Don’t Hurt the Art
This week, as our nation of laws (regulations) continues to feel more and more like a nation of impulse—and not the Impulse! that producer Bob Thiele created as a forum for the improvised music of non-mainstream communities in America.—I was reminded of the time that the NPR station in Indianapolis, WFYI, decided it was time to revamp its broadcast schedule to reflect the national trend towards heavily weighted classical music, not the non-mainstream community-based programming that its charter (regulations) required. Before the program changes went into effect, jazz was played as much as ten hours a day. After the change, both of the on-air-hosts who programmed jazz were fired and jazz programming was reduced to 4 hours per week. There were protests, complete with signs and placards and letter writing to the press (where both daily newspapers are owned by the Quayle family), making the voice of the non-mainstream community heard. That voice was ignored. This happened in 1990, three years after Congress passed HR 57, which officially designated jazz as a “national treasure.” One might conclude that treasures, like due process, are not meant for those of the non-mainstream communities—no matter the source or the rhetoric.
While I was driving to work in Ossining on Tuesday, I got a call from the owner of my favorite improvised music venue in Brooklyn, Puppets Jazz Bar. Hoping that I was being called to good service of our National Treasure, I pulled the car over and returned the call. After the normal salutary ritual inquiries into the health of each other and our immediate families, the club’s proprietor informed me that, due to financial problems, the club was going to fold that night and would I like to attend the last rites.
So, after the Ossining job (at an extremely nice restaurant, Karma Lounge on 157 Main Street that has just begun a Tuesday jazz series), I drove as fast as regulations allow to get to Park Slope. By the time I arrived (about midnight) the club was about half full and pianist extraordinaire Arturo O’Farrill was playing with his regular bassist, Greg August, Jaime Affoumado (the owner of Puppets) on drums and Jim Seeley of the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra on trumpet. I was invited to sit in, as was pianist Delmar Brown. I did (which led to a revealing philosophical discussion with Greg August about placement of the bass in the “mix”), but Delmar opted to relax and listen.
I’m hoping to interview Jaime next week to get more details about Puppets Jazz Bar, but this week he’s too busy cleaning out the club to talk. I can say, though, that for several years Puppets has been presenting the best in live improvised music in Park Slope, and paying the artists for their work. The likes of Bill Ware, Alex Blake, Delmar Brown, Roseanna Vitro, Tom Lellis, Arturo O’Farrill, Judi Silvano, The Mahavishnu Project (Philadelphia), Ron Carter, John McNeil, Russell Malone, Roberto Poveda, Jim Seeley, Bob Albanese, Andrea Wolper, Ralph Hamperian, George Cables, and Jesse Lynch, just to name a very few, performed there in shifts of three bands a night (two shows and a jam session), seven nights a week. In addition, some days featured poetry and comedy jams as well the regularly scheduled music. The cover charge was tiered, so that one could, very affordably, listen to any or all of the shows. The menu was vegetarian, but you could bring in your own food if you wanted to, or the club would order it for delivery. This was done in a room that was elegantly decorated and clean.
The idea that a venue like Puppets closed is a testament to how little the “mainstream” jazz community tends to its affairs. The powers that have divided the American musical environment into a reflection of its corporate handlers, where a lucky 2% of the artists (and less than 1% of the venues) get 90% of the resources and exposure are not reflecting well on us. If jazz is the national treasure of our country, maybe there should be a national board that oversees the health of the jazz communities around the United States so that when venues like Puppets start to feel the crunch of economical hard times, something can be done to keep them going. As I was told a long time ago during my journeyman days, “It doesn’t matter much what you do to stay alive, as long as it doesn’t hurt the art.” When these venues close, it hurts the art.