Series on Series:
BigCityLit - New York Edition
Music and Poetry Festival
by Paul MacDonald
We wanted to do something that would be a big, fat statement to the world that the most important artists of our times are right under our noses.
--- Casey Cyr
On the weekend of November 10-12, seventeen venues in the East Village hosted a celebration that aspires to yearly reprise. The First Annual New York City Underground Music and Poetry Festival featured dozens of musicians, songwriters and poets from all over the country and the world. The festival was the brainchild of producer Nora Edison and poet/songwriter Casey Cyr, both all too aware of the ungodly number of dollars---and connections--needed for an artist to get his/her work out and noticed by the public.
Last Summer, Edison attended a very reputable (and expensive) music festival out West, and recalled that it had once been free of charge, had once served first and foremost to support its participating artists. "Why," she demanded of Cyr, "isn't there something like this in New York?" and quickly added, "Wanna do it?" Cyr agreed it was an idea whose time had come. "If you want to get your video on MTV, you practically have to sell out a football stadium four times over." Yet, unknown artists are busy. "They're producing amazing work, and somebody has got to give them a nod."
The two envisaged a free festival which would showcase some of the best unrecognized and non-mainstream talent New York has to offer, and would foster the principles of community support and brotherly love.
Thus began an endless cycle of phone calls, emails, meetings, brochure designs, blood, sweat and caffeine-induced insomnia. After several weeks, the organizers developed a website (<www.nycundergroundfest.org>), named a board of directors and articulated their mission:
A focused , 3-day festival showcasing artists in the traditions of music and spoken word who bring their creative talents to New York City, the worldwide Mecca of art, and the thriving community of night clubs that provide these artists with a place to perform.
They recruited as honorary chairman musician/composer David Amram, a man equally at home conducting the New York Philharmonic or recording with Barenaked Ladies. Amramís seventieth birthday was November 12, coincident with a concert at The Knitting Factory that evening. The concert, "Keeping The Flame Alive," went on well past 3 a.m., and brought together an eclectic spectrum of poets, musicians and writers from every living generation, each of them looking to the past in order to invent the future.
Amram was a contemporary of The Beat Generation, a group, which he said,
tried to combine a classical European method with a reverential hands-on approach to spontaneous New World styles of improvisation; something very hard to categorize. A lot of the subjects we're celebrating now came from a community over 40 years ago of painters, poets and artists who would support one another--kind of our own 12-step program. The only thing we had in common was that we were so different from each other.
Edison and Cyr were never concerned about a lack of talent. New York probably has the densest population of musicians, poets and artists anywhere on the planet. But with the encouragement of Amram, they soon realized that the Underground, that ethereal dwelling place of purity and brutal honesty, extended far beyond NYC. Amram spoke about the Cityís first jazz/poetry reading:
When Jack Kerouac and I gave the first-ever jazz poetry reading in New York City at the Brata Art Gallery in November of 1957, we were rejoicing in the spirit of being inclusive, rather than exclusive, in the company of painters poets composers musicians actors dancers and assorted dreamers who wanted to share their gifts with their friends and the world.
With this mandate, brochures were sent out all over the country, submissions considered, and talent booked from places as near as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, and from as far away as Kansas, Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee, California, Canada, Britain, and Belgium.
Organizing and producing any event without corporate sponsorship can be daunting--as the Pearl Jam/Ticketmaster debacle attests. Nevertheless, an impressive roster was assembled that included Lee Ranaldo, Amiri Baraka, Rocker T, Ron Whitehead, Tuli Kupferberg, George Dickerson, Jack Newfield, The David Amram Trio, Ugly BoyFriend, Suicide King, Frank Messina and Octopoet, Church of Betty, Chaotic Past, Olivia Cornell, Genesis P-Orridge, John S. Hall, Al Aronowitz, Bob Holman, Hersch Silverman, and John Tytell, among others.
Most of the venues donated their space, among them, The C Note, The Nuyorican Poets Café, The Pink Pony, Tribes Gallery, The Living Room, Sidewalk Cafe, and The Luna Lounge. Most events were free, and others very inexpensive ($5 for the Saturday evening event at the Nuyorican, $10 after 10 p.m.). Most of the artists mentioned above featured there, and the evening included a tribute to poet Gregory Corso which was filmed for a documentary.
Since many of the events occurred simultaneously, a visitor could begin Saturday afternoon hearing Amiri Baraka at the Tribes Gallery, catch Ugly Boyfriend in the early evening at The Living Room, move to The Pink Pony to The Glue Puppets and poet Bob Holman, and finish off at The Nuyorican with jazz, world music, and spoken word. Originally conceived as a beatnik rock 'n' roll party, the festival grew enormously, prompting Holman to call it, "a giant squid whose tentacles [were] out, erect and hongry."
Edison and Cyr hope the festival will become an annual event, and would like to see other cities around the world take the initiative to produce similar festivals of their own. Amram commended the event for its spirit of egalitarianism and wholesomeness.
This festival had a lot of young artists who brought with them more traditional values of art than are actually out there. I would like to see this spirit permeate the current culture of violence and degradation.
(Paul McDonald is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky who traveled to New York for the festival. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Cyr at CaseyCyr@aol.com.)