The German version of this essay has been published in the Jazzfest Berlin 2016 supplement [PDF, 1,7 MB].

For many, New York shares synonymity with jazz that is unrivalled by any other city. But admit it – when you think about the Big Apple’s jazz scene, the dimly lit jazz clubs of Manhattan are what comes to mind. What about Brooklyn, though? The young, creative inhabitants of New York’s City’s most populous borough has a distinctive scene of its own, with improvised and avant-garde jazz at its forefront. So what are the factors that contribute to one of North America’s most humble jazz scenes?

Manhattan’s high rent has few positives for those in New York’s creative hubs. Many musicians are lured across the East River to suburbs like Park Slope, Greenpoint and ultra-trendy Williamsburg. Manhattan’s loss is Brooklyn’s gain; with (slightly) less pressure on paying rent, surely comes more time and freedom to exercise creativity.

Das Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, New York © Roulette

Das Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, New York © Roulette

It’s not only artists who gravitate to Brooklyn, but venues, too. A stones-throw from the commercial music mecca of the Barclays Centre is a venue particularly noted for showcasing avant-garde and experimental artists; Roulette. Founded in 1978 by three musicians in Manhattan – before it relocated to Brooklyn in 2011 – it relied on donations for support; it’s thought that an unsolicited cheque sent to the venue in its early days was written by John Cage. Thes likes of Bill Frisell, Philip Glass and Yusef Lateef have all performed at Roulette, and it continues to draw on progressive artists in its programming.

Could experimental jazz be the sound of Brooklyn’s growing jazz scene? After all, Roulette, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and ibeam all embrace experimental artists in their programming. An artist who lives in Brooklyn is pianist and composer Amy Kohn. She explains:

“Brooklyn definitely attracts and encourages experimental jazz. You do feel part of a special community that’s juiced up about pushing musical limits.”

However, not everyone recognises Brooklyn as a mecca for the experimental. Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, who is recognised for his adventurous compositional techniques explains that he’s “not sure geography is the determining factor when it comes to experimentalism”. True; a collective music scene comes from shared attitudes and values, but surely, it can be spurred within a neighbourhood or city, whether it be the nature or nurture that drives it? It’s not unusual for a neighbourhood or city to be associated with a certain kind of music. In New York, we only need to look as far as the Bronx for the birth of hip hop, and Harlem for the eruption of bebop in Harlem’s smoky basement clubs. Could Brooklyn be developing a scene that will be able to categorise with more ease in the future?

Whilst tastes for the avant-garde are easily satisfied in Brooklyn, the borough’s scene and venues continues to diversify. Many performance spaces have sprung to life over the last decade, including Shapeshifter Lab. It’s true to say that the success of a new venue can never be deemed a safe bet, but when the co-owner and Creative Director is a well-renowned musician, it certainly helps. Bass player Matthew Garrison, son of Jimmy Garrison (bass player for John Coltrane), opened a Shapeshifter Lab in the Gowanus district four years ago. Whilst programming encompasses rising, progressive artists, it is not limited to a select taste. Widely popular artists like Snarky Puppy, Jack Dejohnette and North-Carolina but Brooklyn-based Becca Stevens have all passed through.

“What I like about the scene in Brooklyn is that it feels simultaneously big and small. There is a strong sense of community and camaraderie among musicians, but at the same time, it is possible to continually branch out, meet new musicians and explore all sorts of genres and sub-scenes … in other words, it never feels stagnant.”
Mary Halvorson

British pianist and composer Alexender Hawkins ponders that “genre-fluidity might be the key to identifying a Brooklyn style”. He elaborates on the genre-fluidity of the borough’s residing musicians; “It mirrors the cosmopolitan nature of the city; and on the other, it’s also a natural product of musicians needing to be stylistically adaptable in order to carve out a living in a crowded marketplace”.

A crowded scene it certainly is, rich with venues and performance spaces that showcase a wide variety of artists and styles of music. How long will it be before Brooklyn’s growing scene shines brighter than the lights of Manhattan’s jazz clubs?

Brooklyn-Berlin Dialogues, a series of three concerts@A-Trane at Jazzfest Berlin 2016.