The Falcon in Marlboro is and will always be exactly as old as the 21st century and the third millennium AD. Tony Falco launched what would become his snowballing life project in the Fin de Millennium year of 2000, with you-know-what right around the corner. It was modest at first: an intimate, listening-room performance series with a potluck, pay-what-you-can community ethic, hosted by a music fan – a scientist, a successful man – in the warm, dark-wood loft of his boutique barn in Marlboro. Jazz, broadly defined, was Tony’s passion and the house style. The vibe at the first Falcon was, to put it modestly, attentive.
Listening rooms are the kind of venues where the audience brings its A-game, and it tends to be the same audience show after show: a real community at work. Listening-room cultures create the useful illusion that it is the performers who are coming out to witness and enjoy the famous crowd, not vice versa. Players sense this abiding commitment, this ritualized communal attention and these serious intentions, and they reciprocate. They bring it. At the end of the night, most people on both sides of the piano exit with a feeling that music really was transmitted and received, at a rare level of clarity and connection.
Yet there was something immodest about the Falcon from the very beginning – namely, the incongruous and improbable magnitude and renown of its performers. Even after adjusting for the commercial marginality of jazz in the 21st century – when you can walk right up to the greatest living legends the genre has known, and they just might ask you for a lift to the airport –there was something laughable about the cats who were playing for the tip jar at the original Falcon. Brad Mehldau? Dewey Redman? Dave Liebman? Joe Lovano? John Scofield? Come on, man.
It makes you wonder. And what it makes you wonder is: Who is this guy, Tony Falco? I asked him recently about his connections to the jazz world – and by the “jazz world,” I don’t know what you mean, but what I mean is the single greatest intellectual and cultural achievement of 20th-century America (screw the Model T) and, for a time, the envy of the entire planet. I asked him via what secret identity and untold story he was able to begin a modest listening room program at such an absurdly high level of content. At first, I thought his answer was dismissive: “Well, I love music, and my father was a musician.” Yeah, Tony, so do I, and so was mine – a pretty respectable amateur jazz pianist, in fact. So what?
But now I think I hear what he was saying. It is one of several ways in which the Falcon has been visionary, prophetic. The great players were here already: shopping at the Hannaford, taking a number at the DMV, wiping their babies’ bottoms on those Murphy-bed changing stations at the mall, shoveling mung beans from the bins at the health food store. They’ve been here for years, living. Not playing. You were more likely to see a jazz legend passed out at a local club than gigging at one.
And it wasn’t just Woodstock, either. Certainly artists, intellectuals and especially musicians have been flocking to the high Catskills for a full documented century now. Everyone knows that, but Tony Falco knew something else: They were in Newburgh too, and Sugar Loaf, and Rockland County, and Poughkeepsie. Okay, so Orange County lacks the magic mountains and their purling cataracts. It is not dotted with the preserved campuses of failed ideological 20th-century arts colonies. But do you know what Orange County has? Short rides to New York, dig, and some nice raised-ranch houses where a gifted tenor player and arranger might hope to raise a little family under budget.
Tony foresaw a few important trends: First, the perennial upriver flight of City-based talent as it eases into the breeding and nesting years (hastened also by the you-know-what of 2001). Nothing new in that story, of course; but, as I suggested, Tony saw that it isn’t just to Woodstock that they flocked. More presciently, I think, in 2000, he may have intuited a changing, diminished musical economy in which even established national talents can no longer afford to pass on the local revenue streams, and, indeed, have become motivated to cultivate those connections and stronger community values in general. He intuited the increasingly D-I-Y and self-managed career model that professionals must embrace to sustain themselves in an era made lean by the virtual death of recording revenues. The Falcon happened when “local” was just starting to really happen again.
That alone didn’t bring any big names to his pop-up venue, so what did? “I used to play myself,” Tony told me. Yeah. I bet he did. One needn’t look further than his son Lee Falco, an in-demand and prodigiously gifted young drummer, for a sense of the gene quality. I bet Tony used to play. I bet. And from the start, the Falcon’s playercentric, player-friendly design has been at the heart of its success.
Players – you know, players: the ones with the smug smiles and the excellent hand position – don’t get a lot of opportunities to play the music they most love, to play their heart songs, unless they are at the highest tiers of the game. The Falcon provided not only creative carte blanche for great players and composers, but also did it in a burnished, heightened, acoustically spectacular space. The player world is really rather small and intimate, and also a New York thing even still. You start an upstate jewel like the Falcon, and word spreads among the community, and soon you’d be surprised who is calling you to pitch dates.
Even more precious and playercentric: The Falcon cultivated and provided an actual audience. A sophisticated, knowledgeable audience? Perhaps, but compared to those in New York City, Paris and Tokyo? Who knows? In a way, there is something more exciting about a new audience for high culture taking shape organically and growing together: autodidactic, hipping itself as Tony keeps the challenges and the curveballs coming. Marlboro as a hotbed of the avant-garde? I buy it; I really do. Isn’t art all about changing minds, not just affirming the self-superiority of hipsters in urban enclaves?
My first two Falcon shows were Brad Mehldau – yes, one of the two or three most famous living jazz pianists, and a personal favorite at whose feet I sat, marveling, as he fired up one of the greatest improvisational imaginations that the 21st century has known – but also, the second time, Sara Serpa, the much-less-known, brilliant young Portuguese composer and vocalist and her outrageous ensemble whose music taxes genre definitions – jazz, classical, bossa, pop – to their breaking points. Sara Serpa. Just wow.
It was potluck. I brought donuts.
The Falcon now
Marlboro, New York, is an interesting place. It’s like a freeze-frame shot of a small American town tumbling down a very steep and long bank into the Hudson River. There is no flat ground here, but a great need for chiropractic. The businesses on the east side of Route 9W – including the Falcon, at 1348 – are literally stilted against nature, gravity and the accelerated erosions of the new flood age. (Hurricane Irene wiped out the first iteration of the Falcon’s outdoor decks and patios. Their replacements are built to withstand much more.) Marlboro, on the whole, feels pretty temporary.
Marlboro is a distinctive town with a strong self-awareness. It ain’t no joke. There is power here, and money, and people who are proud to be from Marlboro. Politically, I don’t know; it probably tends red, right? And you wouldn’t peg it as a likely spot for a nationally celebrated jazz and world-music incubator with two thriving stages booked nightly, two restaurants, a regional microbrew taproom, a curated art gallery upstairs and a history museum – the Avalon Archives – embedded in the underground, all surrounded by a multi-tiered complex of patios and huge decks (seasonal performance spaces themselves) and lantern-lit paths overlooking and descending toward the spectacular gushing of Marlboro Falls.
But stereotypes be damned; I wonder if Marlboro’s pro-business default ideological setting wasn’t a passive boon to the Falcon when Tony moved his growing concern out of his barn and into a big building in the town. I wonder, too, whether my own blue village of New Paltz’s famous NIMBY twitch reflex might have nixed something like the Falcon before it had a chance to take root in our ostensibly more cultural culture. In fact, I know for sure that it did!
There’s another funny thing that Tony Falco understood before most everyone else did: If you book great music in a heightened, lovingly crafted space and ask for ten bucks at the door, people will gladly pay their tenner and feel like they’ve bought their experience fair and square, like a burger or a lawn chair. But if you charge nothing at all, and just lay out a few well-marked boxes with printed suggestions, and repeat on-mic several times over the course of the night the house mantra, “Please support living artists,” the same people might give $40 or more, as their means allow.
And your audience’s sense of itself transforms from consumer to something more like sponsor, patron, benefactor and essential participant and steward in the preservation and advancement of culture. Your audience is ennobled. The world is their listening room. The Falcon has never sold a ticket. Not one ever to anyone – not when Pat Metheny played here; not for Chris Thile, who might have sold out Carnegie Hall the night before. The Falcon has never charged a cover: not for John Scofield, not for John Burdick. Tony introduces every act in both rooms, if he’s able. “Support living artists,” he says. The audience he has cultivated knows what that means and knows what to do. They dig deep and support. All donations go directly to the performers. And the good times roll.
With multiple venues and galleries, passageways and dimensions out of a Carl Jung dream set, staggering natural beauty and no cover charge ever, today’s Falcon is circulatory by design: no gates, no checkpoints, no clearances and visas, no wristbands. People move freely through this art multiplex. Lately, Tony and Lee have been pushing the envelope conceptually, booking more acts and programs with a theatrical dimension, whether that is music augmented with props and projections or full-on mixed-media performance pieces that take over the whole facility, like Ron English’s recent Rabbbits in Delusionville. I remark to Tony how I marvel at the expansion of the Falcon – physically and conceptually – every time I visit. “What is this?” I say, “the freaking Winchester Mansion?”
“I’m kind of hoping the Falcon becomes an art thing itself,” he says of his baby. “Kind of hoping?” I say. That is exactly what I think every time I come. The Falcon isn’t just a couple of venues and restaurants; it is a living attraction itself, a cultural process underway and a destination quite often as compelling as the great musicians who play here. Those of us born around here will probably always get a light chuckle out of the fact that Tony Falco has sold this community on experimental music from all over the world, multimedia and conceptual art in dynamic combinations and settings and a business model of compassionate, participatory collectivism. But hey, no complaints.
My favorite Falcon story
A couple years into my new job as a music critic, I wrote my first roundly negative review. Why did it take so long? Well, a big-city critic or a high-traffic blogger might see her responsibility as nothing less than the gatekeeping of her entire generation and its culture; but up here, man, we’re just trying to get some sh*t off the ground. We can be intellectual, broadly critical in an attempt to shed light and understanding; but an Ivy League-schooled snottiness of the kind that Pitchfork uses to prove its toughness is just counterproductive in the provinces. Maybe some day, we will have a freestanding critical press empowered to regard itself as its own art. Not just yet. Still, I floated a negative review – a takedown not only of a specific artist playing at the Falcon, but of an entire genre that the Falcon features regularly: the modern guitar blues. I was wary, and regretted it no sooner than I clicked Send. A few days after the publication, I saw an e-mail from Tony Falco in my inbox. Uh-oh.
“John, loved your story this week.”