The Stone: An Oral History

Musicians and scenesters recount their experiences at John Zorn's storied NYC venue

Saxophonist John Zorn, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and cellist Ha-Yang Kim collaborate on on of Zorn's Improv Nights at the Stone in February 2008

The downtown scene in New York City has witnessed its fair share of great venues come and go over the years. The latest loss, or change, occurred in March, with the shuttering of the original Stone, an East Village venue launched in 2005 by saxophonist-composer John Zorn. A new Stone has risen at the New School’s attractive Glass Box Theater, at 55 West 13th Street, and it has thus far retained the first venue’s eclectic, experimental and artist-centric focus.

From its beginnings, the Stone was built on a curation model that gave the musicians who performed there free rein. At first a single artist curated a full month; later that shifted to weekly residencies, but musicians were always encouraged to play in a variety of different, often wholly novel contexts. To say that the space was all about the music is an understatement. Not only was there no bar to distract from the music, there were barely any concessions made to comfort or promotion. It was quite simply a black box where boundary-pushing music was made—a space that was easy to walk by without noticing, but one that promised something new and bold to those drawn to the unusual.

We asked several Stone regulars, both musicians and supporters, to share their memories of this one-of-a-kind space. Ever forward-looking, Zorn declined to participate in a story focused on the “good old days.”

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The Community

Tyshawn Sorey (drummer, multi-instrumentalist): Zorn is legendary for his openness and for giving people the chance to do what they do best. [The Stone] was a logical extension of the way that he makes music happen and makes collaborations happen.

Bruce Gallanter (founder, Downtown Music Gallery): The Knitting Factory opened up [in 1987] and for 15 years that was the place to be. Zorn and his buddies played there. After the Knitting Factory changed and went more toward rock and jam-band stuff, Tonic opened up and that became the place to be for about 10 years. Right before Tonic closed in 2006, that’s when Zorn started the Stone.

Theo Bleckmann (vocalist): You’d go to the old Knitting Factory any day of the week and there would be musicians lined up at the bar in the back and crazy music in the front. And that’s why you’d go there—because you have a community, you have a crowd, you have a sense of belonging. That was definitely what the Stone gave us misfits.

Dave Douglas (trumpeter): I always admired John as someone who sees a need in the community and immediately stands up to address it.

Sorey: Very early on, I think it was one of the first months that [the Stone] was open, Misha Mengelberg was curating and invited me to participate in a concert. I showed up to this place with no name on the door, with nothing around. Hardly anyone knew of this place. I remember there being only three to five people in the audience, but that was the beginning of my coming of age. It was a remarkable experience, being a part of something that’s not yet off the ground, and it reshaped how I approached performance in general. As the years went by I felt like the Stone was my home away from home.

Ches Smith (percussionist): It opened a little while after I started coming out to New York from California. I’d already started hearing about it on the West Coast, so when someone I knew had a whole month there I’d end up there a lot, whether I was listening or playing a show. At the time I was crashing with people like Mary Halvorson and Shahzad Ismaily, but when I think back it almost feels like I was crashing at the Stone.

The Vibe

Mary Halvorson (guitarist): The environ­ment at the Stone was so conducive to listening. Nobody was there to drink; everybody was there to sit and listen, so it was a place where you really felt like the audience was with you—which lends itself to experimentation and trying new stuff.

Mary Halvorson (photo by Peter Gannushkin/downtownmusic.net)
Mary Halvorson (photo by Peter Gannushkin/downtownmusic.net)

Erik Friedlander (cellist): It was all about the musicians. There was no bar, no margarita machine slushing around. I’m well aware that it’s no picnic to run a jazz club, but there was something [special] about the Stone, where the artists get every penny of the door. If you packed the house you could actually make money.

Smith: It was a space for people to be creative. It was totally open in terms of style or genre. You could play anything there—even volume-wise; I’ve played really loud shows and super-quiet shows. You never had to worry about a club owner not asking you back because of the music you played.

Bleckmann: There was a special energy in that room at certain times. It was a listening room and people were in it for that hour, no matter what. You can stand on your head or do whatever you want because there isn’t anybody worried about turnout. I’ve been to many concerts at the Stone where there were very few people, and that didn’t make it less exciting or less good. Sometimes it felt like the fewer people there, the more special the offering. I know that sounds a little twisted, but if you go to any other place you’d be like, “Oh, bummer, there’s only three people here. She or he probably won’t be booked again because they didn’t bring in enough people and they’re not selling enough drinks.” That was never the case at the Stone.

The Namesakes

Douglas: The Stone was a significant name. Irving Stone and his wife came to every interesting show on the Lower East Side since before I arrived there. Seeing them in the house was a real honor.

Friedlander: You can’t talk about the Stone without talking about Irving and Stephanie Stone. They were fixtures at Tonic and other places way before the Stone. They were always at gigs, giving rock-solid support. I got to know them and they really were great supporters of John and the whole scene down there.

Gallanter: In the early days there was a place called Studio Henry in the West Village. There was a couple that was there every week who were older than me. I thought they were my parents’ age but it turned out they were older than that, and they were digging the gigs. So I went up to them and said, “Do you really like this music?” And they said, “Yes. We saw Eugene Chadbourne and John Zorn open for David Murray, and we thought what they did was more interesting than what David Murray was doing.” I was stunned. That couple turned out to be Irving and Stephanie Stone. We became friends and they would show up for all the gigs and they were close with all the musicians and would help them out. Zorn remained very close with them for many, many years.

Jen Shyu (vocalist, musician): I was lucky to know the late Stephanie Stone. Irving Stone had passed [in 2003] before I moved to New York City, but I spent some time with Stephanie—a beautiful and sweet woman, so dedicated to music and musicians. I went to her home way out in Brooklyn, and she played and sang for me old songs that she thought I should learn. It is this extreme dedication, this complete abandon to art, that the Stone symbolizes to me.

The… Ambiance?

Bleckmann: I had some of my Upper East Side friends come to one of my concerts. They loved the music, but they also loved the idea of finding this little hole in the wall that’s not designed up to an inch of its life. It felt authentic and real; it had the grit and the dirt that a lot of New York doesn’t have anymore. Whether we feel romantic or nostalgic about sitting in a space that’s too cold or too hot and smells funny and has bright lights, it’s not that; it’s that feeling of discovery and being part of a community.

Friedlander: Because of the proximity to the audience, when you packed it in there you really felt like everybody was there to have an experience. Tourists would come and their minds were blown. Some people couldn’t find it. They’d walk right by because it was under shutters and they’d end up wandering around the East Village.

Sorey: It didn’t feel like some kind of “jazz club.” It was really about the music and nothing else.

Bleckmann: The [artists’] basement always smelled really weird. I remember the smells—the griminess and the smells. The funny thing about the Stone is that it never changed. There were no surprises. I remember they got better air conditioning at some point and that made a big differ­ence—a little wonky machine over the door that you threw on during the breaks. But other than that it was the same bathroom, the same lighting, the same chairs that you slid down on during the show.

Gallanter: The A/C did not work well up until about three years ago. During the summer it was hell, and during the winter the radiator would go on during the middle of the gig and hiss. It would be too hot in one section and too cold in another. Some people would say, “I’m not going to suffer through a gig in 90-degree heat,” but if you were devoted to going you would go.

Halvorson: There were quirks. I remember seeing Secret Chiefs 3 and it was totally sold-out, packed, and it was a sauna. I think I drank three bottles of water during one set alone. But there was something about that that was a really magical experience, too, being in this totally extreme environment hearing this really intense music.

Smith: That was one of my first shows there, with Secret Chiefs 3. I think it was Eyvind Kang’s month. All the sets were completely oversold, and with all those people right up in your face, it was really intense. I was completely soaked after the first song, and then it got completely delirious. Shahzad was with us and he actually can’t sweat; it’s just how he was born. That’s why his skin looks amazing. But you have to watch it. It got to the point where Shahzad started literally overheating, so we had to take a break or play the last tune without him. You’d be talking to him and he’d start not making sense, saying irrational things. That’s when it was time to call it.

Friedlander: We did a Masada String Trio gig there before the air conditioning. It was unbelievable. They had lights onstage that would just be baking you. It was totally packed, people were on the floors, on pillows, and everybody just hung in there. We were drenched in sweat but it was an incredible night of music. It was like an Olympic event.

Bret Sjerven (marketing/publicity manager, Sunnyside Records): The BBC gig that Tim Berne, Jim Black and Nels Cline did was a fucking sauna, but it was incredible. It was just one of those shows where everything came together, and then on top of that you’re about to pass out from heat exhaustion.

The Opportunities

Douglas: Great music developed at the Stone. I personally got to experiment with all sorts of things. Among memories that stand out are performances of Don Cherry’s music with JD Allen, Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille. That was a trip! Also, Blue Buddha, Louie Belogenis’ quartet with me, Bill Laswell and either Tyshawn Sorey or Susie Ibarra. Wonderful nights.

Halvorson: One of the things I really liked was that you’d get these weeklong or month-long [residencies], which gave you a wide-open space to do whatever you want. You were encouraged to do some­thing different every night, and that really makes for an environment where people are inclined to experiment or reach out to musicians they don’t normally work with. It’s a place where I had a lot of first meetings with musicians. The first time I ever played with Marc Ribot was at the Stone, during my residency in 2007. I played duo with drummer Randy Peterson, and with Ben Monder and Liberty Ellman, guitarists I’ve admired for a long time and never got a chance to play with.

Sorey: In 2014 I curated a week there, and I really wanted to put myself in situations where I was collaborating with people who were generations older than I was. I had hung out with Milford Graves, and one of the key things he said to me was that we need to be in situations where younger folks are hanging out with older folks, talking shop. There’s none of that happening anymore; there’s no Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, nothing where younger musicians can come in and perform with these legends and established elders. So I performed in a trio with Dave Burrell and Henry Grimes, and in the same week with Marilyn Crispell and Mark Helias.

Tyshawn Sorey (photo by Peter Gannushkin/downtownmusic.net)
Tyshawn Sorey (photo by Peter Gannushkin/downtownmusic.net)

Gallanter: I lucked out in 2006 because my partner at the time, Manny Maris, asked Zorn if he could have a birthday party at the Stone. Zorn said, “There’s no parties at the Stone because it’s a serious music place, but I’ll give you something better than that: I’ll allow you and Bruce to curate for a month.” The two of us were the only non-musicians who ever curated at the Stone. I picked 25 of my favorite musicians from around the world to play. [It was] a pretty heavy month, including three members of Henry Cow who had not played together in 15 years. I also asked Keith Tippett, my favorite piano player, to play with his quartet. But he wanted too much money so I hired the other three guys: Paul Dunmall on sax, Paul Rogers on bass and Tony Levin, the British drummer.

Bleckmann: The weeklong residency allowed me to workshop the material that became the Elegy record [on ECM]. It’s such a low-key situation, where everybody expects musicians to experiment with all kinds of parameters. It’s more like a living room, where everybody’s sitting around and watching you very closely, than a concert hall. People sat behind you and around you. It’s that idea that we’re right there, part of the process, with these [artists] that travel all around the world playing festivals being right next to you and quite vulnerable—not presenting a big thing that they’ve done for many years but working on the next thing. This is where it starts. As musicians we need a place like that, a space between the rehearsal space and the full monty.

Douglas: For me, the most quintessential events in [my] memory are the Improv Nights. Playing with dozens of musicians over the years, often for the very first time, was always a thrill. A big part of the experience was the camaraderie in the basement/backstage, with John’s sometimes rapier wit—simultaneously loving and welcoming us musicians while also making sure the whole thing wasn’t being taken too damn seriously. I love it. I miss it.

The Memories

Friedlander: I did a gig at the Stone celebrating the release of my Claws & Wings record, which was dedicated to my [late] wife. It was packed, and it was a great experience for me to play that music in celebration of my wife’s life and share it with Sylvie Courvoisier and Ikue Mori.

Shyu: One of my most memorable gigs was with my dear friend Tyshawn Sorey, in 2014. I was grieving the loss of a young friend and the Stone always allowed for that vulnerability and honesty.

Sorey: Each duo encounter that Jen Shyu and I have had keeps growing on this very spiritual, meditative level, to the point where the Stone becomes this shrine or temple. It becomes something other than what people know the Stone to be. It’s no longer about music at that point; it’s more about the inner experience of music rather than outer.

Halvorson: As an audience member, it was a really great listening space. Sometimes you would get these combinations of musicians that are a little unlikely, people you wouldn’t necessarily think to put together. I remember once hearing the trio of Scott Robinson, Henry Grimes and Jeff “Tain” Watts. I had gotten back from Europe that day and was exhausted, but I had to see it. And it was incredible, such a cool combination of musicians.

Bleckmann: I saw a Zeena Parkins solo harp concert there that I loved. She had a residency, and the fact that she could leave her harps and toys set up over the week [made it feel] like she was at home and we were visiting her in her living room. There were so many things set up that you couldn’t set up if you have a one-off gig. It would have been impossible in any other space.

Halvorson: Because of the intimacy of the space, it’s also a really great place for solo shows. Bill Frisell did a bunch of solo shows last summer that were phenomenal, and I remember seeing Jessica Pavone do a solo viola thing there which was amazing. The space was so quiet and so focused.

Friedlander: One night Julian Lage and Gyan Riley played a gorgeous interpretation of the Zorn Bagatelles—so transparent and beautiful. Another night I saw Mark Dresser lead 10 bassists in a few pieces—what a sound! Tremendous! Wayne Horvitz once brought a big band in from Seattle. That was a special night with lots of great colors and terrific compositions.

Sjerven: Craig Taborn curated a month and had a night where they did Junk Magic Light and Dark. It was incredible. I saw Taborn a bunch there, and that’s where I really got into his music. I saw a solo gig of his where there must not have been more than 10 people in the room and I sat practically next to him on the bench. Considering where he is now, 10 years later, that was interesting.

Sorey: Seeing Milford Graves perform there at any time was like an out-of-body experience. I saw him perform there with Bill Laswell and it took me back to the moments I’d spent at Tonic watching John Zorn and Milford Graves performing together. I walked out of there feeling like I didn’t know where I was. Seeing Milford, for me, was a healing ceremony at any venue, but especially at the Stone where everything is so intimate and in-your-face.

Smith: My mom came to town and I took her to the Stone. Whatever you want to call the kind of music I play, she only knows it from coming to my shows. That’s the extent of her interest. But I took her to see Evan Parker and Milford Graves play duo and she actually liked it a lot.

Gallanter: Eugene Chadbourne did a duo gig with [electronic musician] Blevin Blectum. I was there with my fiancée, and in the middle of the gig this gigantic cockroach walked across the floor in between Chadbourne’s legs. It was three or four inches long and the women in the room freaked out and screamed and jumped onto chairs. It was pretty hilarious. Eugene, of course, just made a joke about it, and then I ended up stepping on it. It wouldn’t die, no matter how hard I stepped on it. A CD came out on the Victo label, and you can actually hear the screams in the middle of the CD. But only people who were actually there have any clue what that’s about.

Sjerven: The last time I saw Grachan Moncur was there, and it was a terrible show. I remember him stepping out of the gig halfway through to have a cigarette outside, then he came back and basically hung on my shoulder for a good 20 minutes before finishing up on a Miles Davis modal tune. It was kind of sad. But you’d have these run-ins with a lot of different types of people there.

The Encounters

Sorey: In my last concert there as a leader, during my birthday week in 2017, I played a solo concert. I met André Benjamin [a.k.a. André 3000] of OutKast and learned later that he was interested in doing some-­thing much more experimental than the work he’s been doing, finding new sounds and new approaches to music. We talked about working together but schedules haven’t allowed that to happen yet.

Gallanter: I remember seeing Lou Reed, who played there once and was very close with Zorn. He came to a Laurie Anderson/ Fred Frith gig. It was [late August] but it was a super-hot day, and he died two months later. He didn’t look very good, so I offered him my seat, which he didn’t want, and a drink of water, which he took.

Sjerven: One night at a Peter Blegvad show, I remember turning around and seeing Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson and thinking, “Oh, I must be at the right gig this evening.” At the BBC gig I met Mike Watt from Minutemen. He was a really sweet guy. Generally it’s one of those places where you can see the same people every time you go. That’s kind of a nice thing.

Sorey: I’ve met many great older musicians and artists and poets. Cooper-Moore often used to come to my concerts back when I barely had people show up. He would go to the back section, take out a row of chairs and lie down on the floor, just absorbing all the music that was happening.

The Stone 2.0

Sorey: I felt sad when I learned that the old Stone was closing. I’ve birthed several projects there and musically grew up there, and now it no longer exists. It’s like leaving your home, leaving the place where you grew up.

Halvorson: The Stone has always been a really special place to me, where I’ve heard and played and discovered so much music. It’s really too bad that it’s gone. I’m glad it’s found a new home, but a space is a space. The Stone and Tonic to me are two places that I’ll always miss and I have so many great memories of.

Bleckmann: It’s sad, of course, to lose one of our own. This is so New York. People gripe about something when it’s there—it’s too cold; it’s too hot—but as soon as it’s gone, everybody’s like, “It was the best thing.”

Sorey: It’s a completely different experience from what I’m used to at the old Stone. It’s something that I’ll have to get used to in the years to come. It feels very—I don’t want to say stuffy, but it doesn’t feel like the old Stone in any way. You don’t have that DIY energy there anymore. It doesn’t feel as in-your-face as it once did.

Shyu: John is a force in the community, and it is not just the space, but the whole concept. So now that it has moved to the beautiful space at the New School, it proves the strength of the concept. The old space was, of course, very raw—the freeing vibe and that rawness drove us to do the real thing that we wanted to do, and to listen with heightened ears and more courage.

Bleckmann: The good thing about John is he’s not nostalgic. He reminds me of John Baldessari, the visual artist, who at some point burned all his artwork. [The idea is that] we can’t attach ourselves to this thing for too long. It’s over, and I think there’s something really cool about that. He’s pointing us in a new direction, and maybe it is time for this music to be elevated to a level where it can be appreciated differently than before.

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