What is jazz?

Sponsored by the Knitting Factory, Ornette Coleman, Sonic Youth, Stereolab, Cecil Taylor and others look beyond bop.

By Seth Mnookin

Published June 7, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

In the mid-1990s, Knitting Factory owner Michael Dorf and his band of surly pranksters asked the world, "What Is Jazz?" at an annual festival that fused New York's downtown jazz aesthetic with more mainstream fare.

This year, Dorf's festival (which now boasts the moniker of its corporate sugar daddy, Bell Atlantic) includes opera with Elvis Costello, folk-blues with the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, art rock with Stereolab and Latin-funk with Los Lobos. Lest the roster of talent leave any doubt that this festival is firmly ensconced in the mainstream, check out ticket prices: Wednesday night's Al Green show in Central Park tops out at $70 a seat.

But Dorf is still cobbling together an inspiring array of avant-jazz practitioners, often offering up programs that would never be seen otherwise. Take last Thursday's Ornette Coleman show, featuring the Texas titan playing with a chamber ensemble, in a "Global Expression" project and in a trio with two longtime collaborators, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins. Or Sunday's free show at Columbia, headlined by drummer Max Roach, 76, and pianist Cecil Taylor, 71, doing their once-a-decade gig. (The duo played at Columbia in 1979 and at Town Hall in 1989.) The Columbia show, which also featured a typically rousing set by the David S. Ware Quartet, was notable for its audience even more than its music, as thousands of people, primarily twentysomethings priced out of New York's upscale jazz clubs, camped out on Columbia's lawn to catch some truly out jazz.

Still, as is often the case at New York festivals, these larger productions have not been the festival's highlights, either acoustically or musically. Coleman, playing with a broken wrist, was often lackluster; the atmosphere, marred by roiling jackhammers and an obnoxious Parks Department crew, was atrocious. And while the hard-swinging Roach gamely did his best to make sense of Taylor's frenzied attacks of clustered notes, the two old-timers rarely seemed to be playing together; instead, Taylor pounded ahead as Roach explored the vagaries of a talking tom.

The ear-opening performances were elsewhere. Philadelphia pianist Uri Caine, a longtime member of Don Byron's band, brought his singular fusing of classical and jazz idioms to the Jazz Standard, playing both his Mahler Experience and debuting a gospel-tinged performance based on Bach's "Goldberg Variations." And Monday night, trombonist Roswell Rudd played a wildly invigorating set at the Knitting Factory, playing with three-quarters of Sonic Youth for an extended, droning rendition of the theme from "Babe," and with jazz singer Sheila Jordan for a pair of simultaneously swinging and spiritual songs. Rudd, who has made a much-welcomed return to active performing over the past several years, was moved by the music, cackling wildly and exhorting the two other trombonists in his modern Dixie-esque band, Broad Strokes, to prance around the stage with him.

While Wednesday's Green show and Sunday's free Los Lobos performance are likely to garner the lion's share of the attention for the rest of the week, the "less is more" rule should continue to hold. The Jazz Standard is featuring a nightly program on the music of Keith Jarrett through Sunday, with saxophonist George Garzone and pianist Denny Zeitlin, among others. On Thursday, the delicate trio of pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian shares a bill at the Knitting Factory with pianist Matthew Shipp's string trio, with fellow downtown practitioners Mat Manieri on violin and William Parker on bass. And every night at midnight, the Knitting Factory features a free jam session with a different guest leader.

While the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival can no longer be said to carry the mantle of the fringe in New York -- that has been picked up by the wonderful, and wonderfully eclectic, Vision Festival, which ended on Memorial Day -- Dorf and Co. have picked up what is arguably an even more noble cause: introducing audiences to the overwhelming array of jazz available in New York. If just a few of the folks at the Roach/Taylor show -- a fraction of the thousands of hipsters camped out on Columbia's lawn -- are inspired to check out a show at Tonic or buy the latest offering from Aum Fidelity, then Dorf will have come further in helping to answer "What Is Jazz?" than he did in years of preaching to the choir.

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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