Boston: The Lily Pad Leaps In

Julia Werntz
Julia Werntz
Photo by Michele Macrakis

Music and art are parting ways in Inman Square, Cambridge. The Zeitgeist Gallery, an art gallery that also has become the Boston area’s best-known venue for cutting-edge improvised music, is picking up its paint brushes and moving to a new location on the other end of Inman Square, at 186 Hampshire Street. In its place, at 1353 Cambridge Street, the music will continue… On March 1, Gill Aharon—pianist, former Zeitgeist music co-director, and owner of the building—will open a primarily-music venue named The Lily Pad. Gill promises that the music programming will remain the same, programming he characterizes as “genre independent” but favoring people who take musical risks, and who, because of this, cannot play at other area venues (e.g. the posh, mainstream Regattabar in Harvard Square).

For musicians, the catch when booking gigs at the Zeitgeist has always been that they must rent the space, and then count on ticket sales to earn them back their money and, hopefully, respectable proceeds on top of it. This system will continue at The Lily Pad, though at new rates reduced by twenty percent. Some musicians, understandably, refuse on principle to pay rent for their performances. But Aharon plans to pay the mortgage and bills and keep the place open in this manner, rather than engaging in the formidable, distracting, and high-risk gamble of selling drinks or food along with the music. The risk is thus shifted to the musicians, who may potentially lose money if audience turnout is very low.

But Boston, strangely, possesses a very large number of innovative musicians (and appreciative listeners), while starving them for places to play (a subject I plan to further explore for my next Radar entry). For pianists, the situation is especially dire, since pianos are almost impossible to come by—and Aharon supplies a decent Kawai grand. Because of this, many musicians here are willing to take this moderate financial risk in exchange for the security of knowing this venue will remain open for them to take their musical risks. In addition, with the gallery gone, Aharon will be free during daytime hours to rent the very attractive and centrally located storefront space for classes of various sorts (music, martial arts, dance, etc.), thereby generating more income while serving the community.

Meanwhile, in his new, smaller space around the corner, Zeitgeist co-founder and director Alan Nidle plans to expand the scope of his gallery, focusing more on the work of local visual artists, while remaining open to the occasional performance-art and singer/songwriter type of concert. He also has his eye on a second, even larger space in East Cambridge. While money matters may be driving the split, my personal impression is also that both the art and the music of the Zeitgeist have grown in quality and seriousness to the point that each discipline now needs its own space.

The March 1 grand opening of The Lily Pad will be celebrated with 8pm performances by the Gill Aharon Sextet and Bar Rot, and, this being a Wednesday night, at 11pm “Gill’s Wednesday Night Jam,” (a years-old “jam invitational with the house band and guests”) will be able to continue, uninterrupted.

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Composer Julia Werntz lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, jazz pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, and their daughter Anna. Since the mid ’90s her music, mostly chamber pieces, has been almost exclusively microtonal. Her music has been performed around the Northeastern United States and Europe, and may be heard, together with works by composer John Mallia, on the CD All In Your Mind (Capstone Records). She currently teaches music theory as an adjunct faculty member at universities in the Boston area, and also is Director of the Boston Microtonal Society, together with her former teacher and BMS President, composer and jazz saxophonist Joseph Maneri.