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Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 1

The start of a four-day post-lockdown jazz show-watching marathon in New York City

Ken Peplowski, Martin Wind, Ted Rosenthal, and Matt Wilson at Birdland
L to R: Ken Peplowski, Martin Wind, Matt Wilson, and Ted Rosenthal at Birdland, New York, July 17, 2021 (photo by Lee Mergner)

With so many New York jazz clubs and venues now reopening their doors to more than just black-garbed audio and video production people for live streams, it seemed that the time was right to assess what’s really happening—for the musicians, for the fans, and for the music itself. So I came from hot sweltering Washington, DC to hot sweltering NYC in order to go to as many shows as I could manage in the span of four days and nights. Have MetroCard, will travel. What I saw was revealing in many ways, reflecting the myriad challenges faced by both the jazz community and the world at large.

My first show on Saturday night turned out to be two shows, or more accurately two sets, by a band led by Ken Peplowski at Birdland, a club located in the super-pricy neighborhood of Times Square (Hell’s Kitchen, actually, but that doesn’t sound quite as attractive to tourists using Google Maps). Located just off 8th Avenue on 44th Street near numerous theaters hoping to open in September, the club is one of the best venues in the city to hear jazz or any music, with its professional sound and lighting and tiered, not-so-squeezed-in seating. Gianni Valenti, the vigorous and hands-on owner, was faced with an epic challenge last year, having recently created a second, smaller room at the same location just a year or so before the pandemic, leaving him with a very, very large nut to crack.

Like many—make that all—jazz club owners who paradoxically don’t own the physical space that their clubs occupy, Valenti was faced with the prospect of having to pay a monthly rent on a business that was returning zero revenue for what at first seemed like it would only be a month or two, but soon stretched into more than a year. As he watched other clubs like Jazz Standard and Blues Alley in DC throw in the towel on their leases, Valenti turned to the online crowdfunding platform GoFundMe for a campaign to keep the hope alive. It worked. On July 1, the club presented its first shows to live audiences since 2020 with sets from Emmet Cohen, who fittingly has been perhaps the most successful artist at navigating the pandemic landscape, thanks in large part to a weekly Monday-night stream series via Facebook called Live from Emmet’s Place that presented great live shows with his trio and special guests.

https://toddsnider.net/tour/
Sign outside Birdland Jazz Club in NYC in July 2021 (photo by Lee Mergner)

I was pleased to get to see Ken’s one-night stand at Birdland because I love his music and because, as a friend (FULL DISCLOSURE), I knew how much this show meant to him. The clarinetist/saxophonist worked very hard during the shutdown in the only ways possible: live streams, giving lessons, and recording a precious few sessions. But for him, as for many musicians, it was barely enough. And then there’s the withdrawal from the visceral feedback that a performer gets from a live audience. The musicians missed the work. They missed the money. They missed playing with fellow artists. But they also missed that feeling they get when an audience in an otherwise noisy club is deathly quiet simply because they’re listening. They missed the energy of us, the listeners.

Coming on stage at Birdland that night, Ken immediately acknowledged the audience in a way that artists generally didn’t do, pre-pandemic. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like “God, it’s so good to see you” and “We’ve missed you so much.” The feeling was clearly mutual. And that was a theme that played out over the next three days: artists thanking audiences just for being there, and listeners in return showing up in full force and offering up just a little more energy than the usual golf-clap after solos.

Conversely, the musicians were nearly ecstatic about playing and hanging together. The accompanying trio of Ted Rosenthal, Martin Wind, and Matt Wilson comprises players who each lead their own bands and record as leaders, but also have a long history working with Peplowski. That’s probably the highest compliment any sideman can give to a leader: “I have my own band, but I’ll play with your band anytime.” It’s clear to even the most uninformed listener that the four have a ready musical shorthand with each other.

They performed an eclectic set of standards, with Peplowski offering up witty background between songs on the backstory of the tunes. Peplowski has earned a reputation as a jokester on stage, which is fully warranted, but he also knows his shit. His riff introducing “I’ll Close My Eyes” by the English composer Billy Reid alone was worth the price of admission. The music was superb, with a certain electricity, as if the band were on a first date—which in fact they sort of were, having not played together for more than a year. Given their history, I supposed it was more like date night for a long-term couple. Peplowski even walked off the stage and left Rosenthal, Wind, and Wilson to play a tune by themselves, as if to say to his date, “I’m going to the bathroom now, go ahead and talk to other people.” It signaled to the audience how accomplished this group is. Maybe too that Ken probably needed to go to the bathroom.

I sat at the bar for both sets. First, because that’s where the band congregates, and second, because I was reluctant to take even one seat from a dedicated fan. For the record, I paid for my seat at that bar. The good news is that there isn’t a bad seat in the house at Birdland. The bad news is that I had to sit at a bar for four-plus hours. That’s time enough for way more red wines than seltzer waters. At one point, the competent but overeager bartender said to me, “Another, right?” I wrote to him on my notepad, “I’m trying to pace myself.” He said, “Aren’t we all?” I wrote back, “Some better than others.” Luckily, after two sets and a long hang-and-talk with musicians and fans, I was able to stumble across the street to my hotel in Hell’s Kitchen. I mean Times Square. Location, location, location.

The good news is that on my very first night in NYC (wow, skyscrapers and everything) I heard great music and saw old friends. Did I mention that both shows were at full capacity? I would see full houses over and over for the next three days and eight shows. Whatever the capacity of the venue, the audience took every seat available. The message was loud and clear: We’re back. For you, for us.

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There was no protocol as far as a temperature check or proof of vaccination upon entry. And although Birdland did ask that customers wear masks when not sitting at their table, few did. The same thing happened at every venue I attended over the four days, with mask-wearing clearly optional. Only two establishments (Barbés in Brooklyn and the 92nd Street Y) required a vaccination card from attendees. I personally think a vaccination card should be required for entry to indoor shows, but I understand that it’s a complicated issue for presenters of live music.

Contrary to what you might expect, I won’t end here with a pitch for you to come out and support live jazz. I’ve always thought that the pitch for people to “support the music” was patronizing and ineffective. Same with the “thank you for your support” onstage speeches to audiences. No, those people didn’t go to that gig at the Vanguard or that concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center to support the music. They went because they wanted to see and hear the music. No one goes to a bookstore to support literature. We go to bookstores because we expect to find books there that will inform us and delight us. No one goes to a play to support theater. We go to plays because we expect them to make us think differently about life. We go to all of the above to be entertained and released even momentarily from the stress of our everyday lives. Go to hear live jazz out of love, not need. I’ll be at the bar in the back. I love it all.

Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 2
Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 3
Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 4

Originally Published