I think of Donald Barthelme's short story "The King of Jazz" whenever I'm at a party and people at a loss for appropriate small talk after I've said I write about jazz ask me to name a good place in town to hear some. They want me to point them to a hangout like the one that Hokie Mokie, Barthelme's king of jazz, strolls into after inheriting the crown from the deceased Spicy MacLammermoor—"Hi Bucky! Hi Zoot! Hi Freddie! Hi Thad! Hi Roy! Hi Dexter! Hi Jo! Hi Willie! Hi Greens!" A hangout with all the giants on the bandstand or at the bar, being fawned over by an audience for whom the music is incidental to the satisfaction of not being square.
In reality, it's been two full generations since being a jazz insider was taken as proof of being hip, and almost as long since jazz fans or musicians agreed on such basic issues as what jazz is and who the legitimate heirs of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane are. The problem with wanting to dig the scene is that there isn't a scene anymore—not one that could live up to the fanciful expectations of the people I politely excuse myself from at parties, by that point not merely pretending to need another drink.
What jazz does offer today, along with a bewildering profusion of subgenres and hybrids, is vest-pocket scenes, the most vital of which is the most marginalized—banished to the furthest reaches of bohemia in its home base of New York City, and documented chiefly on musicians' vanity labels and small labels here and abroad. The music—which is descended from the avant-garde "free jazz" of the 1960s (the title of a 1961 album by Ornette Coleman, the movement's founder), and proud of it—may be too extreme for anyone desiring only a foot-tapping beat. Otherwise, if the party was in New York, before excusing myself I would advise people to keep an eye out for Steve Dalachinsky, a stream-of-consciousness poet and a loquacious advocate for his favorite players. His presence is a guarantee that on any given night you're where the action is.
You're sure to spot Dalachinsky handing out flyers or minding the CD table at the annual Vision Festival, where the odds of being drawn into a conversation with him, or with one of the other regulars, or even with a performer who's hanging out to listen after finishing his own set, are equally good. Presented over several nights leading up to Memorial Day, in a variety of homey Lower East Side locations that have included a former synagogue and a recreation center, the Vision Festival is the best time to hear everybody and meet everyone. The music may be uncompromising, but the vibe couldn't be friendlier.
Last May, a few weeks before the festival, Dalachinsky and a handful of other regulars were among the large crowd that showed up at the Blue Note for a one-nighter by the pianist Matthew Shipp, the closest thing this scene has to a star. The swankiest of New York's frontline jazz spots, the Blue Note was a move up for Shipp—a club with a menu and tables instead of folding chairs. He dressed for the gig as always, in slacker's T-shirt and jeans; the polished loafers he wore in place of his customary sneakers were the lone hint of occasion.
Bespectacled and tall and still wiry in his early forties, Shipp is the most dynamic and advanced of a growing number of pianists his age and younger whose starting point is the turning, elongated approach to melody and the inching, fragmented rhythms that Cecil Taylor introduced to jazz in the late 1950s, in the aftermath of bebop. These innovations still haven't been absorbed into the jazz mainstream, and Taylor long ago set off in a more open-ended direction. But often when Shipp or another pianist of similar inclinations seats himself at the bench, Taylor's fingerprints are already on the keys. In Shipp's case, the similarity is infrequent enough to be knowing. The long list of other pianists Shipp draws from—Bud Powell and his skewered runs, Thelonious Monk and his rhymes, McCoy Tyner and his harmonic magic carpet—is somehow proof of his individuality. The earlier pianist he most resembles, in impact more than approach or touch, is the relatively unsung Mal Waldron, who specialized in tension-and-release—though he frequently made do with just tension. Shipp, too, tends to worry a phrase as though something about it is eating away at him, and his solos don't "swing" in a way that a jazz listener with conservative tastes might recognize. Instead of giving the impression of ongoing forward motion, they go back and forth and around in circles, inexorably dragging you along.
Shipp was in top form at the Blue Note, where his trio featured the bassist William Parker and the drummer Guillermo E. Brown, his teammates in the tenor saxophonist David S. Ware's rhythm section. They demonstrated their usual rapport, not merely accompanying Shipp but improvising their parts on equal footing with him and frequently taking the lead. A highlight of the set was Shipp's own "Three in One," a waltz that suggested both Monk and a sinister twist on "Rockabye Baby." More surprising, since Shipp only occasionally plays standards, was a hammering interpretation of the Sinatra barroom anthem "Angel Eyes" that obsessed on the phrase corresponding to "try to think," calling up drizzle and blinking neon signs and other images from film noir.
I was surprised to learn, when I met Shipp for coffee the following morning near his apartment on the gentrified tip of Alphabet City, that he didn't know the lyrics or even the song's bridge. "I get that from Ran Blake," he told me, naming one of his teachers at the New England Conservatory, a maverick pianist whose own music is haunted by movies and images from his dreams. "Because he's a film buff, Ran structures his interpretations that way, with songs going through different 'scenes.' And I've always had plenty of film images and dream images of my own."
Something Shipp undoubtedly gets from Cecil Taylor is his athleticism; his attack starts in his shoulders, and biding his time during a dialogue between bass and drums, he makes fists over the keyboard and pumps them like a prizefighter waiting for the bell to begin the next round. "It's unconscious," he said when I remarked on it, "but I must be doing it, because you're the third person to tell me. The first high school I went to, before I got expelled, my friends and I used to talk on the phone at night and decide who we were going to beat up the next day. I'm a total pacifist now, but following boxing is my major hobby, and the way they used to talk about Cecil Taylor emulating the leaps of dancers—well, I'm not emulating a boxer, but I guess it does enter the fray."
The latter-day free-jazz scene of which Shipp is a part—along with Parker, Brown, Ware, the drummer Susie Ibarra, and the saxophonists Rob Brown, Daniel Carter, Charles Gayle, and Assif Tsahar, among others—is the only one in jazz right now with younger faces noticeably represented in the audience. I don't mean young, mind you; that would be hoping for too much. I mean people a decade or two younger than Baby Boomers like Steve Dalachinsky and me.