Jazz greats, artists make a play for new L.E.S. venue

Organizer Patricia Parker, right, who is spearheading the drive for the Under_Line venue, with poet and longtime friend Amina Baraka.

Organizer Patricia Parker, right, who is spearheading the drive for the Under_Line venue, with poet and longtime friend Amina Baraka.

Dueling bassists, Christian McBride, left, and William Parker.

Dueling bassists, Christian McBride, left, and William Parker.

Jazz pianist Connie Crothers with artist Jeff Schlanger, who has been painting jazz musicians live for the last 37 years. He designed the flier and art for the Under_Line launch. 

Jazz pianist Connie Crothers with artist Jeff Schlanger, who has been painting jazz musicians live for the last 37 years. He designed the flier and art for the Under_Line launch.

Free jazz pioneer Milford Graves played a way-out set with post-bop saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Free jazz pioneer Milford Graves played a way-out set with post-bop saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Composer and instrument builder Cooper-Moore, diggin’ deep on drums. 

Composer and instrument builder Cooper-Moore, diggin’ deep on drums.

Photos by Sarah FergusonDJ Spooky, with iPad: “Everybody is moving out to Brooklyn. Yo, this is Manhattan! We have to do something about this!”

Photos by Sarah Ferguson
DJ Spooky, with iPad: “Everybody is moving out to Brooklyn. Yo, this is Manhattan! We have to do something about this!”

Poet Amiri Baraka scatted with sound artist Myia Masaoka.

Poet Amiri Baraka scatted with sound artist Myia Masaoka.

 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.

Legendary dancer and choreographer Yoshiko Chuma stunned the house with an improv set that was both militant and funny.

Legendary dancer and choreographer Yoshiko Chuma stunned the house with an improv set that was both militant and funny.

“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?”

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5 Responses to Jazz greats, artists make a play for new L.E.S. venue

  1. A few clarifications:

    1) We're not "accepting proposals" for adaptive re-use of the basement and ground floor. I try to be extremely clear that whatever architects we hire will do some kind of community outreach, probably "town halls," where they explain what HAS TO be done, given code compliance issues and a tight budget, and will invite community members to discus what they would LIKE TO see the spaces ultimately used for.

    2) We don't use "CSV" any more as it erases the Puerto Rican identity of the person it was named after and the founders' intentions, doesn't communicate anything, and is often confused with CVS. We say "The Clemente."

    3) Patricia's mention of being in a former bathroom (1 of her 2 spaces) is a little surprising as her application for an appropriate space is in, and is a high priorirty. Again, when the architects are in place–hopefully, end of January–they can help us analyze optimal space utilization.

    Otherwise, impressive article about the quality of program Patricia can put together. Tx! Soon there will be articles where no mention of that old long-dead struggle will appear.

    Hope you enjoy great holidays.

    Jan Hanvik
    Executive Director
    Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center

  2. The important thing to keep in mind is the need for arts for arts to be successful in this mission. when you think of the lower east side and jazz you think wow-charlie parker use to live in this neighborhood–mingus use to walk these streets–sun ra use to play regularly on 3rd street. The great history this neighborhood has contributed to in jazz history-actually american history is in danger of extinction. Thank goodness that arts for arts is trying to create a situation where the praxis and spirit of one of our greatest cultural gifts is being keep alive.

  3. William Parker

    The Underline that took place on December 4th was a great event it brought people together and raised consciousness about the importance and need for Creative Music to have a permanent home on the Lower East Side. This is an ideal opportunity for those who have any say in what happens in the community to do the right thing. Lets hope it happens.

  4. Music is the voice and soul of a community. The Underline was a great event, exemplifying the vitality and diversity Patricia Parker and Arts for Art will bring to the Clemente once they have a space. With a theater, rehearsal studios and offices in the basement of Clemente, Arts for Art would create a unique and international mecca of creativity. As further proof, look to the Arts for Art Vision Festival, an award-winning jazz festival that is revered all over the world. A big thanks to Jan Hanvik, for leading the Clemente into the future. I hope he will help Arts for Art to achieve this community dream of having a creative music center on the Lower East Side.

  5. The one thing you can count on in just about every community, there will always been some kind of music or band playing at the street festivals. I totally agree with you the music is the soul of the community.

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