Meet The Jazz Audience

Meet The Jazz Audience: Benjamin Lyons

In the last few decades, June has become the busiest month for jazz in New York City, home to the biggest jazz scene in the world. But who is actually going to these shows? A small team of Bloggers Supreme attended the festivities. In between our reports on various goings-on, we talked to the some of the people who were actually in the audience. We started off every conversation with the simple question: how did you hear about this show? And be sure to check out more of our Meet The Jazz Audience series. —Ed.


Benjamin Lyons, 50
Performer: Various
Venue: Abrons Art Center (Lower East Side)
Event: Vision Festival
Date: Jun. 26, 2010

Benjamin Lyons i i

Benjamin Lyons of New Orleans, La. Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR
Benjamin Lyons

Benjamin Lyons of New Orleans, La.

Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR

How did you hear about this event? Well, I've been coming up for the Vision Festival for about, probably nine or 10 years. I think I first heard about it from a friend, a fellow music fan. I knew Kidd Jordan — I know him personally, and I heard him all the time in New Orleans — so I knew that he was playing here, and Hamid Drake, and people that I knew were integral to this festival. So that's what brought me here over the years. And then it just sort of just became a tradition for me to come back.

And you've come every year for ... Quite a few years, yea. Maybe I've missed a year — I'm not sure, but yea.

Do you find that you recognize a lot of people who come back every year? I do. You know, there's variations, changes. This year, there's far fewer Europeans — I'm sure the economy has something to do with that. The audience changes gets older as I do — which is an issue, I think.

Benjamin, what would you say your relationship is with music like this? Complicated? [laughs]

Well, I now know you run a small record label [Valid Records], and know some of these musicians. Quite a few of them, yea.

How did you become a fan of this stuff — and of jazz, really? Well, that's the question of what is "this music," and it's also problematic when you draw lines around music. I think my interest in music goes back to childhood. My father was a classical violinist, and I studied the cello very unsuccessfully as a young boy. My real interest at the time in the mid-'60s, late-'60s was rock 'n' roll. I listened to all the rock 'n' roll bands — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones — and from there, Bob Dylan, got interested blues.

And from there, I was about the age of the first punk-rock explosion. And unlike a lot of people who seemed a bit younger than me who got into the energy aspects, who moved from that early-'80s, mid-'80s punk-rock scene into the real high energy free jazz thing, I'm not really coming from that space at all. All the punk rock that I was interested in was the late '70s New York, either the somewhat ironic stance of The Ramones, or somewhat angular music. And from punk rock, I became something of a record collector, became interested in rhythm and blues ... from there, into older jazz. I also got into Ornette Coleman, which is probably my first entry into what is called "creative music," or "free jazz," was Ornette. He's kind of a signpost for me. Other people looked to Coltrane, and I certainly respect John Coltrane, but for me, it was Ornette who dragged me into the music, and into the spirit, and the beauty.

So unlike a number of people that I know in New Orleans who are interested in this music — who are really interested in the anarchic, high-energy part of it — that doesn't really interest me at all in and of itself. ... I like interactivity, a sense of play. I think that was lacking in certain performances tonight, was the sense of play. There's a New York earnestness that I'm just not really used to. Being from New Orleans, also going to Chicago to hear music in this tradition, I'm used to coming from more of an Afrocentric kind of place.

So you're from New Orleans ... Well, I've lived there for 26 years — I've lived there almost my adult life, yea.

What's the difference between New Orleans and New York? Umm ... what's the same? They're both in the United States — and that's important, because a lot of people look at New Orleans as something apart, and of course New Orleans is integral to the United States, as is New York. What's different is, especially the arts scene: music in New Orleans is revered, it's central to peoples' lives, but it's not an art music, for the most part. That's both bad and good. It's hard for people to get an audience for things that may be outside certain kinds of norms. It's just the idea that music that doesn't have a direct social function doesn't really register with people. That said, there's as big an audience for — many of these artists [at the Vision Festival] will come to New Orleans, and for a small city, we get a good audience for them. Because people are interested in music.

And I think that's a primary difference. I mean, I've been walking around — the Lower East Side has changed tremendously since when I used to hang out here in the early '80s. You realize the people that you're seeing, they have absolutely zero interest in music. And I think in New Orleans, even people of that same social strata, middle-class, upper-middle-class young adults: they may not be interested in who the names are in this or that, but they go hear music more often. So it's more integrated into the social world. ...

A certain generation in New York believes in art as a religion, almost. And in New Orleans, they think art is a sense of play.

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