I’ve always considered myself a shy admirer of jazz. I played trumpet for seven years, six of those being with a jazz band. Despite my time spent on the genre, which can be considered either a little or a lot based on whom you ask, I never felt that I had a good enough understanding to claim fanaticism or true jazz musicianship. Performing jazz felt wrong in some bizarre way. There was always the question of what sort of soul you have to possess in order to play something that can be considered jazz. I put the trumpet down about two years ago, but my interest never waned. Since I missed the great vibes of jazz music and needed to write a concert report for Music Hum, I decided to head down to Smalls Jazz Club.
Occasionally, the journey is as interesting and influential as the destination. I chose to take the A train, somewhat humorously, though not for comedic purposes, and ended up in the same subway car as frenzied man. This man was African-American, a noteworthy characteristic here, since his speech was focused on the racism he had found in New York City. A black man is as racially discriminated against in the city as he is in the south, or so this man claimed. He generalized, and then spoke to us directly, labeling us all as racists for one reason or another. Fellow passengers shifted in their seats, moving as far away as they could. The subway car was silent except for the strained voice of this man, who only grew angrier in response to the lack of his preferred reaction. They did not even look at him. When the train stopped, most everyone vacated the car.
This shook me up quite a bit, as I’m not from the big city, but rather a suburban area around Columbus, Ohio. The anxiety of the situation stuck with me until I reached Smalls. It was not exactly what I had imagined. I had only read about the venue, as I wanted the visual and auditory experience to be an authentic first impression. I would use the same word — authentic — to describe Smalls. The jazz club looked like a little speakeasy tucked into Greenwich Village. A small blackboard standing outside the door indicated that it would be $20 to see the current set. As a lower-middle class college student paying my own way through school, I hesitated. A man noticed my indecision, came over, and encouraged me to pay the money and enter. He told me that Don Friedman, an amazing and aging pianist, was playing that night, and it would be well worth the money. I took his advice and entered the club.
It felt as authentic inside as it looked from outside. I paid the man waiting just inside the door and then descended down a short set of stairs. The actual venue was tiny by my standards, though rewardingly intimate. The room was low lit, and the walls were covered with mirrors, framed photos, curtains, and tapestries. The floor was crowded with mismatched chairs, which had already been claimed before I arrived. To my right was an expansive bar, and to the left, a bathroom tucked away in a narrow hallway. There was no theatrical stage, but only a section of slightly raised flooring covered with a red carpet, visible upon further inspection during intermission. The place had a vintage, musty quality to it, which only added to the atmosphere of the actual music set.
The Don Friedman Quartet consisted of the man himself on piano, Tim Armacost on tenor saxophone, Harvie S on string bass, and Klemens Marktl on Drums. Though Armacost led on the tenor saxophone with an airy yet warm tone for a great deal of the time, every musician contributed greatly. Don Friedman especially impressed. Though he was usually relegated to the background, his quick licks and improvisation on his given chord progressions stood out for the length of the performance. There were no stands or sheet music, so I cannot accurately say how much was improvised and how much was not, though I’m sure a significant amount of the music was created on the spot.
The quartet musically moved together so intimately that I was astounded by the efficiency of their wordless cooperation. When there weren’t any solos going on, I didn’t even feel the desire to pick out individual instrument voices, since the collective voice was perfectly satisfying. Passing solos around perhaps arbitrarily, each musician had a chance to prove their adeptness, and they certainly did, though they made it sound effortless. Improvisation of solos seemed second nature; unconscious yet highly thought out by some inner natural process. They had soul, mastery, and emotion. I was greatly humbled by their performances. I have never played like this.
I found the style of jazz the quartet played to be smooth rather than punchy, a style I was more accustomed to in my days of jazz trumpet. The melodies weren’t catchy and all that memorable like we commonly hear in current pop music. Instead, the melodies were fluid, flowing from one to another. You may not know exactly where it’s going at the moment, but after you hear the next line, you nod your head and think, “Yes, that’s right.” This may seem to imply a degree of blandness, but this was not the case. Intricate rhythms threaded with syncopation on the part of every quartet member drove the music on and kept the audience members on the edges of their seats. Since I didn’t have a seat, I spent the night swaying to the contours of the music and tapping my foot to the persistently strong beat. Though jazz may not be entirely unique in its ability to enter people’s bodies and fill them up with musical euphoria, it is undoubtedly a frequent culprit.
More than happy to be drawn into this indigo haze of emotionally infused music, I was a bit irritated when a family to my left obnoxiously forced me out. Dressed to the nines, these people managed to be the most inappropriate and rude members of the crowd. They shuffled around, struggling with each other to get the correct, albeit complicated, order conveyed to the bartender. The two adult children of the couple occupied the front of the standing area, though their eyes were occupied with their smart phones as they perused Instagram and Facebook. While they stared at their illuminated screens, others behind them were forced to look at the backs of their tall heads.
The adult children were stereotypical in their behavior, as were the parents. The father shoved another man who was trying to get to the bathroom. His defense was simply that he “had to do it,” since the passing man was in danger of stepping on his expensive shoes. The final straw was the adult son taking a front row seat from a woman who had gotten up to use the bathroom. Now, I’m a firm believer in the “move your feet, lose your seat” rule, but the fact that this young man took a front row seat only to remain on his phone irked me. On some level, I could no longer hear the music, and the show seemed over for me.
Perhaps I was being too hard on these people. They certainly didn’t reflect everyone in the entire venue. I once again had the man from the subway on my mind. Looking around, I realized there was not a single African American in the entire venue. The musicians were all white, and so were all those who paid to see the show. The only African American face in the place was that of a young man in a picture frame behind the musicians. The image displayed this man sitting on the ground with his legs crossed. He wore a woolen suit, a cap, argyle socks, and a wide, toothy smile. I only later found out that this was no random young man, but was Louis Armstrong during his first tour of Europe in 1933.
Appropriation is a difficult topic to tackle, especially in art and expression. We have Miley Cyrus with her dreadlocks and twerking, Iggy Azalea with her arguably faux-accented rapping, and countless other examples, some more recent and obvious than others. Columbia is no stranger to this, as the school has employed black rappers two years in a row to entertain their predominantly privileged masses. It is common knowledge, or should be, that jazz is an African-American art form. It is a beautiful creation that managed to arise from African ancestry and the black struggle in America. Yet now when you attend one of the most critically acclaimed jazz clubs in New York City, you might find only white faces.
The jazz tradition was undoubtedly appropriated, but how good or bad this is seems impossible to judge. Though the musicians were all white, I’m confident that they had the right kind of souls to be playing what they played and were doing the music justice. I have the utmost respect for them and other jazz musicians of their caliber.
Does everyone in the audience being of a lighter skin complexion and different background mean that we did not have the right or ability to truly enjoy the music? Surely not, but I still think back to the man on the subway, indignantly going to another destination, while I attended a performance based on his very heritage. I can’t help but feel that I’ve stolen something from him that he desperately needed. I am not making a statement, but rather asking a question needing to be discussed: Where do we draw the line?