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Despite hurdles, New York still seducing jazz artists

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Jazz pianist Jean-Michel Pilc (left) performs at New York’s Blue Note club on June 17 as part of a series of concerts meant to highlight the strong presence of French musicians in the US. MAGGY DONALDSON/afp

Despite hurdles, New York still seducing jazz artists

Its lilts and grooves can feel like nostalgic rhythms from a bygone era, but jazz remains a thriving contemporary art form – and its proponents still flock to New York hoping to catch a break.

Despite booming rents that have left few affordable bases for struggling artists of all stripes, jazz musicians tend to consider the US cultural metropolis the premier petri dish for cultivating their craft.

“There’s a long history,” said Clovis Nicolas, a bassist who grew up near Marseille and has called New York home for 16 years.

After a few visits in his late 20s he decided to move there from Paris.

“I was getting so much information and inspiration from the music scene that it would make me play better,” he recalled.

“The standards are pretty high. It’s a place where all the best musicians from the US and the world come to meet,” the 46-year-old said at a diner a few neighbourhoods south of his home in Harlem.

Jazz pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, like Nicolas, took part in the recent France Rocks concert series highlighting the strong presence of French musicians stateside.

The sheer number of hopefuls vying to be the next Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie or Billie Holiday have helped maintain the city’s status as a jazz capital, he says.

“There is a mythology to New York,” he said, adding that shortly after he arrived in 1994 “all of the French musicians were coming here . . . it became a little bit of a gimmick”.

‘Something sweet’

Pilc lived in New York nearly two decades, becoming an American citizen before moving to Montreal in 2015 to teach his craft at McGill University.

“I think musicians need energy, and there is a particular type of energy in this place,” Pilc, who recently played at New York’s historic Blue Note club in Greenwich Village, said of his old stomping ground.

“You step in a club in New York and you’ll hear people playing bass and drums in such a way – there is something sweet, idiomatic about it, that sometimes is more difficult to find in Europe,” he said.

“That sense of time, that sense of sound – there’s a tradition here, like it or not.”

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Jazz bassist and composer Clovis Nicolas poses for a portrait in New York City. ANGELA WEISS/afp

So how does a city that is increasingly prohibitive for the young and aspirational – New York is consistently in the top 10 of the world’s most expensive municipalities – remain a centre of musical iconoclasm?

Monthly rent for an average two-bedroom apartment in New York increased from $1,938 in January 2011 to $2,831 eight years later, according to industry data analysis from Rainmaker Insights.

“It’s a rough situation,” said Nicolas. “Some musicians manage to do Broadway shows, some maybe have money in the family, some teach, some do a lot of gigs. My choice was to do everything I could to do a lot of performances.”

Money worries

The financial stress is exacerbated by the fact that the US offers very little aid to artists in contrast with France, where comparatively generous government financial assistance includes payments and benefits during periods of unemployment.

Vincent Peirani, a Paris-based jazz accordionist who often tours in New York and also participated in the France Rocks festival, said the notion of starting over stateside is daunting, especially considering the financial hit.

“We have a lot of support in France . . . even if you play the accordion,” the 39-year-old laughed.

Peirani noted that the Internet has opened avenues for discovering new music and inspiration, a sort of digital scene that can connect musicians from all over the world.

“You start out with one guy, and if you like this one, you can try this one or that one,” he said. “You can spend all night and discover many new things. It’s just amazing.”

But despite financial barriers New York still boasts more artists than ever, topping 55,000, according to a 2017 study from the New York-based Center for an Urban Future.

And more work is available thanks to a large network of musicians in New York, Nicolas said, with veteran performers willing to lend a hand to struggling up-and-comers and make the hustle possible.

“This city is a lot about survival and about business and being professional. In France, it can be seen as a bad thing,” he said.

“But here, we all need to work. We don’t have help from the government. When you really have a passion, you’ll figure it out.”

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