This past week in NYC I had some recurring problems with my alto clarinet. Back in the day jazz musicians might have been sleeping off the late night hit but I was out the door at 7am so I could take lady alto to my man Perry Ritter, a long time sax and clarinet repairman who has been holding it down in NYC for over 20 years. I’ve been going to Perry for all of that time, turned on to him by Daniel Carter. I had to leave early so I could open up Michiko studios, THE jazz rehearsal spot in NYC run by another NYC legend, Roberto Romeo. At the top of the stairs at Michiko is the famous framed and signed pictures of sax players that have been to Roberto, who is another legendary sax technician. Stopping and looking at the walls of pictures, you can bask in the history of NYC jazz. It’s one of the last living strongholds of something that more and more feels like it’s under attack. On the way to see Perry, I walked down the late music row on 48th st, which once was an entire block of music stores including Sam Ash where I also worked. Music Row is so completely gone that if you didn’t know it was there you would never know it even existed. Such is the brutal and deeper reality of NYC. NYC doesn’t care if you come or if you leave. NYC doesn’t care if you contribute to any kind of culture while you’re here. You can hustle to survive while you’re here, but NYC will stare at you right in the eye when your hungry.
No food for you.
These tourists however, they have what I need.
Case in point, I personally know street musicians in NYC that survive solely by playing in the street. I know them because they need reeds, and in order to survive I myself I have stood behind counters for countless hours to sell them what they need. At times I myself have been forced to join their ranks to make rent for my cash only room I was renting uptown. To survive in this way you have to be TOUGH. A new level of tough. Sonny Simmons may be the toughest jazz musician of all time. Giuseppi Logan-TOUGH.
I’ve heard the music of all of these people and within it contains an urgency. A sense of honesty, realness, and vulnerability. There’s always a sense that in that moment, these people are feeling very strong emotions. The deeper level of this is that for some musicians, their music is all they have left as a way to survive and live life on their own terms. Their lives and their music have an intimate relationship with what is known as the street. Hustling to survive puts some street in your music. You can hear the street in someone’s sound. There’s a blues edge to everything that comes out. What I often hear is open defiance of NYC itself.
You haven’t taken my life NYC.
What I’m hearing in jazz today is less and less street which for me is something that really lives at the core of what jazz is or was. When Louis Armstrong was asked about the Hot Fives he didn’t talk about the music, his first response was that he was glad to do those records because at the time he really needed the money. That’s the music of someone declaring he exists in the face of adversity. In today’s jazz world you might hear someone making a declaration that they exist, but many of the musicians out there have been elevated to a place far above the street. Maybe some people have had that experience, but some have not. You can hear in someone’s music weather they have some street or not.
So what’s jazz without the street? It can be almost classical, mad technical, and deeply intellectual. Maybe that’s what jazz wants to be. If you don’t have to worry about mundane concerns like food and rent, then maybe everyone just wants to be Beethoven. In this process it’s seems like there’s a growing gap between the haves and have nots in jazz. People that have some street, and those that don’t. If jazz continues to lose the street then it’s going to become something far from what it has always been. I’m still out here hoping for a counter reaction, a restoration of self. By the very nature of jazz it may be impossible.
The end game of the narrative of evolution in jazz may in fact now be in place. The street in jazz would eventually be exorcised. The blues would be gone, no longer necessary. I think there are some musicians that would secretly be happy if the blues were gone. Then they wouldn’t have to be troubled with playing that “simple” music from a deeper part of themselves that they may have never met or may not exist.
As for me, I’ve been on the front line in NYC for 28 years fighting for what I believe in. I’ve had to hustle the entire time. I have evolved as a musician, but no matter how advanced I might get, the street is part of my music. I can’t play without it. Who am I without the street?
After all this time, I truly would love to find out. I turn 48 this Wednesday. Birthdays call for a larger assessment of your life.
I have a few things that I know and have learned.
I’m still trying to be a better person and musician despite NYC and it’s fall from grace.
I’m still dreaming of all the music I would love to make.
I’m not giving up on what I believe in anytime soon.
Wherever I go from here, the street comes with me.
Dedicated to CT