How Does a Jazz Musician Make It in New York Now?

Linda Oh plays the bass. Acoustic and electric, in trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets led by some of the best musicians in contemporary jazz. She’s 31, was born in Malaysia and raised in Australia, is of Chinese descent, and has lived in New York City, still the epicenter of jazz, for the past twelve years. In that time, through hard work, pluck (sorry), and great skill, her reputation has steadily grown, and she’s quietly become a star in jazz circles. She has sat in on countless recording sessions, gigs all around town at venues small — where they pass around a tin can — and large, and increasingly tours the country and the world. Linda Oh is a sideman, or rather, a sidewoman. She is, you might say, almost famous.

Like many sidemen, Oh is also an aspiring bandleader. But if jazz is a notoriously tough sell, bass players are even tougher. Essential as the instrument is to time and rhythm, and as voluptuous its presence on the bandstand, it often fades into the background. Rarely do bassists’ profiles scale to that of the larger-than-life Charles Mingus, perhaps the greatest composer in the jazz idiom besides Duke Ellington, or William Parker, out of the avant-garde school, or Ron Carter — or, these days, Esperanza Spalding, who can pack in an audience for a week-long engagement at a New York club. If mere mortal bass players want to lead, they get a night here, a night there.

In the three years, off and on, that I followed Oh around town — to watch her ply her craft and earn a living, and to observe who, if anyone, was bothering to listen — she’s led groups at a storefront church on Bleecker Street; at SubCulture in Noho; and at 55 Bar in the West Village, where she will lead her band again on July 18. (She will also play with avant-funk master Craig Harris at the Rendall Presbyterian Church in Harlem on July 26.)

Along the way it became clear that jazz, thanks to Oh and the hundreds of young musicians like her around the city, is as vital as ever — artistically, anyway, if not economically. It may be, depending on your perspective and whom you ask, undergoing a renaissance in miniature.

“I think there are a lot of inventive things happening within the jazz scene,” says Oh. “I think it’s a beautiful thing so many musicians are branching out and crossing so-called genre boundaries in expressing their individual voices…but also honoring the tradition of the roots of the music.”

Guitarist Matt Stevens, who often plays with Oh and is also on Spalding’s latest album, echoes that feeling. “This current time period feels like I imagine it felt in the Sixties, early Seventies, when people were hungry to expand and be involved in different things,” he says. “Nothing’s off-limits artistically. You can draw from, and be influenced by, anything.”

Musicians like Oh — musicians’ musicians — don’t care that their work isn’t a mass phenomenon; they’re the anti–Taylor Swifts, the un-Beliebers. In that way, they’re countercultural, as were their forebears during Charlie Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop revolution uptown at Minton’s in the Forties, or the Ornette Coleman–led free movement unleashed at the Five Spot in Cooper Square in 1959, or the post-Coltrane howls at Studio Rivbea during the loft era, in the decrepit streets of 1970s Soho. That heat and currency appears to be swirling around the jazz world once again.

“I feel that the resurgence is centered around the fact that it’s like a hip underdog thing,” Stevens says. “It does help when huge records like [Kendrick Lamar’s] To Pimp a Butterfly tip their hat in that direction, and these things start proliferating in the popular culture outside of just the jazz publications.”

“In some ways, it’s a perfect storm that has come at the right moment where enough people have gotten hip to it,” says Brice Rosenbloom, senior music director at Le Poisson Rouge, formerly the Village Gate, and a founder and producer of the fourteen-year-old Winter Jazzfest, which has grown every year in terms of venues, artists, and audience. He attributes this storm to the attention around fusionist Kamasi Washington and the West Coast scene he’s a part of, as well as to the recent biopics on Miles Davis and Chet Baker.

“It’s crazy living in New York,” says James Francies, a talented twenty-year-old Houston native studying at the New School. “Everyone is here. There will be nights where you can go see Pharoah Sanders in one club, then go see Chris Potter a few blocks away. Or you can see Harold Mabern at Smoke, then go see Brad Mehldau at the Vanguard. To me, that’s insane.”

Francies has already played with Questlove on The Tonight Show and has done some arrangements for trendsetter Robert Glasper, one of his “Houston big brothers.” In April 2015 he invited Oh, whom he met when he was fifteen at the Skidmore Jazz Institute in Saratoga Springs, to make up one leg of his eponymous trio as it played the opening of “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks” at the Brooklyn Museum. “In my mind, she is the epitome of the perfect bass player,” he says. “She can read anything, amazing composer, the nicest person, great soloist, and has great instincts. She can play a piece of music the first time and sound like she wrote it.”

Oh, like many of her generation, is reluctant even to use the word jazz. “At the risk of oversimplifying,” she says, “it is, essentially, for me, creative improvised music that has its roots in black American music.”

Others are still troubled by how jazz (or shall we say “jazz, for lack of a better term”) presents itself.

“One of my pet peeves,” says Rio Sakairi, the artistic director of the Jazz Gallery, the forward-thinking not-for-profit space, “is when organizations say, ‘Jazz: America’s greatest art form.’ My reaction is always like, ‘Are you saying this because you don’twant people to listen to it?’ Because that sounds really goofy and not very attractive….I’m thinking, ‘Why are you putting out this really goofy, douche-y image of jazz?’ I’m puzzled by that.”
Oh at 55 Bar in June

Oh at 55 Bar in June
David Urbanke

On a Friday night in March, Linda is leading her own quintet, the cleverly named Linda Oh 5, at the unfortunately named Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the smallest of the three spaces that make up Jazz at Lincoln Center, which makes its home not at Lincoln Center but in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. It’s 7:30, the first of two sets, and the place is nearly full. A good sign. The view is amazing — except for the Trump International Hotel, which is virtually within spitting distance — the food is pricey and Southern (as it often is at jazz clubs), and the cover charge is hefty, at $40 (more than that of even the Village Vanguard, the Madison Square Garden of jazz).

Oh’s band is the picture of diversity: Drummer Justin Brown rocks an Afro worthy of a Miles Davis band circa 1973; tenor saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Ben Wendel are, respectively, a dreadlocked Northern Californian and a Canadian who looks straight out of the Midwest; and Oh’s boyfriend, the Cuban-born, Miami-raised pianist Fabian Almazan, appears both studious (he wears glasses and seems especially attuned to his bandmates) and glamorous (he wears his hair in a man-bun, like an international soccer star). They are all youngish stars in their own right.

Jazz may have always been miles ahead of the rest of American society when it came to racial diversity, but these aren’t your parents’ (or grandparents’) hard-living boppers in smoky, sepia-toned dives on West 52nd Street, dressed like CEOs and raising hell like rock stars (before rock existed). Today’s thirtysomething jazz musician is nerdier, friendly, largely oblivious to fashion concerns (especially the men, almost painfully so). They look like they might eat organic — if they could afford it.

I didn’t want to ask Oh about her personal life, but I sense she’s not exactly doing smack. She enjoys a little well-placed profanity (usually when the tape recorder is off), and although I look for tics — as writers do — I can’t find any. I rarely saw her get mad at anyone or complain about anything. Not about having to agree to play in an all-Asian female rhythm section early in her career for forty bucks a night; not about other issues regarding race or gender (which have both helped and hindered, she says); not about my endless and no doubt annoying questioning. Yet she’s not a smarmy political climber, either. The one time I did see her annoyed was at Harlem Stage last year, where we saw the singer José James pay tribute to Billie Holiday. We shared our tiny table with two clods; one resembled Wallace Shawn and stood out from the fashionable crowd for his Notre Dame “Touchdown Jesus” T-shirt. During James’s encore, “Strange Fruit,” his cellphone went off. It was the only time I saw rage in Oh’s eyes. Music, for her, can be played with, reinterpreted, deconstructed, but never disrespected.

Linda, who, it should be noted, is always smartly dressed, is in all-black for her Dizzy’s show, and, with the exception of a piece by Charlie Haden — the late hall-of-fame bassist — she plays only her own compositions. She starts nearly every number boldly, with at least a few measures of her alone plucking out a thick bassline. This is my gig, she’s declaring, as she must. This is my night.

When Oh speaks to the audience — to announce the personnel, the songs, and occasionally their provenance (“Yoda” is named after her wise older sister; “Speech Impediment” was inspired by a TED Talk) — she does so quietly, in an Aussie accent. She’s serious, warm, and gracious. She’s a musician, but she’s not going to do a song-and-dance for you. She doesn’t do shtick.

She prefers instead to let her musicianship — extraordinary, with impeccable technique, articulation, and groove — speak for her. “No matter how demanding or tricky a bassline, ostinato, or passage might be, she is able to play it with extreme fluidity, meaning I never hear any ‘stress’ or ‘stiffness’ when she plays,” says drummer and bandleader E.J. Strickland, with whom Oh plays regularly, often at the Danny Meyer–owned Jazz Standard. “And whether she is playing the role of an accompanist or soloist, she seems like she’s able to execute whatever comes to her mind perfectly. A lot of musicians have great ideas in their head but aren’t necessarily able to execute those ideas on their instrument because they don’t have the technique to do so. Not with her, though.”

The crowd at Dizzy’s is older, polite, and sedate bordering on comatose. Many seem to be members of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which maintains a stunningly fine program despite its establishment vibe. (It was the target of a protest last year by the group Jazz Women and Girls Advocates, which, because the orchestra has never had a permanent female member in its 28 years, called for blind auditions and public job postings.) Oh has played JALC before, last May, at the Appel Room, with the Joe Lovano–Dave Douglas Quintet, in a tribute to Wayne Shorter. That night she took a solo during a Lovano piece called “Weatherman”: Douglas stood to the side, watching intently with his arms folded, as her hands danced up and down the neck; Joey Baron, the drummer, looked on in disbelief. Oh got a rousing ovation, as she does again tonight — eventually.

Here, this venue, even more than Carnegie Hall, is the mountaintop of jazz. Success is assured. Right?

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