A FEW MINUTES WITH… Paul Pines, Curator of Jazz at the Lake

Paul Pines
Paul Pines

Interview and photographs by J Hunter

I’ve emceed a few concerts in my time, and it’s a pretty cush gig – tell a joke or two, give a shout-out to sponsors and/or dignitaries, and try not to mispronounce the name of the act you’re introducing. No heavy lifting is involved, there’s usually food & drink backstage, and occasionally you get a free t-shirt out of the deal. You gotta love that, right? Well, as I discovered when I first attended Jazz at the Lake in 2005, Paul Pines definitely takes the other road.

Sure, the Brooklyn native tells jokes, and he always gets the artists’ names right. But Pines takes the job three steps further – he educates the audience about what they’re about to see, and how it relates to what has come before in jazz. When I first saw Pines do his thing at the jazz fest in Lake George’s Shepard Park, he talked about how one of that day’s acts – vocalist Giacomo Gates – sang “in the spirit of Eddie Jefferson.” Forget that I didn’t know Jefferson was one of a cadre of jazz royalty who played the Tin Palace, a jazz club Pines ran in the ’70s just down the street from CBGB’s; I didn’t know who Eddie Jefferson WAS… but you can be damned sure that I found out, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who did some digging into jazz history after the show was over.

It’s not just that Pines is one of the best minds I know when it comes to this genre; his stage patter isn’t about showing off how much he knows. As the longtime curator of the free Jazz at the Lake festival – which returns to Shepard Park in Lake George this Saturday and Sunday (September 19 & 20) – Pines has taken great pains to make his weekend as far from the “standard jazz festival” experience as possible, and part of that is avoiding the kind of lightweight, commercial fare that’s come to dominate your typical mega-festival. Unlike the bookers for those shows, Pines assumes his audience is of more than average intelligence, so he books bands that don’t insult that intelligence. That said, because of the death-defying – and, occasionally, ear-piercing – qualities of some of his acts, Pines’ introductions are sometimes less about education and more about preparing the crowd for the coming storm.

Last year, the storm that hit Day One of Jazz at the Lake brought such torrential rain that the bill had to be moved inside the auditorium at Lake George High School. The scenario had all kinds of possibilities for disruption and discontent, particularly from those audience members who had to stand against the back wall because the place filled to capacity in short order. But because most of the JATL audience are longtime attendees who have bought into the creative atmosphere Pines has established over 31 years, everyone just got in and got on with it, ignoring the lack of air conditioning or the quickly disappearing seats and enjoying one of the best days (from a purely musical standpoint) that the festival has ever had. That included a mind-blowing set by Steven Bernstein’s Sexmob, one of those acts Pines must “prepare” a crowd for. Bernstein’s raucous quartet got a standing ovation at the end of their set, so apparently the preparation was all to the good.

Jazz at the Lake is a unique experience – as unique as its curator, who is also a published author and poet, as well as a practicing psychotherapist. Pines was good enough to take a few minutes out of his preparations for this weekend’s big festival to talk to me:

Q: How did you get involved in Jazz at the Lake, and what were you doing – personally and/or professionally – before that process started?

A: I had long had a friendship with the poet William Bronk, who owned the lumber company in Hudson Falls and was an American Book Award poet. I would take R & R at his place and got to know other writers in the area. Shortly after my novel, “The Tin Angel,” was published in 1983 and broke into The NYT Sunday Book Review. In 1984, I was invited to spend six months at the Crandall Library [in Glens Falls] giving a creative writing course on a grant from the NYS Council on the Arts. I was living in Belize at the time and had every intention of going back to my little house on the beach in Rum Point. Christine MacDonald knew John Strong {of the Lake George Arts Project}, who was playing with the idea of starting a jazz festival in Lake George. When he learned I was in residence, he called me to see if I would help him set up a festival because he had no idea what was entailed. I told him I was willing to do that but would probably be leaving for Belize shortly after that. Instead, I met my wife, Carol, and 31 years later I am still curating the festival.

Q: Jazz at the Lake has gone from a one-day festival to a two-day festival, and then to two days and a night. What was the thought process behind each step on the growth curve? Was it a question of resources, or was it just saying to yourself “It’s time”?

A: I was given a minimal budget to work with and called in favors, asking friends, people I had worked with in NYC, to play at Lake George. From the start the feeling was good and performers enjoyed the venue and the audience. Our audience came from the area, but even then also some from farther afield. Some of those will be here this summer, and many have missed very few of these over the years. We were one of the credible events for federal/state funds, booking artists on the radar but not in the 1% who demanded big bucks with complicated riders. The village was from the start very excited about having a culturally valuable event. We were playing two days after the first year, with three sets on Saturday and two on Sunday, and it continued to grow. Along the way, as federal funds dried up and many small festivals like ours closed down, we managed to stay afloat and find private angels when we needed them. Today, the Gruskins have made sure we were able to continue for the last 10 years. Our resources remain limited, and one of the challenges is to book exciting music with the budget. The fact that our audience remained constant, grew, drew from farther and farther afield, and that we had educated and cultivated all of these people over the years, has kept it alive and vital. I know what I can present, and that this audience will take it in, and consider it.

Q: When you build a bill for the next year, how do you approach it? Do you have a theme in mind – and if not, have there been times where a theme seems to materialize as artists sign up and the bill comes together?

A: I start collecting names a year or two ahead of each festival: People who interest me, music that delights and surprises me, unsung heroes, young cutting edge artists with something to say. I scan across idioms – bop, post-bop, avant-garde, free, chamber, Afro-Cuban, world music – and combinations of idioms. More and more the vocabulary of musicians has grown so that there are distinctive combinations of all of the above. Every year I sift through to see what I have in the net. It is like writing a poem. Often I don’t intellectually know what or why the piece coheres, but I feel an inner coherence that emerges over time. Often I have put the mosaic together and felt something linking the whole production but can’t say what it is until the last minute. Other times, I know early on what I am working with. Either way, it is exciting to explore these connections because I am always learning something about the music when I do it, and understand that what I learn in terms of creating the whole program is transmitted to the audience – many of whom attend the entire festival and walk away not only with an impression of certain groups, but what they have experienced as a whole.

Q: What can a festival of JATL’s size do that a mega-festival like Newport (or, locally, Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Fest) cannot?

A: Intimacy. This is an intimate music. Improvisation is like listening in on an artist’s deepest personal thoughts made audible. We are fortunate to have a physical set up that allows us to play to three- to five-thousand people over the two days and still have the experience of intimacy. It is possible for anyone in the audience to approach and speak to anyone on stage when they have finished playing. And as a rule the relationship between the audience and the performers in this space is interactive – that is, the attention to what is going on is almost palpable. The performers feel closely heard, and the audience responds to the response from the stage. That’s called a relationship. When the audience bonds with the artists, the transmission is complete. This doesn’t happen in larger venues where thousands of people struggle for standing room, or the formats enforce boundaries instead of bonds between audience and artist. Even more to the point, the selection of performers, inviting those who are appreciative of the response rather than armed against it – makes a difference. Finally, because we have no corporate bottom line, and remain a free festival – though we more and more encourage contributions – that allows a certain sense of generosity to fill the air. Money is secondary. And even more finally, we remain aligned in our dedication to jazz, to this music, not to signaling that we will have cross-over attractions to build the box-office – James Taylor is not jazz – which gives us an authenticity the mega-festivals have mostly all traded in for bigger bucks.

Q: Last year was the first time in years that JATL had to move to its rain site. What were your impressions on that day – both from a logistical standpoint, and of the day’s overall success?

A: It was interesting to have the performance in the high school, which turned out to be a very comfortable space, and acoustically quite fine. The trade-off is obvious. We have foregone the jazz in a scenic venue where we rest in the natural environment and listen in the presence of such a socially connected experience. It is clear to me from that even last year how dramatic a role the connectedness of the audience in the outdoor setting plays. It’s like Woodstock without the hype. People sitting in the open next to each other, in view of each other, react almost as a single organism, amplifying their individual experience. In the concert setting, the music becomes the focus in a more directed way, and is experienced without that degree of socially driven amplification. But there are moments when one is glad to be alone with the experience, responding from a space that is clearly one’s own. I enjoyed the change, being indoors one day, and then outside the next. I used to be apprehensive about having to move indoors. That’s not true any longer. I know that the vitality and range of this music will play well indoors and provide a unique listening event to whomever gets a seat. The problem that remains is that there are only so many seats.

Q: I’ve heard from more than one artist about how smart the crowds are at Jazz at the Lake. How much of that comes down to the education I see you do onstage every year, and how much of it comes from the crowds you draw every year?

A: My old friend Eddie Jefferson, the father of bebop vocals, referred to it as ‘edutainment.’ Listen to the lyrics of some of his most engaging songs. They are built around the names of the performers and what they play, trying to sing them into the recognition they so richly deserve. Eddie Harris, John Coltrane, James Moody, Bird, he made sure his audiences understood who these artists were as he entertained them. I think all the arts do best when the audience that is addressed understands the context. In our case, I have heard adults say to me that they first came to this festival as kids and now they are adults who have learned about the music over the years by listening to it. In whatever way I can through my introductions on stage, notes in the program, or simply in passing as I walk through the crowd and make connections plain, teach what I have learned, it is a great satisfaction. I feel it means that against the odds of cookie cutter pop idioms, replication and imitation that drives consumers to support the easy and predictable, this music, based on invention and connection, has a chance of staying alive. The artists who perform here feel this, and remark on it.

Q: As far as I can tell, you’re absolutely fearless from a booking standpoint. Are there acts that scare you, or do you think that – with the right amount of preparation and pre-show education – you could put any act up on that stage?

A: I always try to stretch the audience that is to give space to the unusual, or adventurous. I have a pretty good sense of how far I can go in that direction, though I have misjudged on more than one occasion and lost a third or more of those in the audience. Mostly this was in the area of large ensemble presentation, collective improvisation. But I knew my audience would honor Sun Ra’s orchestra and take in the World Saxophone Quartet. I love the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, but that was a stretch. I am glad I booked them. It opened more than one set of ears, even if a few found it unfamiliar, even disturbing. But the Either/Orchestra, Rashid Ali, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Bernstein, the Micros were all a joy. I was confident this audience would embrace them all.

Q: Speaking of fearless, you’ve got Joe Lovano anchoring the Sunday bill. He’s playing with Works, which is one of the most fearless – and most interesting – groups currently on the menu in NYC. How did that combination come about?

A: I have been a fan of Daniel Kelly since I first hear him with David Gonzales in 2006. I was convinced then, and remain so, that Daniel’s powerful gift for invention, that I could put him on stage with a piano and no music at all and have him improvise for an hour and keep an audience riveted. I think he is on par with Keith Jarrett, but with a more sensuous imagination. I have had him at the festival 2010 with his trio and have since followed him through projects that are out of the box, mixing improvisation with found recordings like his grandfather singing Irish folk songs on a CD called Ghosts. He started this venue Connection Works some years ago with Rob Garcia and Michele Gentile, two other master improvisers, in Brooklyn which attracted other like-minded young players, and older, more established artists like Joe Lovano, Joseph Jarman, Dave Liebman, and my friend Sheila Jordan who wanted to stretch their range. Hearing Joe – who is a superstar playing within a certain convention – rise to the challenge presented by Daniel, Rob and Michele, well, that’s more than worth the price of admission.

Julian Lage
Julian Lage @ Jazz at the Lake, 2013

Q: Julian Lage is returning to JATL after playing with the New Gary Burton Quartet in 2013. Given that he and the rest of the band nearly froze their hands off during that set, how difficult was it to talk him into coming back?

A: Not at all. He remembers the venue and welcomes another chance to play it, this time on his own terms with his own distinctively inflected esthetic.

Q: If you could build one weekend (two three-act afternoons and one night show) out of all the acts that have played JATL, what artists or groups would you pick? Who’s your all-star team?

A: I don’t have one, no more than I have a favorite subgenre. I miss the fact I can’t hear certain players anymore, Rashid Ali, James Moody, the young Leon Thomas, Nick Brignola, Little Jimmy Scott, Dakota Staton, Red Rodney… I could probably list two or three festivals with groups I think would work beautifully together, but it would take me a while to come up with the right combination of groups. It is like trying to say if I love Picasso more than Matisse and explain why Paul Klee does things for me neither of them do, or how Franz Kline is commanding in a completely different way than Mark Rothko, and neither of them move me as much as my friend Douglas Leichter, who remains largely unknown. I am most excited by those young and old who are still breathing life into the music, transcending pyrotechnics and technique, and painting with sound in new, and unforgettable ways.

Here’s the schedule for the 2015 Jazz at the Lake festival in Lake George’s Shepard Park this weekend. Admission is FREE. GO HERE for more info…:

1pm: The Julian Lage Trio
2:45pm: The Jamie Baum Septet
4:30pm: The Jazz Passengers
7:30pm: The Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet

1pm: The Victor Prieto Trio
2:45pm: Works with Joe Lovano
4:30pm: The Ghost Train Orchestra

Michele Rosewoman and Paul Pines
Michele Rosewoman and Paul Pines @ Jazz at the Lake, 2013

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