Running a music venue was never one of Jimmy Greenfield’s life goals. A sculptor by trade, the 67-year-old Greenfield has had a long and deep interest in music for sure, as a fan, sometime player, and brother of saxophonist Hayes Greenfield. But setting up a performance room night after night and booking talent for it? No way. However, over the past three years, his Soapbox Gallery on the edge of Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood has become a go-to spot for jazz musicians. And although it might seem counterintuitive at first, the COVID pandemic has played a beneficial role, as Greenfield quickly took advantage of his realization that live streaming could raise the venue’s visibility.
“It all feels like such an accident,” he says, “but I love it. I really love it. All of a sudden, this whole other world has opened up. I spent my life as a carpenter and a sculptor, so I spent an enormous amount of time alone. To be doing something like this, where the whole point of it is to embrace everybody who wants to be part of it, is amazing for me.”
The story of Soapbox Gallery begins with a building on Dean Street in Brooklyn that went into foreclosure in 1996. Greenfield bought the whole thing on a credit card and converted it into his sculpture studio. After more than a decade, he moved his workspace elsewhere but hung onto the building, using it for storage. Then, in 2014, he allowed Brooklyn Raga Massive, a local collective devoted to Indian classical music, to hold a private event there. By the end of that night, lightbulbs had gone off in Greenfield’s head. “I got this taste of what it was like to transform what had been my studio into this intimate musical space,” he recalls. “And I realized I really want to make this place something; I didn’t want to just rent it out.”
More than two years of renovation and paperwork followed. Presciently, Greenfield invested in infrastructure for video and audio streaming; he envisioned the space as a community center and knew that “75 people [its official capacity] could never change the world.” In 2018, a pristine 20-year-old Yamaha C7 grand piano became part of the backline, and Soapbox Gallery soon gained a reputation among pianists thanks to a 2019 workshop series, “Piano Hangs,” curated by David Berkman (only one of many examples of Soapbox’s astute programming; another is the “Couples in Harmony” series, which presents real-life couples, some of whom have never collaborated musically in public before).
COVID’s arrival could have silenced the Soapbox just as it was gathering steam. But instead, a seamless transition to the internet boosted its reach. Greenfield streamed a live performance almost every night from the gallery through the height of the pandemic. The one problem? “It was generally just me in the audience, clapping enthusiastically out of embarrassment.”
These days, that situation’s much improved, though attendance remains capped at 50 and masks are still required (live streaming continues as well). The quality of the bookings continues to rise—Joanne Brackeen was among the recent performers—and the future looks bright. It all reminds Greenfield a little of the SoHo loft-jazz scene in the ’70s: “Those were golden years when the music was part of the community and it was really nourishing. What’s cool now is that the community can go beyond just the physical space you’re in. The music erases everybody’s sense of otherness. There’s an excitement now, a sense of rebirth.”
Soapbox Gallery is located at 636 Dean St., Brooklyn, NY 11238; phone (516) 559-5099
Full capacity is approximately 75 people but the space is currently limited to 50 due to COVID restrictions (masks required)
Performers scheduled for June 2022 include the Kate McGarry & Keith Ganz Quartet (June 3), the Cecil McBee Quartet (June 4), Kenge Kenge, Markus Rutz Music Works Trio, the Lizzie Thomas Trio, and the Ben Allison Quartet. On June 17 and 18, Lafayette Harris will play two shows in conjunction with the opening of an exhibition of new sculptures by Jimmy Greenfield (the sculptures will be on view from June 15 to Aug. 20).
Go to soapboxgallery.org for the complete schedule.