The Catskill jazz revival: Bringing America’s original art form to a new generation

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Like so many other Catskill communities, the Village of Tannersville has taken it on the chops time and time again. And like an old champion who refuses to go down for the count, Tannersville keeps coming back.

Changing times have laid low more than one version of the tiny village (population 500-plus) since its rough-and-tumble days as an outpost for tannery and lumbermill workers. More than once during its 115-year history, it has been counted out, and just as often, it has been revived and come back for more. Tannersville is currently in the throes of its latest revival – one powered by an American artform not much older than the village itself. Jazz has come to Tannersville. But as the man most responsible for making it the centerpiece of that revival will tell you, jazz may be its most prominent aspect, but it’s far from being the whole story of what Piers Playfair is aiming to do with the Catskill Jazz Factory.

Playfair hails from theatrical royalty. His British father was a professor of drama, his American mother an actress and his grandfather, Sir Nigel Playfair, was the actor/manager of London’s Lyric Theater in the 1920s and ’30s.

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Piers was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and made his stage debut at the age of three months, when he was cast as a waterbaby in a Williamstown Playhouse production of Peter Pan. He grew up in England, came back to the States and has lived in Tannersville since the late 1980s. “I grew up in the arts, it was second nature,” he said. “But I took an unusual turn and went into finance.” He’s the CEO of Lyonross Capital Management, LLC, a private equity firm. His success there has allowed him to return the arts – not as a performer, but as a benefactor of the arts.

He and his wife Lucy made their initial mark in the area as the founders of the Orchard Project, a country retreat for theatrical companies. In explaining how the Catskill Jazz Factory was born, Playfair said he one day experienced what can only be described as an epiphany. Though he wasn’t, at the time, conversant in jazz, Playfair was aware of the precarious fate of the arts in education, in sleepy Tannersville as well as in school districts everywhere. Budgets were being cut, and too often, the budget axe fell on arts education and performing programs. “Here I was, a middle-aged guy, a father with three young children. I couldn’t imagine them growing up without an education in the arts.”

At the same time that he recognized the threat of budget cuts at the primary school level, he said he also recognized an “emerging generation” of highly trained musicians were graduating from well-regarded collegiate jazz programs such as at Juilliard. And even here, he could see that these young performers, like so many graduates of arts programs everywhere, found it all but impossible to make a living at what they loved to do.

That’s when the idea came to Playfair to “do a trade”: “Can we give musicians a chance to develop and get them into the schools? And by doing that, help and inspire younger students and get them into the community?” The answer to his question was the Catskill Jazz Factory, which the Playfairs launched in 2012. “Every so often, the time and place when you can achieve something come together, where you can work things out.”

Critical to the project’s success was securing the services of Aaron Diehl as artistic director. The now-29-year-old piano virtuoso has gone well beyond being an “up-and-coming” player. The June release of his latest album, Space, Time, Continuum, won rapturous reviews from The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other knowledgeable sources. “What started out to be a network of Aaron’s friends, mostly young, helped create an impactful, deeper program,” Playfair said.

One of the artists who has been drawn to the Jazz Factory is neither particularly young nor desperate for work. Master trombonist Chris Washburne, who’s 51, was hours away from performing at Carnegie Hall a couple of weeks ago when he talked about what the Jazz Factory has become and why it’s important.

In addition to being a performer and composer, Washburne is a Jazz Performance professor at Columbia University. When he first learned about Playfair’s vision for the Jazz Factory, “I said, ‘Sign me up, I’m willing to do anything.’” Call him an ambassador not only for the Jazz Factory and its sister program, the 23Arts Initiative, but also for the promulgation of jazz itself.

Others have called jazz America’s greatest, its only original music. Washburne goes further: Jazz, he said, epitomizes the American experience. “It has so much to do with who we are as a nation. It sends out the ideals of democracy, of people having an equal footing in what they do. It encapsulates what freedom stands for, whether you’re talking philosophy or politics – you’re free to play whatever you want when you’re up there. You’ve got a professional mandate to improvise, to bring something new to an audience every night.”
Despite its pedigree and potential, Washburne acknowledged what every jazz musician knows today: “The music has been marginalized for years – decades.”

Other jazz advocates may see the way forward as establishing new beachheads at major cities, where the music media infrastructure is already well-established and jazz has a long, if unsteady, tradition. Washburne doesn’t reject that approach, but he says that it’s not the only one: “We need more advocates; we need to create more scenes.”

And that, among other things, is where the Jazz Factory comes in. In February, for example, Washburne and his band SYOTOS played Bard College’s Fisher Center and sold the place out, despite a snowstorm. “It was the first time Bard had featured a jazz concert; it was a pioneering event,” Washburne said.

If that was reaching out to a new audience at a professional level, the Factory and its new, Tannersville-focused sister program 23Arts Initiative (named for the state highway that passes through the village) are reaching into more familiar and elemental territory by offering workshops at local high schools and finding venues – churches, cafeterias, restaurants, featuring musical and theatrical events as well as jazz – that at once provide unique learning opportunities for young people while bolstering the community’s economic promise.

Shannon Hoyt is the pre-K-through-sixth-grade music teacher at Hunter Elementary School. She has seen – and heard – what the 23Arts Initiative has provided for her students, and she’s got one word to describe it: “awesome.” Make that two words: “seriously awesome.”

“We’ve had these high-class musicians come to school – people like Aaron Diehl – and give assemblies. Aaron spoke about the history of jazz and blues, and performed. We even had the Bard Conservatory Student Orchestra, a 13-piece orchestra, perform for the kids.”

“It’s very inspiring, especially for kids who live up on the mountain top who don’t get a lot of opportunity. We’re really far away from the places you usually find this music: New York or Albany.” She said that she fully expects someday to witness one of her students making his or her debut at Carnegie Hall.

The Jazz Factory/23Arts sisterhood finally comes down to this: an effort to nurture jazz for those who’ve devoted their lives to practicing it and to those who wish to. What Playfair has done, Washburne said, is “something very, very unusual….He’s identified an area of the country where there’s a need and dedicated his energy to answering that need.”

Playfair more modestly described his effort by quoting Sir Robert Mayer, a British philanthropist and banker who was an early supporter of music for young people: “If you take great music and have great musicians play it, people will like it.”

The Catskill Jazz Factory will co-sponsor with Bard SummerScape several events at the Bard Spiegeltent this summer, including “Harlem on the Hudson: Etienne Charles and Creole Soul” on July 16 at 8 p.m. and “Heating up the Hudson,” featuring Chris Washburne and the SYOTOS Band on July 30 at 8 p.m.

 

Catskill Jazz Factory, Thursdays, July 16 & 30, August 13, 8 p.m., Bard College, 60 Manor Avenue, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape.

 

Catskill Jazz Factory presents “Harlem on Hudson” concert at the Bard Spiegeltent

Anybody looking for examples of the kind of innovative music-making that the Catskill Jazz Factory and its sister program the 23Arts Initiative need look no further than summertime.

The Jazz Factory and Bard SummerScape will launch the Jazz Factory’s “Harlem on the Hudson” series this Thursday, July 16 at 8 p.m. with Trinidadian trumpet player Etienne Charles. Be prepared for a great show from this acclaimed improvisor as he explores the musical connections among Afro-Caribbean, Creole, New Orleans and American traditions.

Trombonist Chris Washburne and SYOTOS will heat up the Hudson on Thursday, July 30 at 8 p.m. and the Steven Feifke Big Band featuring the Catskill Jazz Factory All-Stars & Alumni will perform on Thursday, August 13 at 8 p.m.

The 23Arts Initiative hosts a second summer of free world-class chamber music at Tannersville’s historic All Souls Church throughout July and August. The series features a diverse lineup of critically acclaimed classical musicians from around the world, featuring the New Baroque Soloists, the Attacca Quartet and singer Thomas Storm performing the works of Bach, Bartók and Sibelius.

All 23Arts Initiative concerts are free and begin at approximately 11:30 a.m. For more information, visit www.23arts.org.

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