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Resilient, Unified and Resourceful

Note from the Publisher

First of all, I hope you and your family are safe and stay healthy. Unfortunately, many have lost loved ones and our thoughts are with them in this difficult time.

On March 17, I sent to all of our readers the following email: 

We are currently dealing with a totally unknown situation, operating without a roadmap and have to be resilient, flexible and supportive of each other. 
As you probably know by now, the clubs and venues of the tri-state area were closed Monday evening per government order and all gigs have been canceled until further notice. This could last two months, maybe more, as nobody really knows what the future holds. 
Therefore, it's with a heavy heart that I have to share with you that Hot House jazz magazine will not be printed for the first time. I had been committed to going ahead with the April issue, in spite of the loss in advertising revenue, to support and promote our beloved musicians. However, since the clubs and other locations that are our distribution outlets are closed, there is no way for the magazine to actually be delivered to our readers.   
I am at a loss for words to express my sadness. We are monitoring the evolving situation closely and I will announce any sign of light at the end of the tunnel. 
Many artists will be doing live streaming events with a virtual tip jar. We will do our best to update you as we learn about them. In these difficult times, we can still help them by buying their CDs and music. 
It is more than likely that the situation will get worse before it gets better, but we are all in this together and we will all come out of this stronger and more united than ever before. Again, I hope you all remain safe and healthy. 

So many of you replied with heartwarming messages that have kept us upbeat these past eight weeks. Today, we still don’t have any clear idea when the ban will be lifted, and how the social distancing will impact the lives of the musicians on the road, the setting in jazz clubs and their audience. But there is one thing that the past weeks have made brightly obvious: Our jazz community is resilient, unified and resourceful, as demonstrated by all the musicians who switched platforms and are presenting concerts online via Facebook, Zoom and other outlets, which are viewed and followed by the hundreds.

Times have changed, and so do we:

- This May issue of Hot House Jazz magazine is digital-only.

- Although we usually write articles about artists who have upcoming events, this month and until the ban on live performance is lifted, we will bring to you interviews with jazz professionals who inspire us, make the best of this unusual situation and keep the music going.

- Our biweekly “Internet Jazz Rendez-vous Calendar” email blasts update you on all the opportunities to hear beautiful music in the comfort of your home.

- Our daily “Internet Birthday Celebration” email blasts share previously published articles on living artists who are celebrating their birthdays; they also inform, unfortunately, on the passing of jazz artists. Now more than ever, we need to keep our beloved musicians in mind, celebrate and support them.   

In these unchartered times of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hot House jazz magazine is hoping to provide some support and joy to the jazz community. As we have been doing since 1982, we are committed to sharing with you the latest in jazz entertainment.

Stay upbeat, be safe.

Gwen Kelley, Publisher

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Arturo O’Farrill

Arturo O’Farrill: Jazz in the Time of COVID-19 By Eugene Holley, Jr.

This year was going to be a big one for the Grammy Award–winning pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and educator Arturo O’Farrill, the founder and artistic director of the 18-piece Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO). He had some important festival gigs lined up, several commissions, plus a rigorous, bicoastal teaching schedule with the Manhattan School of Music and UCLA’s Global Jazz Studies Program.

He also recently released a new ALJO CD, Four Questions, a compelling and comprehensive eight-track tour de force, featuring Arturo’s swinging modern jazz arrangements, propelled by Pan-American and African rhythms, and an evocative vocal chorus. The album also features the fiery oratory of writer, educator and philosopher Cornel West, reading and riffing on four questions posed by the towering African-American author, intellectual and social scientist W.E.B. Du Bois in his epic 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk: What does integrity do in the face of adversity? What does honesty do in the face of lies? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet force?

Then the pandemic came, and the rest, unfortunately, was not history.

“I lost a ton of work,” Arturo laments. “I was supposed to play the Newport Jazz Festival and the Rochester Jazz Festival this year. I had two world premieres, one at the Miller Theater at Columbia University and at the Joyce Theater with the Cuban Ballet Company. I had a film premiere for the documentary that was made about the Fandango Project that we recorded at the border of Mexico and the United States. And I was so looking forward to doing one of the greatest concerts of my life: a Carla Bley concert at Town Hall, a [tribute] to one of my greatest heroes.”

Arturo, a passionate and articulate thinker and commentator on musical and social matters, went into action. With his own money and financial contributions from others, he created the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance Emergency Fund, just days after the pandemic hit the U.S. Named for the umbrella organization that includes the ALJO, the Alliance is a New York–based nonprofit organization “dedicated to preserving the music and heritage of big band Latin jazz through performance and education.” Arturo raised more than $50,000 for over 150 musicians. “We’ve been really lucky to extend our hands, to help people,” he says.

Though the bandleader definitely lost out on major work during this worldwide crisis, he is fortunate to continue to find gigs. A long-time fixture at New York’s famed Birdland club, Arturo produces Virtual Birdland, a weekly Internet broadcast that “takes five days of recording a rhythm section, recording horns, recording soloists, video editing and sound mixing,” he explains. The series celebrated the centennial of Charlie Parker’s birth with a performance of the renowned Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite, composed and recorded by Arturo’s father, the great Cuban bandleader and composer Chico O’Farrill. The critically acclaimed alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa reprises Parker’s role as the lead soloist on the original recording.

“Every week, we produce new material for this series,” Arturo says. “I have to say, in view of this horrendous murder of George Floyd, and the tremendous pain this nation has been going through, it was a difficult decision [to go through with the broadcast]. But I decided that musicians make music: That’s how we help heal the planet. So this is not just a gig, or a celebration of mambo. It’s really an attempt to stand strong, in the face of an extraordinarily scary and depressing time in history.”

With the need for families to shelter in place in recent months, Arturo moved his wife (pianist Alison) and two sons (drummer Zachary and trumpeter Adam) from Brooklyn to live with him in Los Angeles, where he has been staying since the virus hit. “In this pandemic, my son [Adam] and I rubbed each other the wrong way a lot,” he notes with a laugh. “But we established this beautiful bond, of looking at each, and forgiving each other, and understanding each other. And I think we caught that on one of our livestreams at the Greene Space: ‘Adam and Arturo O’Farrill Live.’ It’s the most awesome, sensitive, beautiful music I’ve ever performed in my life.”

Arturo found common ground and new musical inspiration playing with his son through this sad and painful time in a world ravaged by disease and racism. He hopes that the jazz community—which he sees as a stratified binary between “traditionalists and modernists”—will form a more diversified and integrated union, inspired by the multiracial protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, which are unifying people around the planet.

“I think that jazz musicians are going to have to take a long, hard look at how we align ourselves,” Arturo muses. “If we don’t think of ourselves as part of each other’s life and a part of each other’s music, then we haven’t learned the lessons. I’d like to see a lot more cross-pollination between the worlds of jazz. That’s what I hope would happen.”

Arturo O’Farrill performs every Sunday at 8:30 p.m. at Virtual Birdland.

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Alexa Tarantino

Artists Online: Alexa Tarantino By Seton Hawkins

For more than three months, a joyous event has occurred every Sunday evening, as saxophonist and flautist Alexa Tarantino and pianist Steven Feifke offer a weekly webcast performance, via the Crowdcast platform. Mixing preshow discussions with a warmly presented recital, the duo has covered material from original compositions to fan favorites like the Thelonious Monk songbook or the works of Miles Davis. Anyone tuning in might hear tunes drawn from Alexa’s latest album, Clarity (an essential new quartet record released in June), along with audience requests that help to determine forthcoming shows, including a celebration of Frank Sinatra.

For Alexa, the decision to start streaming concerts developed earlier this year, as a tour was winding down. “I was on the road with Cécile McLorin Salvant in Oakland, and at that point we didn’t really know what to expect,” she recalls. “But on the road, we were talking about how larger orchestras in Europe were doing live streams from empty halls. When I came home, Steven and I decided to start performing right away.” Premiering March 15, the first concert offered a wonderful mix of material, with a warm and inviting presentation that set the tone for the run. Indeed, as the series has progressed, Alexa and Steven have refined the presentation model, consistently delivering some of their finest playing in a beautifully intimate setting. As much as we all miss clubs and concert halls, these duo shows manage to offer a closeness between artist and audience that even the coziest venue cannot deliver.

The initial concert also set a precedent for the pair, harnessing the events to help raise funds in support of social good. While the original streams focused on aid for musicians, dedicating 25 percent of the proceeds to organizations like the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Jazz Foundation of America, later concerts have directed funds to organizations including the NAACP and the Grassroots Law Project. “Neither of us had looked at this as a money-making venture,” Alexa explains. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to give back.

Her online voice has expanded further in recent weeks, as an ongoing relationship with Jazz at Lincoln Center has yielded a second platform, focusing on artist development and education. The collaboration’s output, “The Well-Rounded Musician,” is a weekly Thursday webcast during which Alexa discusses aspects of building a life in music. “I’ve felt there is a lack of information for students wanting to set themselves up for success in their careers,” she notes. “So I wanted to use the platform to offer a self-motivated, entrepreneurial education.”

“The Well-Rounded Musician” has indeed delivered on providing entrepreneurial training, drawing on Alexa’s own education at Eastman and at Juilliard as well as skills honed on the job via professional work. Webcast episodes include discussions on often nonmusical but still crucial topics like developing press kits, honing public-speaking skills, establishing a web presence and more. “While the music always comes first, if you don’t have these pieces together, you might not be the first-call for the gig,” Alexa points out. The content on offer appears to have found an audience: With viewers tuning in from around the world, the webcasts have not only served to connect viewers with important educational content, they have also helped instill a broader sense of community.

In the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, Alexa’s work has served as a truly welcome and deeply needed respite, and upcoming projects of hers like an online summer camp will offer even more touchpoints with the performance and educational communities. The uncertainty of the immediate future of the performing arts poses an undeniable hardship and strain on every member of the industry. To see an artist adapt to the current environment and deliver such much-needed performance and teaching work is an inspiration for many.

Catch Alexa Tarantino & Steven Feifke every Sunday for a preconcert conversation at 7 p.m. and a performance at 8 p.m. on www.crowdcast.io/. You also can hear her every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. when she presents the “The Well-Rounded Musician with Alexa Tarantino” series at www.facebook.com/jazzatlincolncenter. To learn more about Alexa’s projects, visit www.alexatarantino.com

Photo Credit: Anna Yatskevich

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Allan Harris

Allan Harris: Lifelong Learning By Elzy Kolb

The gale-force winds of change we’ve experienced in recent months have triggered a period of introspection and re-evaluation for singer, composer, actor, and guitarist Allan Harris. “I’ve been spending a lot of time with my music and myself. I haven’t been alone in my mind for quite a while. I’m not as exciting as I thought I was, I’m not that special,” he muses, a dubious claim in light of the many and varied projects he has in the works.

Describing himself as his “own worst critic,” Allan has been rethinking his performing technique, reevaluating how he uses space on stage, how he tells stories, how he relies on the band. “It’s an ego breaker, but it’s good. I think I’m growing.”

His increasing social media presence during the pandemic has been at least a partial motivator for Allan’s stepped-up self-improvement regimen. Since March, he has been livestreaming “Harlem After Dark, Unplugged with Allan Harris” twice weekly, and also has appeared on “Blue Note at Home” and other streams. “We need music more than ever now,” he notes on his FB timeline.

“Being a personality on camera is a lot different from being onstage, where you can pick up nuances in the audience response,” Allan points out. “You can see them smiling, clapping, notice lovers looking at each other during a ballad. Streaming from my man cave, I have to imagine what the listener is doing. Now I have to go inside myself to find my bravado. It’s hard for a performer to be unabashed without an audience. I’m feeling my way, writing out scripts, putting set lists together.”

Once a week Allan takes a solo turn on “Harlem After Dark,” just the man and his guitar, delving into a vast and varied repertoire encompassing Billy Strayhorn, Charlie Pride, Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye and his own compositions. Other times, he’s joined at home by musicians such as bassist Marty Kenney and pianist Arcoiris Sandoval.

Drummer and percussionist Shirazette Tinnin has also been on hand, as on the special Juneteenth presentation, when Allan debuted a song he’s written in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The stream included saying the names of victims of police brutality; readings from Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, Marian Anderson, and Abraham Lincoln, among others; and a tender rendering of Ellington’s “Come Sunday.”

On the Juneteenth stream, “Terror in America is going to end in my generation,” declared Allan, who has raised money for Black Lives Matter on a previous stream. In a recent phone interview, he attributed his optimism to the throngs of younger people of all races and backgrounds who have taken to the streets and to social media to show their support for equality and justice. “There’s a mood happening, in this country and in this world, that’s wonderful and transcends racism. The young people are coming together, they’re doing it on their own without anger and bitterness.”

He continues, “They know we’re in the same boat together, that we can row together, and that lets us move in the direction we want to move in.”

Allan enjoys playing and spending time with younger people, relating to their enthusiasm and joy as they discover artists, activists and authors from previous generations, such as Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison. “The young people are going full force now. They’re like a sponge, they squeeze out that water of wisdom and are very inclusive,” he says. “They know their music, but they also know ours.” Allan recently created a Spotify playlist, “Power to the People,” comprising the likes of Bob Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Marley, Sam Cooke and Nina Simone, to share some of the music he considers influential.

He’s also happy to learn from his younger friends, colleagues and associates. “I had a hard time getting into their music,” Allan admits, “but I’m getting into it now, and it’s opening new avenues in my mind and in the melodies. Music reflects the times, and I’m going through my discography with that in mind. I’m putting a twist on my own songs to make them more inclusive, so they’re not based on a certain period but on the era we’re in today.”

As New York eases into reopening, Allan continues to work on new projects and revisit some existing ones with his wife and creative partner, Pat Harris. The pair is writing a novel based on their stage play, Cross That River, fleshing out characters and storylines to present a broader picture of the West after the Civil War. The play has been mounted several times, including an off-Broadway run in 2007; keep an eye out for 2021 productions.

The twosome is also developing a series of intimate gigs in various cities spotlighting local artists, which will be videoed for broadcast or streaming. And the new year will bring a new Allan Harris album, Kate’s Soulfood, which was originally slated to drop this summer.

These turbulent times have brought to Allan’s mind words of comfort and encouragement he often heard from his mother and aunts while growing up. “Everything happens for a reason,” they’d tell him when the going got tough. “This could be a blessing in disguise.” Their wisdom continues to resonate and encourage him.

Hear Allan Harris live at Birdland Jazz Club July 15. His “Harlem After Dark, Unplugged with Allan Harris” streams at www.facebook.com/TheAllanHarrisBand, Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m.

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