He sent a volunteer down to the basement, where the evening’s performers were assembled, to address a lack of microphones. “Make a deal,” he barked. “Either the cello or the piano has to lose a mic.” He huddled with his other helpers, strategizing about how to wedge as many people as possible into the little room. Then he flung the front door open, and in the people came.
Mr. Zorn, 64, a storied alto saxophonist and movement-builder on New York’s downtown scene, was preparing for one of the last shows at the Stone’s gruffly enchanting Alphabet City location. (It closed on Sunday.) Most artist-run spaces like this live in dog years, so the fact that the Stone has been around for 13 human ones has allowed it to achieve legendary status on New York’s cultural outlands.
Not many well-known albums have been recorded there — though somethat ought to be known better certainly have — but it’s fostered more than its share of combustible creativity. The Stone has held the line for a kind of music presenting that prizes direct engagement, allowing improvisers and audiences to meet each other head-on, sharing in the work of building whatever it is — energy, focus, faith, chimera — that comprises a musical performance.
But wait. Before we deliver the eulogy, the Stone isn’t closing. It’s only moving. Starting this week, the venue will be headquartered in an elegant “glass box” theater on the ground floor of the New School, a university on the northern rim of Greenwich Village. It will host five concerts a week, with each week serving as a residency for a chosen artist, in accordance with longtime Stone policy.
In Mr. Zorn’s estimation, and that of many others, the move marks a step up. “We’re not moving because of any sinister reason,” he said last week over breakfast at Russ and Daughters Cafe, a short walk from the Stone’s old location. “We’re moving simply because it was time for a change. I went in there one day and I said, ‘You know, I think we can do a little better than this.’”
You can see where he’s coming from: In summers, the old Stone often bore an unnameable smell. And in all seasons, sirens from the avenue tended to smear the sound of the performances. The odorless New School location has a fabulous grand piano and neatly curtained walls.
The Stone has been wetting its feet there by presenting shows Friday and Saturday nights since June, and the few weekends I’ve been to the new space, it has appeared to foster the kind of open exchange that typified most nights on Avenue C. I’ve already heard startlingly successful group improvisations, and first-time bands of unlikely collaborators that gamely fell flat. All of this is as it should be.
But the move does mark a perilous entry into academe, something that Mr. Zorn had long resisted — and something that, more often than not, musicians of his cohort haven’t had the opportunity to resist.
When Mr. Zorn opened the Stone in 2005, he was seeking a respectful home for the ardent, unconditional music that his community of free improvisers had been making since the 1970s. (The music’s roots actually coil back to the 1950s, when free jazz was bornand John Cage helped lay some of the groundwork for minimalism).
Most of the venues that welcomed these so-called creative musicians were dive bars and semiofficial studios or living spaces. Most could hardly stay afloat. The ones that could, like the Knitting Factory and Tonic, eventually scaled up, meaning they expected larger crowds that would patronize the bar.
So Mr. Zorn consulted Ela Troyano, a filmmaker who owns the building at Avenue C and East Second Street, and he opened a one-room venue on its ground floor. He paid rent with the revenue from monthly benefit concerts, philanthropic donations and album sales on his Tzadik label.
“To have a space that’s completely run and curated by musicians was unusual,” said the guitarist Mary Halvorson, who moved to New York a few years before the Stone opened, and has played there regularly ever since. “It really gave musicians an opportunity to workshop new material, and also to try out things that they might not try normally,” she added. “You really felt like the audience was there with you.”
Last Thursday, almost a dozen performers, varying widely in age and stature, took turns improvising in groups of two or three or four. Laurie Anderson and Laura Ortman played bright, arcing lines on their violins as the electronic musician Jad Atoui made slow, mushrooming palls underneath. Later, the guitarist Nels Cline and the pianist Sylvie Courvoisier joined Mr. Zorn for a short sortie. It began with a scraping, aggro spill, but then Ms. Courvoisier started hammering a high note with both hands, at top velocity but medium volume; she was seizing the room’s ears, and thinning out the trio’s sound. Mr. Zorn and Mr. Cline relaxed into a vigilant consensus behind her.
All along, no one in the room spoke a word.
Mr. Zorn feels confident he can carry the same spirit of attentive rapture into the New School. “I prefer staying out of the academy,” he said. “I think there’s something very beneficial about getting together and just playing: doing concerts, organizing it yourself, talking over lunches about music, getting deep into things.”
But he said he was impressed by Richard Kessler, the New School’s executive dean for the performing arts, whom Mr. Zorn had known as a trombonist on the classical and new music scenes in the 1980s.
For his part, Mr. Kessler sees the Stone as an element of a broader effort to upend the way the performing arts are taught. He wants to make the New School a home for the avant-garde, and for the spirit of artistic entrepreneurship that has always gone along with it, without corrupting the source material. The Stone’s house rules — no drinks, largely volunteer staff, all door money to the musicians — will remain in place.
“I think what John and many of his artists do is where I want education to go,” Mr. Kessler said.
Mr. Zorn said Mr. Kessler and the school’s provost, Tim Marshall, made him feel assured that the Stone’s unmediated ethic could survive. When Mr. Zorn rejected a lengthy contract drawn up by the New School’s legal team, Mr. Marshall agreed to effectuate their agreement with just a handshake.
“Pretty cool,” Mr. Zorn said approvingly.
There’s reason to believe that Mr. Zorn’s experiment at the New School will yield fresh results, without annulling its old identity. Meanwhile, the Stone is expanding its footprint in other ways. Ms. Halvorson, the guitarist, is scheduled to teach a three-hour Stone Workshop this Wednesday as part of a monthly series of master classes that Mr. Zorn is organizing at the New School. He also recently started curating monthly concerts at Russ and Daughters Cafe and at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And he is entertaining the idea of opening another Stone-like venue somewhere else in Lower Manhattan, this time with a bar.
For now, though, his main focus is on the New School. On Sunday night, as the last notes to be played at the old Stone settled into the dust, Mr. Zorn was characteristically succinct. “Say good night to the Stone,” he called out, his alto saxophone resting in his palm. “We’ll be at the New School starting Tuesday.”