By Nicolas Pennisi and Nirvani Williams
Sporting a cream flat cap and a black knit sweater, Thomas Manuel sat comfortably in an aquamarine couch while his arm rested on a mustard yellow pillow—relics of legendary jazz bassist Milt Hinton. Manuel is the owner of the Jazz Loft, a museum and concert venue dedicated to the history and practice of jazz located in Stony Brook Village. The first floor of the Loft is an exact recreation of Hinton’s basement, one of Manuel’s greatest idols.
“Nothing’s copied, nothing’s staged, everything’s real,” Manuel said with a smile. The Loft is a non-for-profit organization that has a small working board of volunteers. “I think that we’ve managed to come into existence without the agenda of a big corporation,” Manuel said.
Long Island has a rich history in being a place of refuge for successful jazz artists like John Coltrane who needed to escape the New York City bustle to focus on his musical compositions. Jazz musicians regarded the island as a vacation to the “countryside.”
Jazz became popular post World War I, during the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 1930s. The genre is rooted in both African and European musical traditions. The African rhythms and bluesy feel, combined with European instruments like the saxophone, trumpet and piano, make the genre a marriage of both cultures.
“Jazz hasn’t been popular music for so long, so it has this power to be brand new again,” Manuel said.
The Loft is also the only place on Long Island that exclusively features experimental live jazz performances on the upper floor or loft in the building that previously served as the Suffolk Museum.
The space often turns political. This past Friday, Nov. 9, the Michele Brangwen Dance Company performed an art-activism piece describing a flyer that contained advice for undocumented immigrants and their families from the Legal Aid Society of New York.
“I’m not in danger of getting deported,” Brangwen said about how she choreographed this piece. “But the people I love and who mean the world to me are, so I wanted to call people’s attention to that.”
Brangwen threaded improvisational aspects of dance into the jazz score written by revered double bassist, Thomas Helton, a member of the Tim Hagens Quartet, who performed with Brangwen’s Dance Company. Practicing improvisational jazz since he was nine, Hagens said that his quartet represents “chance-taking, a celebration of individualism and being spontaneous.”
“Hopefully that can inspire people to have the same courage in their own private lives,” he said.
The 125-seat-performance-space was filled with enthusiastic patrons, tapping their feet and nodding along to the music. One of the attendees, Alosha Gusev, a 20-year-old from Boston, Massachusetts, said “the performance was crazy,” in reference to Hagens’ band. “It really tripped me out like sonically if nothing else.”
The Jazz Loft strives to make performances accessible for a wide variety of individuals. Admission for students is $5, seniors are $7, and adults are $10.
“Some of the clubs in New York are $40,” Brangwen said. “Art becomes this thing that’s nudging to the elitist, which is totally wrong. That is not what it’s for, it’s for everybody to experience.”