As part of NY1's Jazz Lives Here coverage, Arts Reporter Stephanie Simon took a day-long tour of the world of jazz in New York City. Following is Part 1 of her six-part series.
The sweet sounds of jazz echo through Central Park on a Saturday afternoon. Where else but in New York City could you go for a weekend stroll and bump into a world-class sax player just doing his thing?
The park is where we begin our 24 hours of jazz. It's 4 p.m. on Saturday and throngs of people are stopping across from the Boat House to hear Rakiem Walker.
"I play under the tunnel there," said Walker. "And what happens is the people walking on the other side of the park, they actually hear me and come through and the people on this side they see me walking through here. So I'm performing on two different stages."
Despite being outdoors, Walker says the acoustics rock.
"I love it. It's incredible. It's like an automatic microphone, you know. So I don't need a mic or a pick up on my horn."
Many people think of jazz as something born in New Orleans' Red Light District, but this music was also played joyously in parades and picnic grounds. So Central Park seems like a good place to start, because it's where the tradition is very much alive.
Walker, who's a banker by day and learned from the likes of Max Roach, has played in the park on and off for 10 years.
"What I notice is that New Yorkers and tourists alike, they like you to play from the heart," said Walker. "They like you to play with guts and, you know, like there's passion. And if there's no passion, there’s nothing coming from your music that’s going to stick with your audience. I try to play like I enjoy what I’m doing."
It's 5 p.m. now, and on a different park path is a trumpeter who takes tootin' his own horn to extremes.
Rasheed and his group "The Jazz Collective" have been playing in the park every weekend for 14 years. They play in clubs all around town, but say there's something special about playing out in the open air.
"The firsthand experience of what you learn and play is either accepted or not accepted by the public," said Rasheed.
It seems to be more than accepted by big and little ears.
"They absolutely love it," said one father about his children. "They like coming by here on Saturdays and sometimes on Sundays and we walk by. Sometimes they dance to it, they swing to it, and it's really great for them. It's great exposure. It's one of the gifts of New York."
As nightfall approaches, so does the allure of New York City's jazz clubs.
James Blood Ulmer is performing on this night at the upscale Jazz Standard club in Murray Hill.
While old, dark, smoky clubs may have a romantic notion to some, Ulmer says he's not nostalgic.
"There was lots of music but the places that they played wasn't necessarily all that healthy," said Ulmer. "So now we got places that play and it's more healthy. No smoking in the club, the club serving better food. In the dressing room they got air conditioning so a guy like me could breathe."
"Before, it was lots of music but these conditions wasn't conducive to a guy like me who maybe has been playing music for 50 years," continued Ulmer. "So I think it's a change in the music scene for the better."
Jazz writer and critic Will Friedwald goes out to hear live jazz nearly every night of the week.
"I am here all the time but it is really hoppin' tonight, this is really lively. This is really a big Saturday night," said Friedwald. "At the height of the season, it's at least four, five nights a week, sometimes as many as two shows a night. But in New York, you can do that. In New York, it's not even a matter of seeing one thing a night. There's so much going on, you could literally see five things a night and not run out. I don’t think there's any other city that can say that."
Friedwald says New York is the busiest city in the world for jazz, with every combination of instrument and influence imaginable. On this night, Ulmer and his "Memphis Blood Blues Band" were joined on stage by guitarist Vernon Reid, best known from the 1980s rock band "Living Color."
"That's bringing another kind of roots music into jazz. it's bringing jazz with a heavy blues foundation, which is good because the further we sort of travel into the future into these sort of experimental things we have to remember where the roots are," says Friedwald. "And so someone like Blood Ulmer is someone who's sort of a roots musician and who is as far out as anybody, you know. He's sort of the past and the future all at once."
Great contemporary musicians hold onto the rich traditions of jazz while creating something that's new. And the night's just getting started.
NEXT UP: Part 2