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The Scene: New Ghosts in Cleveland

A seven-year-old triumvirate of live presenters is supporting local freedom, Albert Ayler-style

Nate Wooley, Paul Lytton, Ken Vandermark
Left to right: Nate Wooley, Paul Lytton, and Ken Vandermark at the Bop Stop in Cleveland (photo: Matt Laferty/New Ghosts)

“We like to bring music to Cleveland in the spirit of the great and incredible and wonderful Albert Ayler. Let’s get a round of applause for all he stands for!” As those words rang from the stage of the Bop Stop, a jazz club on the near-West Side of Cleveland, Ohio, the audience packing the house let out cheers. They were celebrating not only Ayler, the Cleveland-born saxophonist and free-jazz pioneer, but also the night of music to come—a double bill of two fearsome trios, Vandermark-Lytton-Wooley and Ballister—and the fact that such a night could exist after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The master of ceremonies was Matt Laferty, one of the co-founders of New Ghosts, a Cleveland organization dedicated to presenting creative music in the Aylerian spirit. Laferty has been presenting shows in the city for 12 years, and under the banner of New Ghosts with fellow co-founders Tom Orange and Andy Auten since 2015.

That late-April night at the Bop Stop was a particularly triumphant moment for New Ghosts. The first cancellation they’d had to make at the pandemic’s outset was a Vandermark-Lytton-Wooley show, part of a three-night run in mid-March 2020 coinciding with the organization’s fifth anniversary. Ballister, meanwhile, had been the first group Laferty presented live, in 2010. “I drove to Cincinnati to see The Thing,” he recalls. “I was joking around with [Ballister drummer] Paal [Nilssen-Love] and [multi-instrumentalist and frequent Thing member] Joe [McPhee] after the show that I had driven four hours to see them. They said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because you weren’t playing in Cleveland.’ Either Joe or Paal said, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ I heard the call to action. Things lit up and I said, ‘Okay, I guess I’m going to do something about it.’ So I gave my email to Paal and Ballister went on tour a couple of months later and I figured something out.”

Hosted at a venue called Now That’s Class, which Laferty describes as the “most punk of punk clubs,” that first show set a policy in place that New Ghosts follows to this day: a promise that, even if there is no audience, the bands presented will be sure to receive an agreed-upon amount of money and lodging at Laferty’s house in Cleveland Heights. “These are people who make art that is worthy of the greatest respect,” Laferty says. “They make art that speaks to their own personal visions of the world, and it’s hard to get people to pay attention to those kinds of personal visions. My goal is to give them a comfortable, reliable place to make their art happen and to take away some of the risk of being a creative musician in this world—just for a night, anyway.”

New Ghosts, whose official first presentation in 2015 was a duo between explosive free pianist Marilyn Crispell and revered Cleveland drummer Carmen Castaldi (they’d go on to form a trio with another Clevelander, Joe Lovano, putting out respected records in 2019 and 2021), never produces its own shows; instead it acts as a beacon for existing tours. “I’ve never called or emailed anybody and said, ‘Hey, do you want to come play a show?’” Laferty explains. “I say, ‘If you’re on tour and it’s useful, hit us up.’”

It’s often very useful indeed; Cleveland can be a convenient stop for touring musicians and a possible linchpin for tours coming and going to the East Coast. “When I was coming up, we would take the drive either out to Chicago and back through the South or vice versa, and Cleveland was always kind of the question mark,” trumpeter Nate Wooley remarked at Rising Star Coffee before his Bop Stop trio show with saxophonist Ken Vandermark and drummer Paul Lytton. “So when I heard about New Ghosts, that was a big thing. … It’s great to know that there’s a solid, fun gig in Cleveland after all those years of playing dance studios or just skipping it all together.”

“My goal is to take away some of the risk of being a creative musician in this world—just for a night, anyway.” –New Ghosts’ Matt Laferty

“I think Matt and New Ghosts have done an amazing job connecting the history of the music with the people playing the music now,” Vandermark added. “You have to have an audience as a foundation, because you can’t program a show like this in a city where no one is there to hear it. Matt’s cultivated the audience, and they’ve been smart about it.”

Part of that audience is baked into the Bop Stop, thanks to the programming ideas of director Gabe Pollack, who took the club over back in 2014; it had been privately owned up until 2010, when its previous owners donated it to the Music Settlement, a Cleveland-area music school. “The experimental side has become part of our identity,” Pollack notes. “Those shows do well.” New Ghosts co-founder Tom Orange, a musician in his own right, now hosts the monthly Outlab “genre-less” free jam session at the Bop Stop every month, and the audiences there tend to overlap with those at New Ghosts shows.

While the Bop Stop, a large, semi-circular room with plenty of space between tables and stunning views of the sunset over Lake Erie, is the first call for most New Ghosts events, the organization also presents at other places around town: the Beachland Ballroom, the 1920s-themed Mahall’s, and even Laferty’s own living room on occasion.

New Ghosts presented three shows a month on average in pre-pandemic times, averaging 40-50 concerts a year, but the organization has been operating at a slower pace since live music crept back into being last summer. Their first post-pandemic engagement at the Bop Stop, presenting the trio of Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara and Taylor Ho Bynum, nearly sold the room out. Nine shows have followed, as Laferty has tried to feel out how the pandemic has affected the live-music business: “I can’t predict anything anymore,” he acknowledges.

Laferty’s goal is to continue as a live presenter, while working to physically cement some important pieces of Cleveland’s jazz history. “I’d like us to do something to establish some kind of physical marker to Albert Ayler in the city,” he says candidly. “I don’t know how to do that, it’s not my skill set, but he’s important and it would make me feel good to help that happen. Second thing, I believe his brother Donald has an unmarked grave still; I would like to see that remedied before I’m done thinking about that family and their contribution to the music. And, for the foreseeable future, I plan to help people have shows that are worthy of their art.”

Jackson Sinnenberg

Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C. He serves as an editor for Capitalbop, a non-profit that focuses on presenting live jazz and covering the D.C. jazz scene through grassroots journalism. He’s covered the city’s local jazz scene since 2015 but has covered national and international jazz, rock and pop artists for a variety of publications. He graduated from Georgetown in 2015 with a degree in American Musical Culture and will gladly argue why Kendrick Lamar is a jazz musician. Follow him @sinnenbergmusic.