What’s better? A $5 cover when you walk in, or a jar with a “suggested donation” sign?
Before you answer (and please, do answer!), think about this: Anymore, it’s crazy challenging to cobble together a decent living playing music. Which means it’s almost impossible to keep a band (playing any type of original music) together. Which means it’s difficult to develop a cohesive sound, let alone new ideas or new music. And on and on, into a vicious spiral that ends in some karaoke bar where crimes against music happen nightly, at no additional charge. We’ll always have “I Will Survive.”
This situation is doubly challenging in jazz or instrumental music. Some of Philadelphia’s best jam sessions are free; some of the least interesting musically require listeners and players to pay. What’s the best way to make sure that the members of a house band, people who play for four hours with just a few breaks, leave a club with at least gas money? Musician pay has been depressed for so long, many clubgoers probably don’t realize that the music accompanying their $15 appletinis is being made by people who are not getting paid.
As I’ve talked with the Milkboy Philly crew about the session that’ll start on September 27 in the tremendous new Milkboy second-floor space at the corner of 11th and Chestnut Streets, these questions keep recurring. There may be no easy resolution. Our goal is to develop a following for an evening of music that’s a bit different from what’s going on right now. That will take time. And it costs money. How to make it work?
So last night we had another gathering of the “Music Salon” crew out in Malvern. It’s hard to describe the proceedings; basically it’s a group of music lovers sitting around listening to records — and last night we were lucky to be hearing music on a system built by Geoff Daniels, the evening’s host. He’s built his own turntable and these speakers that might be the most accurate I’ve ever heard. Their sound is rich, complex, pure thrills with nothing in the way. Everyone involved brought great music to share, and even things we’ve heard a lot — Springsteen’s “Jungleland” — really resonated in that atmosphere.
I never bring vinyl, mostly because I don’t have much left. But in a long-overdue attic cleanup my wife found a copy of Fireballet’s Night On Bald Mountain, a 1975 record by a short-lived American prog-rock band in which they do a spot-on synthesizer-heavy rock version of the Mussorgsky symphonic classic. I’ve had it since my prog phase from high school, and hadn’t seen it in easily 20 years, so it was interesting to share both the surprisingly faithful rendition of Night On Bald Mountain and also a lovely original, “Atmospheres.” As the cover was passed around, one of our founding members, Arthur Mann, shook his head because for many years he worked with Jim Como, the lead singer and drummer of Fireballet, at Ryko. They’re still in touch.
What are the chances, really? A record I lost track of after high school from a band that was known marginally (though remains much beloved within a small circle of American progressive obsessives) turning up at a gathering in 2011, where a personal connection to one of the musicians is discovered?
If you’re curious, there are several Fireballet offerings on YouTube. Here’s a link to one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9dbPq8JkEo.
The question was tossed out in a tone of total skepticism: Is it possible to do a different kind of night devoted to creative music in Philadelphia? The conversation was about jam sessions, because there’s always a jam session somewhere in Philly, and my friend who’s been in the live music business here forever began ticking off a laundry list of aesthetic challenges associated with the time-honored ritual of the jam session: Songs that go on forever; a line of eager horn players waiting to play; no sense of a band sound – just one standard after another, with bebop classics thrown in for good measure. At some jams, it’s not even about the whole band, it’s just about the “look at me, look how fast I can play!” experience.
Then came the challenge: Does it have to be this way? Can it be done differently? Is it possible to “build” an evening of jazz that has a different feel to it? Might we create an open, inviting atmosphere, a listening vibe? What would go into such an evening?
We’re about to find out. Starting on September 27, the new Milkboy downtown will feature a weekly jazz-related happening hosted by yours truly. It’ll be anchored by the quintet I’ve been playing with and it will showcase many of the city’s engaging singers and fast-rising instrumentalists.
This blog begins as the shaping of this evening begins. Over the next few weeks, in this space, I hope to engage in some open brainstorming on the theme of “What Makes a Night?” When you think about it, the subject is surprisingly squishy: We all know what a cool vibe in a club feels like, but it’s not always obvious what goes into said vibe, all the little things like what happens between sets. Are we building an open cattle-call jam or something more curated, with a few carefully selected invited guests? Please jump into this conversation with ideas of all kinds, from abstract notions on the theme of “what makes a night?” to specific thoughts about what might help accelerate the growth and development of creative music in Philadelphia to catchy names that instantly let people know what to expect.
PS: check out the coolness! Milkboy in Philadelphia: http://www.milkboyphilly.com
well now. it has been years of watching blogland. silently. something about it didn’t click with me before (a treatise on this will follow later), could be simply that for a long time I was paid to write. giving away insights and ideas, however half-baked they might be, has seemed somehow less than fulfilling, if not an exercise in futility.
the hope is that this little corner will be different. if not useful exactly, at least quirky. interesting. mildly eyebrow-raising.