The New Quorum Charts a New Path for Creative Music

This spring, one of the most venerated institutions in the Washington D.C. jazz scene closed its doors. Bohemian Caverns, which had been in operation intermittently since 1926, had once presented the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, and had long been an establishment of the local jazz scene, from its weekly performances from the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra on Monday nights to its regular programming of local acts alongside more established figures in the jazz world. Although it is hard not to see this as a specific wound for the jazz community in the city – particularly alongside similar closures such as Jazz Record Mart in Chicago– it is of course not surprising. Alongside the tired narratives of how jazz is dead, the structures that still support creative music and the communities that come from them are, in many cases, struggling for survival.

The New Quorum, founded and run by Gianna Chachere, is the descendant of the Quorum, a 1960s French Quarter coffee house that served as a gathering place for politics and culture and, significantly at the time, for Black and white visitors alike. Like its predecessor, this new iteration already seems to stand as a gathering place for different folks in the city, interested in this kind of artistic and intellectual community.

The central figure of the first residency was avant garde composer, trumpet player, and AACM member Wadada Leo Smith, who has continued to garner critical attention with the release of a cosmic rhythm with each stroke with Vijay Iyer (ECM, 2016) and receiving a prestigious Doris Duke Artist Award. As part of the first residency in January, he led a series of four workshops and intimate performances with local musicians (two with fellow resident and AACM member flutist Nicole Mitchell) and participated in a discussion on music and cultural heritage at Tulane University.

Listening to those sessions that took place by night at the house on Esplanade in January filled me with a tremendous sense of joy and uncertainty that I had not felt for some time in seeing live music in the city, or anywhere really. The performances were thrilling not only because of Smith’s unique compositional style but because of the explosive creativity that he was able to harness from the local players in the room. Smith rarely picked up his trumpet (until the audience insisted at the end of the night – he always obliged), instead standing in front of large ensemble guiding and shaping its sound. Smith’s style is notoriously complex and multiple musicians afterward would reflect on how, in the moment, the style was difficult to grasp but that it had fundamentally changed their way of thinking about sound, composition, and improvisation.

The immediate result of these collaborations was a group that, despite only having just met, played music that was filled with hesitancies and beautiful missteps (at one moment, Smith stopped the band outright, gave clarifying directions on a line, and started them again) but also pure originality. Beyond it sounding like a mighty train that might jump off the tracks at the moment as an audience member, I could also see the looks of excitement and terror on the faces of musicians as they made this deeply engaging, mysterious music under Smith’s direction. Similarly, from watching members of the audience react to this process, it was clear that we were on our toes as well, constantly wondering whether Smith and the group might lead back to a chorus or if the piece would depart into altogether different tempos, textures, and intensities.

The long-term result of this first residency series at The New Quorum, however, might be more significant. Along with the work and performances of Smith, Mitchell, and the other members of this initial residency – multidisciplinary artist and Jason Moran-collaborator Lisa Harris from Texas, visual artist and musician Damon Locks from Chicago, and Wall Street Journal jazz critic Larry Blumenfeld from iamunity– new relationships formed that have already broadened the impact of each artist’s work as well as expanding the context of the New Orleans creative music scene. Just this month, for instance, Smith returned to the New Quorum to give a talk on his musical history and approach to composition that was followed by a concert by J. Free and the Down Low, a new project of local musicians led by guitarist and composer Jonathan Freilich that formed after the January workshops. In addition to its next residency series this summer, The New Quorum has also announced that it will be staging Smith’s expansive masterpiece, Ten Freedom Summers, in January 2017. It will be the first complete performance of the Civil Rights-focused piece in the American South.

In a way, a place like The New Quorum is somewhat similar to CapitalBop’s DC Jazz Loft Series in Washington, D.C. and, as Alex Ross has discussed, a series of opera start-ups such as LoftOpera and Heart Opera based in New York City. These organizations provide different, more intimate settings for performances with a variety of talented musicians (CapitalBop, in fact, hosted Smith and Vijay Iyer in April) in opposition to the traditional elite institutions that often sometimes struggle to maintain creativity and elaborate stagings in difficult financial times. But whereas the model of these initiatives, as exciting and vital as they are in there own right, take performances to new venues and make staging music less prohibitive, the relationship-building between artists and audiences alike that was so clearly at the heart of The New Quorum’s first endeavor serves as a model of what a more sustainable and exciting institution supporting creative music could be.

Although one could ask about the novelty of a seemingly traditional residency program, the lesson that The New Quorum provides, at least so far, is that rather than bringing artists into a single place to work on their own craft and then share it with the public in a single performance or brief series, if fellow artists and audiences alike can engage in that very process of collaboration and creation, the experience for all involved is likely to be more transformative. On a fundamental level, providing sustained and funded opportunities for artists to be able to gather together at a place like The New Quorum, in which a sense of community is able to develop as it did this spring, is likely, I predict, to bring similarly strong artists in future residencies which will continue to shape the experience of creative music in New Orleans and beyond.