Ellen’s Stardust Diner, at the corner of 51st and Broadway in Manhattan, has a wait staff that sings karaoke hits for a tourist clientele. Two doors down at the Winter Garden Theatre, the ABBA-inspired musical Mamma Mia! draws capacity crowds. Sandwiched in between is the Iridium jazz club, which occupies a most peculiar place in New York’s live music culture. Allan Holdsworth and Bill Bruford, the gods of British fusion, have played there more than once. Les Paul holds court on Monday nights. Pat Martino, Jacky Terrasson and Wallace Roney all find themselves welcome; so do the Yellowjackets and pop-jazz chanteuse Regina Belle.
But Iridium has also gone where few others dare. It has booked some of the most esteemed and historic figures of the avant-garde, including Henry Threadgill, Cecil Taylor (in both big band and trio settings) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago (as heard on the Pi release Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City: Live at Iridium). Anthony Braxton, quite possibly the most prolific musician of our age but not at all a regular presence in New York jazz clubs, completed his second Iridium stint in early April of this year. For the pioneering but still-marginalized reedman and composer, it’s an ironic close encounter not only with the jazz mainstream, but with the American entertainment complex.