An Infectious Case of Jazz Fanaticism

What happens when you take two friends who know little about jazz to a club for a night of totally spontaneous "eek-onk" music? The results can be surprising.

Oh, the joy of being a fanatic. There’s nothing quite so delicious as loving something utterly and then indulging in that thing—scratching your itch, satisfying a craving, surrendering yourself to an obsession.

That’s why I hear some music whenever I make a trip to New York. If you love jazz, then New York is where it’s at: your Mecca, your promised land, your final frontier. (Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, a good chunk of Europe—you are all acknowledged, but only New York has world-class, adventurous jazz, seven nights per week, every week, always.)

The problem with being an over-the-top fanatic, however, is in the sharing.

So when I found myself in New York with a group of teaching colleagues last month, I fretted. I made my plans to head to the late Friday night “Spontaneous Construction” show at The Blue Note, no doubt about that. But I also invited anyone to come with me. I couldn’t very well leave this group of wonderful people for a world famous jazz club and make it known that I didn’t want any company, could I?

Like most folks, I like company. If there’s something better than indulging in a fanatical obsession, then it’s doing the indulging with others who are as passionate as you.

But if there’s one way to ruin such an indulgence, then it’s to sit rapt and mesmerized at a show, only to realize that the friend who came along with you is hating it: checking his watch every two minutes, fidgeting, even visibly irritated by the very thing that is pulsing wonderfully in your own pleasure-center.

We’ve all been there, I assume. A Woody Allen fan can sit in the theater delighted and tickled by what seems inane and indulgent to a non-fan. A baseball nut can find unabashed joy in witnessing a 1-0 shut-out on a cloudy April day while a friend wonders whether the team earns runs by being boring. Opera lovers, fans of modern dance, and advocates of certain exotic cuisines, surely you know of what I write.

So, in inviting my colleagues to the show, I was careful. “After our meal on Friday,” I wrote in an email, “I plan to hear some jazz. Let me know if you’d like to come. It’ll be a late set featuring some wild music. Not exactly Sinatra or Kenny G—but it should be a great!”

Was that exclamation mark a mistake? Did the email sound jerky and patronizing? Will no one come? Or, uh... will everyone come? My quandary just grew.

”Eek-Onk Music”

The show I was intent on seeing that Friday featured drummer Nasheet Waits and tenor saxophonist Joe McPhee. The premise of the “Spontaneous Construction” series is simple: musicians play together for the first time with, one presumes, little rehearsal. The premium is on improvisation. Waits and McPhee were to be joined by the redoubtable bassist John Hebert and a cellist I had never heard of, Marika Hughes. My expectation was that we would hear no composed music at all, just group improvisation. Lullaby music I did not expect.

The series is run by a guy named Adam Schatz who got a sweet write-up by Ben Ratliff in the New York Times last December. Schatz is in his early-20s, a saxophonist but now mainly a guerilla concert promoter who is trying to bring the energy and style of small rock shows to the world of jazz. His non-profit organization, Search & Restore, runs a website that promotes what he considers to be he best jazz shows in New York. His goal for 2011 is to film hundreds of bands so that potential jazz fans can see the music first and then be inspired to check it out live.

Schatz is trying to create a new audience for jazz. He told Ratliff, “Jazz has been so tainted by a pretty self-righteous attitude. It kills any desire for people to go out and discover it.” It’s an intriguing premise, and I one have some sympathy for. While Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center program have done a great deal to institutionalize jazz and give it a cultural center in its most vital city, it is undeniable that all those JALC tuxedos and Wynton’s pronouncements on what is and isn’t jazz have made this gloriously fresh music seem as stale as your grandma’s taste in blue jeans.

On the other hand, will completely free improvisation—what my friend Colleen calls “Eek-Onk Music”—lure in new listeners, folks who might be used to hearing a good verse-chorus pop song? I was about to find out.

Two colleagues take me up on my offer of a trip to The Blue Note. One is a good friend whose taste in music is broad but, in jazz, only includes the kind of soulful, classic sounds that you might associate with Cannonball Adderley. He’s heard some Bad Plus and some Medeski, Martin and Wood, but his musical center of gravity sits somewhere between Sam Cooke and Arcade Fire—a cool place to be, but how comfortable would I be lending him Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, Again?

Photo of John Hebert by Will Layman

My other companion is a woman I don’t know as well. She’s smart, and I’ve never known her to be less than open-minded. But whether it was because she is a suburban mom (making me a little sexist) or whether it was because she is neat-as-a-pin and from the Midwest (making me some kind of East Coast hipster jerk), I felt like I should warn her again. “JoAnne, so, this music, it’s not going to be ‘jazzy’ and smooth. It’ll prob’ly be on the avant-garde side.”

“But you think it will be good?” she asked me right back. And I had to face my own doubts. I really had no idea how good it would be.

“Here’s hoping,” I said. And so at 12:15 the three of us hopped in a cab and sped downtown to The Blue Note.

I hadn’t been to The Blue Note in some time. It’s a famous club with a long history, now franchised in Tokyo and Nagano, Japan, and Milan, Italy. Headliners at The Blue Note are huge names in jazz—either jazz royalty from the past (McCoy Tyner), shiny stars of the present (Joshua Redman, James Carter) or crossover artists like Al Jarreau or, this April, the reunion of The Crusaders.

But for all that glitz, the New York Blue Note is in line for a renovation. As we entered the quiet club at half-past-midnight, it was obvious that the carpet was aching and the walls needed something done. My companions preferred it that way, I think. This was supposed to be a classic jazz club, not an Applebees.

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