An Underground Jazz Renaissance
It’s just past 3 a.m. on a mid-May Monday and a crowd of 45 or so hardy souls is packed into the basement at Smalls, the skinny Greenwich Village haunt on West 10th. The trash haulers will be out soon, the Times and Daily News delivery trucks, too; sidewalk grates coughing up pre-dawn steam clouds. Between tunes, pianists, horn players and singers come and go, an interchange of analog talent, many of them not yet 21.
It’s a scene that played out on a nightly basis back in the ‘40s or ‘50s, when New York’s jazz scene flourished in below-street-level locales across Harlem, Midtown and Lower Manhattan. You could find Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis or Billie Holiday or Thelonious Monk plying their craft at Birdland, 3 Deuces, The Onyx, Club Carousel, Jimmy Ryan’s, lines snaking out the door.
Only it’s 2019 and jazz is reportedly dead.
Despite the postmortem, despite this SoundCloud/Spotify world of digitally-streamed trap and emo and pop in which we now exist, jazz is quietly enjoying an underground renaissance (literally), one that is playing out in subterranean venues like Smalls, where students are admitted for a nominal cover charge of $10 and, according to the club’s website, “Angels, Wizards and Holy People are always free.”
What’s particularly intriguing about this revival is that it’s been enkindled by a young demographic of teens and twenty-somethings who are going against the grain. It’s the likes of Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky and Cardi B who rule the day, right? Not the modal explorations of Bill Evans, the improvisational scat of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. But the gulf between isn’t as wide as some might think.
“It’s surprising that I ever got into jazz,” said Jennifer Barnnett, a 19-year-old singer from East Lansing, Mich. “My high school was hardcore choral music and that was it. My parents didn’t really immerse me into jazz.”
Barnnett, a jazz voice major at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, says it wasn’t until she heard the contralto pop stylings of the late Amy Winehouse that she truly began to delve into the genre.
“I started listening to who she was listening to,” Barnnett explained. “She was into all the oldies, like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan. Without her, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. A lot of what I listen to now — I didn’t like it at first. It was an acquired taste. I got so used to music that was easy. You could understand it right then and there. Jazz is so different. You have to spend the time to listen to it. You have to understand it and then fall in love with it.”
Smalls is just one of the spots where jazz — in its many forms, from bebop to electrified fusion — is finding a new audience. There’s Mezzrow nearby on West 10th, 55 Bar and Fat Cat on Christopher Street in the West Village, Zinc Bar below Washington Square Park, Jules on St. Mark’s Place near Tompkins Square, the Glass Box Theater off Union Square, and Smoke uptown on Broadway between 105th and 106th.
Jazz is on the upswing, too, 3,000 miles away in the Bay Area. San Francisco’s Fillmore District, once California’s jazz epicenter (the neighborhood was known as “Harlem of the West” and frequented by John Coltrane, Chet Baker and so many others), has pushed for revitalization in recent years, though it hasn’t always been easy. Yoshi’s, which has found success on the other side of the bay in Oakland’s Jack London Square, saw its San Francisco location shuttered in 2014. (A combo jazz hall/supper club, it may have been priced out of one of the nation’s most unforgiving commercial/residential real estate markets.) But some of the smaller venues operating on more of a grassroots level are seeing an uptick at the door, especially those that feature all-ages jam sessions.
“People who listen to jazz — they live in a similar way to which jazz is presented,” said Barnnett. “You want to stay up until these jams at Smalls happen, and that’s usually at midnight. You go every night because jazz is always changing. It’s how you live life. You’re going through changes all the time. That’s kind of cathartic. I think that’s why a lot of us are so drawn to the scene.”
There’s no cover charge at the Ethiopian-infused Sheba Piano Lounge on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, where on a recent Wednesday evening the gifted vibraphonist Sebastian Alexander Johnson was putting a quartet through its paces. A gathering of young jazz aficionados was soaking in the moment in the intimate, candle-lit den not far from where Jimbo’s Bop City, Leola King’s Bird Cage, Shelton’s Blue Mirror and Jack’s of Sutter thrived in the post-WWII years. When did jazz out-hip the hipster?
Like Barnnett, Johnson, 19, was an unlikely jazz convert. He’s the son of bigger-than-life Olympic legend Michael Johnson, the four-time gold medalist and former world record-holder whose gilded Nikes and athletic exploits flashed across our TV screens during the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Summer Games. He remains the only man to win both the 200 and 400 sprints at the same Olympics (’96 Atlanta).
“My mom was really into jazz,” said Johnson, who was raised in San Rafael, Calif., and now attends the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. “My mom got it from her mom. It was always around me. She took me to shows a lot. I took drum lessons from kindergarten through eighth grade, but it wasn’t necessarily my passion.”
It wasn’t until Sebastian’s mother took a job with SF Jazz, which oversees the San Francisco Jazz Festival and the transcendent SF Jazz Center, that he really caught the bug. Though fencing was his sport in high school, he eventually put down the épée in favor of the vibes, an instrument he took up chiefly because it was the only one that hadn’t already been claimed by his classmates. When he was first exposed to practitioners like Bobby Hutcherson, Lionel Hampton, Stefon Harris and Warren Wolf, he knew he was on to something, that the vibraphone could hold its own against any electric guitar or DJ software.
“When you see those people, the vibraphone becomes the coolest thing you’ve ever seen,” he said.
There’s a certain physicality to Johnson’s playing style, as if he’s fully committing himself to the instrument. If it’s a late-night/early-morning jam session on the East or West Coast, the Californian says he feeds off the energy of the crowd, as well as the high-caliber musicians who sometimes join him on stage. Before his untimely death last November at the age of 49, Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Roy Hargrove was a regular at Smalls in Manhattan.
“The first night I ever went to Smalls, I looked up and saw Roy,” Johnson recalled. “I came back again the next night. I got the vibes out and took a solo. I heard a trumpet and looked up; it was Roy Hargrove staring at me. I was probably the worst musician there, and here he was playing with me. It was crazy. That’s a big appeal. As a musician, you can get a lot of mentorship. A lot of people come through there to carry on the jazz tradition.”
“For most people who move to New York, it’s their first time being able to see so many people their same age who are fully interested in jazz in the same way,” he added.
In truth, Smalls has long been a hangout for young musicians to come and be among like-minded contemporaries. That’s been the club’s MO since it first opened in 1994. Its jams start around midnight, 1 a.m. every night of the week. But the audiences for these sessions are beginning to trend younger, too.
“The jazz scene in New York is very strong right now,” said Spike Wilner, 53, himself a jazz pianist who has owned/managed Smalls since 2007. “People don’t realize it because it’s so underground. It’s quite vibrant and self-renewing. It’s alive. Everyone who says jazz is dead just doesn’t know where to look. You have to be in it to know what’s going on.”
“It’s an unbroken tradition over the last 100-plus years,” he continued. “It may be the only thing we have left in the United States, culturally, that has not yet stopped from the time of its conception to today. You can trace the lineage from Fats Waller to Bud Powell to Herbie Hancock to Brad Mehldau — any of the young guys. It’s an unbroken chain of musicians learning and growing in the same way. The audiences that come to seek it out, to observe, they’re all very well informed and passionate about it. They come from everywhere in the world.”
Back at Sheba’s on Fillmore, Johnson has wrapped up his set and is making the rounds, mingling with patrons, greeting friends. A young woman, cell phone raised, revolves 360 degrees for a panoramic, trying to capture the moment. It’s fleeting, after all. Tomorrow night will be different.