New York Jazz Scene Survives Sandy
Posted 11/6/2012

As Hurricane Sandy swept across New York last week, the city’s jazz community was hit hard. Downtown clubs lost power and closed for most of the week, leaving owners and musicians without income, even as some were scrambling to find livable shelter. But the community came together and the scene—save, perhaps, for those most affected by the storm’s fury —is returning to some semblance of normal.

Although most of the big clubs waited for power to be restored before roaring back to life—the Blue Note reopened on Saturday with the Chick Corea-Stanley Clarke Band—Smalls, the modest basement club on West 10th Street, fashioned a more low-key return. Still without power, the club on Friday hosted an acoustic jam illuminated by candles and battery-powered lights—a “symbolic gesture” that packed the house and had a salutary effect on the neighborhood, said club owner Spike Wilner.

Over the course of the week, emotions had grown increasingly frayed. “I just couldn’t bear to have the club closed another night,” Wilner said. By the time power was back on Saturday, Smalls had been dark for five nights and lost the equivalent of nearly a month’s rent. Bartenders, waiters and managers felt the hit, as did musicians like pianist Richard Sussman, whose CD launch was canceled on Thursday—part of a triple-whammy that included a canceled presentation by Sussman’s students at the Manhattan School of Music and the loss of power at his Rockland County home.

Stories of lives in near-suspension played out across the blackout zone south of 34th Street. Bassist Ben Allison, whose Greenwich Village home sits squarely in the zone, called off rehearsals and almost had to cancel club dates in the Midwest while he searched for accommodations for his family and a flight out of town. At the same time, he waited anxiously for the power to return at the Jazz Standard, where he was scheduled to present a 20th anniversary retrospective of his Jazz Composers Collective that was eight months in the planning. That gig will start a six-night run on Tuesday. The Village Vanguard also canceled a weeklong residency featuring drummer Jeff Ballard, who was making his leader debut.

If the storm’s clouds had a silver lining, it was the atmosphere of cooperation they fostered. With his Village home and office blacked out, Wilner got the go-ahead to use desk space at Jazz at Lincoln Center, whose Columbus Circle location was up and running on Wednesday. JALC also offered Smalls’ live-video subscribers free admission to trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s Wednesday show at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, said Jason Olaine, the director of programming and touring.

While institutions were joining forces to keep business going, aid agencies began focusing on musicians placed in real peril by the storm surge. No one knows the number of such musicians, but Wendy Oxenhorn, the executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, which helps musicians in need, noted that she had begun to hear from more of them as people got their communications back. In the coming days and weeks, she speculated in an email, “we will have our work cut out for us.”

Meanwhile, the foundation has already helped at least one displaced musician: veteran bassist Santi Debriano. After losing his Staten Island home and most of his prized possessions—with the notable exception of his bass—Debriano, holed up with his fiancée and little cash in his parents’ Long Island home, was granted enough money to rent an apartment in Jersey City.

The turn of events from hopeless to hopeful was profound, he said, allowing him the sudden luxury of musing about making music. On Saturday, as he prepared to move his family, Debriano, who in a 30-year career has played with artists from saxophonist Archie Shepp to guitarist Roni Ben-Hur, said he could even envision a time when Hurricane Sandy would provide creative inspiration.

“I might,” he said, “be able to look around, hug my wife, take a deep breath and write something about it.”

Phillip Lutz


From left: Michael Basden, Grant Stewart and Dwayne Clemons performing at a candlelit Smalls post-Sandy (Photo: Sacha Lecca)

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