To look at them, you wouldn't think these New Yorkers are hip. But then you find out what they did last night. We asked an octogenarian jazz maven, an avant-garde dance critic and Russell Simmons's artist brother about NYC cool.
Wed May 30 2007
86, Jazz scenester, 60 years running
How were you introduced to jazz?
I began working as a camera girl in the early '40s, taking pictures of patrons at clubs like the Rio Bamba, Cinderella and Kelly's Stables. Eventually I started singing and playing piano a couple of nights a week.
As a regular on the scene, you must have witnessed your share of legends.
I caught many of the greats. Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie—Ornette Coleman was a very good friend of my husband. Let's just say I knew a lot of people to say hello to. My husband and I used to go out seven nights a week.
Do you still go out as much?
I went out three nights last week! One of my favorite things in life is John Zorn and the Masada String Trio, so I caught two of their shows at the Henry Street Settlement theater. I've been watching John play at Tonic since it opened.
What does the closing of Tonic say about downtown New York?
Everything is being gentrified. It's sickening! The whole flavor is going down the drain: New York is becoming Podunk.
Looking at the types of people moving in, and moving out, New York is losing its diversity, all because of the mighty dollar. It's pretty sad.
Are you a hipster?
Please. I was around when they coined the term in the late '40s. There were other terms, too. The Dixieland people were called moldy figs...but that one hasn't seemed to stick around.
59, Dance Critic
You've been covering modern dance since 1980. What gets you off?
What I follow is not just modern dance,but abstract theater. It's doing something on a whole different level, which is very appealing.
Was there a period in the New York dance scene that was particularly strong?
In the late '80s people like Dancenoise, Jennifer Lacey and Stephanie Skura were producing incredibly lively work. Were they breaking boundaries? Not really, because there were no boundaries to break. The age of shattering people's ossified expectations is long gone.
So you're saying you've seen it all?
I've seen peeing and shitting and masturbating. I once went to a performance by Popo and the Go Go Boys at 8BC—a club long since closed by the city for our own protection...
So I'm standing on this loading dock watching a group of people torture live fish, and a variety of other oddities, when everybody disappears. I walk outside to find the troupe—around 20 people total—painted head to toe in gold, dancing in a brick-strewn vacant lot on Avenue C. This was the mid-'80s, so the 'hood was pretty desolate in the middle of the night.
Is New York City still cool?
Over the years some of the life has drained out of Manhattan, but in New York there's always a sense of possibility and a sense that there is something amazing to be discovered.
What makes something original?
Obviously if there were a formula for being original, being original would cease to be.
Are you a hipster?
Well, I don't go around wearing black clothes. Usually I look like I have just come off the farm.
You're an artist, gallerist, and mentor to painters, sculptors and writers. What is your role in the New York art scene?
My role is to provide people access to resources. I went to Soho in the mid-'80s and did not see any female artists or artists of color on the gallery walls. And I was dropping off slides of my own work and nobody was calling me back. So I opened my first gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Do you hang out with young artists?
Many of them see me as their big brother. There isn't much of a generation gap between us; even though I'm 20 years older than them, we come from the same aesthetic. After shows, we all hang out at a restaurant down the street called Dakar.
Is New York still cool?
New York has lost a lot of its edge. In the '80s the arts were just awakening. Hip-hop was just emerging, underground spaces were forming, after-hours clubs like Save the Robot were going strong. The nightlife and day life merged—there was real passion then.
Are you a hipster?
Hipsters are people who latch onto a movement, wear the right clothes, go to the right clubs, live in the right neighborhood—but they don't necessarily make that neighborhood cool. I don't see artists as hipsters. Hipsters are the patrons.