The past two decades of NYC jazz have often been portrayed in stark territorial terms: Wynton Marsalis and his dapper Jazz at Lincoln Center nostalgists uptown, and John Zorn and his coterie of punkish iconoclasts downtown. But the story’s a lot richer than that binary suggests, and the three men lunching at a Chelsea bistro on a rainy Tuesday this past October are helping to explain why.
Bassist Ben Allison, pianist Frank Kimbrough and saxist Ted Nash cofounded the Jazz Composers Collective in the fall of 1992. (Along with fellow core members Michael Blake and Ron Horton, the three are staging a 20th-anniversary JCC fest at Jazz Standard Tuesday 6–November 11.) The organization bears a modest name, but its achievements prior to its 2005 dissolution—12 seasons of concerts, the premieres of more than 300 new works and 20-plus records by core members—now scan as a marvel of cooperative creativity. The Collective won a devoted fan base and considerable critical acclaim, thanks in part to five years’ worth of DIY promo. “We’d sit around Ben’s dining room and lick stamps, fold newsletters,” says Nash of the group’s early days. To cover the expenses of the first concert at the Greenwich House Music School, Kimbrough adds, “we each threw 75 bucks in a shoebox.”
The musicians had disparate backgrounds. As a teenager, Nash, 51, played with legends such as Lionel Hampton, before moving to New York in 1978; Kimbrough (who turns 56 on Friday 2), a protégé of singer-pianist Shirley Horn, arrived three years later; the 45-year-old Allison, meanwhile, was just three years out of NYU in ’92 when the JCC formed. What the three had in common was a desire to carve out their own identities as composers—the group’s initial inspiration was an alliance forged in the 1910s by Viennese modernists Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg—and a dissatisfaction with clubcentric performance outlets.
“The idea was, you had to bring in a new tune; that was, like, your ticket for entry,” says Allison, describing the Collective’s early meetings. “Every once in a while, someone would miss that memo and come in with a few nonoriginal tunes,” Nash recalls. Allison jumps in, mock-severe: “There would be boos!” The venue was just as important. “When you’re in a concertlike setting, where the piña colada machine isn’t going off during the bass solo, what does that open up musically?” Allison recalls wondering. “Our guess was that it was going to affect the music positively.”
It was a good hunch. The JCC’s make-it-new dictate nudged each composer toward his own distinct aesthetic. Allison favored sextets and septets, rich with springy groove and vibrant little-big-band orchestration; Kimbrough excelled at bluesy, impressionistic postbop trios; and Nash hatched ambitious projects, such as the strings-abetted Double Quartet and the tango-inspired Odeon. “There were times when I was sitting at home thinking, What could I do different this year?” says the saxist, later to become a star composer with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. “One time I said, ‘I’m going to take all the instruments that I know nothing about and don’t like, and put them together.’ So I took the tuba, the accordion, the violin and the clarinet, and that’s Odeon. It was one of my favorite bands ultimately.”
The Collective’s affiliations spanned the NYC jazz spectrum—Nash’s records often featured Wynton Marsalis, while JCC-er Michael Blake worked in quintessential downtown crew the Lounge Lizards—and its interests stretched the definition of original music. (The Herbie Nichols Project, which included all five Collective principals and which reunites at the upcoming fest, devoted itself to unrecorded pieces by an obscure visionary of the hardbop era.) By the time of the JCC’s amiable disbanding, each member had a thriving solo career; today, Allison, Kimbrough and Nash are fixtures of the local scene.
Still, nostalgia creeps in during their recent reunion. “We put together a Collective big band for a couple concerts,” says Nash, citing his personal JCC highlight. “Just looking around and seeing 15 people who weren’t paid anything, who all came down to support the music because they loved it so much. There’s a certain kind of feeling, that lump in your throat when you realize that all these people are here to put everything they can into the music and make it what it can be.”
Follow Hank Shteamer on Twitter: @DarkForcesSwing