Monday, March 25, 2013

Calling Them Out: Cornelia Street Cafe

I wish I had two more hands so I could give this place 4 thumbs down

Last year, I heard an amazing classical pianist named Adam Tendler perform at Portland State University. Tendler played a stellar interpretation of John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano." Tender was also gracious enough to speak with the audience afterwards. He answered questions, and gave the small crowd many thoughtful insights into his musical career and his approach to preparing Cage's work. Tendler is quite busy as a performer; however, he finds the time (kind of like yours truly) to blog about music.

I recently saw a post on his blog which really struck me. Tendler wrote about recently attended performance at a venue in New York called Cornelia Street Cafe. This club is known to most jazz musicians and fans. I've played there a number of times over the years. The small club is in the heart of Greenwich Village, in the basement of a restaurant. They are known for presenting jazz and poetry, but sometimes they present other things. In this case, Tender was at Cornelia to see a fellow New Music minded classical musician. Unfortunately, the performance went horribly wrong. What follows is an "Open Letter To Cornelia Street Cafe", reprinted from Tendler's blog The Dissonant States:

“Awful.” “Shitty” “Shocking” “Horrifying.” “Gross.” ”Unbelievable.” “Outrageous.” “Disgusting.” “Despicable.” 

Those are some comments already posted on my various social media platforms after I informed my friends and followers about last night’s experience at Cornelia Street Cafe, where I witnessed a performer humiliated onstage by manager Angelo Verga, who then proceeded to verbally assault a fellow audience member and me. 
Let me continue: “That really sucks.” “Yelp here I come!” “Good to know.” “They don’t realize how fast word gets around.” “Insulting.” “The owner would be ashamed…” “A fucking nightmare.” “What?!” “Retweeting.” “Sharing this now.”
Okay, you get the point.
I’ve frequented Cornelia for years, and even visited multiple times last week for various concerts and a CD release party. I have no personal bone to pick with Cornelia Street Cafe. But after seeing Andy Costello, who came from Montreal to perform his 6pm recital Sunday evening, humiliated onstage by your manager because of a poor turnout and an apparently confounding program, and then, after being forced to cut his set short—he had two pieces left, fifteen minutes, and Angelo insisted he “make it ten” because “they needed the room” (the next performance was in an hour and a half)—and then, once offstage, guilt-tripped even further for having not drawn a crowd and lectured about how much money was lost… well, I was stunned. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Never.
When I brought up the fact that I paid a full price, plus drinks, for the performance, and would have liked to have heard the whole program, Verga dismissed the objection, saying “he didn’t give a shit.” Wow. Okay. As one of my friends said: “Good to know.”
Does Cornelia, as a venue, not understand the risk in presenting music in New York City (especially a modern program at 6pm on a Sunday)? The New York classical music scene is either like high school, dominated by popular cliques, or like conservatory, where friends come to their friends’ recitals in solidarity. It’s mostly the latter, honestly—every performance I’ve attended at Cornelia has been populated mainly by acquaintances of the performers—and mostly a New York phenomenon. Someone can sell out a show out of town, have a following on the West Coast, and then play to an empty room in New York because they don’t have a devoted following of local friends. It’s reality, and it’s unfortunate, but most of all, it seems to be news to you! Anyway, Andy did his best. He marketed online (that’s how I heard about the show) and sent you posters. Where were they? Not in the front window, to be sure.
As a performer who has sold out venues nationwide but who has also suffered the misfortune of playing to virtually empty halls, I urged Angelo to understand that these things happen, that it’s no one’s fault, but that interrupting a recital and tossing out a paying audience (of any size) is unacceptable and an unwise move for a presenter. His response, again, that he “doesn’t give a shit,” came as a shock from which I’ve still not totally recovered. Maybe it’s just that I’m not used to being cursed at, especially by a host at a restaurant where I just paid a bunch of money. The fact that my friend wasn’t paid his cut of the door (it would’ve been $20, but who cares, right?) only adds insult to injury. So my money, for this catastrophic experience, went straight to Cornelia and to no one else. I couldn’t be less pleased. 
But at least I learned something. I learned that if a small audience attends a Cornelia Street Concert, Cornelia pockets all the cash, pays the performer nothing, and audiences are asked to leave early with no refund on their ticket. Got it. It goes without saying, but I also learned that Cornelia Street Cafe “doesn’t give a shit” if its patrons have a good night or not, or if performing artists have a pleasant experiencing presenting work in their space. It’s about money, after all—performers bring their friends to deliver revenue to Cornelia Street Cafe—and if that means ejecting an audience and humiliating the performer to teach us this lesson, so be it. Andy, a real class act, behaved graciously throughout, even though inside he had to have been crumbling, or fuming, or regretting having ever stepped foot in your establishment. I know I was. 
It’s my duty as an artist to inform people about this experience. I think it’s very interesting, honestly. My friends and allies in the arts community, as you’ve seen, continue to find other, more imaginative words.
I was sad to hear this story. I am impressed with Tendler's assessment of the situation, and I agree with everything he says. I was not, however, surprised to hear this story. Although, like I said before, I performed at Cornelia a bunch of times over the years, I had a similar experience back around 2004. I had been looking for venues to present a band I had formed called Mad Science. This fusion organ trio had featured guitar wizard Tom Guarna since the start in 2000. But we hadn't settled on a drummer.  I had secured a night at Cornelia for the band, and I decided to give drum virtuoso Rodney Holmes a chance to play some of my music. 

Mad Science is an organ guitar drums power trio much like Tony William's original Lifetime band. It's not a quiet piano trio. However, it's not the loudest thing you've ever heard. I will admit, we started out on the loud side. Regardless of the volume, I was really digging the music; Holmes' freakishly good time and precision and Tom Guarna's exciting solos were giving me new hope and inspiration for the project. 

Unfortunately, during the second song, the bartender walked up to the stage and placed a note on the keyboard, which read as follows:
This wasn't putting me in a great mood to play music, although it offered a solution with the ultimatum. So when the tune was over, I told Guarna and Holmes about the note. We cut our volume in half; Holmes played the rest of the night on brushes. Sadly, our dilemma didn't end there. After another tune or two, which I reiterate, was at half the volume of the first two songs, someone who may have been Mr. Verga, but he never introduced himself, so I have no idea. He did act like he was an authority figure, so I guess he was the owner, or something. As we were trying to figure out which tune to play next, Mr. Authority approached us, or rather, me. 
Mr A: Can I talk to you for a minute?
GC: Sure.....
Mr A:  Take a break and come out and ......
GC:  Uhhhh, we're in the middle of a set. These people came to hear us. 
Mr A: Ok, listen, you need to turn it down or we shut it down. That's the deal.
GC: We turned down....we are playing at half the volume now.
Mr A: Ok, fine but you are still too loud. If you don't watch the volume, we shut it down. That's the deal.
So it went like that for a minute. Before I started the next tune, I asked the audience, "Are we too loud?" "NO!" was the unanimous reply. Then Mr. Authority started yelling, loudly:" We get noise complaints from the EPA, I get fined......" The point is- we did turn down but it didn't seem to matter to this jerk. We played the rest of the set so softly that I could actually hear people's conversations over our music.  
I didn't play at this club for a long time. Why would I? Cornelia Street Cafe has never been a lucrative place to perform, at least for me. Cornelia, like many jazz venues, has failed to cultivate a regular audience. They expect whomever is performing there to bring in their own crowd. Mr. Tendler spoke to this phenomenon in the previous paragraphs. Even when I started playing there again, I would be lucky to be able to pay the cats and maybe have enough bread left over for a taxi ride to Queens. Even so, musicians like to play, and since I've never been able to book my own band at the Vanguard, I had settled for places like this. 
There were a few times where I did have a good turnout at Cornelia Street. So I did start playing there more regularly. However, not surprisingly, another depressing incident occurred with Cornelia Street. I actually blogged about it right after it happened; I had chosen to keep the name of the venue a secret so as to not potentially burn a bridge forever. Since I have decided that not only will I never play there or set foot in there ever again, I no longer care about being a gentleman about it. You may go back and read that blog entry in it's entirety, but here's a clip:
I have played at this particular venue for 15 years, dealing with a succession of bookers, most of whom were friendly and easy to deal with. Not so with a recent exchange. My wife and I played a double bill there this past spring, and we had a respectable, if not terrific, turnout. But when I contacted the booker to ask about another date, I was dismissed with comments to the effect of: "Feedback I got from the bartender and waiters about your show was not too good, to say the least. Your turnout was way below average, I was told that your sets did not start on time, the whole evening was poorly run, and you didn't even know what instrument you were going to be playing the second set."

I think what bugged me the most was that this booker was judging me by what the host and bartender said about the performance. (This to me is akin to getting a review of the New York Philharmonic from one of the ushers in the concert offense to ushers.) I wanted to ask him if they were musicians or not, but my wife stopped me. I really had to hold back some choice words. Anyway, It's not like I need to play there to make a living; on the contrary, I usually tried to hold back booking stuff there in fear of a conflict with a tour or better paying gig. So as I was saying, it's not about the money, it's about the respect. And this is from a fellow musician, who is probably struggling as much as we all are. Where's the sense of community? 
So now, you know(although many of you knew it was Cornelia Street already). 
I think Mr. Tendler is right. It’s also my duty as an artist to inform people about these experiences. I think at a certain point we need to use social media to let people know. We can choose not to patronize these venues. We can choose not to perform there. We can urge others not to go there.We do have more power than we realize.

The sad thing is, it's not as if we are even asking for more money, or even for these venues to take more responsibility for their business. It's that we are asking for a decent amount of respect as artists, and as human beings. And even as customers! That's all I really hope for these days. I know it's hard to make it work presenting creative music. But when the venues make us jump through hoops to even GET a gig, make us do all of the promotion, don't guarantee any money, and EVEN THEN treat us like scum, it's no wonder jazz venues are hurting. I think we are all in this together: if you treat us with respect, it will make us not only want to play there, but it will make us feel like we are in this together. It will make us feel like we want to HELP your venue. We will recommend it to our friends and fans. We will eat there. We will drink there. We will pay to hear music there. It's just plain old common sense. It's common sense which the management at Cornelia Street seems to lack in spades.

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