In 1995, I had just moved to East 3rd Street and was thrilled by the East Village’s then vital music scene, but I was still spending a great deal of time working with Anthony Braxton and various other people from his community. I loved working with Braxton, but I also was on the lookout for some people who were closer to me in age (21) and in aesthetic.
The first time I played with Reuben Radding and John Hollenbeck at John’s rehearsal space near Times Square I was utterly unprepared to meet two musicians who fit the bill so perfectly. Reuben, who I met at my first and only concert at the old Knitting Factory (a duo with Anthony Coleman in the Knot Room), shared my musical obsessions, which at the time were free jazz, field recordings of traditional world musics, and post-punk of the Minutemen/Hüsker Dü type. I had never even heard Hollenbeck before. Of course, he was and is a unique virtuoso, and before he discovered yoga, meditation, and Meredith Monk, he was rather intimidating as a player and as a person. His fiery, unpredictable playing combined with his implacable demeanor gave a mysterious first impression. I wanted to work with them, and Reuben seemed amenable to the concept, but John’s reaction was unreadable. As Reuben and I headed to the F train, I asked him, “Do you think John liked it?” Reuben seemed confident that he did.
So we had a band, but we needed a gig. I also had recently met a couple of young go-getters named John Scott and Melissa Caruso. John was exploring an amazing new technology called “the internet.” He was convinced that it was going to be big. Melissa, a native Lower East Sider (I have often thought of the Fugs song “Slum Goddess” when around her), observed that the rapidly gentrifying East Village needed a low-key, comfortable space where students, drifters, writers, musicians and stray celebrities could lounge for hours on flea market sofas. So they rented a vacant dentist’s office on Avenue A between 9th Street and St. Mark’s Place, installed some T1 lines and an espresso machine and created alt.coffee. Defying logic, John and Melissa decided that what they really needed to attract a sexy young clientele was some avant-garde accordion music. They asked me if I’d be interested in playing there once a week.
It is not hard to get gigs in New York. There are plenty of venues that book unknown musicians who are willing play for the door, for tips, or for no money at all. In the hardscrabble New York jazz world, many artists struggle for years to develop a musical concept playing random one-off gigs with ad-hoc groups of freelance musicians. While this can be a rewarding experience on some (mostly non-monetary) levels, the only way to coalesce a band’s musical identity, start to develop a devoted audience, and maybe even generate some much-needed buzz in one fell swoop is a regular gig with the same people in the same place for an extended period of time. Many of the artists and groups who dominate creative music started with the assistance of regular gigs (Medeski Martin & Wood = Village Gate, Masada = Mission Café & Mogador, Dave Douglas Tiny Bell Trio = Bell Caffe). Having only been in town for a few months, I didn’t realize what a rare and special opportunity John and Melissa were offering me, but Reuben and John, crusty veterans that they were, knew all too well. When I called and pitched them the idea, they jumped at it.
Soon enough, one fine Monday night I was rousing people in varying degrees of stupor from their thrift store sofas, a process which was to be dubbed “harshing mellows.” After pushing aside the larger pieces of furniture and setting up the drums right in front of the window, we looked out onto Tompkins Square Park and Avenue A’s endless stream of humanity. It was clear that this would not be a normal gig. Unlike most jazz clubs where the band is snugly ensconced in the most isolated, cloistered area of the building, so that the pristine listening environment will not be disturbed by ambient noise, we were pushed right up against the street. Our mise-en-scene was permeable to both outside noise and outside people. Everyone passing by heard us, and thanks to free admission, our audience often included random passers-by who would not normally be encountered in the sheltered environment of the jazz club. As one elder musician commented after a particularly disturbing encounter with the outside world (a pair of East Village lunatics came in to provide some thoroughly whacked-out criticism), “I’ve played for the door, but I’ve never played near the door.”
Then, a truly remarkable thing happened. Week by week, more and more people started coming to the gigs- and not just random street maniacs. By the winter of 1996, Monday night at alt.coffee felt… happening! It must have been rather shocking to stumble into a slightly grungy café where three nerdy-looking guys were playing spunky versions of Sun Ra grooves and Turkish folk songs to a rapt (or maybe just nodded-out) crowd of East-Villagers, plus a bunch of oblivious ‘net surfers. Some press coverage followed, and Monday night at alt.coffee became an institution. Even a few uptowners began showing up: clarinetist David Krakauer started sitting in, becoming a regular featured guest and drawing in many more people with his pied-piper-like Klezmer wail.
But as all “Behind the Music” viewers know, success in the music business, even on our stratospheric level, is always accompanied by crushing interpersonal strains leading to an inevitable implosion, after which some band members carry on, in a pathetic attempt to salvage their careers. For Reuben, the stress of leading his Sun Ra tribute band Myth-Science through its rather problematic Knitting Factory-booked tour of European jazz festivals, combined with his crushing schedule of free jazz gigs and his budding career as a freelance porn scribe, led him to a logical and understandable decision: move to Montana. John, knowing that the situation at alt.coffee was too good to lose, formed the Claudia Quintet with Drew Gress, Matt Moran, Chris Speed and me. Since the members of the CQ were too busy to perform every Monday, I transformed Monday night at alt.coffee into a normal concerts series. Our friends like Matt and Theo Bleckmann started playing, as did elder statesmen of the East Village like Tim Berne, Anthony Coleman and Eugene Chadbourne.
As the cachet of a gig at altdot increased, so did the traffic on my answering machine. I became burned out from an endless stream of phone calls from my fellow musicians seeking gigs. John and Melissa started to work on new ventures and spend less time at altdot, and the new staff was less sympathetic to our music. I have a vivid memory of the night when one of the greatest improv performances I have ever witnessed (by John, Matt, Theo, and Skuli Sverrisson), was given the hook by a clueless counterperson. The band seamlessly continued its performance while breaking down its gear, maintaining the same level of intensity until the last drumstick was put away. In some ways I feel like that music never really ended…
Of course, the “new ventures” John and Melissa were working on proved to be more important than we could have imagined. Inspired by alt.coffee’s success, John and Melissa rented the former Kedem kosher winery on then desolate Norfolk street and opened Tonic. In the beginning, Tonic featured a beauty salon in front and a rotating schedule of entertainment including a Wednesday night music series curated by yours truly, an expansion of the alt.coffee booking policy. The first gig at Tonic was Mark Stewart of the Bang on a Can All Stars, Polygraph Lounge, and Paul Simon’s band, playing the daxophone to the horror of a chihuahua. But the Tonic story is one for another day.
Thankfully, the music of alt.coffee survives on this CD, which I produced in an optimistic moment in 1998. Flush with cash from a part-time job at an Internet company (are you feeling the waves of nostalgia yet?), I printed up these CD’s, which sold approximately… bupkis. But now, thanks to the world-wide blockbuster success of my record “Emigré” and those of the Claudia Quintet, maybe the world finally is ready for the music we made on those Monday nights.