomplices on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Zach Galifianakis often works the indie circuit, as do Eugene Mirman and Demetri Martin. A few years ago I attended the first Solid Sound Festival, organized by the alternative-rock band Wilco; it was there that I stumbled across Hannibal Buress, the slyly observational young standup who just won “best club comic” at Comedy Central’s second annual Comedy Awards. I could see him sharing a bill with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane or pianist Jason Moran.

I’m not sure precisely how jazz clubs would go about wrangling standup comics, or how to properly and efficiently pair them with musicians. But I think someone should give it a shot, and not in name only. (There’s apparently a lounge called Jazz & Jokes in Nashville, though “jazz” in this case is code for quiet storm R&B.) As for the Vanguard—where Taborn and C.K. could really kill as a twofer, I’m telling you—it’s the one jazz room where I’ve actually seen a legend of comedy at work. It was Professor Irwin Corey, who had been booked for the week of the Republican National Convention, opposite Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. This was eight years ago, but Corey had already turned 90, and his free-associative rant was magisterially nutty. At one point he remarked on the music he’d heard during the first set: “One guy plays, and then another guy plays. Why don’t they all just play together?” Lovano, sitting at the table next to me, had a good guffaw at that. I guess you had to be there.

Originally published in July/August 2012

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