A Musicians' Collective Grows In Brooklyn
by Patrick Jarenwattananon
The idea behind the Brooklyn Jazz Underground isn't a new one. But it might be more relevant than ever.
Jazz musicians draw their creative juices from working with others on the bandstand. But as businesspeople, they're independent contractors. And in 2010, where their services are not in high demand, it's increasingly difficult for them to market their craft.
Sensing strength in numbers, a group of bandleaders based in Brooklyn, N.Y. gathered over four years ago to promote their original work. As an association, they curate festivals and concert series, maintain a Web site that serves as an information hub, and run a sister record label. BJU Records has put out 12 releases so far, including albums which no BJU member actually plays on.
The lineup has changed somewhat since its first formal announcement in 2006, but the state of the union is strong: the Brooklyn Jazz Underground is presenting its fourth annual festival at the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York. Having been to the first such festival, I decided to check up on the musicians' collective in an e-mail interview with two of its founding members: bassists and composers Anne Mette Iversen and Alexis Cuadrado.
Before the questions, here's a sampler of BJU musicians' recordings:
It's been over four years since the first BJU Festival, which basically announced the birth of the organization. What have been the most striking changes since then?
Cuadrado: In these last 4 years we've learned a lot about ourselves individually and collectively, just by being part of BJU. We've definitely fine-tuned what our goals are and we're now more focused on what we're doing, how we're doing it and why. We've become more "goal-oriented" and defined these goals much better. We're now developing a stronger community-oriented agenda and throughout this and next year we want to reach out and have more of an impact in our neighborhoods and bring our (and other artists' from Brooklyn) music to places where it normally can't be heard.
Iversen: Yes to everything Alexis mentions above. I'd also say that we have become more realistic with our goals and about the way we work in order to achieve things. For instance, we realized that we all have so much on our plates that whatever goals we set for BJU as an organization have to reflect our individual goals/individual ambitions in order to happen.
How do you feel your careers have changed since four years ago?
Cuadrado: I particularly feel that one's career is a constant work in process, regardless of where you started and who knows where it'll end. For me it's all about keeping the creative juice flowing and making stuff happen one way or another; that way there is always progress of some sort. I think being part of BJU has become part of our careers and both things are now really tied together. I like my career choices now much better than 4 years ago, and I think it's because I've seen and learned a lot from the other BJU guys.
Iversen: I do feel that being a member of BJU has helped generate attention to my music and projects, and that certainly was a common initial goal when we created BJU. But also as Alexis says, a major aspect of being a BJU member has been seeing how fellow musicians work and being inspired by that, and the collective has sort of become a stamp of identity that represents a certain musical attitude and creativity. To answer your question very directly: I feel that my membership of BJU has matured me as a professional musician.
For me, one of the more interesting things is your BJU Records label. It's grown to an agency that puts out music by people who aren't even part of BJU, the organization. Why did you start the label, and why has it expanded so much?
Cuadrado: We started the label as an outlet to BJU members' CDs, and in a tricky moment where the industry seemed kind of boundless. Both Anne Mette and I had good records (or so we thought) that were not being picked up by labels ... I was with Fresh Sound and got sort of "dropped," or other labels would offer me a really bad deal if a deal at all ...
Then we decided to create the "sister company" to BJU, and we had to learn a few aspects of how to run a small business, but once that first hurdle was over, we realized that we had created an infrastructure that would allow musicians to own their recordings and at the same time promote them in a cooperative business manner. Other bandleaders from the Brooklyn scene asked us, so we went for it and started putting out whatever we thought would match our criteria in terms of quality and attitude towards music. This way we also don't limit ourselves to the core eight members of BJU and keep our exposure constantly out there. It's a win-win-win situation.
Iversen: I'd also say that the expansion to include non-BJU artists is an acknowledgement that there are many great musicians, composers, bandleaders in Brooklyn/NY that fit the profile of the BJU and BJU Records, but just, given the structure of BJU and the way we work and make decisions, can't all be members of BJU.
I assume you aren't making much money from this -- what's the purpose of having your own jazz record label these days?
Cuadrado: We're not making ANY money, and as surprising as that might sound, as a record company that's where we actually want to do. We act as a non-profit. The artists finance their projects completely and share the costs of publicity. This way, we all benefit from this constant exposure that would be otherwise financially unattainable for any of us individually.
Iversen: The purpose is also that we, the artists, retain all rights to our own music, plus all income from CD sales, while we benefit from sharing the BJU brand and some of the financial load that it is to be a jazz musician not backed by a traditional label. And we as a label go about things and business thinking as artists and prioritizing the artists' points of view, and not having to worry about a business that needs to balance and sell.
You are right then; why do we want to do it when we are not making money and actually working a bit for other artists without real compensation? Well, in fact it feels great to know that we can service other great artists this way, and offer a favorable situation to artists that are willing to put in their own work for their own cause.
I know you're a group of musicians who got together under this "Brooklyn Jazz Underground" name -- but what makes what you folks do a "collective"? Many of you don't play with each other -- what is collective about what you do?
Cuadrado: The link that unites all of us is the attitude toward music. I believe that all of us have a very high standard of what original, improvised music ought to be and we have a strong passion for our projects. Also having a diversity of backgrounds, ethnicity, gender and what-not gives the collective real "Brooklyn" seal of approval, if you want to call it that. We really respect each other as musicians and creative individuals, and it just feels good to be part of this group and have this common goal together. We now are making decisions about our careers collectively, and many times biting our tongues and leaving projects to succeed or crash regardless of what we initially thought about them ... so we're learning about the industry and about music itself collectively.
If I may submit a follow-up: what are the actual activities you do which make what you do a collective?
Iversen: A collective works together about things, and we work together about promoting our individual groups through our yearly festival and CD sampler, our Web site, selling of sheet music, the label, our concert series, podcasts, videos, a monthly newsletter ... we did a fundraiser for music in public schools a little while ago, we might do some kind of "behind the scenes" videos about how we work with our music, about our instruments, or ... and more to come.
Let's say I'm a very good young musician living in Red Hook. Tell me why I might want to join your organization. From your points of view, what are the benefits? What do you have to do to join the collective?
Cuadrado: As mentioned before, the exposure and the publicity power becomes automatically larger. Then you are just hanging out and brainstorming with seven or eight other cats that are in the "same boat" as you are ...
Iversen: And that in itself is a great source for inspiration and support.
I know some members have left -- are you at liberty to say why?
Cuadrado: Sure, it has mainly been because of busy schedules, families, babies being born, people moving, getting married ... that kind of stuff.
Do you think this is a model that other musicians and communities can follow? Did you start the BJU with other models in mind: the AACM, or something like that?
Cuadrado: As a matter of fact two collectives have already sprung following our model (to our surprise I must say): the Paris Jazz Underground. It will be cool to see if we can all collaborate somehow. We often joke saying that we should have patented the franchise.
It's also the "Brooklyn" Jazz Underground. I know you all live in Brooklyn, but what are you trying to communicate by labeling your organization "Brooklyn"? Do you think that the fact that both of you, and other founding members, are originally from Europe has anything to do with it?
Cuadrado: I think that Brooklyn has become its own brand of coolness; it's the "new downtown" or something like that, the place to be, the place where the artists moved, etc. But for us it was just a matter of geographical coincidence. We all lived in Brooklyn and we shared the attitude and ideas towards jazz ... and we are just magically taking advantage of the brand! Maybe our "Euro-ness" had something to do in the sense that a few of us had the same experience moving from the Old Country to here (and losing our fantastic free healthcare all along).
Iversen: I don't think that some of us being from Europe has anything to do with the "Brooklyn" label, other than maybe that the Brooklyn vibe is just one that we can identify ourselves with. To us, Brooklyn was hip five years ago, and we all felt that the Brooklyn jazz scene has an openminded-ness and musical diversity and creativity that we'd like to identify ourselves with. Therefore it was obvious to include Brooklyn in our name. And yes, we all live in Brooklyn...
Now that more people are taking notice of Brooklyn's jazz scene than 5 years ago -- even George Wein's New York summer jazz festival is going to Brooklyn clubs for the first time -- do you feel you folks are as "underground" as you once were?
Cuadrado: Hard to say ... I guess not if we're being interviewed by A Blog Supreme, but our "warrior" attitude remains ... I think. George Wein's "Overground" JVC festival went bankrupt (very unfortunately) so it's not that any of us are here for the money or anything. My belief is that the day we all can make a decent living by playing our music then we will have exited the "Underground."
Iversen: Ditto on Alexis' last sentence.
You do know that Cornelia Street Cafe, the site of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground Festival, is in Manhattan?
Cuadrado: Well, I thought you knew that lower Manhattan had been now annexed as a Brooklyn suburb!
Any further thoughts about the BJU?
Cuadrado: There will be a lot to come in this next year or two: podcasts, videos (we're documenting the entire festival to broadcast it for free on our site) ... We're applying for grants to make our operations bigger and appealing to all the public ... We're starting a new residency at Korzo in Park Slope in collaboration with Connection Works, an incredible Brooklyn-based non-profit ... each one of the CW and BJU members will curate a month during this year 2010, so a lot of the Brooklyn scene is going to be showcased there. Stay tuned!
1:17 PM ET | 03- 5-2010 | permalink