New York City ‘s Lower East Side has been home to millions of immigrants and anyone with a little horse sense can guess why: it was close to the docks where the newcomers landed. For many, it functioned as a temporary pit stop before traveling to far flung destinations across the country. For thousands of others, it became a more permanent residence, a reality well-documented by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Germans, Puerto Ricans, Poles, Ukrainians, and most recently Chinese are among the groups which have dominated the neighborhood, not to mention Yiddish speaking, Eastern European Jews. They arrived in a massive wave – over 2 million total – beginning in the early 1880s and their numbers eclipsed those preceding them.
So, the area wasn’t exactly a picture of tranquil homogeneity à la Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. And around every corner, its bustling streets still hold reminders of their rich Jewish heritage. A walk through the neighborhood (only after you’ve carefully tied your sneakers and put on your sweater) might take you past the Eldridge Street Synagogue (between Canal and Forsyth) or the Bialystoker Synagogue (on Bialystoker), both historic houses of worship. The old Daily Forward building still occupies a prominent corner at East Broadway and Canal.
When you’ve wandered enough to work up an appetite, follow your nose to the Essex Street Markets, the 2nd Avenue Deli (at 10th St.), Katz’s Delicatessen (on Houston at Ludlow), or Yonah Shimmel Knishes (on Houston at Forsyth). If you’re obliged to pass over those options, there’s always Streits’ Matzohs (on Rivington). An interest in Kosher wineries will lead you to the 100 year-old Schapiro’s (also on Rivington), which purports to be America’s oldest. And you’ll also want to stop by Tonic , the most important new venue on the avant-garde jazz scene.
No, this is not a game of which-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other. Tonic, like most of the places mentioned above, is a historic Lower East Side commercial site, that of the Kedem Kosher Winery opened in 1937. Kedem vacated the premises back in 1997 and relocated to Brooklyn , leaving behind enormous 2500-gallon casks and other intriguing implements used in wine making. John and Melissa Scott bought the property, eventually transforming it into a haven for Downtown musicians.
Photo courtesy Tonic
The couple were already part owners of an East Village cybercafe called alt.coffee where friend Ted Reichman booked a weekly music series. When Tonic opened in March 1998, Reichman brought his ideas to the new venue. A few months later, John Zorn proposed a week-long “New Music Festival,” an idea which quickly expanded to such proportions that it consumed the whole summer. Imagine Tim Berne , Bobby Previte , Ravi Coltrane , Joe Lovano , Matthew Shipp , and William Parker just being the tip of the iceberg. It was from the festival that the New Music Series was born.
Unlike other venues, the artists themselves continue to program the series under the title of “curator,” doing so for a month at a time. So far, curators have included Reichman, Zorn, Elliott Sharp , Vernon Reid , Arto Lindsay , Dave Douglas , Susie Ibarra , Zeena Parkins , Eugene Chadbourne , Thurston Moore , Misha Mengelberg , and Anthony Coleman. According to Melissa Scott, “This helps keep the music fresh. When a new curator programs the series, they bring new musicians into the club. New musicians bring new audiences.” And the artists, no doubt, love the hands-off policy. Following a break with the Knitting Factory – which most felt held a monopoly on the Downtown music scene thereby enabling it to maintain unfair labor practices – they’ve flocked to Tonic in droves.
Tonic’s other events, including the Sunday Night Songwriter Series and Monday Night Movies have separate curators. Vernon Reid plays host to an open forum, a platform for pontification by attendees on such topics as “Love,” Y2K ,” and “Does History Repeat Itself.” Logically, Tonic supports a klezmer series hosted by David Krakauer on Sunday afternoons.
“Around a year and a half ago, I was walking around the neighborhood – I went down Essex Street past Gus’s Pickles – when I noticed some Jewish tour groups,” remembers Krakauer. “Jews are coming back to this neighborhood to investigate their heritage. It seemed natural to start a klezmer series.” And when he tells people it’s in the Kedem Winery: “They say, ‘Yeah, I remember that place.’ They can relate to it.”
There is no other New York venue which presents klezmer regularly and Tonic’s rise does correspond with an overall resurgence in traditional Jewish culture. It also coincides with an avant-garde jazz movement, an offshoot of the downtown scene, under the heading “Radical Jewish Culture “; its recordings are found mainly on the indie label, Tzadik. Perhaps these circumstances and the unique physical setting have made it a bit easier for the new club to reach people. Of course, there are many dimensions to Tonic and the musicians who play there, but as you traverse the narrow streets, its hard not to think about some of the ways the new kids on the block are indebted to the old.
From America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs
by Lara Pellegrinelli
© 2000 NewMusicBox