Looking Behind the Vision Festival:A Conversation with Patricia Nicholson
By Kurt Gottschalk
On June 13, when the doors of the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts open for Vision Festival XI, Arts for Art -- the organization that organizes and presents the annual jazz fest -- will also be opening the door to the adoration and criticism they've faced every year for a decade. The praise and complaints are largely for the same thing, namely for hosting hours and hours of high energy jazz. Horns blaring, basses booming and drums being beaten, it's a tradition carried on for some forty years, in the wake of the great John Coltrane.
Say it's about time there's an American festival dedicated to presenting free jazz, or say that Patricia Nicholson and her collective of artists suffer from a bad case of tunnel vision, but either way Arts for Art has created a brand for itself. It's what Steven Joerg -- whose label AUM Fidelity has released albums by Vision regulars William Parker, Cooper-Moore, Daniel Carter, Mat Maneri, Joe Morris, Roy Campbell, and David S. Ware, as well as a two-disc set of recordings from the festival -- calls "ecstatic jazz," a sort of secular Baptist tent meeting.
"The festival is about a lot of things," according to Nicholson. "The practical thing isn't just a paid gig, it's a world-class festival. It's a place for musicians to play music that they were discouraged from playing for years -- a certain kind of intensity. I call it 'soul music.'
"It doesn't mean you can't play Euro or whatever," she continued. "It's all valid -- there aren't any constraints. But one festival can't do it all -- you don't have a vision then. We don't make everyone happy, and that's fine."
Within its mission, arguably the most important thing Art for Arts has done is to champion the elders of the music. Septugenarian saxophonists Fred Anderson (from Chicago) and Kidd Jordan (New Orleans) have regularly appeared on the program, where in past years they were all but unknown in New York. Tributes have been paid to legends lost (this year to Raphe Malik while past years honored Jimmy Lyons, Denis Charles, Julius Hemphill, Don Cherry, Jeanne Lee, Peter Kowald and Wilber Morris) and living. In 2005, Art for Arts introduced a Lifetime Achievement award and honored Anderson. This year, the distinction will go to Sam Rivers, who's living in Florida now but when he was in New York ran Studio Rivbea, a legendary part of the 1970s Loft Scene.
Photo by Peter Gannushkin
"Sam is a wonderful person," Nicholson said. "I even had my little gig at Studio RivBea, and that's where I met William [Parker, her husband]. And he's kept his music alive. Besides a great musician, he's important in the sense of community.
But despite the brand identity, there is some diversity to be found within the festival's programming, including performers from Europe and Japan and an afternoon of sets by younger musicians. Along with the usual suspects, this year will feature performances by trombonist Paul Rutherford and pianist Veryan Weston, both from England, Dutch saxophonist Klaas Hekman and the Swiss trio Day & Taxi. Drummer Dylan van der Schyffe and cellist Peggy Lee will also appear, making the trip down from Vancouver. Still, most of the names in the schedule are familiar from the past decade of festivals. Nicholson pointed out, however, that Parker and Matthew Shipp aren't leading groups this year, and Chicago percussionist Hamid Drake is for the first time.
The list of invited performers each year is made by a seven-person "music committee," which makes suggestions and narrows it down based on such factors as age, gender, stage of career and whether or not they've played the festival before. There aren't, however, strict rules, Nicholson said. Last year had a number of women on the bill, for example, whereas this year Matana Roberts is the only female bandleader, and her set is during the "New Generation" matinee.
"We had lots [of women last year]," Nicholson said. "This year it just didn't happen. And the festival will always be dominated by blacks because no other festival I know of is, and that's just plain wrong."
The afternoon focus on younger players was new last year, and featured Tyshawn Sorey, Guillermo Brown, Todd Nicholson and the trio of Tatsuya Nakatani, Vic Rawlings and Ricardo Arias. But like everything Vision takes on, Nicholson said, the matinee has brought some criticism.
"Sometimes the younger players don't like it, but I think it works better for them," she said. "It's going to be different when they're 40 or 50, when their music matures. I think it focuses on them -- they don't get as big an audience, but there's more focus."
She remembered a recent evening out seeing two concerts, one by a younger group and the other by older players.
"The difference wasn't the individual talent," she said. "It was that the older musicians knew how to breathe together, and that's when the magic happens. They become like one person.
"The way our general marketplace society works is there's all this focus on young people," she explained. "But generally people don't come into their prime until they're in their 40s. It's not that they aren't talented, but it's different."
The organization also made the decision to set the younger players apart to draw the attention of potential funders -- a perpetual concern. With a staff of "three administrative, underpaid positions," she said, they not only organize the summer festival, but also regular weekend afternoon shows and the annual "Vision Collaborations" music and dance weekend. And they are looking to have their own performance space by September, 2007.
"We're getting more money but we're trying to spread it out over the year.," she said. "We're trying to get our own space. Having your own space is everything. Without it, longevity is not going to happen, and we don't have a home. You're just at the mercy of whoever owns the venue."
With a space to hold regular, smaller shows -- they don't expect to get something big enough to house the festival -- Art for Arts would be one step closer to keeping alive a tradition that's fallen to the periphery of jazz. But even now, eleven years into promoting ecstatic jazz, the profile has been raised and a community built. The work now, she said, is developing something that can be carried on by the new generation and generations after.
"It's not about legitimizing because we don't have to do that anymore," Nicholson said. "It's about passing it on."