In its two months of existence, Douglass Street has filled a niche that many didn't even recognize. The much-publicized Brooklyn renaissance created spaces for musicians to perform--Barb?s, Tea Lounge, Zebulon--but also recreated situations that have perennially plagued creative musicians. Performance spaces and clubs are booked in advance and you have to always think ahead. And they always expect something, remarked pianist, composer and collective member Frank Carlberg. I mean, I'm not blaming them, they're just trying to run a business...many times, some kind of a compromised business, but they want to make sure that things are viable enough for them, which puts them in a kind of defensive posture. That, coupled with the closure of creative havens like Tonic and CBGB's in the past few years, gave rise to the need for a musician-run space. Douglass Street gives you the opportunity to present something in an environment where you don't have to answer to anybody. You don't have to convince anyone, except for the audience, of course.
The modest, loft-like performance venue is democratic by sheer necessity. 14 musicians from diverse schools and backgrounds split the rent and have an equal say in what is presented. Taking the DIY spirit of the '70s Loft Scene and applying it to the brutal realities of New York real estate in 2008, the members of Douglass Street have embraced the task of sharing the space and working around varied schedules. Everyone who's a member is entitled to do one night a month, explained violist Tanya Kalmanovitch who, along with violinist Joel Lambdin, signed the lease for the space in February and has taken on the lion's share of administrative tasks. Some people mainly want to use it to rehearse and some to play.
On their assigned nights, collective members can either present their own music or book acts of their choosing and many of the members seem as eager to present new music as they are to play it: I'm completely interested in presenting other people whenever there seems to be a reason to, intoned Carlberg over coffee at a shop in the neighborhood. If someone's coming from out of town with limited resources or if something has to happen on a shorter schedule, then yeah, what the hell; the space is here. Fellow collective member, bassist Michael Bates agrees: I hope that this will give creative musicians an avenue and a place to play. I just want more people to know about it...to be an active part of the audience, but also of the community. The more people we can get here, the better it's going to be in the long run.
The performance space, formerly trumpeter Ralph Alessi's Center for Improvised Music, has undergone renovation since the lease was signed and falls somewhere in between a loft space and jazz club in appearance. Exposed wooden Y-beams break up the bare white walls and exposed bulbs hang from a web of black electrical cords splayed across the ceiling. Tables are scattered around the room, but no food is served and your best bet for getting a drink is to ask a performer while dropping a few bucks into the tip jar atop the makeshift bar. Things got boomy during a set last month, but soundproofing is in the works and the fact that Douglass Street has a decent, tuned grand piano makes up for any minor acoustic shortcomings.
The Collective made a strong debut in late May by showcasing members in a four-day launch festival and in addition to performances by collective members, also hosted a festival featuring artists from the free- minded label, Kordova Milk Bar Jazz. Playing host to creative music festivals has drawn vital press coverage for Douglass Street and brought fans to the somewhat isolated club. We'll see about the location, said Carlberg. We're just about a block from actually having a location that people could easily find. But I think we're getting to a point where maybe it will get a little bit easier. That whole area has changed quite a bit. I don't want it to change too much! And the place is small enough; we don't have to have huge crowds every night. Kalmanovitch and Carlberg are planning to book a series of mini-festivals in the coming months to further spread the word about Douglass Street and build on the positive press coverage they've received. One can only hope that it's a beginning of a trend toward more musician-run spaces for creative music. I do kind of like this idea of trying to take charge of this ourselves, remarked Carlberg between sips of coffee. It has a grassroots feel to it. Instead of complaining about things you try to change it, as much as you can.
~ Matthew Miller