Preface: New to Ohio, specifically Columbus, from London, England and New York City, I grew accustomed to live music gigs not only being plentiful, but available each and every night. I spent the first few months looking for same here in Columbus, and after a while reality sunk in as I would become painfully aware that not everything would be found on my front doorstep. I would have to “leg it” as they say across the pond.
I happened across one Phil Maneri (Photo by Dede Thomas Parker: “Phil at the Fret Shop counter”), unbeknownst to me he not only runs the Fret Shop, stringed instruments sold and repaired, but as I started asking around all roads and referrals from folks led back to Phil. Seemed like a decent place to start, so I stalked him on Facebook and started attending his gigs and this weekly experiment of his “Phil@Filament,” which takes place in Franklinton’s Filament at the Vanderelli Room.
Phil plays a number of instruments: Electric Bass, Guitar, Piano and Trumpet, but these days more often than not I see/hear him playing his Double Bass, a formidable instrument by its sheer size alone. He plays all over town, all genres of music, but where I’ve gotten to know him best, besides his guitar shop is a series of almost weekly improvisational performances accompanied by guest musicians featuring a myriad of instruments. More on that later.
I, David Blumenstein (DB) will be interviewing Phil Maneri (PM), to learn about the Columbus/Central Ohio jazz scene and what I means to be a musician around these parts.
DB: What’s it like being a professional jazz musician here in Columbus/Central Ohio? How are the venues for jazz? How are the audiences?
PM: To call me a professional jazz musician in Columbus is kind of an insult to those that actually are that. I’m a professional musician and I do improvisational music, but I don’t see myself as a “professional jazz musician.” I’m not, I’m a working musician who might make an inadvertent jazz noise here and there while playing gigs that pay the bills.
There aren’t very many venues for Jazz in Columbus. Dick’s Den has been the stalwart mainstay, Brothers Drake, Notes, and Natalie’s program jazz. You can hear pros playing restaurant jazz in Hyde Park, Black Point, Giuseppe’s, The Refectory and other places I can’t remember off the top of my head. Filament, where I do my weekly show, is a newbie and a growing spot for improvised music, be it jazz or whatever one might call art driven music.
People are not banging down the doors to listen to improv-jazz. They like funk jazz hybrids (Think Spyro Gyra), and pop-jazz hybrids (Kenny G), and even Rock jazz hybrids (Phish, Grateful Dead); but truly forward moving jazz like Wayne Shorter has a very small audience here…well he might do ok, but if someone around here played stuff like that it would be relegated to small places for very little money. Things like ECM improvisational work (Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Ralph Towner, Gary Burton, etc.) has even less traction here. And most places in the states I’d guess. Rap and Pop and EDM and Singer-Songwriter stuff rule the roost.
My biggest audiences come when I’m playing pop and classic rock covers, which I do a lot. One night I’ll play “Sweet Caroline” to a big festival crowd of thousands, and the next I’ll play free improv to two people. So it goes. Artistic expression in music usually falls on deaf ears except for a fraction of a percentage that goes on to change the course of music forever.
DB: What would you like to see change? And how would you propose this change comes about?
PM: It is hard for me to think in those terms. It is what it is, and here it is better than most places. Jazz and improvisational music are generally marginalized most places. Very small market share. Other improvised music, like jam bands, enjoy a way bigger market, and so the players have better opportunity to play and make a living.
New York has more opportunities to play jazz but way less money available or regularity of playing than you can have here. Here, in Columbus, people can actually play music for a living, albeit a very poor one. Outside of New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles, you can’t really do that in very many other cities, and even in those unless you are in the top tier you’re working a day job. Playing just jazz music and paying all your bills is damn near impossible anywhere in the US.
If I could wave a wand and change anything I’d love to have more people come to artistic gigs and actually pay for the experience. But I have no expectation of that happening or have any idea how to bring that about.
DB: You seem to know just about everyone in the Columbus/Central Ohio jazz scene? What’s the vibe for local musicians in general? What do you all talk about with respect to performances and interaction with respective communities and neighborhoods?
PM: Musicians are generally super supportive here. It is a big brotherhood. Like just about any form of human interaction there are cliques and swirls of changing preference and influence that morph how people interact with each other. The lack of animosity and competitive destructive behavior is unusual and lovely. Of course, there is some of that, we are human, but its way less than anyone would ever think. People here are really nice…very Midwestern.
There has been an uptick in people moving here that has brought in new players that for the most part enliven what we do here. There has been a large growth in under-30 year-old players that are seriously good breathing live and vitality into the established musicians. Yes, sometimes the old guys grump that we get less work because of it. That is true, but so it goes. Just means you can’t sit on the couch and expect the world to come to you because you’ve always been here…(he says scolding himself).
DB: What role can the local universities’ music departments play in not only educating the community-at-large about Jazz? But also encourage their respective students to come out and support local musicians with their attendance?
PM: Capital and OSU bring great players here all the time. Many of them stay, like the younger generation, I just talked about. I think that’s a great cross-pollination.
Overall I think jazz school is bullshit and tends to crank out players with chops and no art, in spite of the instructors’ best efforts to prevent that. If I could change anything about that I’d wish they could all play way more gigs and spend less time in the practice room. I think you learn way more on 3 gigs than you do in 30 hours in a practice room. In fact, the strength of the older generations is that we came up when there was a ton of work to do so we are all gig hardened and super experienced. Makes the playing way more interesting, deep, subtle.
Go listen to Bobby Floyd or Tony Monaco or Jim Maneri play and you’ll see what I mean. Thousands of gigs over a gazillion years gets you some gravitas you can’t get in a practice room.
I can’t speak much to the college role in increasing knowledge of the form. I think that’s entirely about listening. Listening to as much as they can, as much as they can stand, and then some. College can’t do that. That all comes down to what someone decides to do on their own. I will say that it is easier now than ever to hear the gamut of the history of music. You carry it with you all day and all night on your phone. If you are a musician there shouldn’t be too many minutes spent without exploring music. I do all day every day and am always searching for something new to me. Do that for several decades and your ears get real big. You can’t help but be an interesting player.
DB: While there are numerous live jazz performances scheduled all over town, are there too many? Does an issue exist with respect to the quality of performances?
PM: No. That’s preposterous. I say the should be even more live music wherever possible and a way should be found to pay for it so the great players don’t leave town to seek fame and fortune elsewhere.
DB: As I alluded to in the preface of this interview, you started a series of hourly programs entitled Phil@Filament taking place in the Vanderelli Room in Franklinton? Why did you start this series? What was/is its impetus and why is it important to you? Why should it be important for residents of Columbus/Central Ohio? Note: Phil is regularly accompanied by his son Vincent “Madchain” Maneri on percussion Wednesday nights for the Filament series.
PM: Gerard Cox is the proprietor of that room. He approached me about doing something in there shortly after it was opened. I suggested this weekly series of free improvisation sessions time limited with a rotating cast. It developed into Phil@Filament. Each week I host a different person or ensemble where we play with no predetermined structure or composition.
It is entirely in the moment and improvised with no rules. A conversation. The only constant is the room and me on by Double Bass with a raft of effects. I was inspired to do this for several reasons:
First, I enjoy playing that way, so doing it regularly, every week, every Wednesday, or most of them anyways, at an appointed time, sounded like fun and remains as such.
Second, I had begun a Retrospective of the ECM record label, known in part for its documentation of European Free Jazz and similar formats from across the globe. The entire catalog had been hard to come by without buying every single title on record or CD. Late 2017 it had become available on Spotify and I freaked out. I decided to listen to every single title in order of release and blog about each one. The project was a bit bigger than I originally thought. 1800 titles. I listen to 3 or 4 a day during the week, sometimes more sometimes less. I’m over 200 days now and well over half-way through. You can read that on Facebook or on my blog www.maneri.net.
The show has grown into a networking opportunity for musicians. I’m trying to hook up people who don’t know each other or have never met to create bridges across cliques and ages and cultures. There is an interactive component to the hour where the players converse with the attendees and dialogue about themselves, their work, and the process. It is a good way to gain insight into what artists think and how they see each other and what they do. People tell me that those dialogues help them understand what they are seeing better and what others are doing when they are playing music. Helps me too and I know more than most average listeners.
DB: As proprietor of The Fret Shop, you repair and sell instruments of the stringed variety, most notably guitars. I’m curious about how much of your clientele is focused on jazz as opposed to other genres? Would some informal introduction to jazz musicianship be necessary, or even appropriate to re-introduce jazz into the mainstream?
PM: Most of my guitar customers are not into jazz specifically. There are many jazz guitar players in town but the number of Rockers and Folkies and the like dwarf the jazz guitarists. Jazz players overall tend to need slightly different services and specifics than Rockers. As far as the second sentence I’d challenge that Jazz has never been mainstream and need no reintroduction because it has never been all that popular. Its fan base has most likely dwindled either way if you look at the arc from the 50’s to now. I don’t think you have to know anything about playing or musicianship to dig jazz. The details are far more engaging the more you know, there’s an incredible depth to it that pop forms usually don’t get to, but you don’t have to know all that to enjoy jazz. I sure wouldn’t pretend to insist anyone educate themselves to dig one kind of music or another. It never hurts but it is never required.
DB: How does jazz, as both a music and art form get passed down to future generations? In general? And locally here in Columbus/Central Ohio? How would you define jazz to the uninitiated? If you had to pick 5 jazz albums as an introduction to a novice which would you choose?
PM: I haven’t really defined Jazz here yet and I’m not sure I’m qualified to do that. I think it means different things to different people. One definition I heard is Improvisation plus Blues plus African rhythm. I think ECM is jazz and its only got one of those. So I dunno what it is. 5 jazz records to a novice? You’re asking a lot there with just 5 albums, but I’d probably pick a bunch of disparate ones. Like a Weather Report record with Jaco on it. A Miles record with the second great quintet. A Euro Jazz record like one of the ECM free jazz records. An Ellington record with Jimmy Blanton like Black Brown and Beige or something earlier. Something from The Art Ensemble of Chicago to get that weird shit in there. Five records do not begin to skim the surface. Jazz gets passed to the next generation by exposure to the vast catalog of recordings and then taking in as many live performances as possible. I do that with my kiddo. Constantly play it around him and then take him to as many gigs as I can manage. Eventually, it sinks in.
DB: Gig vs Performance, are they different in the mind of the musician? In the mind of the audience? What is your favorite type of gig to play? What are your criteria for an ideal jazz venue?
PM: Gig is a gig be it playing “Margaritaville” as quiet as you can at a country club or playing your own compositions in front of a festival crowd. You can make it different in your head but if you play them differently you are either screwing the guy who paid you for “Margaritaville” or shooting yourself in the foot on the big gig. My favorite gig is one where I play things I feel good about playing, to people who are interested in hearing me and the band, ending up with decent cash in my pocket when it’s all done. Ideal Jazz venue? A full house of people who wanna be there digging what you do and appreciating what you do enough so both my heart and wallet have been filled, enough so I can continue making myself and the public happy and not be shackled to a 9-to-5 existence.
DB: If the Mayor of Columbus were to install you Columbus’ Jazz ombudsman, with a remit to make it a “jazz-capitol” like Birdland (h/t to The Manhattan Transfer), What would be your vision? Short term and Long term?
PM: I’d try to find money and opportunity for musicians that weren’t part of the tiny inner circle of music in Columbus. Funding and lots more work. You can count on less than two hands the acts that get calls for city-funded gigs. There’s a whole lot of great music here to choose from and new stuff taking place all the time.
Lots of city gatherings that have the biggest audiences like Red White and Boom and the Arts Festival don’t pay the bands at all. The performers make nothing, even less than the folks cleaning up afterward. They get “exposure.” It’s an insult to the musicians who spend a lifetime to gain the skills needed to be really good. Interesting enough those that are really good tend to not do those exposure gigs so those that book them only get acts that aren’t in the top tier of what’s happening here. They may not even realize they aren’t accessing the best the city has to offer.
Even the Jazz and Rib fest treats local talent different than those that travel in. Local talent gets the lowest payouts regardless of the draw or quality of the act. If you’re from out of town the payouts and benefits are always higher, because they aren’t from here. The message that sends is that if you live here you don’t deserve to get paid, but if you come from Chicago or New York you get money that makes it worth you traveling here for…even if it’s not as good an act as what’s happening here.
If you want musicians to stay and thrive treat them with the same reverence afforded to other kinds of artists. With more respectful appreciation they are less likely to leave town as soon as they can to find a better opportunity for gigs and pay. Retention of local talent is a big deal. Lots of homegrown players exit to Nashville, Los Angeles, and New York as soon as they can. Most never return. It’s where the industry is. It’s where they can access the larger scene that provides opportunities to connect at the highest levels. Columbus is shut off from that. If Columbus affords its musicians a higher level of respect and supports the industry might just find its way here as well. Granted its an issue for every major city that isn’t one of those top 5 music cities. There might just be room for a 6th. There is already an overabundance of talent here.
Create a culture where the musicians can dedicate themselves to it full-time. They will become amazing and eventually want to stay and raise kids here. Find a way to create an environment that supports artists well enough for them to have a reasonable life; so much so that they don’t require a day job to make ends meet and thus divert valuable musician development time to subsistence. Do that and the community will get really skilled, really creative, and thrive.
DB: Columbus, as a Jazz nexus is apparently what the musicians want to make of it and what the not so eager crowds have yet to explore. While there are existing venues, the number of them and the talent, given their respective attendance level require some level of remapping and rewiring to satiate the musicians’ wanderlust on stage and program music which will attract the still nascent Columbus jazz audience.
I have spent weeks/months traveling all over Columbus and its environs in search of live music which rocks me to my core, whether it be jazz, classical, rock, blues, folks, etc. Here, it takes a lot more leg-work and research. Just recently over at Filament, where I try diligently to attend Phil’s weekly improvisational salons, I was fortunate enough to hear a trio comprised of Greg Bandy, Josh Hindmarsh, and Jon Eshelman on a Hammond B3 organ. These guys were so “in the pocket,” so much so that I am going track them down wherever they are playing to hear that sound. I left that very evening wanting more, much more.
Phil is right about Columbus and its jazz scene, there is something happening here, but it means having to get off your … and put in the work. As the song goes “you know it don’t come easy.” Nothing good, does.