Seeing Live Jazz: Bird With Strings (Really)

Do you see a lot of live jazz anymore? I don’t. When people ask why, I kind of laugh it off and tell them that just about everyone I’d want to see is dead. Which, unfortunately, is pretty true, with a very few exceptions. I do still try to see Sonny Rollins whenever possible and perhaps a couple of others, but I no longer go to the Vanguard regularly or any of the other clubs in New York. Perhaps this will change when Mrs. JC and I make our long-awaited move to Manhattan, which is in the works (we hope). In any case, I bring this up because I did recently trek to Rose Hall in New York for the first time to attend a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. The concert was billed as “Bird With Strings,” featuring Charles McPherson accompanied by a string section and playing the music from the original Charlie Parker Bird With Strings album. I like McPherson, a love Bird With Strings and I figured this would be a good opportunity to see some live jazz and check out the location. So how was it?

Overall, not bad. The concert wasn’t exactly as I expected. The first set there were no strings and only a little bit of McPherson. It was mostly a sextet under the direction of Vincent Gardner, a trombone player affiliated with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. They played a set of bop tunes associated with Bird, although the sensibility was more post-bop than bop, which was fine by me. The highlight for me was the alto player Wess Anderson. McPherson joined for the end of the first set and he was in okay form, nothing great.

The second set brought out the string section, with a lot more McPherson and also some more Anderson. This set was definitely more interesting to me. What was most compelling was watching the alto players playing with the string section and how much they enjoyed the interaction – then thinking about Bird, back in the early 1950s, and how much he would have valued this kind of background as well: Where he was the featured soloist in a far more highbrow type of setting and all of the other musicians, classically trained, were there to support him. It was actually enlightening from that perspective, and the music was nice as well.

As for the venue . . . can’t really complain. The acoustics were fine, everyone could see from all seats. The prices were quite high – I paid more than $80 a seat and sat upstairs – and the hall was small enough as halls go, so it’s definitely a nice setting for jazz, although there was nothing in either the music or venue that made me feel like, “Oh yeah, I have to come back here.”  Having said that, I’ll have no problem going back if there’s another concert that strikes my fancy.


  • …Sounds like a great night on the town Al ! Lincoln Centre may not be the most historic of venues in NYC, but it certainly has it’s fair share of great shows these days. Besides, no matter who’s performing, there are always some great restaurants in the area to hit before the show. (Patsy’s Italian is not far off, just over on 236 W. 56th … That was one of Sinatra’s favorites apparently. Food’s not bad, but it’s a bit “touristy” on the weekends…)
    At least once you are in town full time you will have the option to step out to the clubs if just on those rare nights when the few remaining Jazz legends drop in for a set or two… (As a matter of fact, I think Dave Brubeck is at the 92nd Street ‘Y’ tonight at 8pm, and then at the Blue Note in June and November) Enjoy it while we still can I say !
    It’s certainly no secret on this forum that I am a huge advocate of the live experience. Especially in a club setting like the Vanguard, or the Lennox Lounge. You can really feel the history behind all those recordings that we collect & cherish. Seeing an artist improvise live on stage has a certain energy that can never really be duplicated in any recording. Although, truth be told, for me it was the live performances that made me want to explore and connect with this art form further through collecting LP’s. (Perhaps it is a way to “self-medicate” between sets, who knows !)
    You certainly have a good point about how each year there are fewer and fewer guys still around from the Golden Age worth seeing that haven’t branched off from their Jazz roots or “retired” altogether. That being said, some of today’s “young lions” who were schooled by the greats are still worth checking out if you get the chance. Who knows, it might re-kindle that old flame with live Jazz…

  • Just a side note: Dave Brubeck coincidently is another artist that has taken to performing alongside orchestras a bit more frequently these days… Like ‘Bird with Strings’, it certainly adds another dimension to the old standards.

  • I go see as much as I can, but the majority of what I see is very modern. In New Orleans, there is a pretty nice music scene although it was much bigger before Hurricane Katrina. Still, the Modern Jazz scene is very alive. There is some avant garde, and a lot of Jazz Funk fusion bands that play around and the city also attracts plenty of music but not really a ton of jazz from say the Hard Bop periods. Then you have the jazz fest which gets you a few big names a year, but this has dwindled down to just one or two big non-local names. Also, there is a arts group that attracts one big name a year. In previous years it’s been McCoy Tyner, and Ahmad Jamal both of whom can still play.
    I think though that the amount of live Jazz you see depends on your taste. I’ve seen some great stuff in New York clubs, but it was more Modern artists like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, etc whom I love but are not a lot of people’s cup of tea.

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