Music

Heart of Stone

Photo: Roger Wallace.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THAT CHAIR?

There used to be a Chinese restaurant on the corner of Avenue C and East Second Street. It was called The Golden Dragon. The filmmaker Ela Troyano owns the building. In 2005, her friend, composer John Zorn, turned The Golden Dragon into The Stone.

What the fuck are you doing with that chair?

The space was emptied of appliances and counters. In their place, a Yamaha grand piano, a small PA, and sixty or so black chairs were installed. Black sound treatment curtains were hung over the windows. Avenue C itself became the lobby. If the place wasn’t ambitious in any way, it was clean and focused: Improvisers and listeners in one room with nothing but each other, and nothing to buy except CDs. It didn’t feel like a music venue. It felt like The Stone. Pay your twenty and you’re as welcome as anyone else.

Move back.

“There’s something to be said for the way a space informs what the rules are without anybody having to say them,” drummer Greg Fox told me a few days after The Stone’s Avenue C location closed in February. “The old Stone, as uncomfortable as it may have been in certain ways, worked. You go in there, you’re looking at the stage, there’s nowhere else to go, the lights are blacked out, that’s it, and that’s what makes it work. You can’t leave, you can’t even go to the bathroom.” (The bathroom was behind the grand piano and strictly off-limits once a show began.)

Move back.

The rules were the rules: No drinking, no recording, no photography, no phones. One night, someone had to remind Yo-Yo Ma it wasn’t okay to bring wine into the venue. The volunteer waited until the show was over to tell Ma. Improvisers are not monsters. And rules are not impositions. They maximize the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Rules enable rituals. Freedom is a dumb word, used to sell machine guns. Being around other people means taking them into consideration. The audience is on the hook, too. They need to listen to everything, especially each other. Community starts with proximity and moves on to presence.

Move back. There are a lot of people around you. Thank you.

In the beginning, one artist would curate a month of music at The Stone. Now, an artist is invited to curate six shows over the course of one week. There was a paid staffer for a year or so, but by January of 2007, all of the staff were volunteers, including Zorn, who was the de facto house manager.

No—that’s not right. Zorn was Avenue C’s pater familias, moving chairs, handing out cushions, and squeezing in the visible family around an invisible table.

All of the small intimate spaces I have organized over the past forty years (Theatre of Musical Optics (ca 1976-78, The Saint (ca 1980-82) etc) have used the same formula as The Stone—the musicians get 100% of the door—but The Stone was the most ambitious and longest running. It was thirteen years on Avenue C, which was longer than Tonic or the first Knitting Factory on Houston.

The Stone is now a practice as much as it is a place. Five nights a week, Zorn invites artists to curate shows at the The New School’s Glass Box Theater on West Thirteenth Street, right off Sixth Avenue.

The Stone moved to The New School because it was simply time for a change. The Glass Box is cleaner, closer to the subway, more visible, more comfortable and connects to my friendship with Richard Kessler, who is a dean over there.

For the final week of programming on Avenue C, Zorn led six improv nights, each with a different ensemble. Some audience members lined up for over an hour, only to reach the corner and find a laminated “SOLD OUT” sign stuck into the door frame. Once capacity had been reached, a Stone volunteer, often Zorn, would pop out and count the number of people waiting. Most of those nights, a second show was added to accommodate them.

Almost sixty different musicians played that final week, including Laurie Anderson, Joey Baron, Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, John Medeski, Mary Halvorson, and dozens of others. Each night, Zorn would herd the players into the basement. At 8:30, various combinations of two three and four would rise back up into the space. “John always leads the improv nights,” said Sam Kulik, trombonist and co-manager of The Stone. “‘Horn web’ is one thing he might call. That’s when everyone with a horn plays. Or he might say ‘string web.’ But it was more standard for him to tap someone else to pick a band, or just do it all together by figuring out who hadn’t played yet.”

One night, a newspaper photographer showed up before doors, to shoot the musicians during sound check. (At The Stone, sound check means taking a few seconds to make sure the amp works and then choosing a spot to stand during the performance.) After watching the musicians waltz in and out of the space, the photographer looked puzzled.

“Whatever you’re waiting for, it ain’t gonna happen,” Zorn said.

“I thought you were all gonna get up and pretend to be playing,” she replied.

“This is The Stone. We don't pretend anything here!” Zorn laughed.

The Avenue C Stone was a portal, a church, a good place for a loud thought or a silent handoff.

There's not a day that I don't leave this house, go for a walk, whatever I'm doing, wherever I'm going, and I run into a friend, and we talk. A lot of times, a project happens out of that. “Oh, hey! What are you doing? Oh, do you want to do something at the Stone? Lemme give you a week.” Or, “Oh, wow, I didn't know you were back in town, man, we've got to get together and play. I'm doing a recording session.”

Photo: Roger Wallace.

During the last week, as life at Avenue C was winding down, Zorn and I got together in the East Village to talk. He wore a black t-shirt and camouflage pants, the same thing he wore for the last week of The Avenue C Stone.

You know, thirteen years, we had a lot of complaints from artists about the space, about this, about that.

You would think they wouldn't complain.

But there's a variety of things to complain about! You know, I mean, not the best equipment in the world, there was a long time when it was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. We didn't really have a good air conditioner.

Right.

The radiator's clanking, the woman upstairs walks around, sometimes she waters her plants, overwaters it and the water comes dripping down. Someone left their barbecue chicken in the basement for a week and the stupid guy who's volunteering didn't clear it out, and it stinks, or a rat got to it, or someone saw a rat in the basement. Now that we've closed it, of course, it's a very nostalgic place now, now they're not remembering all of that.

It’s people talking about the East Village. “Oh, you should've been here.”

That’s bullshit. You want to relive your days of beatnik glory? Sorry man, it's now, it's today, this is what's happening. Dig it or get the fuck out. I don't live in the past. I'm very happy with the present.

On the last Sunday at Avenue C, Zorn closed the show by gathering all the musicians together for a full ensemble piece, the standard close for an improv night. Ten people were jammed into the center of The Stone, vibraphone versus tuba versus drums versus electric guitars versus saxophone, all of it sounding burly and crinkled after a contemplative series of duos and trios and quartets.

Before the last number, Zorn called out for someone named Scott Robinson. An older man in a button-down shirt, not looking much like an improviser, came out of the audience and edged into the circle of musicians. “Scott has a vast instrument collection,” Kulik said. “John knew he’d have something interesting with him, and it was not without precedent for him to be called up on the spot.” Robinson pulled a slide saxophone out of a leather bag, pausing to lubricate it before playing. With Robinson leading the way, Kulik began on tuba, with Kenny Wolleson and Chris Dingman playing the same vibraphone. Ten minutes later, after the piece had crested into some real clangor, Zorn gently brought the volume down with a hand gesture, quieting the players. He left Robinson to finish the night as a soloist, blerping up and down without stops.

The next morning, a small crew of volunteers and musicians showed up to clean out The Stone. Percussionist Billy Martin took the black curtains, and Brian Chase took the pump organ that sat by the front door for years. All of the chairs went to Ibeam Brooklyn in Gowanus, another independently run creative music space. The music stands were given to whoever wanted one.

Zorn walks the walk. He is not the only one, not by a long shot, but the list of people in the independent arts community who have done it for forty years or more is short. (Shout out to Bill T. Jones and Sarah Schulman, for a start.) You don’t have to care about improvised music to understand that somebody who strikes deals by handshake and honors their word is essential to whatever part of downtown New York culture that hasn’t been ingested hot and shit out cold by NYU and Michael Bloomberg. New York was built for, and by, robber barons, so there is no reason to worry about this century’s crop. New York has room for many Stones, but someone does have to show up every day to plug it all in, to line up the chairs, to make the donuts.

Thank you very much. We love you all. Now get the fuck out of here.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician from New York.

The Stone closed its location on Second Street and Avenue C in March, and will continue its programming at The New School Glass Box Theater on West 13th Street in New York City.

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