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BY SARAH FERGUSON | On Dec. 4, more than 30 leading jazz, performance and visual artists threw down at a benefit to launch a new venue for improvisational music on the Lower East Side. Didn’t hear about it? Let me run down some names: DJ Spooky, William Parker, John Zorn, Henry Grimes, Joe Lovano, Roy Campbell, Christian McBride, Charles Gayle, Yoshiko Chuma, Billy Martin, Amira Baraka, Marshall Allen and hip-hop star John Forte, formerly of Fugees fame.
All these folks and then some came out to the Angel Orensanz Center on Norfolk St. to jump-start The Under_Line, a still-in-the-vision-stages scheme to create a permanent space for such mind-bending collaborations to occur on a regular basis. Their aim is to land a spot in the still raw basement of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center on Suffolk St.
“It’s very frustrating not having a venue for what you do,” explained Patricia Parker, a dancer/choreographer and founder of the annual Vision Festival, an internationally renowned event that has showcased avant-jazz, poetry and dance in New York City for the last 17 years.
“I’ve had an office at C.S.V. for nearly a decade — it’s tiny, a former bathroom. I can’t do anything in it,” said Parker, who is also executive director of Arts for Art, a nonprofit group that supports experimental and emerging artists.
Now, with the city dropping millions to bring C.S.V. — a former elementary school turned public arts space — up to code, Parker wants to make sure she has a stake in the action.
“Music can’t survive on the Lower East Side by paying market rate,” observed Parker, who first floated her plan for an experimental music venue in 1997, after the closing of Tonic on Norfolk St.
Back then, she and guitarist Marc Ribot and actress/musician Rebecca Moore went to City Hall to demand that the city recognize the great cultural capital being squandered, and provide artists with an alternative, affordable space. But when the economy collapsed in 2008, their campaign stalled.
Now Parker is reviving her dream. While arts spaces are still dropping like flies, a 2009 court settlement put to rest the incessant infighting at C.S.V. that had kept City Hall wary of investing in the dilapidated building. Since then, the city has released more than $11 million to finance a new heating system, roof and windows and the replacement of nearly 1,000 ornate terra-cotta elements adorning the exterior.
C.S.V. is now accepting proposals for how to revamp the interior, the fate of which is still up for grabs.
“Patricia is welcome to attend any of the town meetings that we’ll be having so people can submit ideas,” said C.S.V. Director Jan Hanvik. But his first priority is getting C.S.V. up to code: adding exits, wheelchair ramps and an elevator, and more bathrooms.
“I’d say we’re a good four years away from leasing out the basement to anyone,” Hanvik said.
That doesn’t deter Parker.
“This is about making me a viable candidate for the space,” she said of The Under-Line campaign. “To make anything like this real, you need to build support — from politicians and the public, and also from the artists who will reap the benefits of the space.”
For the artists, it’s not just about another venue to perform.
“We need a place for rehearsals and for musicians to meet and practice and deal with all the daily things that go into keeping a musical lifestyle together,” pianist Matthew Shipp told the audience at Angel Orensanz, which included many veteran artists and family members. “We need all the help we can get,” Shipp said, “because these times don’t make it easy for anyone not doing corporate work.”
DJ Spooky cut to the chase: “Everybody’s moving out to Brooklyn. Yo, this is Manhattan! We have to do something about this!”
While Spooky does not lack for venues — he is currently doing a yearlong residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — he built his name as a DJ while living on the Lower East Side in the 1990s.
“My old studio was a junkyard at Second and B called The Gas Station,” he recalled. “Most of my parties and events used to happen in a five-block radius of this place.
“There are so many heroes in this room. I’m just honored to be here,” Spooky added before launching into a pair of compositions based on custom iPad apps and recordings he took of the ice shelves melting in Antarctica.
Other highlights included a free-form jam with William Parker and Christian McBride on bass, Charles Gayle and Hamiet Bluiett blowing sax, Jason Kao Hwang on violin, and composer/instrument builder Cooper-Moore keeping crazy time on lap drum and snare.
It was a flurry of raw talent and ideas from artists who have been working it out together for years. It was the kind of tightly woven improv you get from artists so accustomed to riffing together, they can travel through each other’s notes and take you along for the ride. One could hear echoes of Soho loft parties and old L.E.S. jazz haunts from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s bouncing off Angel Orensanz’s soaring walls, which were lit up in pastel hues like a Matisse.
“There’s a real renaissance going on right now of improvisational music,” noted jazz pianist Connie Crothers. “There’s thrilling music going on right now. It just needs to be heard. I think if we could create such a venue as The Under_Line — run by and for the artists themselves — there would be a huge burst of musical creativity.
“This works,” Crothers added of the stunning music that filled the hall. “It’s just that people don’t know about it.”
In fact for the Under_Line to succeed, Parker and her backers will have to do a lot more promoting. Turnout for the event was good but sparse given the depth of talent on the bill. And even some performers weren’t clear on what they were there for.
“I came out not knowing much about what this event was about,” confessed Grammy-nominated hip-hop star John Forte, who performed a reggae-influenced set with his band. “When they asked, I said sure. But I didn’t know the gravity of what this was until I showed up.”
Poet Amiri Baraka, who closed the night with a surprise spoken-word set, was concise when asked why a space like The Under_Line is needed:
“So we can be humans,” Baraka responded. “How can there be humanity when there is so little art?”