Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 4: Taking Uptown Downtown

Our correspondent’s mini-marathon concludes with sets from Kurt Elling and James Carter

Bill Charlap (left) and Kurt Elling at the 92nd Street Y, New York, July 20, 2021 (photo: © 2021 Richard Termine)

For my final day of jazz concertgoing in New York City, I went to two very different venues and performances. The first stop was uptown, for a concert by Kurt Elling with Bill Charlap and his trio, part of the long-running Jazz in July series at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side. About 15 years ago Charlap took over from Dick Hyman as curator of this series, which Hyman founded in 1985 and ran for the next 20 years. Charlap has continued the series’ tradition of emphasizing sophisticated and swinging mainstream jazz. Accordingly, the theme of this particular show was “High Standards,” an obvious double entendre referring to both the high level of musicianship and the choice of repertoire; after all, Elling shares with Charlap an in-depth knowledge of jazz standards and the Great American Songbook. Charlap later told me that he pretty much just asked the vocalist what he wanted to sing for the concert and only offered a suggestion or two, knowing what was already in their respective books. The result was a nice mix of songs by Gershwin, Bernstein, Eddie Jefferson, and even an adaptation of a Ben Webster tune (“Did You Call Her Today?”) by Elling himself.

Elling, who did a fair number of virtual shows over the last year or so, clearly hasn’t lost any of his chops during the layoff. Arguably the greatest male jazz singer alive today (sorry, Gregory Porter), he demonstrated his mastery of the diverse material, occasionally using the mic as, if not an instrument, then a volume control. A vocalist of great range, he can sing hard and coarse or he can sing soft and smooth. For his part, Charlap is known not only for his work with his longstanding trio of Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, but also for being a singer’s pianist, thanks to his tasteful and complementary accompaniment of everyone from Tony Bennett to Dee Dee Bridgewater. In fact, the second show in the Jazz in July series featured yet another great vocalist, Dianne Reeves, with Charlap and his trio. I was in Newport by that time, but I’m sure it was fantastic.

On this night, Elling and Charlap were accompanied not by the latter’s usual rhythm section of those two unrelated Washingtons, but rather by David Wong and Carl Allen, an equally accomplished duo with a long history of backing jazz greats. Charlap explained that he always uses various rhythm section players during the series because it’s a festival that presents different artists every night. He also said that he loves how Allen is “a brilliant orchestrator with an original sound, and swings like mad.” Bassist Wong, he said, always seems to play the right notes in every situation; this was made crystal clear in his duet with Elling on the singer’s “Call Her Today.” Adding his soprano and alto saxes as well as clarinet to the proceedings, Steve Wilson tastefully enhanced the arrangements and blended seamlessly with Elling’s vocalizing. Overall, the show was tight, running just over an hour, with room for an encore.

I’ve written about this storied series and venue for many years, but this was my first time seeing a show there. Perhaps not all that familiar to out-of-towners, the 900-seat Kaufman Concert Hall may be associated with a Y, but it’s not some converted gym; rather, it’s like an old movie theater, albeit with a professional sound system and high-quality piano. The boominess of sound from the high ceiling was counterbalanced by the effect of a sold-out audience, who readily absorbed the music in every sense of the word. The 92Y, as it’s recently been rebranded, has its own rich musical and cultural history going back more than 140 years. Originally it was dedicated to supporting the Jewish-American community, but in subsequent years it’s gone way beyond that mandate. The diverse list of 20th-century literary greats alone who have appeared there is staggering, including Margaret Atwood, W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Joseph Brodsky, Anthony Burgess, Umberto Eco, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, John Fowles, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Langston Hughes, Eugène Ionesco, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Marianne Moore, Octavio Paz, Harold Pinter, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, Wallace Stevens, Sir Tom Stoppard, Dylan Thomas, John Updike, and Tennessee Williams. A roll call of classical music giants who’ve graced the stage there would be just as impressive. Dance too. So despite its 35-plus-year history, the Jazz in July series at the 92Y is actually a bit late to the party.

What also made this show personally enjoyable, besides the performance and the venue, was that I took as my +1 my friend David, a lifelong jazz fan who had inexplicably not gone to see live jazz since he was a kid, when his father took him and his sisters in North Carolina to see the Brubeck family, in the hopes of turning them into a sort of jazz Von Trapp family. The effort failed. Nonetheless, David grew to love jazz and listens to it obsessively still.

Taking someone who hasn’t seen any live jazz in decades was an excellent exercise for me, a so-called insider. Several years back, Christian McBride, in his keynote address at the JazzConnect conference, said that jazz industry people should stop demanding to be put on the guest list and instead start bringing people, especially young people, to see live jazz. In this case, I wasn’t converting my not-so-young friend into a jazz fan, but rather showing him (I hope) that jazz is best experienced live rather than on record. In the end, he may have learned a few things about the power of live jazz, but I also learned about the perception of a jazz show from his candid and even innocent observations during and after the concert.

The first thing David noticed was just how attentive the audience was. As a performer of some note himself, he truly appreciated the powerful sound of quiet listening. The demographics leaned far toward old and white, but they were a very quiet and receptive old and white. He also was pleased to see that the ushers shut down the few people who held up their cellphones to either photograph or videotape the show. This was not the usual whack-a-mole game but rather clear enforcement of a no-taping policy—something few other venues, make that no other venues, did during my limited run in NYC. More on that later.

My new-to-live-jazz friend also noticed how the leaders, in this case Elling and Charlap, repeatedly reintroduced the band: “And on bass, David Wong … on drums, Carl Allen.” David asked me, “Doesn’t the audience know who they are already?” True enough. I’ve always felt that over-introducing was a nervous tic by jazz bandleaders, even though I know that their main motivation is to simply credit their supporting cast and milk a little applause for them. Some frontpeople go the other way completely, like Charles Lloyd, who rarely says a word to the audience. Many of us can recall Miles Davis, who said nothing to audiences for decades, and in his later years compromised a little by holding up a sign with each sideman’s name on it. Nonetheless, David was knocked out by the dynamic performance of Elling, Charlap and company, and we’ve made plans to hit some of the other jazz landmarks in the city in future months.

After a quick eat-and-run dinner with David and his partner in the Lenox Hill neighborhood, I raced down from uptown to the Village for the last set of the night by James Carter at the Blue Note. By all rights, on a Tuesday night for a 10:30 p.m. start time, the venue could well have had a ton of empty seats. But in keeping with the theme of this run of shows, the audience filled every seat in the house except a few at the back bar.

Like so many NYC jazz clubs, the Blue Note worked hard during the pandemic to not only keep its presence alive but also to give work to jazz artists who found themselves suddenly gigless in March 2020. The club presented live jazz virtually, through both performances from artists’ homes and live concerts streamed from the venue sans audiences. The lights were kept on.

Remember too that the Blue Note is not just that one notable room I visited on West 3rd Street. The organization also has venues in Napa Valley, Honolulu, Tokyo, Milan, and Beijing, which means that the impact of the shutdown was even greater for owner Steven Bensusan and company. Yet none of the venues closed permanently, and all are expecting to reopen in some fashion in the coming weeks.

Because of its often-lofty cover charge and reliance on the tourist market, the Blue Note is sometimes maligned by jazz cognoscenti, but they overlook the exceptional sound and lighting, as well as the overall high quality of the programming. Many of the performers there are just as likely to headline a theater as to do a four- or five-night run at the Blue Note. So pay your money and enjoy the close-up view. And consider that if you paid a lot, then the artists also made a lot. Also, the club has presented late-night shows and jam sessions by lesser-known artists who are thrilled to add the Blue Note to their résumés. Those late-night shows are invariably attended by younger audiences, who may not be able to afford the earlier shows’ high-double-figures cover charges the way older jazz tourists can.

Enough about economic impact. Let’s talk music. Saxophonist James Carter was one of the many exceptional jazz artists introduced in the late ’80s and early ’90s in yet another iteration of the Young Lions marketing approach. Along with compatriots Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, Mark Whitfield, Roy Hargrove, Benny Green, Russell Malone, and several others, the Detroit-born saxophonist has certainly lived up to the early hype, having built a long career as one of the premier improvisers and bandleaders of his generation. In recent years, he’s zoomed in on a very specific sound for his bands, often relying on backing from a groove-oriented organ trio featuring Detroit natives. It’s hard-bop jazz with its soul and R&B roots showing.

Unlike many jazz sax players who focus on one or two instruments, Carter plays them all—from soprano to baritone—with a ferocious intensity. Arriving late for the night’s last set, I still got to see Carter run his regular band, with James Hurt sitting in on piano, through their paces. At a few points, Carter engaged Hurt in a call-and-response exchange that seemed way more call than response, with Carter at one point yelling to Hurt, “Stay on the C, don’t move from there.” With Carter riffing in explosive fashion, the crowd loved it. From my very tired perspective, their exchanges almost seemed like jazz as WWE. No matter.

During the latter part of the set, I was joined at the back bar by a young woman who had clearly entered sans cover charge for the last few tunes. Seeing me write some indecipherable lines in my reporter’s notebook, she asked me, “Are you a writer?” It’s always a question that stops me in my tracks, because I identify more as a reader than a writer, and because if I do say I’m a writer, I’ll have to explain what I’m writing. I came clean and explained my crazy idea to cover the return of live jazz to New York for JazzTimes. She said that she’d look for the pieces (LYING?) and confessed that this was the first jazz show she’d ever seen (NOT LYING?). She then asked me what I learned from seeing all those shows. I just shrugged. But I’ll tell you here what lessons I learned from this mini-marathon of jazz performances in three of the five NYC boroughs.

The first and most obvious observation is that the artists were ecstatic to be playing with each other. During the great (not) pandemic pause, there were many examples of livestream performances that tried and nearly succeeded in capturing the magic of musicians playing together. But nearly is not really. Jazz artists need to be inspired and even pushed by their bandmates, playing in the same space, moving the same air. That didn’t happen during the last 16 months or so. 

Also, the performers were thrilled to be playing not just with each other but also in front of live audiences, something that every bandleader mentioned at every show I attended. I often thought of live shows as a simple transactional experience where we fans pay to see artists perform. But in fact, we give the performers more than just revenue. We give them our attention, our energy, our inspiration.

Numbers do matter, though. Audiences came out in force to all the shows I saw, whether at the 20-person-capacity Barbès in Brooklyn or the 900-seat 92nd Street Y uptown. Like the musicians, they were thrilled that live music was happening again. Accordingly, they listened quieter and they clapped louder.

The only downside to the heightened audience response is that so many seemed to want to capture the special moments (or any moment, for that matter) on their cellphones, raised aloft and lit—like cigarettes in clubs in the old days—throughout entire songs. I can elaborate all the reasons that taping live shows on your phone is not good thing, but I won’t. Suffice to say that the listening experience for the whole audience is better without that distraction and disruption. Did I mention that it’s also an infringement of intellectual property laws? Please, just put your phone away and enjoy the performance with your own eyes and ears instead.

Finally, I must talk about the impact of COVID-19. As mentioned before, only two venues I visited in my mini-marathon (the aforementioned Barbès and 92Y) required proof of vaccination for admission, and none required mask-wearing inside. I know that we all want to return to 2019, but I believe that lax admission policies should and will change. Otherwise, as I saw over and over, once inside attendees are likely not to wear masks, and in that close proximity, sans screening, the risk of another spread or spike increases greatly. With new variants at large and threatening, the consequences for the health of jazz listeners and everyone with whom they come into contact loom large. And without those listeners, the artists and venues go back to shutdown mode. We all want live music back, not just for a month or two, but forever.

Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 1
Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 2
Live Jazz Returns to NYC, Part 3 Originally Published