By Gili Malinsky
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Jacques Fages's Steinway piano, like his entire Upper West Side apartment, is a curious intersection of eras. He purchased the full upright, a classic model that has endured for over a century, off eBay in the '90s, when the website was still in chrysalis; not wanting to drive to the New Jersey warehouse to collect it, he had a factory worker test the keys for him as he dictated instructions over the phone. And then he set it down in his living room, in the building he grew up in as a child and returned to years later—a complex built before the invention of electricity, perched at an intersection still recovering from the '80s crack years. And now, with that piano, he is reviving the glamorous jazz house parties of the Harlem Renaissance.
Every few months, Fages, 63, hosts one of his "soirees," an intimate concert and dinner party that features both celebrated local musicians and his own gourmet French cooking. For the audience of 40-odd jazz enthusiasts holding dishes of Fages's beef bourguignon and pea soup, the evenings are a privileged glimpse at the city's upper echelon: Past marquee performers include vocalists Sheila Jordan and Kate McGarry, pianists John Colianni and Andy Bey, and cabaret duo Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano. The artists stage two sets in Fages's cozy, wood-paneled living room, lit only by candlelight and recorded for posterity by his state-of-the-art audio equipment.
"These are people who perform every day of their lives, but to perform here, that's music for music's sake," says Fages, a retired junior high teacher. "When they're doing it for music's sake, there's a twinkle in their eyes."
Fages curates the Sunday soirees with his neighbor, drummer Vito Lesczak; created initially in 2008 as modest building-wide gatherings, the events have steadily expanded, solely by word-of-mouth, to boast an e-mail list of almost 200 people. Fages, who does not play any musical instruments, happily admits that half the appeal is his food—the French Culinary Institute–trained chef comes from a family of Parisian restaurateurs and spends a full week preparing his classic French fare before each concert.
These BYOB events are an epicurean update to the neighborhood "rent parties" of 1920s Harlem, in which such notables as Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk, and James P. Johnson performed amid bacchanalian spreads of fried chicken, gumbo, and bootleg booze. Named after the admission price and its ability to stave off aggressive landlords, they were wild, all-night rages, compared to the romantic temperament of Fages's nights. However, the immediacy of the cozy confines feels similar for his musicians.
"Here, you feel very exposed," says Lesczak, 42, a frequent accompanist. "These shows are much more intimate, and the audience is more up close, with no separation between you and them. Once the performers start relaxing, there's a very interesting side that's not always shown in other performance spaces. So much goes into the performance as a whole—the concert and the structure—sometimes people forget just to be. Here, with every artist, there's a moment where you see them in a different light."
This transition generally occurs after the intermission, when guests beeline for seconds at Fages's dining table, pat his excitable pet chien, and mingle with the performers. For vocalist Kristen Lee Sergeant, who performed in February with a trio featuring drummer Lesczak, pianist David Budway, and her boyfriend, bassist Saadi Zain, those impromptu interactions informed her entire performance.
"The second set benefited from this—when you know who is listening, the lyrics have an even more specific target," says Sergeant, 28. "There's a difference in knowing someone in your audience is suffering heartache as you're singing about it versus just imagining so. There's something very special about Jacques's events—the quality of attention is really intense. It feeds into the performance and your ability to communicate the music to its utmost."
Fages and Lesczak hope that the soirees will lead to more gigs for the performers, as well as encourage other New Yorkers to host such gatherings in their homes, creating a stronger network for independent music. Lesczak, a veteran of such larger clubs as the Iridium and the Jazz Standard, also suggests a slight political dimension to the parties: "One of the ideas to do this project was that art is so institutionalized in New York. You have the temples of art—the museums and Lincoln Center—and it's so artificial on one level."
"Versus what we're doing is an evolving thing, a very organic process," Fages adds. "Ultimately, it's nice to show people that art is wherever you have creative people doing it."