Bohemia in Brooklyn

Move over, Manhattan: There’s a new jazz nucleus

Brooklyn Underground

image courtesy of the Brooklyn Underground

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For more than 50 years, Manhattan was an epicenter of jazz. The music especially thrived in areas where crime and abandoned buildings kept the cost of living low for artists like Charlie “Bird” Parker, who rented an apartment at 151 Avenue B.

On a recent rainy Friday night at a café in Park Slope, Brooklyn, as listeners packed in to hear new music by the bassist Todd Sickafoose (, it was clear that the musical map of New York City is shifting. The band, mostly Brooklynites, comprised some of New York City’s most popular young players, including saxophonist John Ellis and violinist Jenny Scheinman. Against the sonic backdrop of a coffee grinder’s whir and before a mixed crowd of music fans and laptop-engrossed java drinkers, Sickafoose led the eight-piece group through a dreamy series of billowy tunes that alternately swung, grooved, and crooned. The vibe was relaxed, experimental, and bohemian.

 As luxury condos sprout up in the Alphabet City neighborhood Bird once called home, artists have been fleeing to find cheaper rents and more room for artistic expression.“None of us really can afford or even want to live in Manhattan,” says saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo, who has lived in Brooklyn for about 15 years.

D’Angelo recorded his latest album, Skadra Degis, for Skirl Records (, a Brooklyn-based, artist-run label focusing on the avant-garde music that is often referred to as “downtown jazz” because it once flourished at now-closed clubs like Tonic on the Lower East Side. Many former “downtowners” have made their home in Brooklyn, D’Angelo says, and “it’s no wonder that some of the performance opportunities have followed us.”

Jazz has existed in Brooklyn for decades, but this new crop of performance spaces, record labels, and jazz-oriented artist collectives is starting to give the borough the kind of reputation for jazz that SoHo and the Village once had. While cover charges at storied Manhattan clubs like the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard soar, Brooklyn venues like the Tea Lounge, the French-themed Barbès, and Williamsburg’s Rose Live Music offer some of the city’s most innovative new music for half the price or less, moving the local music community south and east.

The changing nature of the music business is another factor driving the nucleus of new jazz away from Manhattan. “Most of us believe that there is a specific lifestyle attitude related to jazz and improvisational music and linked to Brooklyn,” says bassist Alexis Cuadrado, a charter member of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground (, a collective of 10 local independent bandleaders. Members work together to ease the burdens of booking tours, marketing, and recording their work.

The collective also operates an independent artist-run label, BJU Records. “Artists retain ownership of their recordings and buy in to BJU Records’ community,” explains collective member and violist/violinist Tanya Kalmanovitch. The artists benefit from the label’s national publicity, distribution, and sales services.

The group has filed for nonprofit status, which will allow it to apply for grants to fund performances and provide educational programming to underserved local communities—an approach that is consistent with the BJU’s “flexible, community-oriented, do-it-yourself approach to the business of artistic life,” Kalmanovitch says. The Juilliard-trained strings player has also been working with another Brooklyn organization, the Douglass Street Music Collective, which launched with a festival of new music last spring.

There’s an explicitly global sound in much of the music. About half the BJU members incorporate elements of their heritage into their music, from Sunny Jain’s pan-Indian concepts to Kalmanovitch’s jazz-infused cover of a Russian folk tune. Barbès often features the Peruvian garage-folk of Chicha Libre, the co-owners’ band. At a recent show at Rose Live Music, vocalist Samita Sinha mixed the classical Hindustani music in which she was trained with elements of jazz.

Even with the benefit of Brooklyn’s current music scene, John Ellis posits that in order to make a living playing jazz, a musician in any of New York’s boroughs must think creatively, taking on international tours and commercial gigs and other sources of income.

“The myth of New York as a center of art endures,” notes Ellis, who worries about the fractured nature of New York’s jazz community in general. “But the reality is that it is not possible to live a bohemian lifestyle in New York City unless you have some special arrangement. I just asked [saxophonist] Joel Frahm this same question,” he adds. “He just moved to Brooklyn after 20 years in Manhattan. He said, ‘Brooklyn feels like Manhattan used to feel when I first moved to town.’ ”


Jennifer Odell writes for Down Beat, Relix, and People.