Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thirty Years in NYC

In March of 1983 I moved to New York City with enough money saved (having spent a year and a half on the road with a big band) to last about a year.  $350 (split three ways with roommates) got me a third floor apartment in Chelsea complete with crumbling  walls, corner drug dealers and the occasional rat.  A classic stereotype that also happened to be true.  Days were spent practicing and jamming with other musicians.  Nights were spent hanging out in clubs, sitting in and trying to hustle work.  Thankfully I was able to gain enough traction to maintain my New York residence after the initial money ran out although for the next several years I was literally living month to month.  Fast forward to today, and here I am with a family, living a life in music, thinking about all the changes that have taken place in the intervening years and trying to imagine what the future will look like for our corner of the music business. 

In 1996 (when the internet was still new) I wrote a “how to” article for the International Saxophone Homepage, a do-it-yourself treatise as applied to the jazz and improvisation scene.  I can’t help but think about how I might write such an article today although that’s probably better left to someone younger than I, someone who’s figuring out for themselves how best to navigate the scene as a newcomer to the city.  And while the topic still arises as to whether musicians should come to New York City at all (there are arguments for and against) I most definitely feel that as in any type of business, you want to hang out with the people who are doing what you want to be doing.  Against seemingly heavy odds, there’s a lot of great work taking place here.  So yes, show up, make yourself useful and at the very least you will be the better musician for having put in the time.  As for the the pro and con arguments, remember, it’s not about making a living playing music in NYC.  It’s about living in an artistic nerve center, learning your craft to your fullest potential, collaborating with like minded peers, making things happen and then taking it out into the rest of the world.  

It’s become a cliché to say that the city constantly changes.  But it’s true.  I don’t miss the rats and the corner drug dealers, but I do miss some of the independent minded people and neighborhoods from back in the day.  One could say the culture was more conducive to making music and art (although it’s never been easy) but I don’t buy into the argument that says that culture has to be dangerous and anarchic to be creative.  The scene then was probably more concentrated, giving the feeling of everything happening everywhere all at once.  It’s a bit more diffuse now with more musicians living in Brooklyn and surrounding areas.  And of course technology is changing the culture in New York just as it is most everywhere else.  While I embrace this technology (I was one of the first musicians to have a web site) I am coming to feel more and more strongly that not everything should happen on a screen and through speakers.  It makes me think more about the quality and depth of our collective experiences.  And there are always plenty of face to face opportunities for that in New York City.

In 2003 I was asked to write an article for All About Jazz New York upon my twentieth year in New York.  In rereading it now I’m struck by one particular issue that seems to have changed for me over the past decade.  While I still feel just as strongly about creating and developing one’s own musical expression I feel much more compassionate towards the idea of “tradition”.  It’s complicated.  I used to think tradition was about style but I’m seeing it differently now.  Sound conception, rhythmic conception, performance values all change over time and yet the bench marks set by the creators of this music will always remain a challenge for us to address.  And yet some of these musical expressions may well die out.  I used to not care so much.  Now I care a great deal.  

As I look back over the last thirty years I realize that my early experiences were unique to the time I lived in.  The ideals that were instilled in my generation were indeed part of a tradition and they need to be carried forward to upcoming generations, musician to musician.  Not so that younger musicians will do things in the same way, but so that they will understand the difference between those things that are timeless and those things that we refer to as style.  Creativity is the tradition.  The raw materials don’t actually change all that much.   In looking back over the past thirty years here in New York City I feel as if I am just beginning to appreciate what some of these timeless qualities are and how to keep them alive, through reinvention.


  1. Ellery, this is an excellent article. I am from Russia/Israel and moved to NYC from MA, where I went to grad school. Interestingly enough, I came from "traditional" playing, but NY "flexed" me up, so I got really interested in free form and spontaneous composing, as well as went deeper into Tristano's and Warne Marsh' legacy. NY is still a place for freedom in music, and since no one is making money by playing anyway, musicians are kind and attentive to each other.

  2. Thanks, Ellery. Your blog remains probably the most intelligent thing on the web for those interested in the creative process as well as the music itself. You should write more often.


  3. Thanks Ron, I'll get some more things up in time...

  4. Creativity is the tradition: the only way to make one's work truly traditional is by a successful attack on the tradition. But, of course, one never knows whether it's succesful in advance...

  5. thank you, i have been thinking a lot about my early days in new york city, 1980.. it seemed that all the jazz musicians in the world were here , playing ,walking about the village, i found an apt-no first or last months rent ( ha ) and moved in complete with neighborhood drug dealers and stolen car rings . still i loved hanging out at bradleys and talking to other musicians til dawn. in 1981 we bought the whole building from the city on a low income housing program, and i am still in the east village playing jazz. a lot of the clubs closed after 9-11 , and things are always changing..but the 80's and 90s were amazing for me and i feel lucky to have recorded with some of my jazz idols. in 2005 i got my first computer , and so many cd projects are online now..connecting with musicians worldwide is great.. the live playing and amazing creativity are still here.. moving out to brooklyn a bit but the city is still an amazing place for jazz -clp -flute nyc