The 25 essential New York City jazz icons

Swing through the city with these crucial artists.

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  • Photograph: Jimmy Katz

    Roy Haynes

    Roy Haynes

  • Photograph: Robert Wright

    Henry Threadgill 2011

    Henry Threadgill

  • Photograph: Clay McBride

    Wynton Marsalis 2011

    Wynton Marsalis

  • williamparkerWEB

    William Parker

  • Paul Motian 2011

    Paul Motian

Photograph: Jimmy Katz

Roy Haynes

Roy Haynes

5. Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes is a jazz legend, sure, but not the kind you have to take on faith. That is to say, if you go hear this 85-year-old drumming marvel today—and you should catch his Fountain of Youth band whenever possible—you will be hearing him at his best, not as a shade of the Roy Haynes that played with Lester Young in the '40s, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughn in the '50s, or Eric Dolphy and Chick Corea in the '60s. In terms of combining improvisational brilliance with old-school showmanship (not to mention the rakish charm that earned him a spot on a 1960 Esquire best-dressed list), Haynes is simply peerless.

4. Henry Threadgill
Jazz has produced few more original composers than Henry Threadgill, a Chicago saxophonist and flutist whose every project has been more distinctive and compelling than the one that came before it. From his arrival during the '70s as a member of prescient collaborative trio Air (which also featured the late Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall), Threadgill proceeded through avant-gutbucket stomps with his ebullient Sextett, bawdy carnival sounds in Very Very Circus and hypnotic grooves with Make a Move, to arrive at Zooid, a group that fuses elements of everything that came before it with Threadgill's growing penchant for chamber-music transparency. Factor in Threadgill's always penetrating playing as well as the frequency with which he workshops his inventions for the public, and he's reason enough to celebrate being a New Yorker.

3. Wynton Marsalis
Given his plum position as artistic director of Jazz at swanky Lincoln Center, his partnership with Jazz documentarian Ken Burns and his naturally garrulous personality, it's tough not to see Wynton Marsalis as more figurehead than musician. But if you clear away all the obfuscating debates about uptown and downtown, and the wholly subjective canonization of jazz, you're left with a still-phenomenal trumpeter, composer and bandleader. Leading a quintet and a septet at Rose Theater earlier this year, Marsalis was magisterial, presenting vital original works that hummed with the auras of Ellington, Parker and Armstrong. This controversial figure may revere tradition, but he's in no way shackled by it.

2. William Parker
Were William Parker simply the earthy, elemental bassist who anchored Cecil Taylor's legendary Feel Trio and a rock-solid sideman to leaders like Peter Brtzmann and David S. Ware, his mark in jazz would be assured. Factor in his work with seminal free-jazz collaborative Other Dimensions in Music and his own ambitious big band, the Little Huey Orchestra (and satellite projects like a rousing Curtis Mayfield tribute group), and Parker's stature looms larger still. But apart from those imposing achievements, he can claim an even larger legacy: With his wife, dancer-choreographer Patricia Nicholson, in 1996 Parker founded the Vision Festival, one of the city's most important and inclusive celebrations of artistic cross-pollination and spiritual unity.

1. Paul Motian
If you were surveying the NYC jazz scene in the late '50s, you might have pegged Paul Motian merely as a masterful accompanist, citing his role in pianist Bill Evans's celebrated trio. Five decades on, though, the drummer seems more rightly classified as a shaman. The bands he leads brush up against familiar jazz stylings, but always radiate a palpable sense of mystery and creeping abstraction. (He loves bringing along virtuoso sidemen, young and old, to revel in the weirdness.) Deepening Motian's mythology is the fact that he now performs only in NYC—catching him on his home turf at the Village Vanguard is like paying a visit to the Sphinx.

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