The pastoral work of making sustainable jazz

From left to right: Kyle Poole, Dominick Farinacci, Piers Playfair, Shenel Johns and Patrick Bartley, Jr. (Photo by JD Urban)

Jazz is a music of paradoxes: composition tested to its limits by improvisation; high European classical harmony and ancient church modes radicalized, buoyed on rhythms of African, Caribbean and Latin descent. Jazz is a wild, inherently transgressive and liberated music that has been a disciplined, codified and academy-minted art as well for over half a century. It was mainstream pop during the swing era (and briefly again during the fusion ’70s) and is just as often regarded as the ultimate hipster cognoscenti hoax, bebop and beyond: something that you need a pedantic boyfriend to mansplain to you in stale beatnik tropes. Like this one.

So why not one more paradox for good measure in the form of the Catskill Jazz Factory (CJF)? While New Orleans may be the Delta of jazz, and Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles home to significant scenes and subgenres, and while Paris and Tokyo still can’t get enough of the stuff, modern jazz is at its heart a New York thing. Most of it, in fact, can be traced to a single stoop in Harlem. What an ironic gas, then, that one of the most active, connected and conceptually ambitious jazz promotion/advocacy/development organizations this side of Lincoln Center is a New York thing in fact: located in the heart of the thinly populated rural Catskills, alongside the biker gangs and ski bums on Route 23.

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Catskill Jazz Factory, as you will learn below, can be accurately described as an organization with global ambition. But the grassroots, pastoral work of manufacturing jazz talent and an audience for it (for it is a “factory”) takes place at venues of all kinds right here in the Catskills and mid-Hudson: a sustainable jazz pilot study in an unlikely location. From our high theaters, colleges and clubs to any old ad hoc nook that will have it, there is nary a community center, library or church that they haven’t pressed into service as a temporary Blue Note at one time or another.

Using free-market logic, one might ask why a music form, any music form, requires advocacy and the intercession of agencies and leagues. If you are wondering that, I invite you to leave this essay at once and go live in a future adorned only by music that the market supports naturally.

Except at its highest “national treasure” curatorial levels, jazz has always been consigned to, erm, “intimate” venues. The most startling thing about jazz’s greatest live recordings – like, say, Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard – is the parts where the music stops and no more than 18 or 20 hands get to clapping, as silverware and glasses chink and rattle. John Cage might even have called it part of the tune.

As America’s foremost contribution to 20th-century intellectual life, jazz has long depended on the efforts of dedicated support organizations, from radical collectives like our own Creative Music Studio in Woodstock and Chicago’s hugely influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians to government grants, Jazz Studies and Commercial Music university programs and the work of Wynton Marsalis (and the hand of his mentor Stanley Crouch) at Lincoln Center, jazz’s semi-official canonical seat. What distinguishes Catskill Jazz Factory from so many like-minded jazz advocates is the sheer brio and commitment of its approach, and its conceptual design. Not only does it book transcendent talent (mostly but not exclusively young), it also builds extended, creative relationships with these performers and composers and abides their careers. It honors both sides of jazz’s legacy: the traditional and the revolutionary, seeing no apparent contradiction, and increasingly dropping the J-word entirely from its discourse. Catskill Jazz Factory partners with powerful institutions and venues like Bard’s Fisher Center, Hudson Hall (the old Hudson Opera House and a current hotbed of experimental art) and the region’s premier jazz night club, the Falcon, among others, while still seeding the community at the level of library and church sanctuary, where an intimate encounter with a young genius of jazz can be a life-changing experience.

The Catskill Jazz Factory mission is so 360-degree and coherent, it is almost hard to describe what the organization does. From its website I scraped these three core participial bullet points:

Providing artist residencies and project support to a variety of young, top-quality jazz artists to incubate world-premiere programs.

Introducing artists into villages, educational institutions and a host of venues to promote community-building through jazz.

Serving as a launch point for our artists to develop brand-new, innovative projects to then present to larger and diverse audiences outside of the Hudson Valley/New York City area.

Administrator/production director Chandra Knotts, who steered me through my CJF learning process with extreme clarity, hastened to add that CJF also presents a year-round educational outreach program that extends across the Hudson Valley, with annual in-classroom work at the Hunter/Tannersville and Millbrook School Districts, to name a few. These visits give students the invaluable opportunity to have face time and performance opportunities with young professional musicians.

It’s a lot to take in. I jumped at the chance to interview Catskill Jazz Factory artistic director Piers Playfair, who co-founded the operation alongside his wife and CJF executive director Lucy Playfair.

How do you stay so on top of the feeders of talent in jazz? What’s your secret? What’s your connection? And what kind of “value proposition” do you think Catskill Jazz Factory offers the artists?

Back in 2012, I got to talking with my old neighbor from the City, the jazz historian and critic Stanley Crouch, who put me in touch with Aaron Diehl, an incredible young pianist who knew who the up-and-coming next generation of players were. Together with my wife Lucy Playfair, we created a small team initially to support a lot of the performing arts initiatives that were happening in Tannersville, mainly through the auspices of the Catskill Mountain Foundation. Since then, we’ve taken this incredible journey from presenting in Mountain Top coffee shops, churches, libraries to sold-out series at the Fisher Center and other venues in the Hudson Valley, then to premieres with the New York Botanical Gardens and Kings Theatre in New York City, and now more recently bringing these events to major festivals in Europe.

As far as our “secret,” it is not so secret. We are very fortunate as curators that so many of the world’s greatest players are right there, performing very regularly in New York City. On any given night you can catch fantastic talent, and it is not difficult to identify the truly great artists. Our principal vision as a non-profit is to support these young artists and to help them survive in this difficult environment. This generation is facing the unique challenge of how the Internet is impacting our access and consumption of music, so it is a time when our type of support is particularly needed.

With this in mind, we try to back brilliant musicians with a unique artistic vision, or work in partnership with them to develop special projects. We take the time to individually meet and rap with each artist that we collaborate with – to understand their goals, their visions, their unique voice – and then find a mutual path forward. The “value” has come from this practice. Our artists know that when they work with CJF, they have the opportunity for complete musical and artistic freedom, and to develop something special.

You’ve worked a lot with a personal favorite of mine, the pianist Dan Tepfer: a guy known for bridging whatever gap still exists between jazz and so-called “serious” music. With the Goldberg Variations Variations, he beat Brad Mehldau to the idea of an improvisational dialogue with Bach by a few solid years. I have contended many times in print that jazz is now “serious music” – in the sense of not having the popular audience it once enjoyed, in the sense of having advanced to such a state of sophistication that many feel it has evolved itself clean out of a broad appeal and in the sense that it is fostered and kept alive in academic and grant-driven settings more than ever. Over the years you have programmed plenty of demanding, experimental music as well as more accessible, user-friendly jazz where “the tune” still rules. How aware are you of honoring both parts of jazz’s legacy: the traditional and the revolutionary?

Ultimately, we want to support great artists and their projects. We take a very broad view of what jazz is because, increasingly, we – like many of the musicians we work with – do not like being defined by a single genre. We aim to incorporate new music and experimentation in our program and, just in the past year or so, we’ve done a great deal of work on projects ranging from Keyon Harrold [NAS, Common]’s Jazz & the Birth of Hip Hop, Life & Loves with Dominick Farinacci and Etienne Charles’ Vibes of Venezuela. These three projects alone cross Venezuelan folk music, the roots of hip hop, Kurt Weill, Richard Strauss and the American Songbook! A lot of our programming is purposefully “cross-genre” in this way, as we are always encouraging our artists to explore their passions and limits, which leads to incorporating elements of everything from gospel and classical music, opera, hip hop, work songs. There is no limit to the creative possibilities when you think this way.

We encourage these explorations and are always trying to reach a broader audience for our music. We absolutely consider part of our mission to develop a regional jazz (and musical) audience, because that is just one way to support the artists: to help them find ways of reaching communities outside of the traditional concert halls and clubs et cetera.

We are also committed to artists trying to break new boundaries. One of our most important residencies in this respect was Dan Tepfer’s Acoustic Informatics, which we world-premiered at Bard’s Fisher Center back in 2015. On top of being a brilliant pianist, Dan is an astrophysicist, and this project (now called Natural Machines) is an extension of his unique musical and scientific approach, using the Yamaha Disklavier, virtual reality video technology and beyond to bring music and computer-driven algorithms together to create a unique artistic experience. Audiences can see Natural Machines for themselves with CJF this December at Hudson Hall.

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Your summer programs seem be thematically driven in many ways – this year’s focus on song and the songbook, for example (perfectly situated in Bard’s Spiegeltent). Do you see yourself as a curator of the tradition in any way? Wynton’s work at Lincoln Center has been on-and-off controversial. How do you feel about efforts to define jazz and its canon? Is that at all part of your sense of mission?

As a young organization in this industry, we are enormously indebted to Jazz at Lincoln Center. They are an educational institution, a mentoring institution, a showcasing institution and so much more. Jazz at Lincoln Center plays an immeasurably important role in the lives of our artists and in the global jazz scene in general, and without the development of so many of the artists with whom they are closely associated, we could not be who we are.

With that said, we tend to see our mission as less jazz-based and more musician-based. We are looking to really back great things, and try not to impose our own tastes on musicians with whom we work. Having said that, art by its very nature is always going to invite controversy because people hold such strong beliefs; but wherever we can, we try to be supportive to other artists and arts organizations. This is a time when there is such a need for collaboration. So, to answer your question, I would not say we are thematically driven as much as driven by the mission of artistic and community support. It infiltrates all of our decisions as producers and presenters.

In slight contrast, our hometown program, 23Arts Initiative, is always defined by our Tannersville community. 23Arts provides us with ultimate programming flexibility. This is where we get to test-run new projects, incubate future premieres and work with other non-profits like Mountain Top Arboretum, Hunter Foundation and Mountain Top Library. This side of our programming allows us to transform the Village of Tannersville into a performance space, regardless of genre and accessible to everyone.

We see our role as facilitators of highly talented people, partners with artists that need support and partners of venues that need differentiated content. We don’t want to impose our artistic vision on artists or venues. In a way, we are similar to how old independent record labels would function: Sometimes a project is all the artist, and sometimes it is more of a partnership with ourselves and a venue.

What are you most excited about in this great summer season? What’s a show you are really looking forward to?

Our most exciting project this summer is The Spirit of Harlem, a residency and tour that begins in our hometown of Tannersville and concludes with a world-premiere performance in Florence, Italy. From August 23 to 25, our local audience can join us for shows at the Mountain Top Library, Hudson Hall, Twilight Park and the Falcon before we head to New York City for a show at the National Jazz Museum of Harlem. From there, the band will head over to Florence, Italy for the full-blown world premiere, which features a specially commissioned composition arranged for orchestra by Steve Feifke, an incredible young artist who was actually one of the first to work with Catskill Jazz Factory. The band itself is unmatched as far as young talent goes, featuring established artists like Dominick Farinacci and Christian Tamburr alongside some of the most exciting young names on the New York City jazz scene, like Michela Marino Lerman, Russell Hall, Mathis Picard and Shenel Johns, to name a few.

On its face, the project might appear as a straight-up jazz gig, but there are much greater artistic and political explorations taking place. The project takes a musical tour through Harlem’s most iconic jazz spots and moments while exploring the African American struggle, civil rights, the history of Harlem and the evolution of jazz as an elevated artform. It is a truly unique American story.

You could view The Spirit of Harlem tour as a great example of how CJF works. We take a project from conception to premiere and provide support all along the way, ranging from a small-town Mountain Top residency and rehearsal week to increasingly larger audiences and stages across the region to an official and elaborated world premiere overseas.

Your association with other regional presenters like Bard, the Woodstock Playhouse, Phoenicia Festival of the Voice and Hudson Hall, to name a few, have been really fruitful for all parties, in my opinion. Can you give me a little background on how that works? What other partnerships are you most excited about these days?

Our regional partnerships allow us to offer multilevel residency opportunities for our artists. They can come upstate, have a residency in Tannersville, present to our local community in intimate spaces and then we can bring these premiere performances to larger stages across the region and beyond.

These partnerships embolden our programming capabilities because, unlike the challenge of a typical performance venue, our content is not dictated by space. We can actually follow an artist’s vision and then place it in the appropriate space or venue. Our variety of partnerships also allow us the capability to explore new content. An important part of our mission is to bring jazz and music to where it has never been before, but we respect that different audiences want different things.

Ultimately, we think it is vital for non-profits to work together. An example of this is our most exciting new collaboration with the New Generation Festival, a really groundbreaking endeavor co-founded by a truly visionary trio of young British producers: Maximilian Fane, Roger Granville and Frankie Parham. The festival is presented each summer at the Palazzo Corsini al Prato in Florence, Italy, but this is just the beginning for what’s to come!

Stateside, we are looking forward to a new partnership with Storm King Art Center and have our first event coming up with them this September.

New partnerships like this allow us to develop ever more artistically ambitious ideas, like world-premiere orchestral commissions and larger ensembles. We are thrilled to be bringing young American artists to an all-new market for our music. Ultimately, what we love is when our musicians get new venues and our presenters get a new musical experience to share with their audience and community. Everybody wins.

This article finds us right in the thick of Catskill Jazz Factory’s summer programming at Bard’s Spiegeltent and in its own 23Arts Summer Music Festival, at venues across the Catskills and beyond. Visit the Catskill Jazz Factory website for detailed information on all upcoming concerts at www.catskilljazzfactory.org.

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