Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why can't we have listening parties?

Whenever Jazz at Lincoln Center announces another of its free listening parties, I turn green and grit my teeth in frustration that I can't be there.

Here's the latest, from a press release that just arrived in my email box:
Free Listening Party with Bassist/Composer Ben Allison April 6 
In time for Jazz Appreciation Month, Jazz at Lincoln Center hosts its eighth Listening Party of the 2010-11 season with bassist and composer Ben Allison as he offers a sneak preview of his newest release, Action-Refraction (Palmetto Records, to be released on April 12), with Jazz at Lincoln Center's Ken Druker. 

The release of Action-Refraction marks gifted bassist, composer, and bandleader Ben Allison's tenth album—and first collection of music by other artists. With nine critically acclaimed albums as a bandleader to his credit (the last six reaching number one on the CMJ National Jazz Radio Chart), Allison has solidified his reputation as a cutting edge composer. To celebrate his tenth album release, Allison has turned his ear towards the music of some of his favorite artists, creating an inspired, atmospheric, and at times, art-rock mixtape featuring the music of PJ Harvey, Donny Hathaway, Thelonious Monk, Neil Young, Samuel Barber, and Roger Nichols. The idea was sparked when Allison wondered how it would sound "to refract some of my favorite tunes through the prism of an electro-acoustic orchestra featuring two electric guitars, bass clarinet, saxophone, analog synthesizer, piano, acoustic bass, and drums." The album is full of "happy accidents"—unplanned moments that capture a musical conversation in flux. 
For more information on this series, visit 
When: Wednesday, April 6, 2011, 7 p.m.
Where: Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, New York, NY.
How: Event is free and seating is open to the public on a first come, first served basis. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Past listening parties have featured Randy Weston, Matt Wilson, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Joe Lovano, and Maria Schneider, to name a few.

How hard would it be to do this in Minneapolis/St. Paul? Plenty of area artists release CDs, and they have CD release events, most often at clubs and cafes. But those are performances. I'm assuming a listening party involves the artist(s) talking about the music and how it came about, and fielding questions from the audience. It's an opportunity to go inside the music with the artist and understand it better.

Who could do this? MacPhail? McNally-Smith? The West Bank School of Music? Studio Z? Homewood Studio? The Rogue Buddha gallery, former home of the now-defunct iQuit music series? Is there a room at the Walker? (I don't mention the Dakota only because it costs a lot to open their doors. Any venue must be staffed, and staff must be paid.) What about a room at a Minneapolis public library?


  1. What about the Black Dog? It's not too far from what they're doing now. Just tweak format and expectations?

  2. Pamela, given the topic of this post you might be interested to know that Jazz St. Louis had a "CD Listening Club" that met about 20 times over a two-year period before it was discontinued last year.

    Their approach was a little different than what you describe, though - the idea was to pick a famous CD, like "Kind of Blue," "Saxophone Colossus," or similar well-known works, and then have a discussion, led by someone from Jazz St. Louis and a guest. Sessions were held at a local Borders outlet, with a discount offered there on the CD of the month.

    Some guests were local musicians & academics qualified to discuss the music, but toward the end they resorted to a couple of local "broadcast personalities" who had nothing to do with jazz other than claiming, without much prior evidence in the public record, to be fans. To my jaundiced eye, it was basically a case of "stunt-casting" to try to stir up interest, as opposed to finding people who might be likely to have something meaningful to say about the music at hand.

    While I haven't asked anyone at JSL specifically why the series was discontinued, I'm guessing that lack of audience interest was the cause. Not sure how this related to the host situation - if they had had better hosts, would the turnout have been better? Can't say for sure, but I do know that there are/were many qualified local musicians, educators, and, yes, even a couple of music journalists who could have co-hosted such sessions but, for whatever reason, were never asked.

    Having musicians discuss their own work avoids this problem. In that case, all you'd really need is a hospitable venue with a decent playback system, and the means to get people to turn out for it....

  3. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, Dean. There was a "jazz listening group" in Mpls a few years back that met a few times--people brought in music they liked and played it for each other. I'm thinking more along the lines of the JALC model: artists talking about their own new releases, with a knowledgeable moderator who comes prepared with questions. I'm meeting later this month with the station manager for KBEM, our local jazz radio station (88.5), to talk about ideas. I have shared your comments with her.

  4. Tom, the Black Dog occurred to me, too. Sara Remke is doing so much for music (especially improvised music) in this community--I'm truly grateful to her. But often it's not a listening room, even when terrific live music is happening. It's a cafe/wine bar/coffee shop in an artsy St. Paul neighborhood, and its doors are open to all, including people who talk and laugh loudly while sitting right in front of the musicians who are performing. So I'm not sure it would work for what I have in mind.

  5. I'll be interested to hear what comes out of your discussion with the radio station, Pamela. The basic idea is simple, and seems to me like it ought to be viable; the tricky part is in the implementation.


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