By Melody Breyer Grell****Recently, I was lucky enough to have a chat with Dennis Lichtman, of the Quennsborough 6, about his CD Debut, Just Cross the River, being celebrated at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on August 1. Lichtman has been described by the Wall Street Journal as “ground zero for an emerging late-night scene of young swing and traditional jazz players.” He was as entertaining conversationally, as he is musically.
Melody: Dennis, it is nice to be speaking to you on your new CD, Just Cross the River at Dizzy’s. How did a nice young man from Boston make it to Queens? You seem to have a real affinity with the borough. Do you regularly ride the number seven train?
Dennis: New York City drew me in for the obvious reason that the music scene here is second to none. I moved to Queens for the same reason that Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and countless others moved here—cheaper rent! But it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the borough once I was here, especially once I discovered that the best food in New York is in Queens (no matter what Manhattanites might think). The first time I saw the beautiful Queens Jazz Trail Map by artist Tony Millionaire, a lightbulb went off, and it was only a matter of time before this album came together.
The Queens Council on the Arts awarded me a grant to write the music that became the backbone of this album, and the first time we performed it was at the Louis Armstrong House in Corona, Queens. Talk about a magical venue!
And yes, I take the 7 train all the time.
Melody: Are you a Mets fan? Just to insert into the conversation for a moment, I was born in Flushing and raised on the team, which at this writing, is almost historically the worst in baseball although employing world’s none-too-arguably greatest pitcher, Jacob deGrom. Or are you a just a Yankee-hating Red Sox fan, who cares nothing about all this mayhem in Queens?
Dennis: Red Sox all the way! My earliest memory of baseball is singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in elementary school music class during the disastrous 1986 World Series—but I have no ill will towards the Mets because of that. If anything, I think of them as a lovable underdog. Incidentally, Albert von Tilzer, who wrote “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” also co-wrote “Just Cross the River from Queens,” a 1927 song that bandleader and human encyclopedia Vince Giordano unearthed for me, and which is likely the only published song pre-WWII about Queens.
Melody: It was very intriguing to see that you are the regular host at the legendary Mona’s! Although I now reside just around the corner from the bar, I was never sure the sessions really existed. Tell me about how it got started and what is going on there now.
Dennis: It exists—come on in sometime!
I started the Tuesday night session at Mona’s in 2007. It’s a great little neighborhood dive bar in the East Village, and it used to host a traditional Irish session on Mondays. I also play fiddle and mandolin, so I used to hang out there sometimes with my string-playing friends. One night, after a gig with the Cangelosi Cards, I ended up there with some friends and when the Irish session ended, we played a few jazz tunes. The bartender, Aidan Grant, invited me to start a Tuesday session, and we started the following week. The timing was perfect—there was a rapidly growing underground scene of young musicians cutting our teeth on early jazz around town, and the Mona’s session became the central meeting place for it. Within a couple of years, it was packed every Tuesday until the wee hours of morning, with tons of killer musicians coming through to sit in with our house band, Mona’s Hot Four.
The session is still going strong after 11 years, I’m proud to say! The early jazz scene has matured in that time, and many of those formerly young players from the early days are key players on the international early jazz scene now. And they still come in on Tuesdays when they can. We never know who’s going to show up each week, but it’s always a wide range of players–young and old, Grammy-winning jazz stars and college kids just getting started, locals and out-of-town touring musicians, longtime friends and people we’ve never met.
Melody: How excited are you to be playing at Dizzy’s? Can you comment on the stability of having a room in Lincoln Center when so many jazz clubs come and go?
Dennis: I’m thrilled to bring this project to Dizzy’s! The hot jazz scene has been very much on the periphery of the overall jazz scene for many decades and not all jazz clubs are open to it. I’ve played at Dizzy’s as a sideman many times, but this is my first time leading a band there.
Dizzy’s is a great club and was my first choice for this album release show. Jazz at Lincoln Center has very high standards for their programming. Their organization is vast and strong, and it’s good to know that they’re unlikely to get priced out of the neighborhood anytime soon! It’s tough going for live music venues in the current real-estate climate of New York City.
Melody: How did you get started on the clarinet? Were you a band kid in high school? Did you ever play classical music? When did you learn you had an affinity to the early traditional music of jazz?
Dennis: I started with classical violin lessons when I was five and clarinet when I was ten. My parents thought I’d choose a favorite, but I still haven’t chosen. I’ve kept adding more instruments over the years too. I mostly only had classical lessons and went to the Hartt School of Music for clarinet, but I knew by then that a classical career wasn’t for me. I always preferred the freedom of playing in small groups and bands, as opposed to orchestras. Luckily, my classical teachers (and my parents, who paid for the lessons) were always open-minded and encouraged me to explore other genres.
I have a vague memory of hearing a Dixieland band playing in my hometown of Newton, MA as a kid, and I remember loving but not understanding how the clarinet weaved and danced its way around all of the other instruments. It wasn’t until I moved to New York in my early twenties that I found other musicians my age with the same love of early jazz styles.
Melody: Do you find there is a connection to the Jewish (or Yiddish) music of Klezmer to the roots of early jazz music? Was that music part of you upbringing?
Dennis: There was a great Klezmer band in Boston called the Klezmer Conservatory Band and my mom used to take me to hear them from time to time. Their clarinet player was a total badass and opened my ears to the possibility of the instrument as a soaring lead instrument. I think they’re still around but not performing very often.
There are similarities to early jazz in terms of how the instruments interact and sometimes collectively improvise within a firm harmonic structure. Musical genres have porous borders and there certainly was some influence back and forth. While they may share some roots, I wouldn’t say Jewish music was one of the primary influences in jazz. However, many of the great Tin Pan Alley composers whose songs became jazz standards were Jewish and there were Yiddish swing bands way back in the day. Maybe that’s a rabbit hole I can explore for a future project.
There will be 7:30pm and 9:30pm shows at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on August 1. Enjoy!