This weekend's New York Times had a great article about the New Haven Improvisers Collective, an awesome—and extremely welcoming—group of musicians who gather on the last Monday of every month at Neverending Books on State Street to explore the range of possibilities that improvised music has to offer. As the NYT article rightly points out, improvised music is most closely associated with jazz, but that genre doesn't have a lock on improvisation; one of the real pleasures of playing improvised music, in fact, is to explore the ways in which musical genres can be bent, broken, combined, or, in some magic moments, superseded. (Those with a keen eye will notice that I'm on the list of members of the collective. In the interest of full disclosure, this is because I played with the group for a few weeks in 2005 to write a story for the New Haven Advocate about the collective and their encounter with improvisational conductor Butch Morris. I haven't been back, for a variety of reasons that will all sound like excuses now, but I've been wanting to return for a long time—now that I'm a better musician and almost have the right gear. I learned more about music in the weeks I spent with them and Morris than I had in a couple of years, and I'm still to this day drawing from those lessons.)
The NHIC and Firehouse 12, a terrific club and jaw-dropping studio that routinely puts on shows of non-mainstream jazz and other music that defies categorization, deserve every bit of praise that the article heaps on them. But they're also emblematic of a larger characteristic of New Haven that I've found myself repeating many times over to people who ask me what it's like to live here.
As just about everyone who's lived in this area for longer than a year or so knows, New Haven labors under a reputation that is probably about ten years out of date. Many people outside of New Haven think of the place and imagine a city in trouble. But we know that it is not so. New Haven has its share of struggles, of course—and I do not mean to belittle those troubles at all, or perhaps even worse, aetheticize them—but it is a positive thing as much as it's a problem. It energizes the place, makes it vital. It makes the people who live here give a damn about it. And right now, New Haven is that wonderfully unstable combination of interesting and affordable. It is ethnically and culturally rich, thanks to both the town and gown sides of things. It is economically diverse. And it's a place where something like Firehouse 12 and the New Haven Improvisers Collective can exist without having to fight, every single minute, for survival.
The month or so before CBGB closed, you may remember, was a great time to write an article about a) the death of New York City as a vital cultural force or b) the inability of American pop culture to replicate anything like the heady heyday of the late 1970s. Obviously both of these statements dramatically overstated things. But nestled within the hyperbole is a kernel of truth: It is difficult to innovate and take chances—artistically or otherwise—when the cost of simply living is too high. God help me, I can't find the interview, but if I remember right, a reporter asked Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads if New York could ever produce another CBGB. No, said Frantz, it was just too expensive to run a business in New York and book bands the way Hilly Kristal, its owner, did (Though Brooklyn club Barbes challenges that assertion). Then he said something really neat: The next influential club, he argued—the one that incubates the bands that go on to have a strong effect on pop music—was probably going to be in a strip mall someplace, away from a huge urban center. I saw what he was saying. I thought of The Space, nestled in an industrial park in Hamden; it helped build an audience for the Providence-based band The Low Anthem, which led to their signing to Nonesuch. And I thought of Firehouse 12, providing a home—and a gorgeous home at that—for music that has trouble finding a stage. Based on the consistent tastes of their owners, both clubs have managed to develop scenes, and audiences. They've created that crucial vibe whereby people will go to see a show of someone they've never heard of simply because they trust the club to book someone good. This speaks a lot to Steve Rodgers (of The Space) and Nick Lloyd (of Firehouse 12) as excellent club owners. But it's also the town that they're in, full of people who want to hear good music—and make good music—and don't have to go broke to do it.