Think of avant-garde jazz and New York City immediately comes to mind: the Knitting Factory, John Zorn, David Ware, William Parker, Cecil Taylor, Rashied Ali. It’s all about skronking sax freakouts and swinging dissonant cool, deep rhythmic spirituality and the soundtrack to bohemian fantasy.
It’s difficult to imagine the Big Apple without that cutting edge. Chicago, too, has a scene. Even Philly has one. And L.A.
Not yet. But soon—if Marc Minsker and Arts for Art have anything to say about it.
One of the highlights of the avant-jazz year in New York is the annual Vision Festival, a summit meeting of major artists organized by Arts for Art, the nonprofit promotions group run by bassist Parker and his wife, dancer Patricia Nicholson. Now, thanks largely to the promotions work of the Transparent Productions crew, which began bringing such artists to the District in 1997, the ground here has proved fertile enough for the first spinoff of Arts for Art, organized locally by recent South Carolina transplant Minsker.
Transparent Productions fed the District’s avant-garde-jazz aficionados a steady diet of the real thing: small-group and solo recitals by Parker, William Hooker, Joe Morris, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Charles Gayle, Susie Ibarra, Billy Bang, and other, more obscure heavy hitters. All told, the five guys behind Transparent—Larry Appelbaum, Thomas Stanley, Herb Taylor, Bobby Hill, and Vince Kargatis—organized more than 50 concerts crammed into donated spaces across Northwest, with a signature modus operandi: The total door went to the musicians.
“Our intention was to present music that we love without exploiting the artists or the audience,” Appelbaum explains, via e-mail. “It’s amazing what you can do if you donate your time and don’t have to worry about making a profit or breaking even.”
But in the past year, the Transparent collective has dispersed, with Stanley headed to grad school and Kargatis moving to Greece. “For the time being,” Appelbaum notes, “Transparent appears to be in a holding pattern.”
Cue Minsker, who had earned a reputation as a concert promoter in Columbia, S.C., while completing a graduate degree in English. At the University of South Carolina (USC), Minsker formed a university-funded student organization called the Creative Music and Film Society, which, from 1997 to 1999, brought 38 jazz groups to town.
“Not to brag, but in South Carolina, it was very, very easy to do a concert and get all the newspapers to write about it, because not much happens,” Minsker notes in his distinctive Southern accent. “The first concert I did was [pianist Matthew] Shipp and Parker in South Carolina. I had seen William play in New York, and that’s how I got him to come down.”
In 1997, Minsker volunteered for the first time at the second Vision Fest, beginning a much longer association with Parker. At least eight of the USC concerts included the bassist. “It was really great, because it was kind of a homecoming for him,” Minsker says. “William’s family, his aunts and uncles, live in Orangeburg, which is a little farming town. So William would come down for two nights in Columbia and just go the next day to see his relatives.”
Minsker’s fiancée’s job brought him to the District last September, and he hit the ground running. He made local connections alongside Appelbaum and accepted a challenge from Nicholson to promote under the Arts for Art name. Occasionally working in parallel with Transparent, Minsker has brought three shows to D.C. so far: solos by flutist Robert Dick and saxophonist Evan Parker, and a William Parker-Nicholson collaboration. Next up: three nights of concerts for a Vision Fest in D.C. on May 27-29. (Minsker isn’t alone in keeping the new music coming: Jim Ayre, guitarist for local avant-rockers Rake and percussionist for From Quagmire, has been presenting experimental free improvisation at the Museum of Contemporary Art; Chuck Bettis, frontman for All Scars and the Trance and the Arcade, runs the Mass Particles series at Black Cat; and Stanley, leader of the cosmic jazz-funk project Noumenal Lingam, plans to bring occasional shows as Soundz Impossible.)
Already a jazz nerd at 29, Minsker bubbles with enthusiasm for the scene whenever he talks about his work on the 3DC Vision Festival. Minsker can’t just note who’s on each bill—he rambles on about career stats and recent D.C. appearances and even who taught whom. Minsker himself is a musician who “used to play rock ‘n’ roll” but has switched to upright bass (he admits to the possibility of Parker’s influence) and even did a couple shows with experimental improv country guitarist Eugene Chadbourne down south. What’s he play these days? “I wouldn’t say jazz,” he answers. “It’s extremely out improvisation. I can swing if I have to, but that’s not where my interests lie.”
The Minsker package—boyish charm and organizational savvy—is key to Arts for Art’s expansion to Washington. “I wouldn’t do what I’m doing in D.C. unless there was someone I trusted,” notes Nicholson. “[Minsker] is not only enthusiastic, he’s really good at doing what he says he’s going to do. That’s actually a unique combination.”
In establishing the Arts for Art branch, Minsker immediately saw the need to collaborate with Transparent. He met Appelbaum at the New York Vision Festival years ago, and they immediately shared information about their local promotions. “When I came in, my original intention was just to do concerts with Arts for Art,” Minsker says, “but Larry approached me and said, ‘Why don’t you do stuff with Transparent?’” Appelbaum took Minsker around on a scouting mission to show him workable spots for the festival and suggested that he take over the Web site (www.geocities.com/eyelounge/DC) and e-mail lists that have been crucial to Transparent’s grass-roots publicity efforts. Plus, Minsker says, “I wanted to tie in to their reputation. If I had gone around and said, ‘I work for Arts for Art—we’re doing concerts,’ [people] would say, ‘OK, I have no reason to believe that you’re actually going to be able to do these concerts you’re talking about.’”
But Arts for Art plans to raise the stakes in Washington jazz promotions through its ability to gather funds as a registered not-for-profit group. Transparent alone has been hindered by its payment plan: Because there was no advance money, the group couldn’t meet musicians’ requested guarantees, keeping the larger groups and bigger names from traveling here. With a couple of other local underwriters, Minsker is completing the application to add the D.C. chapter to Arts for Art’s existing federal nonprofit status. “Once we get everything off the ground,” Minsker says, “we’re going to be applying for more funding for the Vision Festival for next year.”
The grant funding would be split between D.C. and New York. “It strengthens [Arts for Art’s] case to show we’re working in collaboration with artists from places other than just the Lower East Side of New York.”
Nicholson, however, thinks less about this bottom line in describing the benefits of having a D.C. branch of her organization. “You have to understand that Arts for Art is artists,” she says. “The purpose of Arts for Art is to put this music on the map, and this art form, and all the concepts of collaborations and understanding the importance of avant-jazz to the music’s growth….That’s actually pretty darn practical. You do that by presenting it in different places, and raising money, and bringing consciousness to that idea.”
Nicholson is hopeful that Washington is ready for Arts for Art’s plans. “It’s been a really receptive place. The reason people were willing to work off the door in D.C. is because you make money, and you make money because there are people there. If they’re coming for one concert, just think how happy they’ll be to get a bunch of things happening at the same time.
“That was the idea of the original Vision Festival: You put a bunch of things together and you just make it so obvious how exciting it is.”
The schedule for the local Vision Festival, which runs simultaneously with the New York event, includes three nights of top-flight avant-garde jazz, including a first-ever U.S. appearance by Japanese drummer Sabu Toyozumi in a rare duet with Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman; a solid trio led by violinist Bang; and a tête-à-tê#te between Parker and drummer Hamid Drake that promises to be smoking, if their recent CD is any indication. Local artists will play opening gigs and gain critical exposure.
“We should not forget what District Curators did for nearly 20 years at some places like d.c. space and other venues,” says Appelbaum. “I believe there is an audience for creative improvised music here in D.C. More power to anyone who brings it.” CP
The 3DC Vision Festival will be held May 27-29 at Gallery 505, 505 7th St. NW.