Jazz Clubs, Festivals Search For Hope Amid A Slowly Opening Economy (DownBeat, July 2020)

Smalls Jazz Club, NYC. The club began live-streaming shows, with no audience physically present, on June 1.

Jazz is “the least socially distanced art form,” says Spike Wilner, pianist and proprietor of two of my favorite jazz clubs, Smalls and Mezzrow. It is an art form “that requires people to interact intimately…, one best served in a crowded, cramped, basement full of people breathing, talking, listening.”

How are jazz club owners and festival producers coping with the shutdown caused by the pandemic, and what might the future hold? To get some answers, I spoke with club managers and festival producers in the U.S. and U.K. The results were published in DownBeat’s July 2020 issue. An expanded version is below.

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Compared to the other casualties of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, it barely registers in media coverage and the public consciousness.

Yet the sudden, worldwide shuttering of jazz clubs and other venues for live music in mid-March constituted the most devastating blow to jazz in its history, strangling the livelihood of musicians and, in many cases, threatening their ability to survive in the profession.

If the indefinite closures left musicians staggering, the cancellation of most spring and summer jazz festivals was the coup de grace. No one is certain when, or even if, things will ever return to normal.

As Spike Wilner, jazz pianist and proprietor of the iconic New York clubs Smalls and Mezzrow, put it in a recent newsletter to the clubs’ fans, “What will become of the least socially distanced art form?  One that requires people to interact intimately? One that is best served in a crowded, cramped, basement full of people breathing, talking, listening?”

The shutdown darkened grand concert venues, like New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center and London’s Ronnie Scott’s, and little hole-in-the-walls alike. So many spring and summer jazz festivals have been cancelled – including majors like Newport, Montreal, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival – that it’s easier to cite those that have not (yet) been cancelled, e.g., the Monterey and Detroit Jazz Festivals, both still scheduled for September, as of press time.

Jazz musicians have shown considerable resilience, with many taking to social media platforms to stream live performances from their living rooms, teaching and collaborating online, while some attemptto secure unemployment benefits for freelancers, mandated by the federal CARES Act, but only spottily implemented by states.

Meanwhile, club owners in the U.S. and abroad are, like all small businesses, fighting to survive and pay their rent and other monthly bills in the face of a sudden and complete stoppage of revenues.

In April, more than 800 independent concert presenters, in an effort to prevent their possible extinction, banded together to form The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). “Independent venues were among the first to close as COVID-19 spread across the country, and unfortunately, are also likely to be among the last to reopen,” the group stated in a press release. The group is lobbying Congress for specific funding programs to assist them for the duration.

Temporary moratoriums on evictions in some U.S. states, including California and New York, have helped some venues buy time, although without relieving them of their rent obligations over the long term.

Catalina Popescu, owner of Catalina’s Jazz Club in Los Angeles, has been operating since 1986. She shut down March 15 and laid off her 25 staff members. “It’s been very painful,” she said. “We’re OK for the time being. Nobody can force you to pay rent. [The landlords] send me an email every so often, but they can’t do anything about it… I fought for this business for 34 years, to stay open, to make it successful, to be a great place for people to listen to music and for musicians to perform. I hope we’ll be able to reopen.”

The situation is similar in London, where Simon Cooke, general manager of Ronnie Scott’s said, “We have nearly 100 on the payroll. All but six are furloughed. We’re hoping the government’s scheme will keep everybody happy.” The U.K. is providing 80 percent funding to small businesses who maintain payroll.

“We’re very established, almost a national institution, been around 60 years, a fondness in the community.  Everything we do is massively supported. We have about 3,500 paid members, who are very supportive; most renew annually.  I think we’ll be alright.  If it’s a very long layoff, it may be a slow restart.  I’ve been looking after the place 12 years. When I started, the business wasn’t in great shape.  We built it up, to the point that we’re full 98 percent of our shows.  If we have to do that again, that’s what we’ll do. At least we know how – we did it once.”  

In late March, Smalls’ Wilner told me, “Right now, I’m waiting to see if Smalls will exist in another month or so.” At the time, the venue and its sister club, Mezzrow, both of which are located on the same block in high-rent Greenwich Village, had rent payments of $20,000 apiece coming due. “I think I’ll be able to get through April, but after that, I don’t know.”

Then, on April 15, he posted on Facebook, “This club is coming back – we are not done!”  What changed?  “We got a PPP loan,” Wilner said in late April, referring to the federal program that is providing low-interest loans to small businesses, loans that, under conditions that are still unclear, may be fully or partially forgiven. “That will help us secure Smalls for the next 4-5 months, until we can get things going again. With Mezzrow, I’m not sure what’s going to happen yet.”

The week before, Wilner completed the transformation of Smalls and Mezzrow into a nonprofit arts foundation, a project that had been in the works for two years. The SmallsLIVE Foundation (www.smallslive.com) subsidizes the expense of operating the clubs, assisting musicians, and sponsoring jazz education programs. In return for a donation of as little as $10, supporters can access a prodigious archive of performances from both clubs, which has grown to over 17,000 recordings since Wilner began taping performances in 2007.  Royalties are distributed to the more than 3,500 musicians whose performances are included in the archive, based on the number of their streams.

One of the first major donors to the new foundation was rock icon Billy Joel. Wilner described Joel’s $25,000 donation as “a shot in the arm.”

“My goal is to open Smalls first, as soon as [the city] lets us run bars,” Wilner said. “What I’d like to do is raise money to live-stream from the club and start a club schedule again. I would only do live streaming if I can pay the musicians for their performances. I think that could happen. My goal is to keep the clubs afloat [until then].”

Wilner began live-streaming shows from Smalls on June 1. Only performers, a sound engineer, and a few staff are present.  The shows have attracted hundreds of viewers from around the world. The shows can be viewed for free on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smallslive/. Another New York jazz mecca, The Village Vanguard, announced it will begin live-streaming on June 13 at https://villagevanguard.com/live-stream/.

In mid-April, Jay Sweet, Executive Producer of the Newport Festivals Foundation (NFF), which produces both the Jazz and Folk Festivals, was consulting daily with the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo. “Her focus is on keeping people alive,” he said at the time. “We’re on a state property (Fort Adams State Park); it’s 100 percent Rhode Island’s decision…. We would never jeopardize the safety of our fans and our artists.”  

On April 28, both festivals were cancelled. All artists who were invited to perform in 2020 have already been invited for the 2021 editions.

Sweet is not worried about the foundation’s survival. “The foundation will be OK. George will ensure that,” he said, referring to founder George Wein, now 94. “Right now I’m 100 percent focused on keeping our musicians musicians. Our goal is to give the money back to the next generation of artists who will play these festivals. That’s the biggest part of our job.”

Wilner, who went through “a dark period” following the closing of the club, said his mood lifted considerably after receiving a phone call from Wynton Marsalis in early April. Marsalis was working to secure funds for musicians and small clubs. The Louis Armstrong Foundation, of which Marsalis is board president, had established an Emergency Fund for Jazz Musicians, to award one-time grants of $1,000 to freelance jazz musicians affected by the shutdown. The foundation committed to awarding 1,000 grants, totaling $1 million.

“He asked me to be on his committee to help decide who gets the money,” Wilner said. “I put together a list of about 350 musicians who I thought could use it. They did a beautiful thing. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a tremendous morale booster.”  Wilner’s own SmallsLive Foundation has also begun making emergency donations to jazz musicians in need.

Similarly, NFF established a Newport Festivals Musicians Relief Fund. Starting with a small, $20,000 emergency fund, Sweet and his Board members decided this was a “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency moment. After three weeks, the fund had grown to $160K, thanks to donations.  We’ve had 500 applications and so far, fulfilled 275 of them. These are for musicians who have played Newport and other Rhode Island musicians, musicians whose names you would know. They each receive anywhere between $300 and $1,000. It’s like passing out band-aids on the battlefield,” he said.

With the jazz world reflecting the disarray of the larger world, the future for jazz venues is murky. “Jazz tourism in NYC is a big thing,” Wilner said. “We’re so dependent on it; any club owner in town will tell you that. We can’t run at capacity without our tourists, and God knows when that’s gonna come back to NYC.”

The concert business is another unknown. “The one thing that will never go away is this: there’s something in our human DNA that needs to commune with others,” said Newport’s Sweet. “For some it’s religion; for some, sports; for some, music. I think the word “normal” will be redefined.  The one thing I still believe in, for my entire professional career, is the desire for human beings to congregate around music. It’s being tested now. I don’t think live music is remotely close to dead. People just cannot live without it.”  — Allen Morrison


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Filed under Catalina's Jazz Club, Coronavirus and Jazz, COVID-19, George Wein, Newport Jazz Festival, Ronnie Scott's, Smalls, Spike Wilner, Village Vanguard, Wynton Marsalis

Kurt Elling & Danilo Pérez Share the Secrets of Their First Collaboration (JazzTimes, May 2020)

“Despite being at the crest of a 25-year career, during which he has been called ‘the standout male jazz vocalist of our time’ by the New York Times, among many other awards and accolades, he is modest about his achievements and self-critical to a fault. At one point in our conversation he blurts out, ‘Man, I sure wish I could sing better.’” My cover story from the May 2020 JazzTimes.

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Filed under Chico Pinehiro, Danilo Perez, Gregory Porter, Jazz Times, Kurt Elling, Music Writing and Clips

On “Wonderbloom,” Becca Stevens Sets Poetic Lyrics to Intricate Dance Grooves (DownBeat, May 2020)

On her new album, singer-songwriter Becca Stevens achieves two things that seem contradictory: accessibility and complexity. My interview with Becca from the May 2020 DownBeat.

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Filed under Becca Stevens, Michael League, Music Writing and Clips

Trad-Jazz Revivalist Bria Skonberg Explores New Territory (JazzTimes, March 2020)

My JazzTimes interview with singer/trumpeter Bria Skonberg explores how a blonde-haired, blue-eyed farm girl from Chilliwack, B.C. managed to become a singing, trumpet-playing hot jazz icon in New York City – and how she refuses to be pigeonholed.

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Filed under Bria Skonberg, Jon-Erik Kellso, Music Writing and Clips, Vince Giordano

“Cyrille Aimee is Moving On” (Jazz Times, December 2019)

The delightful jazz singer Cyrille Aimée has some fascinating stories, including a few about her friend @Stephensondheim, whose songs she boldly and brilliantly reinvents on her recent album, “Move On – A Sondheim Adventure.” Here is my December JazzTimes cover story on her.

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How vibes player Erik Charlston nabbed a role in Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story film

Erik Charlston in a typical day at the office.

New York vibraphonist/percussionist Erik Charlston is one of the busiest session musicians in New York, playing everything from Latin jazz to Broadway shows to opera. His latest album with his JazzBrasil group is inspired by the great Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal. But, despite all his musical genre-hopping, it’s Charlston‘s ability to dance a mean mambo that might lead to his most visible role yet: a part in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of West Side Story. Read my article from the December DownBeat here.

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Filed under Brazilian music, Erik Charlston, Hermeto Pascoal

Russian Jazz Artists Shine at St. Petersburg Conference (DownBeat)

Trumpeter Till Brönner (left) performs with saxophonist Igor Butman and the Moscow Jazz Orchestra, during the 2019 Jazz Across Borders conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.
(Photo: Courtesy Jazz Across Borders)

Local musicians met jazz promoters from around the globe and bridges were built at the third annual Jazz Across Borders conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, which I was honored to attend November 15-16, 2019. Here’s my review from DownBeat.com.

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Filed under Igor Butman, Jazz Across Borders, Konstantin Khazanovich, LRK Trio, Music Writing and Clips, Russia, Till Bronner

Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool – New Vinyl Box Set reviewed in DownBeat

It was a total joy to revisit these great sides in my review of the new vinyl box set for DownBeat.

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Filed under Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Music Writing and Clips

“Somewhere Else” – Ted Nash Plays West Side Story

If you love Bernstein’s music from West Side Story (and, really, if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?) you must hear it played by saxophonist @tednash in his trio with guitarist Steve Cardenas and bassist @benallisonmusic. Somewhere Else is an easy add to my 10 best list for 2019. I gave it five stars in a review just published at DownBeat.

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Filed under Ben Allison, Leonard Bernstein, Music Writing and Clips, Steve Cardenas, Ted Nash

An Array of New Brazilian Sounds (DownBeat “Beyond” column, Oct 2019)

Delia Fischer, Rio-based singer-songwriter/pianist

Six albums of Brazilian jazz and música popular brasileira illustrate more than the country’s musical diversity: They demonstrate how Brazil’s best songwriters and musicians—marinated in older forms like samba, choro, and bossa nova—are finding new ways to use that heritage to create fresh pop, rock and jazz.  Read about Delia Fischer, Marcos Valle, Banda Black Rio, Antonio Adolfo, and two others here.

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Filed under Antonio Adolfo, Banda Black Rio, Brazilian music, Delia Fischer, Guilherme Pimenta, John Finbury, Marcos Valle

New York Voices Celebrate 30 Years of Harmony

The New York Voices are (l-r) Kim Nazarian, Peter Eldridge, Darmon Meader, and Lauren Kinhan.

This piece appeared in the November 2019 issue of DownBeat in slightly abbreviated form. (http://downbeat.com/news/detail/new-york-voices-reminisces-in-celebration-of-30th-anniversary). The full version is below.

The title track of The New York Voices’ latest album, Reminiscing in Tempo (Origin Records), was one of Duke Ellington’s first long-form compositions in the 1930s; Mel Tormé added the poignant lyrics in 1962. As they celebrate their 30th anniversary as a recording group, The Voices have plenty about which to reminisce, after decades of international touring and working alongside some of the biggest names in jazz including Bobby McFerrin, Paquito D’Rivera, Ray Brown, Jim Hall and the Count Basie Orchestra.

Founded in the mid-1980s at Ithaca College in upstate New York, they remain one of the world’s foremost jazz vocal groups. Originally a quintet, they became a quartet with the current lineup in 1994: tenor and saxophonist Darmon Meader, the group’s main arranger; baritone Peter Eldridge; and sopranos Lauren Kinhan and Kim Nazarian.

Their longevity is all the more remarkable considering that the four maintain separate careers as artists and jazz educators, and live far apart: Kim in Ohio, Darmon in upstate New York, Lauren on the East End of Long Island, and Peter in New Hampshire.

“We’re really the Eastern Time Zone Voices now,” Meader joked during a recent FaceTime chat with DownBeat. “But that doesn’t quite have a ring to it.”

Nazarian, speaking from her farm near Oberlin University (her husband, trombonist/producer Jay Ashby, teaches there), said, “The key word in our lives is balance, juggling… our personal and professional lives. Even though the Voices is not our primary money maker, it’s our priority job. No one wants to give up the legacy we’ve established as a group. We respect and love each other enough to make it work.”

They all have active careers in music education. Meader is an artist-in-residence at Indiana University; Eldridge teaches full-time at Berklee; Kinhan teaches at New York University; and Nazarian teaches at Ithaca College, often conducting voice lessons over Skype. In addition, the group leads two, week-long vocal jazz camps, at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and at the Bavarian Music Academy in Marktoberdorf, Germany.

The group has become like an extended family over the last 30 years. “There have been more ups than downs,” Nazarian recalled. “We’ve never canceled a show, despite illnesses. Once, in Indonesia, Peter was so ill for a concert that he sat on a stool, and Lauren and I held him up. Also, I delivered my son the day after a concert in Utica, NY.”

Meader’s favorite memories include “the chance to work with people we respect so much, like Count Basie, Ivan [Lins], Paquito. I once had something like an out-of-body experience going over our charts with Ray Brown… And just the other day [at an August all-star Brazilian concert at] the Hollywood Bowl, Quincy Jones came back stage after the show. He asked us, “Who does your arrangements?” And he gave me a fist bump. Moments like that!

“The Voices takes up a smaller percentage of our time than in the past,” Meader said. “But our longevity means we have a big repertoire to choose from. And, when we get together, we’re like dance partners who have worked together for years. There’s a fair amount of practicing in hotel rooms. Sometimes we fly into gig a day early just to have some time together.”

The new album displays the group’s restless eclecticism. Co-produced by Grammy-winning engineer and longtime friend Elliot Scheiner, it includes vocal arrangements of jazz standards by Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Chick Corea; tunes by Fred Hersch (“A Dance For Me”), the Beatles (“In My Life”), Ivan Lins (“Answered Prayers” [É De Deus]), and even two vocal settings of works by Cuban classical composer Ignacio Cervantes. The stunning opening track, “Round, Round, Round (Blue Rondo à la Turk)” is a version of the Brubeck classic with lyrics by Al Jarreau, with additional vocalese lyrics by soprano Kinhan.

“We like to pick more obscure things, or incredibly challenging things, like ‘Blue Rondo,’” Nazarian said. “In 30 years, I think it is one of the hardest things we ever recorded. Memorizing those lyrics is mind-boggling – I don’t how Al Jarreau did it. But, after three decades, we’re still challenging ourselves. We’re not lowering keys, not slowing down tempos, not taking the easy road… We do what we teach. We try to set the bar and be the example of what we ask our students to do.”

The essence of New York Voices, Nazarian said, is that “we can sing what we record. Our performances often are better than the record. Our original goal, our career goal, is to bridge the gap between instrumental and vocal jazz. We are always referencing instrumental influences in our arrangements, in our performances and in our teaching.”

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Filed under Darmon Meader, Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Music Writing and Clips, New York Voices, Peter Eldridge, Quincy Jones, Ray Brown, Vocal Jazz

Veronica Swift Swings Like Mad (DownBeat, Oct. 2019)

Veronica Swift doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t listening to jazz: “Before I was even born, in utero, Mom was doing concerts.”
(Photo: Giancarlo Belfiore/UmbriaJazz)

If, at 25, Veronica Swift sounds like a veteran jazz singer, that’s because she’s been singing jazz professionally since the age of 9. Her mom, the terrific jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian, once took Veronica, then 12, to see bebop singer Annie Ross perform in New York, and the youngster sat in on a number. Afterward, Ross said to her, “My goodness, Veronica, that was amazing … but don’t come back too often!” Here’s my profile of Veronica from the October 2019 DownBeat.

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Filed under Benny Green, Emmet Cohen, Veronica Swift

João Gilberto, the Voice of Bossa Nova, Dies at 88 (DownBeat)

“Look at the wind tearing out the trees’ hair … .”

“But trees don’t have hair, João,” said the psychologist.

“And some people have no poetry in their souls,” he replied.

For my DownBeat obit on the genius João Gilberto, I spoke with Eliane Elias and the legendary Wanda Sá.

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Filed under Bossa Nova, Brazilian music, Chris McNulty, Downbeat, Joao Gilberto, Music Writing and Clips, Stan Getz, Uncategorized

Blue Note Records Marks 80th Anniversary with Tons of Vinyl

Dexter Gordon with Blue Note Records founders Alfred Lion (l), and Francis Wolff (Photo: Courtesy Blue Note Records)

My recent conversation in DownBeat with Don Was, president of Blue Note, about the label’s 80th and how it is doubling down on vinyl for both reissues and current artists.

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John Patitucci goes it alone in new album (@DownBeat.com)

John Patitucci and his 1859 Gagliano bass. (Photo: Melanie Futorian)

Despite being one of the world’s most celebrated jazz bassists,
@JohnJPatitucci says that it took him 40 years “to get up the courage” to do his recent one-man show in NYC. He explains why, reflects on his life and music, and discusses the future of the Wayne Shorter Quartet in my new interview with him.

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Filed under Brian Blade, Chick Corea, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Wayne Shorter

Wynton Marsalis Imagines Buddy Bolden – Interview in JazzTimes

Here’s my JazzTimes interview with Wynton Marsalis about channeling legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden, known as “the man who invented jazz,” for the film Bolden, which opens nationwide today (May 3, 2019). I recommend that everyone who cares about jazz see the film and check out the soundtrack. Wynton and colleagues did a brilliant job imagining what Bolden’s group sounded like – there are no existing recordings of them. He also recreated the excitement of a 1930s-era concert by Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra, with the help of the gifted actor-singer Reno Wilson as Pops.

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Inside the Barry Harris Method (JazzTimes)

Dr. Barry Harris, at a recent appearance at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York.

What a joy to learn at the feet of Dr. Barry Harris, 89, one of the original bebop piano masters. I visited his regular Tuesday night workshop in Manhattan recently to interview him and join about 50 other eager students in learning how this sage approaches the art of bebop.

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Filed under Barry Harris, Lee Konitz

“From Bolden to Armstrong” at JALC Gala Concert

Harry Connick Jr. singing “Stardust” during “The Birth of Jazz: From Bolden to Armstrong,” Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2019 gala concert on April 17.
(Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Jazz At Lincoln Center)

It was quite a night: Harry Connick, Jr., Jon Batiste, Catherine Russell, Sullivan Fortner, Wynton, Branford and Jason Marsalis, among others, in “The Birth of Jazz: From Bolden to Armstrong” at the annual Jazz at Lincoln Center gala on April 17. My review for DownBeat.com.

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Filed under Branford Marsalis, Catherine Russell, Don Vappie, Harry Connick, Jr., Jazz at Lincoln Center, Jon Batiste, Sullivan Fortner, Vince Giordano, Wynton Marsalis

Separated by 50 Years, Israels, Diehl Find Common Ground (DownBeat)

Bassist Chuck Israels is 82, pianist Aaron Diehl is 33, but they have much in common, as they proved last week at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Last week I did a joint interview with them for DownBeat, then reviewed their show. It was, for me, a personal reunion with both. I had previously profiled Aaron, whom I admire greatly, in Downbeat. The last time I saw Chuck was circa 1976, when, as a scruffy 21-year-old, I took his jazz workshop at SUNY Purchase.

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New Singers, New Repertoire (DownBeat, Jan. 2019)

Kate Reid

My column from the January 2019 DownBeat reviews five female singers who may be unfamiliar to you (read it here). The best of them, including Kate Reid and Judith Lorick (above and below) are really worth hearing.

Judith Lorick

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Filed under Eric Reed, Fred Hersch, Gayle Kolb, Judith Lorick, Kate Reid, Larry Koonse, Lucia Jackson, Minyeshu, Paul Meyers, Romero Lubambo, Taylor Eigsti