Uptown, Downtown, All Around the Town

Uptown and Downtown are about to merge.

Back in the old days, say, from the mid ‘70s through the late ‘90s, the New York jazz world was engulfed in a Culture War. The scrimmage line was around Houston Street, and the combatants rarely crossed it, except maybe when the Downtowners played some club in the East Village, in which case they rarely strayed west of 2nd Avenue.

Uptown, personified by Wynton Marsalis, his brand of neo-classical jazz, and institutionalized, toward the end of the period, in the founding of Jazz @ Lincoln Center—vs. Downtown, revolving around a disparate crew of avant-gardists who grew out of the “loft scene,” led (to the extent that rebels can be led) by John Zorn and headquartered at clubs like The Knitting Factory and Tonic.

On the night of Feb. 3, 2001, Marsalis crossed the divide to come play at The Knit, which was in the throes of financial crisis. This was seen as an Event, something like Sadat speaking at the Knesset, though it was suffused with noblesse oblige, the rich uncle deigning to help out, and hang with, the bedraggled beatnik nephew.

The currents began to shift four years later, on March 9, 2005, when Dave Douglas—the quintessential downtown trumpeter, and sideman in Zorn’s Masada—opened for Marsalis’ sextet at J@LC’s Rose Theater. The tidal wave came exactly two years later, when Masada itself played a double bill, to a packed (and unusually rakish) crowd, with the ultimate bad boy, Cecil Taylor.

And now we stand on the edge of what could be a 1989 moment for modern jazz—the year when the Berlin Wall fell and the East-West divide of Europe was mended.

The Gorbachev figure of this shift is George Wein, now 84 and the leading impresario of the jazz establishment for 60 years: the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, which later evolved into the Kool Jazz Festival, the JVC Jazz Festival, and now—debuting this June—the Carefusion Jazz Festival, which seems to be a different creature entirely.

Wein recently told the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff that he’d been spending time roaming the clubs of downtown—even crossing the bridge into Brooklyn (“another world,” he said of the borough, as if he were describing a trip to the jungles of South America)—and that he’d come away realizing that music has changed and, as he put it, “I’ve got to change my way of listening.”

The Carefusion festival (named after its sponsor, a health-care company) will include the usual array of big-ticket stars at big halls, among them Herbie Hancock (celebrating his 70th birthday), McCoy Tyner, and Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio. But Wein is also booking Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, his adventurous 18-piece "steam-punk" big band, to play Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Club at Jazz @ Lincoln Center; some habitues of the Jazz Gallery to play Symphony Space; and Revive da Live, a large jazz/hip-hop ensemble featuring rapper Talib Kweli (at a place yet unannounced), as well as a quartet called Other People Do the Killing, which Wein heard at the Zebulon club in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section; among a few dozen others.

For many years now, globalization and the Internet have allowed for syntheses of western music with rhythms and harmonies from the farthest corners of the globe. Now maybe Uptown and Downtown will be fused in New York City, too.

Steve Dollar's picture

Are downtown and uptown even relevant distinctions anymore? Merkin Hall is further "uptown" than Rose Hall and they've been doing adventursome jazz-and-otherwise programs for more than a decade. The Tea Lounge and Barbes in Park Slope (as I'm sure you are well aware) are more "downtown" than probably any downtown venue, other than The Stone or Cornelia Street.

Fred Kaplan's picture

Steve - Well, Merkin, just 6 blocks uptown from Rose, has long been a sort of nose-thumbing alternative to Lincoln Center, which, as you know, is right across the street. But yes, this is my point precisely - the uptown vs downtown thing, which did dominate (and, I think, damage) the jazz world for a couple of decades, is meaningless. George Wein's latest step is like the surgeon calling the time of death when the heart stops beating.

Lofty's picture

I can't agree with Fred's history of the 70's jazz loft scene. As I remember it, it was predominately a black avant-garde thing. Guys like Sam Rivers, Charles Tyler, Arthur Blythe, Joe Bowie, and so many others.

Steve Dollar's picture

@Fred ... Ha ha! Yes, exactly.

Fred Kaplan's picture

Note to Lofty - First, how is your description of the '70s jazz loft scene inconsistent with mine? Second, beginning in the very late '70s and certainly into the '80s, this loft scene expanded greatly to, among other categories, avant-garde white musicians, like those around John Zorn...Fred

Lofty's picture

Fred,Your second point answered your first. The black avant-garde jazz loft scene kinda fell apart in the late 70's. Not sure why but do you consider John Zorn a jazz musician? Not in mine.