Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

NYC in the 21st Century

Guitarist Marc Ribot has written a very interesting article on the economics of jazz in 21st century New York City (HT to fellow blogger James Hale at Jazz Chronicles).

I don't claim anything like Ribot's insider's perspective on the scene here, but I have been blundering in and out of the city for over 30 years now, and I've seen some major changes. 70's New York was the hellhole of Charle's Bronson's "Death Wish," a city full of poverty, crime and violence (sort of like my home town of New Orleans these days) but the 1970's were also pretty much the last days of affordable bohemianism in the city. I remember looking at an apartment (and as any past or present New Yorker can tell you, what passes for a closet in many smaller cities is a 'spacious studio' here) on Allen Street on the Lower East Side around 1979. The ad in the Village Voice (I wish to hell I'd saved it) described it as being a "locked building" (code in those days for 'shit-hole with no doorman') on a "noisy, filthy block," and indeed it was; two small rooms on the second floor with the bathtub in the kitchen, covered with soot that had blown in through an open window. $250 a month was the price.

Darlene and I just moved out of a place we were subletting for two weeks just a few blocks west of there, at Spring and Mulberry. The leaseholder is currently paying $1850 a month and considers it a steal. We are now holed up in a 6th floor walk-up on Thompson off Bleeker, 250 square feet of beatnik atmosphere that a young Bob Dylan probably could have snapped up for $60 a month in 1962. Currently it's costing it's out of town leaseholder (who, in a display of stunning synchronicity, just played the Cellar in Vancouver) two grand a month.

The point I'm trying to make with this little real estate parable is that barring a complete change in attitude in the way our culture views the arts, New York's days as a center of artistic production (as opposed to artistic commerce) are numbered.

To a certain extent the train has already left the station. The currently running JVC jazzfestival lineup is looking pretty stale. There's some cool elder statesmen (Lee Konitz) and a nice nod to the music's roots and a supportive gesture to the current plight of New Orlean's musicians in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. But the reason I'm not going to see them is indicative of how the 'success' of New York in virtually eliminating people of modest means from it's demographic is also working against it's continued viability as an arts Mecca. Because frankly (a) I'm a jazz musician and I can't afford to shell out $120 for a pair of ducats for me and my wife, and (b) why the hell would I, when I can see them at Preservation Hall in New Orleans for $8? For that matter, the last time I saw Herbie Hancock (another JVC headliner) he was sitting in at New Orlean's Snug Harbor with Terence Blanchard, and I'd paid twenty bucks to get into the club. As both New York rents and New York ticket prices become more and more detatched from all but the wealthy's ability to pay, the 'Jazz Center' of the universe increasingly becomes...elsewhere.

Meanwhile I don't see any emerging young players here of the stature of Wynton Marsalis . Or Dave Douglas. Or even the Harper Brothers.

That's not to say that they are not there, or will not be there in the future. What I'm suggesting is that the number of young players who are willing to come here and live like vermin and make the sacrifices necessary to play $20 a night jazz gigs is getting smaller. And the number of first rate players willing to stay here over the long haul is getting smaller still. Vast swaths of the city, like the Lower East Side, Soho, Noho, Nolita, Tribeca, and the area around my cousin's place on east 27th (which used to be a Greek Neighborhood. Telly Savalis was born there) have been transformed into essentially theme parks for wealthy college students and tech entrepreneurs, who stay a few years, drink a lot of 14 dollar Crantinis, and move on. The rest of Manhattan is the preserve of either the Stinkin Rich or the very, very poor. The amount of energy necessary to just make the rent in this kind of environment doesn't leave much time for practising and creating.

Meanwhile everywhere I go, I keep running into musicians who can really play. Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco, players who are just killin. Some of these towns the scene is very small. While waiting in Armstrong Airport for my flight to come here to New York, I ran into drummer Shannon Powell, saxophonist Roderick Paulin, and trumpeter (and long time Dr. John sideman) Charlie Miller. They were on their way to a gig in Switzerland. Charlie told me he's living in a little town in Mississippi since Katrina and "I'm the whole music scene there, man." I told him I was headed to New York. "I lived there 28 years, bruh. It ain't like it used to be. They can keep it."

A lot of cities these days, there's an embarrassment of really great players. One of those is Vancouver, Canada, where I'm headed next for a pair of gigs at their jazzfest, one on the 30th with my good friend Colleen Savage, and one on July 1st with my Canadian Quartet (Jon Roper, guitar, Tony Foster, B-3, and Joe Poole, drums). Like Charlie in New Orleans, a lot of these guys could care less about NYC. For them, it's all about airport access.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Fraser Macpherson.

Things are going to be a bit hectic for me the next few weeks. I'll be in New York from June 18th to June 25, then I fly back to New Orleans just in time to turn right around and fly to Vancouver for a pair of jazzfest gigs (June 30th with my good friend Colleen Savage, and July 1st with my own quartet; Tony Foster, B-3, Jon Roper, guitar, and Joe Poole, drums).

Since I'm headed up to Vancouver, this seems like a good time to talk about the jazz scene in that city, past and present. Americans I deal with often seem suprised at how big the city is (about 2 million people) , how many first rate players there are, and , paradoxically, how few jazz venues there are.

People in New Orleans are especially baffled by this. It's inconceivable to them that a town that boasts first rank jazz musicians like Brad Turner, Ross Taggart, Cam Ryga, Mike Allen, and Miles Black would not be offering these people major support at the municiple level. New Orleans after all, has a 'jazz culture' (as opposed to New York, which has a 'jazz industry') and is very aware of the volume of tourist dollars this generates. Vancouver does almost nothing in this area, yet is blessed with perhaps a much richer artistic scene than it deserves. Tourism in the city is promoted on what municipal officials perceive as the town's strenghths; shopping, skiing, and sailing.

Part of the problem is a culture-wide decline in the fortunes of live entertainment over the last several decades. People just don't place the same value in 'going out' as they used to. Part of it is geographical-political. Vancouver is physically isolated by mountains and removed by distance from the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa center of Canadian culture, and the U.S.-Canada border is a formidable obstacle to performers, Free Trade agreements notwithstanding. Free Trade has always been more about free movement of capital than people in any case.

Then there's the embarrassing fact that, prior to the Canadian Content broacasting regulations of the early seventies (which dictated that 30% of music broadcast on public airwaves be Canadian) most Canadian artists had to establish careers abroad, usually in the United States, to achieve recognition at home.

All this became present to me recently with the release of a 'new' CD by Canadian saxophonist Fraser Macpherson.


It's hard to put into words Fraser's place in my life (and many thanks to his son Guy for making sure I got a copy of the CD). He was my saxophone teacher and mentor for a couple of years in the mid 70s, but perhaps more importantly he was a friend and an inspiration from then until his death in 1993 from lung cancer.

Here's a biography and partial discography.


When I met Frazz he was an avuncular presence, an 'old guy' of 49 (four years younger than I am now). He had a big, classic tenor sound in the Ben Webster mold, laid back, with a legato articulation. His stock in trade was interpreting the 'Great American Songbook," ballads and pop tunes by the great American popular composers working between the wars. It wasn't exactly cutting edge stuff, and it certainly wasn't what I and my twenty-something contemporaries were interested in playing, but Fraser was such a great musician that we couldn't help but admire him, even if we did think his choice of tunes was a little square. He was a pro's pro who always delivered the goods, whether there were five people in the audience or five hundred, and he always, always swung.

This 'new' release, culled from early sixties CBC Radio broadcasts, showed me the Frazz I never knew, a vigorous, full of piss and vinegar be-bopper with more in common with the young Art Pepper than late period Ben Webster. It reminds me again how criminally indifferent Canadians sometimes are to their own local treasures, since there's little doubt in my mind that had this record been released then on a U.S. label with good distribution Fraser would have a much, much higher historical profile than he does. And up until the 1970s, there was no significant recording industry in Canada.

Canadians, in their own low key way, are fiercely nationalistic. I guess you sort of have to be, living next to the huge, indifferent and culturally oblivious behemoth that is America. Yet at the same time Canadians have a strange, love-hate relationship with the U.S., a weird mixture of envy and moral superiority which sometimes plays out as a conviction that all the really 'cool' stuff is happening in 'the States,' especially as regards music and entertainment. This of course is nonsense, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Quiet as it's kept, Vancouver has always had a reputation for first class musicianship. For players on the scene these days, that often translates into a day job or a teaching gig. In Fraser's time it meant playing commercial music in the city's thriving nightclub scene.

For a look at that, check out this wonderful 1966 CBC television documentary, "Fraser Macpherson: Diary of a Musician."