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Jazz in Vermont: Part 1

(originally published in slightly edited form in Wild Matters, April 2001)

by Michael Arnowitt

    Sitting at one of the ceramic tile tables of the Capitol Grounds coffeehouse in Montpelier on a recent bitter-cold Saturday night in February, some friends and I gathered to listen to bassist Ellen Powell and Mike Sucher on keyboard play jazz. I asked the woman at the next table over if she liked the music, and she said she did, but that she had only recently been intrigued by jazz from having seen the Ken Burns TV shows. Before, she said quite firmly, “I never listened to jazz.”

    What is the state of jazz in Vermont? What sort of jazz can you hear live and where can you hear it? Is the jazz scene here better or worse than five years ago? And what can we expect for the future?

    To begin to explore these questions, come take a trip with me up Route 14 to the new Compost Arts Center in Hardwick. This fascinating space, a three-story building located at 39 No. Main Street, was a former factory purchased by Clifford Jackman a few years ago. He is currently working on starting a sister “Compost” on Long Island.

    The arts center is run by about six people as a non-profit, and has a pottery studio, darkroom facilities, a recording studio, visual art on the walls, plus a newly-opened bar, a pool table, and a very large main room with good acoustics that can hold about 200 people.

    Shahnti O’Neill is a native of the Hardwick area and one of the lead organizers of music at the Compost. The arts center started hosting jazz in late January, and expects to have two to four jazz groups per month on the weekends. The Compost has already begun to present a wide diversity of music: salsa (complete with dancing lessons), heavy funk, bluegrass, lounge-groove, Afro-Caribbean, rock-fusion, and classical, as well as jazz of all types.

    O’Neill noted that in the long run, the Compost would likely focus on “whatever music people around here want to hear,” and that in this start-up phase they’re intentionally “throwing out lots of different styles” to see what grabs people. I detect a healthy mix of experimentation and pragmatism in this organization, and predict it will be a notable addition to the Vermont arts landscape.

    The Compost has already presented jazz groups from Vermont such as the Tala Sextet (alto & tenor saxophones, trombone, flugelhorn, and percussion), and in March, look for an appearance of the Vorcza Trio with Rob Morse, Ray Paczkowski and Gabe Jarrett.

    I went up on January 21 to check out the new space. Rob Morse was there on trombone, joined by two musicians from the New York area: Michael Severino on drums and Rich Curkowski on bass.

    Jazz performers are renowned for their informality and this trio exhibited much of the modesty and obliqueness that characterizes jazz at a club. The performers never announced who they were, or what tunes they were playing. (Perhaps the ultimate in obliqueness was literally achieved by Miles Davis at his Vermont performance at the Flynn Theater many years ago: I think he faced the back or the side of the stage for about 2/3 of the show!)

    In fact, jazz at a club or small performance space such as the Compost is often deliberately not a “show.” In many ways, jazz is domestic art and even when done in nominally public spaces can give you the feel that you’re eavesdropping in the musicians’ living room. Yet although jazz performers tend not to speak with the audience, jazz musicians more than those of any other musical genre work out their art on the road, at live performances before human beings rather than in the privacy of practice rooms.

    In these intimate settings, the audience is more involved in the act of creating than they would be going to a classical, rock, or country show which was meticulously rehearsed before the musicians went on tour. Of course, the irony is that the listener feels their attention is least critical in precisely these informal venues where jazz musicians experience their greatest development as artists.

    In my interviews with jazz listeners for this article, I found that for them, a large part of the magic of jazz is the way jazz musicians can follow each other on the fly in the absence of a preordained road map. The trio at the Compost, unrehearsed and deciding on the spot what tune to play next, nevertheless caught this magic. They spun out broad-structured improvisations with some nice detail touches on an eclectic mix of tunes: not just famous ones from the mid-century such as Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” or Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” but reggae tunes and others from non-jazz bands of today. This made a lot of sense to me as the jazz greats of the past also commonly borrowed melodies from non-jazz sources of their day, such as John Coltrane did with “My Favorite Things.”

    Moving further east in the state, St. Johnsbury has two different jazz sessions. At the Northern Lights Bookshop, the Sal DeMaio Quartet performs on Thursday nights from 6-8 pm while the store’s cafe offers dinner. DeMaio, a guitarist, says he’s “not too into the avant-garde,” and that you can expect to hear mostly earlier swing and blues tunes.

    At the Catamount Film and Arts Center, the drummer Peter Ollman has shepherded for about a year jazz performances every other Sunday from 4-6 pm. Ollman taps different musicians for each session from such diverse Vermont locations as Johnson, Burlington, and Brattleboro, along with folks from Boston, where Ollman has participated in jam sessions for many years. Ollman is interested in the great classic jazz tunes of the 1950’s and 1960’s but regards the improvisations at the Catamount as being “fairly open and experimental ... a jam-session feel.”

    You’ll quickly discover that Vermont jazz presenters and listeners divide rather clearly into two advocacy groups. The traditionalists favor the older jazz styles of the first half of the twentieth-century, valued for their melodic beauty, their easy-to-follow forms, and their danceability.

    Chris Francis, the proprietor at Ye Olde England Inne on the Mountain Road in Stowe, which hosts jazz during the winter on Fridays and Saturdays at 9 pm, offers a typical traditionalist comment: “we try to present soft styles; it’s not extreme in any direction.” Michael Bernal of Morrisville, who runs the house band there, talks of “elegant music” and “loves to see the elderly couples dancing to tunes from the 30’s and 40’s.” Bernal, to his credit, plays in other bands offering modern fare, but there is more than a hint in the air that jazz is a historical art that has peaked.

    A second group revels in the new, creative notions of jazz of recent decades their more flexible structures, new instruments and rhythms, and a freer, more uninhibited sense of expression. This second group may be in a minority, but they make a strong case that if the jazz world turns it back on current innovators, jazz will die a museum death. It’s disturbing that for many jazz groups learning a tune written even as far back as the 1970’s (hardly current) is considered something unusual.

    Ollman had some interesting thoughts on the generally small audiences in today’s jazz world (20-40 people come to his biweekly Sunday events): “Jazz is a tough sell up here,” he comments. “It’s a difficult art form,” and he agrees with people like Wynton Marsalis and Joshua Redman that to appreciate jazz, a listener should study it, just as one would to improve appreciation of classical music.

    Yet Ollman parts company with Marsalis, who as the main artistic consultant for Ken Burns’ documentary and the head of jazz programming at Lincoln Center is widely viewed by many interviewed for this article as a strongly conservative force in today’s jazz world. Ollman says, “for him to say jazz must be bluesy and danceable is just wrong. Jazz is much, much more than that.” Ollman found fault with Ken Burns’ trying to cover the last 40 years of jazz evolution in a single 2-hour segment, several parts of which were taken up with further discussion of Louis Armstrong.

    Pete Gershon, the editor of the Burlington-based national magazine Signal to Noise, devoted to creative improvised music of today, had even stronger words of criticism for Marsalis and the Burns series, describing Marsalis’ perspective as “destructive...They’re getting the biggest piece of the pie, and rewarding people who re-hash the past rather than forward-looking musicians.” Signal to Noise, by the way, presents free jazz and other experimental musics at their 416 Pine St. offices in Burlington 2-3 times a month; their latest performers were the percussion duo Toshi Makahara and Sean Meehan on Feb. 24.

    In Central Vermont, there’s a fair amount of jazz in the capital city thanks to a recent growth spurt in spaces that host live acoustic music. At J. Morgan’s restaurant in the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier, there’s jazz every Friday night beginning at 7:30 pm; February performers included George Voland, an outstanding trombonist from Burlington, multi-instrumentalist Glendon Ingalls, Jenni Johnson, and Picture This. The Vermont Jazz Ensemble, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, often performs at J. Morgan’s on the fourth Monday of each month. This 17-piece big band recently recorded a CD which will be released in March or April.

    A new venue for jazz in Montpelier is the popular Capitol Grounds coffeehouse, located at the site of the defeated McDonalds proposal on the corner of State and Elm streets. The proprietor, Bob Watson, who plays blues harp himself, has started a series of “Happenings” on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings featuring Vermont jazz and blues players.

    On February 3, I went to hear Ellen Powell on bass and Mike Sucher on keyboard play some beautiful, poetic sets of standards. During a break, I had a chance to interview Powell about the current state of Vermont jazz. Powell, from Burlington, has been a consistent audience favorite over her twenty years of performing around the state, and her candid comments shed a lot of light on the problems with jazz in Vermont.

    I told her of conversations I had with Pete Gershon, the editor of Signal to Noise magazine. He related how when he first came to Burlington in 1995, there was so much jazz he had to plan his calendar at the beginning of each month. Now, he laments, “we’ve lost Club Toast and the Last Elm; Sneakers stopped doing jazz they had done weekly jazz for years. Rio’s used to have jazz; now they’re gone. Even Metronome has less music, and the Red Square is a noisy meat-market; the stage is right next to the bar ... Burlington really lacks a good listening room.”

    Ellen Powell agreed, “Nobody’s working very much,” she said. “I used to gig in five different venues; now, I just do Leunig’s on Thursday nights, and I’m probably lucky to have a regular gig. I used to make more money by performing than by teaching; now I make more money by teaching than by performing.”

    What happened? Her answer is short and to the point. “Chinese restaurants!”

    I asked her what the prevailing view was of the Discover Jazz Festival among local musicians. She replied that it was her impression that most people felt the festival didn’t help local musicians very much. In the old days, they used to help get musicians into local restaurants; the festival “stopped doing that a few years ago, at least ... now they just do some outdoor Church Street stuff.”

    When asked for comments on the Burlington jazz community, Powell discussed her personal feelings of isolation, remarking that she doesn’t feel like she’s in a jazz community; rather, that she’s “on the periphery” of the jazz scene. Without mentioning any names, she alluded to some tough experiences in the past with people who haven’t liked her playing or generally look down on women musicians.

    And how does she feel about playing in places like coffeehouses and restaurants where most of the people don’t pay much attention to what the musicians are doing? Again, her answer was prompt: “I hate it! You never really get used to it,” although she did laughingly admit that when she does get a chance to play concerts or in other situations where the audience is focused, she gets nervous. “Sometimes I want them to talk and clink glasses!”

    Vermont is home to two major jazz publications. Jazz Improv magazine is an outstanding quarterly published in Grafton and distributed internationally. Each issue contains about 150 pages of interviews with leading jazz stars (fascinating reading), generous excerpts from books about jazz, and other writings. But what really caught my eye were the roughly 75 pages per issue of song charts, solo transcriptions and analyses of improvisations, and how-to columns: in essence, shop talk for musicians, students, and amateurs with enough education to follow along some fairly high-level discussions about the nuts and bolts of jazz.

    Signal to Noise is also a quarterly, devoting itself to improvised and experimental music of today in all genres, not just jazz. Its young editor, Pete Gershon, has created a lively publication with a hip writing style that perhaps parallels what Seven Days aims to do within its context of Vermont newspapers. Signal to Noise conducts first-rate interviews, where among other things, I learned about Charlie Mingus’ having been accidentally locked in a freezer overnight before Timothy Leary’s wedding. Mingus was locked in with the bride’s brother, a jazz fan, and Annette Peacock relates that when they released Charlie the next morning, “Mingus had eaten half the wedding catering and Nena’s brother was still asking questions about jazz...”

    In the next issue of Wild Matters, we'll continue our explorations of jazz activity in Vermont with material drawn from my interviews with the owners of both these magazines, plus coverage of an exciting week-long "Afro-Caribbean Jazz Seminar: Salsa Meets Jazz." This event, featuring the Eddie Palmieri Octet, is being organized by Vermont trombonist Don Glasgo and will take place at Goddard College in Plainfield August 19-26.

    Is the divide in the jazz world between traditionalists and experimentalists growing or narrowing? Much of the interviewing I've done for these columns touches on this issue directly or indirectly. In Part 2, look for more thoughts on "the divide" in an interview with David Budbill, a Wolcott poet who two years ago toured Vermont and New England in collaborative performances with jazz bassist William Parker. Tip of the month: you can catch William Parker as he visits Vermont as part of Bill Cole's "Untempered Ensemble" at FlynnSpace in Burlington on Saturday, March 31; the group also includes Cooper-Moore, Sam Furnace, Joseph Daley, Atticus Cole, and Warren Smith in an evening of jazz based in part on non-Western scales and instruments: music sure to baffle the traditionalists.

    [Michael Arnowitt, a Montpelier pianist, will write on the Vermont music scene - jazz and other musics - for Wild Matters.]