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Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 2: From the Bronx to Brooklyn

Our correspondent reports on the second of four days he spent in a post-lockdown jazz show-watching marathon

Sean Mason Trio live
Sean Mason’s trio performs at the Woolworth Chapel in Woodlawn Cemetery, New York, July 18, 2021

Sunday, the second day of my mini-marathon of live jazz shows in New York City, started early, at least for a jazz person. I was all set to sleep in—or, more accurately, sleep it off. But I looked through a copy of Hot House magazine that I’d picked up at the bar at Birdland the night before and found that the amazing young guitarist Pasquale Grasso was doing a jazz brunch beginning at 12:30 at a little trattoria on the Upper West Side called Tartina. I was off and running up the 2 subway line, hoping not to miss a note from Grasso. 

It turns out that I missed all his notes, because he either subbed out the gig or just canceled it. When I arrived at Tartina I found a near-empty restaurant with a middle-aged guitar player in the corner playing standards to, well, mostly just me. It was a nonplussed John Merrill, an accomplished player on the scene for many years.

Most jazz fans from outside NYC don’t realize just how many little restaurants present notable jazz pianists or guitarists quite literally on the side. I once asked my friend John Chin, a pianist who’s done plenty of gigs like this, whether he went through the motions or went all out for them. He answered quickly and definitively, “Always all out.” Either way, this is how many of the jazz artists we love make a living. Not just with the hip and more high-profile jazz gig at Smalls or Dizzy’s but rather at some Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side or a vegetarian bistro in the West Village. So next time you’re in one of those places and hear some interesting music through the cacophony of ambient noise and conversation, look more closely at the musicians. You might have one of their albums.

Guitarist John Merrill performing at Tartina in NYC (photo by Lee Mergner)
Guitarist John Merrill performing at Tartina in NYC (photo by Lee Mergner)

At Tartina Merrill performed various jazz tunes solo, including a song by Monk that I wasn’t that familiar with. At one point between songs and bites of my hamburger, I told him that this was a little like what we used to say about a Sun Ra gig in Philly: more people on stage than in the audience. He laughed and said that although that would be difficult for him to achieve as a solo artist, Sun Ra was one of the first jazz concerts he saw as a young man in Connecticut—on his birthday, no less. He played on. I ate on.

From there I hopped on a subway train or two or three, ultimately taking the 4 train all the way through the Bronx to its terminus: the Woodlawn cemetery, a true terminus for many figures in jazz history, including King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Illinois Jacquet, and others. An afternoon concert was being held there at the Woolworth Chapel, an all-purpose and high-ceilinged room that mostly serves as a space for “commitment” services. And not just a few. Six hundred per year, according to the brochure they gave me. You can insert your “Jazz Is Dead” punchline here. Mine is that jazz is eulogized and buried, but it is not dead.

The concert was presented in partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), which, despite still being in shutdown mode at its main Columbus Circle facilities, has endeavored to present jazz at various outdoor locations around the city throughout the pandemic. Most of us in the jazz community are wondering when we can see live jazz again at the various JALC venues; the good news is that Dizzy’s will resume programming on Aug. 19 with a run by Herlin Riley, the original drummer for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, along with his intergenerational band. Sorry to not have included them in my run around town. Then again, wasn’t nine shows in four days enough?

I nearly forgot to mention the performers at Woodlawn, not out of dismissal but because these days the bigger story is which NYC venues will stay alive and how. The talented young pianist Sean Mason performed a 60-minute set in the chapel with his trio of Butler Knowles (bass) and Malcolm Charles (drums). The sound wasn’t great, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given that the cavernous space was built for eulogies, not jazz concerts, and it was nearly impossible to understand any of Mason’s words to the audience. I think he said that he was thrilled to honor all the great musicians who have passed before, but I may have been projecting there. Nonetheless, the three played well and hard and presented a set list with a mix of originals and songs by some Woodlawn “residents” like Davis, Oliver, and Jackson, ending with an original arrangement of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Originally from Charlotte, N.C., Mason brings a distinctly soulful and churchy style to his piano playing, reminiscent of a young Ramsey Lewis or a mature Cyrus Chestnut. That’s a good thing, at least to my ’60s/’70s-raised ears. It’ll be exciting to see him progress as an artist in the coming years.

Leaning again on the listings offered by Hot House, I noticed a 4 p.m. show by NEA Jazz Master George Coleman at the Cutting Room near Koreatown. Co-owned by actor Chris Noth, the Cutting Room isn’t really a jazz venue—it’s more of an eclectic showcase room—so it was a surprise to see a legend like George doing a late-afternoon set there. It seems that most music venues in NYC are binary: either jazz or not jazz. Perhaps because there are so many great bona fide jazz clubs in Manhattan, a multi-genre place would think twice about competing with the likes of the Vanguard, Blue Note, Dizzy’s, Smalls, Smoke, et al. I didn’t have time to listen to more than a tune or so of Coleman’s set, but suffice to say that he is one of the truly underrated saxophonists of the last 40 years and it was a pleasure to get to hear him again.

After several hours in the afternoon traveling to three somewhat unconventional venues for jazz in Manhattan, it made sense to cross over to Brooklyn for two more shows that evening. For one thing, Brooklyn is where many jazz artists live and work. For another, it’s where many progressive young people reside, constituting a large potential audience for jazz. I was guided by my aforementioned friend John, who took me to a little place owned by, believe it or not, a musician. Located in the ever-changing Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights neighborhood, Bar LunÀtico is co-owned and run by singer/songwriter Richard Julian, who’s been a mainstay on the NYC folk scene and a part of Norah Jones’ group, the Little Willies. However, he and his partners didn’t open the place to present Julian and his music, but rather to present emerging and established artists for residents of the area.

The venue is basically a restaurant/bar with a small stage in the back corner. Not that there’s anything wrong with that layout, because the vibe feels more like a neighborhood hang than some brand-name music club. And that impression was hammered home when Richard himself came through the room midway through the band’s first set with a drum asking for contributions for the night’s performers and mentioning the suggested donation of $10 each, something that’s also posted on the website. I was initially taken aback by this. I mean, why not take it at the door or add it to the bill? Isn’t it sort of demeaning to pass the hat, or in this case the drum, for a performance by real pros? But the more I thought about this approach, the more I saw a real value in it; folks were more likely to give way more than $10 (as I did) when the owner himself, a recognized artist in his own right, was canvassing the room. Then there’s the survivor’s guilt many of us have knowing how well we’ve gotten along during the pandemic compared to so many artists and gig workers of various stripes. Nonetheless, I can’t see Smalls’ Spike Wilner or Birdland’s Gianni Valenti strolling through their venues with hat (or drum) in hand.

The band receiving the cash collected that night played a mash-up of Cuban and Puerto Rican music, led by bassist Àlvaro Benavides and featuring Jainardo Batista (percussion and vocals), Mauricio Herrera (drums), and César Orozco (piano). This high-powered group provided music suitable for both listening and dancing. The Venezuelan Benavides has performed with many Cuban jazz greats, including a long stint with Pedrito Martinez, and has the chops and stage presence to prove it.

From there we Ubered over to the Park Slope area to see a set by guitarist Stéphane Wrembel at Barbès, another small venue. Really small: The music is presented in a back room with a capacity of around 20. A devotee of the Django Reinhardt school of guitar music, Wrembel and his quartet presented music from his various albums, including material that he wrote for two of Woody Allen’s films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. Both the French-born Wrembel and his longtime sidekick guitarist Thor Jensen play fast with precision, which that genre demands. There’s been some discussion lately that the term “Gypsy jazz” should be eliminated because of the negative connotation and ethnic profiling it represents. Whatever the term for the music he plays, Wrembel is one of the genre’s finest practitioners and has been a champion of Django and the sound he wrought for a long time, curating various concerts, series, and festivals.

I liked that Wrembel had several of his CDs available for sale in a little suitcase that opened up as a nice display near him on the stage. So many artists are struggling to sell their recordings on the various online platforms, and streaming services pay peanuts on the dollar. Even though fewer and fewer consumers have CD players in their cars, on their computers, or in their homes, musicians increasingly depend on sales of albums at their gigs, but most are not very good at selling them. One word of advice for any fans who want to get an autograph from or even talk to their favorite artist: Buy their CD first and then ask for the autograph or the chat, whether you have something to play the disc on or not. Trust me, it makes a favorable impression on artists with diminished revenue streams.

Barbès was the first venue I visited during my mini-marathon that asked for proof of vaccination at the door to the music room. I’m fine with that. In fact, I wish all the venues would do that. But they don’t. And let’s talk masks. During my four days in NYC, it seemed that everyone was wearing them—in the subway, that is. In the venues, virtually no one in the audience wore a mask (though Birdland requested that patrons do so when not at their tables). The lone exception was the Woolworth Chapel, where the audience was decidedly older than the crowds in hip Brooklyn bistros. Of course, if vaccination were established among the patrons, then mask-wearing wouldn’t be such a potential red flag. With the Delta variant looming its large and possibly deadly head, the protocol for public gatherings may be changing. The one rule that seems to hold these days is that there isn’t one rule. 

Local color in Times Square: A K-Pop dance performance (photo by Lee Mergner)
Local color in Times Square: A K-Pop dance performance (photo by Lee Mergner)

Coming back to my hotel near Times Square via subway around midnight, I came across the 404 Dance Crew working on a choreographed video for a cover of a K-Pop song right there on the plaza. It seems that jazz musicians aren’t the only artists who have late nights.

Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 1
Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 3
Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 4 Originally Published