NEW YORK — Am I really at the focal point of jazz? Is this still the city in which all ambitious artists must eventually establish themselves in order to earn a place in the history books?
A good argument can be made for the affirmative answer; nevertheless, certain unsettling developments recently have indicated that all is not as cheerful as it seems.
Nightlife in the clubs, for instance, has certainly cooled off. Some 15 rooms now offer jazz attractions, but because of a local ordinance forbidding the use of drums or horns in certain areas, four offer only piano soloists or piano-bass duos; six others are devoted primarily to singers. The five that provide instrumental combos--Fat Tuesday's, Sweet Basil, the Blue Note, the Gate and the Vanguard--are in Greenwich Village; not a single mid-town jazz club remains. Of the five, only one hires big bands--Mel Lewis' Orchestra plays the Vanguard every Monday--and two others vacillate between combos and vocalists.
The Lush Life, where the superb Toshiko Akiyoshi band used to play every Monday, fell victim to the no-horns law; it is now a Mexican restaurant. As for Harlem, you may catch a jazz act now and then at the Apollo, but the uptown jazz club scene breathed its last gasp when Smalls Paradise, a cabaret that rose to fame in the 1920s, closed down.
That this famous landmark had disappeared was a well-kept secret. John Hammond, the veteran talent scout who during his Yale freshman days (1930) weekended at Smalls, home of the legendary Charlie Johnson band, filled me in: "They went into bankruptcy and sold the furniture a couple of months ago. Incredibly, the newspapers never reported it."
Compensating for the relative paucity of nightclub action are the frequent concerts and so-called festivals (a word now applied to any series of two or more concerts at the same hall). Recently, the Fulton Market Jazz Hall ("Just three blocks south of the Brooklyn Bridge") announced five evenings devoted respectively to Buddy Rich, Herbie Mann, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton and Dave Brubeck as "Jazz Festival '86."
The real New York Jazz Festival, George Wein's pride and joy here since 1972, almost didn't make it this year. The five-year sponsorship by Kool had ended; shopping around for a new angel, Wein was saved at the count of nine when a Japanese electronic equipment company, JVC, took over.
The festival will run from June 20 through June 29, but its flagship location, Carnegie Hall, will be unavailable. Andrew Carnegie's 95-year-old cultural center is undergoing extensive restoration. Avery Fisher Hall, Town Hall and the other regularly used venues will still be used. The intimate piano solo recitals formerly held at Carnegie Recital Hall will be shifted to the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center.
The Count Basie Orchestra, no longer under Thad Jones' direction (he quit last Tuesday and has returned to his home in Copenhagen), will launch the festival with a moonlight cruise. As has become the custom for the past several years, there will be a strong accent on tribute events. Natalie Cole, George Benson and Jon Hendricks will take part in a salute to Nat King Cole; three saxophone giants--Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney--will be the subjects of a Town Hall celebration, and Wild Bill Davison, now in his 81st year, will surround himself with what promises to be the liveliest available bunch of senior citizen jazzmen, among them Art Hodes, Yank Lawson, Jimmy McPartland and Milt Hinton.
Younger artists will not be entirely neglected. The sextet known as OTB (Out of the Blue), heard on an impressive Blue Note debut album some months back, will make its festival bow. Guitarist John Scofield (ex-Miles Davis) will be on hand one evening at St. Peter's Church.
Certainly the most newsworthy new group is the Ganelin Trio, the premier Soviet jazz combo, which has been set for its first U.S. tour from June 21 (at Town Hall) through July 12. Having heard three of its many albums, I can attest to the probability that this will be the most talked-about jazz event of the year.
As listeners in 15 cities will observe, the Ganelin Trio is phenomenal--largely avant-garde and variously outrageous, chaotic, noisy, swinging, adventurous, consonant, dissonant, witty (among its titles are "The Return of the Prodigal Fun," "It's Too Good to Be Jazz," and "Who's Afraid of Anthony Braxton?") and totally unpredictable.
Organized in 1973, based in Lithuania, the trio consists of Vyacheslav Ganelin, 42, on piano, basset horn, guitar and percussion; Vladimir Chekasin, 39, on saxes, clarinet, flute, ocarina and percussion, and Vladimir Tarasov, 39, on drums and percussion.