Between Intermissions

Over the past two decades, Michael Dorf's Knitting Factory has justly emerged as one of New York's cultural landmarks. Its deceptively compact Leonard Street building accommodates the Main Space and three smaller stages, plus decently stocked bars at every turn— you might find youself descending the steps from a harmolodic klezmer hip-hop string quartet to a more conventional koto-bass-and-drums Thelonious Monk repertory ensemble while passing though a penumbra of old Nashville recordings. The Knit is a magnet for alternative musics— musics you don't hear in jazz and rock venues or on radio. It has spawned important musicians and bands as well as like-minded venues and record labels. Anyone who cares about music should be glad it exists. But it's no place for a festival.

For several summers, Dorf's Knitmedia mounted the What Is Jazz? festival, which in contrast to the increasingly safe and bloated JVC doings provided the pointed irreverence of what in olden Newport days was known as a rump festival— a benign quasiguerrilla response. At some point, however, Knitmedia apparently learned what jazz was: a place where big sponsors reside. The Texaco Jazz Festival ensued, supplanted now by the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival. The programming has not dramatically changed, having broadened to encompass mainstream performers— significant, marketable, or both— at other halls without effacing the Knit's usual menu. But so eagerly did Bell pursue bigness that it drafted several ongoing jazz series and clubs by stamping them with its logo, a familiar JVC ploy. Bloatwise, Bell made JVC look positively buff.

So why the steady cadence of grumbling? Can't blame the music, because you could hear two or three good sets a night with enough stamina and hindsight. In lieu of an obvious culprit, Bell offered a metaphor as blatant as the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg. At the outset of the Main Space events, an employee announced the schedule and then dramatically signaled for someone to play a tape of a drumroll and a greeting from Darth Vader. This aged quickly. Before long, James Earl Jones's ominous tones suggested a successful invasion of corporate inefficiency. The wait times sapped everyone's resolve. Most of the critics and civilians I spoke with assumed that the three bands scheduled at 8 were de facto concerts, say 40 minutes per band with intermissions. Instead, as perusers of the official program but not the ads might have gathered, each played an hour followed by an hour break. It shouldn't have been hard to kill all those hours, except that when the alternatives weren't dire (a Duane Eddy­type combo) they were seldom in synch, and you had to ask yourself: Do I really want to risk my turf? The comments heard most often— other than Darth's— were "Please get in line" from employees and "Will you save my seat?" from customers. Yes, I had a book— but not, unfortunately, a flashlight.

Geri Allen: the week's signal revelation
Hiroyuki Ito
Geri Allen: the week's signal revelation

There's the same up-and-down criss-crossing of events at Holland's Northsea Jazz Festival, except that listeners roam a hugely capacious space and are never without great jazz. If those of us who treasure the Knit's eclectic unpredictability were relieved that Bell didn't leach it out, we had to extend sympathy to those were drawn by the word jazz in all its parochial glory only to be confronted with prolonged sound dabs and electroshock tenor. One first-timer dreamily told me of the years when she hung at the Five Spot and the Vanguard and how excited she was returning to the fold with Bell Jazz. She lasted for 20 minutes of Henry Threadgill, which is her problem; still, her only option was a cello trio called Strit. A visiting couple, no less shiny-eyed, balked at Geri Allen's quintet, the week's signal revelation for me, yet I can understand why they might have felt more comfortable with an Eric Reed or a Benny Green. Searching the building for something more to their taste, they could choose between Ray Corsair (the Duane Eddy guy) and a Japanese percussion group called Ne-Ne (which wasn't bad). Both T.S. Monk and Tom Harrell's Jazz Pioneers, which might have done the trick for anyone, were slotted for midnight.

The pall was not eased by the presence of video cameras, a reliable way to make an audience feel like unpaid extras. (The couple and I were nearly crowned by debris that fell through the fingers of a guy on a ladder who kept mumbling, "Sorry," as metallic objects continued to rain.) Nor was it alleviated by innovative or at least festive programming surprises— more of those, albeit of a repertory nature, were scheduled for JVC. Not that Bell ignored repertory. Two noteworthy events were the overpublicized reunion of the New York Art Quartet, a 1964 band that managed to ring a note of nostalgia even though few earthlings ever heard it, and Misako Kano's unpublicized undertaking of A Love Supreme, John Coltrane's liturgical suite, also from 1964. Now which is going to be more stimulating: a mouth-watering reassemblage of actual innovators or a Japanese-led rehash of an old record? Right, the rehash.

The NYAQ existed barely a year and made two recordings, only one of which was released in this country, as the third catalog item from ESP-Disc, thought to have sold 11 copies, exclusively to teenagers who grew up to be jazz critics or the guitarist with Sonic Youth. The record was a wonder and remains so, for the insurgent undercurrent of drummer Milford Graves and the interplay between trombonist Roswell Rudd and saxophonist John Tchicai, and between them and the rhythm. Near the close of Rudd's "Sweet," LeRoi Jones intones "Black Dada Nihilismus," from The Dead Lecturer, a pliant reading of a violent poem. Shortly after, bassist Lewis Worrell moved south, Tchicai returned to Denmark, and Graves and Rudd kept frustratingly low profiles. With the encouragement of the admirable Verna Gillis and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, they reassembled (Reggie Workman replaced Worrell), but this time the poet assumed the role of star soloist. Instead of reading a masterly early work ("A Poem for Willie Best" would have been nice) or even a new one, Amiri Baraka cupped his hands over the mike and shouted '60s names and phrases, racist slurs (the N-word interminably), and racial riddles. He left off periodically, sometimes returning at the very moment Rudd and Tchicai got into something.

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