Knitting a Scene: Jason Lindner Speaks

Photo courtesy of the artist.

As both a leader and sideman, pianist Jason Lindner has stitched vast threads of connection within the New York jazz world and beyond. His omnipresence at the Winter Jazz Festival, for instance, inspired WBGO’s Simon Rentner to coin “The Jason Lindner Award” for the busiest musician at the festival.

As someone who has moved fluidly through the scenes at venues like Smalls, NuBlu, and The Jazz Gallery, we at Jazz Speaks thought it would be great to sit down with Lindner and talk about how the jazz community has moved and changed over the years.

The Jazz Gallery: Smalls was such an important place for you and a lot of your peers when you were getting started in the 1990s. Why do you think Smalls ended up being a real lodestar for your musical community at the time?

Jason Lindner: First, it was their booking model. Musicians were in charge of finding other musicians to play. Musicians tend to know more about the scene because they’re on the scene. It might take someone who’s a booker or a club owner a little longer to understand what’s happening.

In New York at the time, for the premier jazz clubs like the Vanguard and the Blue Note, you had to be of a certain career stature to play there. It was how their model worked—they sold tickets, had cover charges, and attracted a certain clientele. Smalls didn’t have that type of model—it’s why that first Smalls compilation album was called Jazz Underground. These weren’t artists who were names in the recording industry yet. So you had all of these underground jazz musicians that were known in the community but not beyond that. Through Smalls, they had a chance to have worldwide recognition.

Number two, the model of Smalls was very accessible. They had no liquor license, so there was no age limit. They didn’t have to adhere to a lot of the same rules and regulations that regular bars had to. Smalls helped so many young people in New York, especially students, by being so accessible and so affordable. It was pretty multi-generational. It was striking how accessible Smalls was when other jazz clubs weren’t. A student wouldn’t go to the Blue Note unless they were a superfan of somebody and wanted to save up $25-85 for a ticket.

But maybe the biggest reason was the jam sessions. They had open-ended jam sessions seven nights a week and the club wouldn’t close until the last person left. That’s why they called it Bohemian, stuff like that. All the musicians who came to New York to a play a show would all end up at Smalls by the end of the night. That’s how a lot of people met and made relationships and new groups.

One more thing—because it was so musician-friendly, Mitch Borden actually financially supported a number of older, down-and-out musicians. These were freelancers, master musicians in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, who had played for a long time, but weren’t part of the larger employment system, so they didn’t have health benefits and what not. These were people that my peers looked up to, but they weren’t able to make ends meet financially, or get help with health or addiction issues. Smalls was really a home for a lot of those musicians. There was an ecosystem of support between older and younger musicians.

There’s never been another place like that in New York in my lifetime. And they’re not like that anymore because they’re a legally-operating bar. It might be more comparable to the World Stage in Los Angeles where Terrace Martin, Thundercat, and the LA jazz community came up. Billy Higgins was the founder of that place. That really has an ecosystem of youth and elders. There was also a place called the University of the Streets in New York where I used to play a lot, and they had jam sessions and concerts. That was more of a community center. It wasn’t really run like a club.

TJG: It’s interesting hearing about Smalls compared to somewhere like the old Knitting Factory, which also had a strong community, but a very different model. A lot of the performers associated with the Knitting Factory had eclectic tastes and styles, which I definitely associate with you and many of your peers. Was there a lot of crossover between the Smalls and Knitting Factory scenes when you were coming up?

JL: If the original Knitting Factory was still around now, I feel that would be a choice place of mine because of the experimental and eclectic spirit. I really like that music, but back in the ‘90s, it wasn’t really a scene that I fell into. The people I was playing with at the time were bebop-centric. I had studied with Barry Harris and a lot of my friends were in that same circle. Smalls became a pretty bop-centric place. I feel the taste of Mitch Borden had a lot to do with that, as well as the people he associated with, like Frank Hewitt and Tommy Turrentine—they were straight-up bebop.

I actually dislike using names for genres, because they oversimplify and generalize cultural movements, downplaying the innovative individuals involved — terms and phrases historically created largely by outliers to those movements.

But anyway, for explanation sake, Smalls was more in that vein.

There were a few players—definitely the minority—like myself, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Omer Avital, Myron Walden and others—who weren’t restricting themselves to that style of music, who’s style was more genre-fluid. That grew as the years went on, especially after the release of Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls. But Smalls and the Knitting Factory were really different scenes back then. There was little crossover, I think.

TJG: How did The Jazz Gallery first get on your radar?

JL: Rio’s ex-husband Stafford Hunter was a trombonist in my big band, so that’s how I met Rio. A short time after I met Rio—this is in 2001—Smalls was going through financial difficulty and heading toward a temporary closure. Since Smalls was where my big band had been playing every week, Rio had the idea of the band continuing our performances but at The Jazz Gallery, which we did.

Roy Hargrove was also a part of the Smalls community. He would definitely hang at Smalls a lot and play in the jam sessions, as would the musicians associated with Roy. At the same time, Roy was collaborating with Cuban musicians and experimenting with that and with hip hop, so I think he helped facilitate more of that crossover mentality. A lot of musicians that I associate with the Gallery I met at Smalls, like James Hurt, Sherman Irby, Dana Murray. And, of course, the whole clique from Texas, like Robert Glasper. I heard a lot of people for the first time at Smalls. That was pre-Jazz Gallery. Sherman played with Roy too.

TJG: Beyond the big band residency, were you performing with other projects at the Gallery in those early years?

JL: I think the first thing was this piano duo series that the Gallery did. I performed duet with James Hurt at one piano. It was heavily improvised, but anchored within our own compositional ideas. Ben Ratliff actually wrote a cool review for the New York Times back when that publication used to review local cultural events.

TJG:  Then in 2002, you were part of the Gallery’s first commission series. Can you talk about working on that project?

JL: That was for an insane group of some of my favorite musiciansJeff Ballard, Larry Grenadier, Miguel Zenon, and Mark Turner. It also featured Todd Low, who played the Chinese snake violin—the erhu—and taught me some traditional songs for that instrument which I arranged for the band and that was so cool!

TJG: That’s quite a lineup!

JL: Yeah. And then later I brought in other projects including a duo with drummer Dan Weiss, where Miriam Crowe, a visual design and lighting artist, created a really cool mini-installation of rose-colored hanging ornaments lit in a really cool way.

TJG: One thing that’s interesting to me is that you didn’t document these projects on record, like you have with Now vs. Now. What do think the reason is for that?

JL: I feel the early 2000s predated the idea that you have to document every single thing you do. I know the Gallery documented all of those performances for their own catalog

TJG: It’s all on MiniDisc!

JL: [Laughs]. At the time, I would have loved to record those projects, but I think it was too much. It wouldn’t have been financially possible, and we didn’t have great recording equipment of our own at that time. Now, it’s kind of a no brainer—you have a show, so you record it, video it, make content. If it’s a good show, it could even be a record. Back then, people weren’t really thinking like that. In improvised music and jazz, I feel people were more appreciative of being in the moment and accepting that that moment as being a future memory and a feeling, as opposed to a document you can revisit. If you know you can’t revisit something, you’ll be sure to pay attention more, to really experience it with your entire being.

I’ve always done a lot of experimentation, but in terms of pooling resources to actually release an album, I always put extra pressure on myself to make sure that shit is really good and feel confident about what I’m presenting. I think that’s a big reason why there was such a big gap between my big band records and Now vs. Now. For ten years before Now vs. Now, I was experimenting with different groups, mixing styles, getting my feet wet with electronics and with extended song form, playing at Nublu and other spots. I recorded gigs for myself, but I never thought, “Yeah, this is ready to be a record.”

We also relied on record labels back then and we don’t need to anymore. If we all could have released shit on Bandcamp in 2002, we all would have been doing it. That didn’t exist back then.

I mean, there must have been artists in the early millennium who were thinking like that. Marc Ribot comes to mind, since he’s so radically independent. A great example is Sun Ra, who was a relentlessly prolific DIY recording artist before anyone even did that. But I didn’t grow up in a DIY culture, unfortunately. I kind of wish I did. I had to learn that a little later.

TJG: I think Sun Ra and Marc Ribot are good examples, because I associate that DIY ethos with a lot of the downtown improvisers and artist collectives like the AACM. 

JL: You’re right. I feel like in the downtown jazz scene, there’s a lot of crossover into other experimental, DIY scenes, and those experimental scenes are purely for art’s sake, and there’s not necessarily any expectation or want or need to be more than that. I would say that experimental artists in this country are basically forced to do everything themselves because they don’t receive any type of support. But it fills a cultural gap and is absolutely needed.

TJG: I want to end by talking a bit about yourself as a kind of “elder statesman” of The Jazz Gallery. Back in 2015, you worked with pianist James Francies as part of the Gallery’s Mentoring Series. What made you want to be involved in the series and how did you choose James?

JL: When Rio asked me about getting involved in the series, I had recently been up at a place in Harlem and heard James at a jam session. I was totally blown away. I had just met him that night and talked for a bit, so I didn’t really know him. I thought of him immediately regarding the series.

It was a little weird for me at first. If I’m a mentor, there’s this stipulation that I’m the teacher and I’m inviting someone to learn from me. I wasn’t really comfortable with that. But when I saw James play, I saw someone who was inspiring me, so I flipped the whole idea. James then happens to be a very humble and dedicated musician and a very nice human being. I think it worked out in a really cool way because he got to learn some stuff about my songs and my approach just from the experience of playing in Now Vs Now. And he truly inspired all of us as well!

Since then, I’ve seen him get more into electronic instruments and he does it in a very different way than I do it, which is awesome. He found the kinds of instruments that fit into the music he wants to make—he became a multi-keyboardist. It seems like there was a bit of influence there. I just think it’s awesome that he’s gotten so many opportunities, and I’m not surprised, because he’s freakishly good.

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