I am a relentless optimist — otherwise I wouldn’t be typing now — but there’s not much even I can muster up about the recent past and the continuing present. My arms get tired. But “we need to have something to look forward to,” wise words said by a friend. So even though my hope for the future might be built on something more delicate than empirical evidence, I offer it to you.
This journey into the future starts in the summer of 2007. It is not a lamentation, an elegy for what was lost. Rather it is a celebration of joys experienced and joys to come. With music, of course.
The Ear Inn, 2012 Photograph by Alexandra Marks
My involvement with this place — which looks like a bar but is really a shrine — goes back to the summer of 2007, before JAZZ LIVES existed. Jon-Erik Kellso (friend-hero) whom I’d first met at Chautauqua in September 2004, and later at The Cajun in 2005-6, told me about a new Sunday-night gig at The Ear Inn, a legendary place I’d never been to. I think I made the second Sunday, where he, Howard Alden, and Frank Tate played two very satisfying sets.
Incidentally, 326 Spring Street is a minute’s walk from the corner of Spring and Hudson, where the Half Note once stood. There, in 1972, I saw Ruby Braff, Jimmy Rushing, and Jake Hanna one night. Finest karma, I would say.
The band at The Ear Inn (not yet named The EarRegulars) — a collection of friends, eventually Jon and another horn, two rhythm, most often Matt Munisteri, guitar, and someone equally noble on string bass, held forth from around 8 to 11 PM. Because I knew the musicians (or could introduce myself to them as Friend, not Exploiter) I could bring my Sony digital recorder, smaller than a sandwich, place it on a shelf to the rear of the band, record the sets and transfer the music to CDs which I would then give to the musicians when I saw them next. The food was inexpensive, the waitstaff friendly, and I could find a table near the band. It was also no small thing that the Ear was a short walk from the C or the 1; if I drove, I could park for free. These things matter.
I thought it then and still do the closest thing to a modern Fifty-Second Street I had ever encountered. Musical friends would come in with their instruments and the trio or quartet would grow larger and more wonderful. Although I was still teaching and went to my Monday-morning classes in exhausted grumpiness (“This job is interfering with The Ear Inn!”) these Sunday-night sessions were more gratifying than any other jazz-club experience. The emphasis was on lyrical swing, Old Time Modern — a world bounded by Louis, Duke, Basie, Django, and others — where the Fellas (as Nan Irwin calls them) came to trade ideas, where musicians hinted at Bix, the ODJB, Bird, and Motown.
When this blog came to be, I started writing about nights at The Ear — rhapsodical chronicles. I’m proud that only the second post I wrote, DOWNTOWN UPROAR, was devoted to the seven months of happy Sundays at 326 Spring Street. Again, I wrote about it EVERY SUNDAY AFTERNOON, WE FORGET ABOUT OUR CARES — a musical reference you’ll figure out. In late April 2008, I could depict in words the session where a lovely graceful couple danced balboa in between the tables (the Ear, as you will see, got many people into a small space) and was my first chance to hear Tamar Korn, that wonder — FEELING THE SPIRIT. And in all this, I had the consistent help and encouragement of Lorna Sass, who has not been forgotten.
Those who know me will find it puzzling, perhaps, that there has been no mention of my ubiquitous video camera, which I had been using to capture live jazz as far back as 2006. For one thing, the Ear’s tables were close together, so there was little or no room to set up a tripod (videographers must know how to blend in with the scenery and not become nuisances: hear me, children!) Darkness was an even more serious problem. I had shot video in places that were well-lit, and YouTube allowed people to adjust the color and lighting of videos shot in low light. The results might be grainy and orange, but they were more visible. Early on, YouTube would permit nothing longer than ten minutes to be posted, so the lengthy jams at the Ear — some running for thirteen minutes or more — had to be presented in two segments, divided by me, on the spot. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Rereading my descriptions I am amazed: “I was there? That happened?” as in the presence of miracle, but something that I didn’t do and can’t take credit for changed my life — a video of the closing ten minutes of an October 2008 YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY posted by Howard Alden, who was playing rather than holding a camera, alongside Jon-Erik Kellso, Danny Tobias, Harvey Tibbs, Evan Christopher, Dan Block, Sebastien Giradot, Chuck Redd:
Obviously The Ear Inn would never double as a Hollywood soundstage, but I posted this video on JAZZ LIVES. I thought, “Let me see if I can do this also.” But it took until June 7, 2009, for me to put my Great Plan into action, finding a camera (with the help of Jerome Raim) that would penetrate the darkness. Here are the first two results, the first, featuring Jon-Erik and Duke Heitger, trumpets; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Neal Miner, string bass:
That is my definition of stirring music, and so is this — MOONGLOW, with Tamar Korn, voice; Dan Block, clarinet, Harvey Tibbs, trombone, sitting in, all creating a galaxy of sounds:
That’s slightly more than a decade ago. There are currently no Sunday-night sessions at The Ear Inn. But this post is not to mourn their absence.
I write these words and post these videos in hope for a future that will come again. I have no date to mark on my kitchen calendar, but, as I wrote at the start, I am an optimist. And I think regular Sunday-postings of music from the Ear will remind those of us who were there and enlighten those who were not. Between June 2009 and late 2019, I compiled around 400 videos, and I plan to create regular Sunday experiential parties to which you are all invited. It is not precisely the same thing as being there, saying hello to Victor or Barry or Eric, hugging and being hugged, ordering dinner and ale, waiting, nearly trembling with anticipation for irreplaceable joyous music . . . but I offer it to you in love, in hope that we will all be ready when the great day comes:
It is nearly three o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon. In the ideal world, which can return, I would be putting my camera, batteries, and notebook into my knapsack, ready — too early, as is my habit — for a night at The Ear Inn. I’m ready.
May your happiness increase!