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Monday, April 16th 2012

9:59 AM

Jazz in Astoria 1980 to Present

This is a post-in-progress that will ultimately be part of the JJA Blogathon:  http://news.jazzjournalists.org/jazz_day_2012/jja-blogathon-jazz-in-your-community/  

 Astoria, where I live, and the adjoining Long Island City, are, of late,  flooded with fine musicians. That was not the case when I moved to Astoria in 1981 (where I have rented the second floor of a two-family house for these 31 years). Astounding changes have gone on around me, up and the street, and even out my back window (empty lot transformed into a 20-story high-rise amidst the two-family blocks)!

    I founded my 'Astoria Big Band' in 1985, because there were no big bands that I knew of in Queens playing a contemporary book (there was one 'nostalgia' big band). Tired of paying the tolls to New Jersey and upstate New York, or subway fare to Manhattan, each time I was called to rehearse on bari sax, I decided to take the plunge: I  borrowed some charts,  made the phone calls and started rehearsing the Astoria Big Band.

  Shortly after that moment, I met the couple who managed the wonderful Forest Park Carousel. Together we made a plan: our band was to give the first-ever concert as the carousel turned its rounds. Our special guest was Queens native Big Nick Nicholas! The high point of the concert came as Nick began to sing Charlie Camilleri's arrangement of "This Love of Mine". "This love of mine,..."  he sang; and in the rather long pause before "...goes on and on..", the carousel bell rang once, in perfect time and on a note that matched the harmony, like the gong in an orchestral piece.

   Frequently I would walk by Athens Square Park, a concrete park near the 30th Ave stop of the N train, and would notice signs for concerts: GREEK NIGHT! the signs shouted out at me. Bangladeshi Night - Thursday!, Italian night! Why not a jazz night? I applied for a grant and soon we were playing jazz every Monday night. The Astoria Big Band played, and so did lots of local groups. It was a rough-and-tumble effort that required climbing over a fence to unlock and activate the electricity; ducking to avoid basketballs bouncing off our heads from the adjacent court; and trying to set up and play over the racket and bustle of the skateboarders, whom local police seemed reluctant to impede in their joyful but noisy pursuit.

   In 2000, I responded to a letter from Partnership for Parks, and ended up co-producing the First Ever Astoria/LIC Waterfront Parks Jazz Festival, which encompassed lots of local talent including the not-yet-famous clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen. A successful event, but again, not without great difficulties.

   Now, everything seems very simple. What's happened in the past ten years to make it so?  There has been a steady growth -- nay, explosion! - in Astoria's population of young folks, commuters, students. I marvel as I see the floods of new well-dressed residents descend the steps of the N train at rush hour. 30th Ave teems with a long line of trendy restaurants, bars and cafes, all full to the brim of an evening, making Astoria look like Montreal's St. Catherine Street. One has but to persist door-to-door, and most places will be willing to try a jazz night.  Jam sessions and steady gigs have been successful. Drummer Brian Woodruff initiated, and has maintained, an 11 pm  Sunday night jam session at a restaurant called Blackbird's, with a tasty menu and good attendance.  He follows up each week with email reports and sneak previews of the next one.  Guitarist Larry Luger has for over 10 years held a steady Monday night trio gig with the wonderful, poetic bassist John DeCesare and a drummer (Roy, the group's founder) at Sac's (oven baked) Pizza on Broadway. The very bright, gifted guitarist/composer Amanda Monaco runs a  friendly, 'happening' jam session at 'Domaine' on Vernon Blvd., near the Vernon/Jackson stop of the 7 train, Mondays at 8 pm (more in line with my hours!).

   With this steady growth in the Astoria population, a concert produced in any park will receive ready assistance from city organizations. No more climbing over fences or ducking the path of flying objects. As for me, I have stepped back from my founding efforts. I participate when asked; when I receive a grant, my head comes out of the sand and I easily find an appropriate venue among Queens' myriad historic sites. Most of the time, though, when I cross a period of  free time, I hop over to my next favorite countries, Italy and UK, to spend 5 or 6 weeks traversing the land by train,  playing gigs, keeping up friendships and teaching masterclasses. It's good for my soul. And of course, there's always a host of new developments in the Astoria terrain waiting to surprise me on my return! I just hope they never do away with my local all-night Bel Aire Diner.
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