February 3, 2017
Jazzing: New York City's Unseen Scene
By Tom Greenland University of Illinois Press
By Ken Waxman
Compared to Jazzing, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa was the equivalent of transcribing a Bunk Johnson solo as opposed to studying one by Bill Dixon. Anthropologist Mead followed the culture of the peaceful Samoan Islanders in the ‘20s, whereas Jazzing’s author Tom Greenland researched the mores and folkways of a more fractious group: fans of New York’s jazz scene. Greenland conducted more than 100 interviews with enthusiasts, club owners, musicians and critics to produce this unique portrait of those “active listeners”. Non-musicians who attend upwards of four jazz performances a week [!], this small group prefers its music live and its practitioners experimental proponents of free jazz and free music. These fans often communicate non-verbally with the players and sometimes become their friends. They’re continuously searching for new and unpredictable sounds, plus the “perfect set”, that Irving Stone, one veteran follower, said produces figurative “blood” from the musicians.
A regular, quasi-family of listeners, this group of mostly singe males frequently attains a near-trance state during performances, ranks listening to music as necessary as nourishment, and experiences near-schizophrenic when as poet Steve Dalachinsky says there’s a “divided night” forcing them to choose between two anticipated shows.
Although Greenland’s delineation of these listeners’ motivations is exemplary, showing how their tastes help shape the parameters of the New York scene, for example due to the mentorship of Stone to innovators like John Zorn, he’s less precise in defining what the presence of these fans means for the continued well-being of the city’s jazz scene, which at his count encompassed about 830 venues during one five-year period. Especially vexing is that while most of his interviewees frequent bare-bones, low-admission music spaces, his talks with club owners, organizers, critics and flacks focus on the problems of more established neighborhood bars and major jazz venues which must maintain a balance between noisy free-spending jazz tourists and regulars who may nurse one drink, resent a minimum and demand reverent silence.
Written in a refreshing non-academic style, and despite such shortcomings, Jazzing offers a valuable portrait of the ever-changing New York jazz scene.
—For The New York City Jazz Record February 2017