Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bill White: The Bookstore Cafe: Cambridge MA 1993-1999.

This is a guest segment from the majestic Bill White, now an affiliated music writer with the Seattle Post Intelligencer but for much of the 80s and 90s a significant contributer to quality of life here, particularly Davis Square, Somerville.

The Bookstore Cafe was a transient performing space owing its existence to the imagination and initiative of employees.

"Vincent McCaffery, owner of the Avenue Victor Hugo, a prestigious used book store on Boston's Newbury Street, found that it would cost no more to open a new store than to rent storage space for his overstock. He found a basement space in Cambridge's Porter Square, where he started the area's first combination bookstore and cafe. Attending a poetry slam there, I felt the space was being under-utilized, and spoke to Mr. McCaffery about my ideas for developing the cafe side of the store into a performance space that might become a cultural focus for the area. He hired me to manage the place in 1993 and he sold the business in 1996."

"The people who bought him out tried to keep it going, but the doors were permanently closed by century's end. During those three years, The Bookcellar was home to Boston's avant jazz enclave, which included musicians like John Voigt, Lawrence Cook, Tom Plsek, Steve Norton, Michael Bloom, Syd Smart, Matt Samolis, Craig Schildhauer, Raquib Hassan, as well as the story-telling sub-culture revolving around the colorful Brother Blue, and The Pendulum Theater, a group that adapted literary works to the stage, including world premieres of the Greek and Roman translations of Poet Richard Moore."

The Bookcellar thrived as a multi-use performance space because there was absolutely no money involved. It was a true art for arts sake proposition. There was no cover charge, no performer fees, no rent to pay, and no administration costs."

"My booking policy was simple. Everybody got a shot. Some, like Voigt and the improv group Debris, found a home there, and brought brave new music into the world on a regular basis. Others were not invited back, usually because they saw the Bookcellar as an opportunity for personal gain, for which there was no possibility."

Jazz was a significant element of the array of presentations there and it became a mini-institution in a surprisingly short time.

"The Bookcellar began its stint as a listening room for jazz with a performance by Two Bass Hit. John Voigt and Craig Schildhauer played their double basses in ways that were completely new to the denizens of Porter Square."

"The first Festival of Spontaneous Composition happened over the first week of May, 1993, when Voigt and Schildhauer played with Syd Smart, Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Jemeel Moondoc on successive nights. Two Bass Hit eventually split up, leaving Voigt as the Bookcellar's prime connection to the world of improvised jazz. In addition to bringing in such out of town luminaries as Malcolm Goldstein and Sabir Mateen, Voigt used the Bookcellar as an experimental stage for some very unusual evenings of conceptual art, including works from his "Theater of Fantasy," created with poet/actor/dancer Bill Barnum. The audience for improvisational music runs between 20-40 people in any given area, and most of them usually showed up for the Bookcellar performances."

"Being a small space, a turnout of 40 people was a packed house, although some events drew in excess of 100 bodies. The local press was kind to us, due in part to our provocative press releases. For example, when Matt Samolis brought a flute ensemble to the store, it was christened The International Flute Army, and the papers, keen on the name, gave us a lot of coverage. We tried to make each show sound like nothing that had ever happened before."

"Voigt was especially helpful on this front, with solo performances such as "Exorcising Nightmares,' described as "for months, Voigt has worked with a shamanka in releasing a set of childhood traumas that have plagued him in nightmares for over twenty years. Under hypnosis, Voigt recorded the nightmares. At the Bookcellar, the outcome of the entire process will be revealed. Hear the tapes played while Voigt accompanies himself on string bass and djembe." The element of hucksterism in our promotion was key to getting the press coverage we needed to let the city know of our existence."

"The cafe had its ration of minor problems but the scale of operations and absence of financial pressures kept these from having a significant impact. Life is a setback. People are nuisances. Every day bought a set of new problems. ASCAP kept sending spies to try to identify cover tunes so they could hit us with licensing fees. The espresso machine was loud as hell, and there was always the prissy wanker who would come out and complain that it was ruining the music for him. Musicians would play past closing time and take forever to pack up, pissing off the bookstore staff who had to wait around for them to leave so they could lock up. But, on the whole, the Bookcellar was an ideal situation for most of the people who were drawn there. Because of its uncommercial nature, it was possible for real art to be created there."

"Since the audience was not paying, the performers owed them nothing. The question of "was it worth it?" was never raised. The values, since they could not be measured by a financial investment, were intrinsic to the experience itself. Neither was the duration of performance an issue. One of the store's most successful pieces was an adaptation of Artaud's radio play, "To Have Done With The Judgment of God," which lasted less than half an hour. Had it been done by a corporate arts group, it would have been a rip off at ridiculous prices. At the Bookcellar, it was a gift to the community. And when the doors closed for the last time the neighborhood was left with fleeting recollections and satisfactions that might otherwise never happened at all."

"During the very first appearance by Two Bass Hit, a bookstore browser asks, in all seriousness, if those guys know how to play their instruments. Violinist Malcolm Goldstein leading the quietest and listeningest octet on Earth. Over 100 people squeezing in to hear guitarist Henry Kaiser in duets with cellist Daniella L. DeGruttola. Ken Vandermark guesting with Debris. Richard Moore's adaptation of Eliot's "The Waste Land" for three voices. John Voigt's many performances, including "Hamlet Variations," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and his illimitable contribution to theater/installation piece "The Psychiatrist at the Cocktail Party, " in which his free jazz ensemble reflected the mounting insanity of the socializing psychos in conflict. The Gaduri Ensemble, which hung their metal and glass, instruments from the Cafe's ceiling. The whole Bookcellar web getting together to celebrate the songs of Charles Mingus. The Raga Ensemble's performance of the traditional vocal music of India, featuring Warren Senders and Vijaya Sundarum. After Sun Ra's death, Raquib Hassan's Cosmic Revelations, keeping the legacy healthy Chenrezi, with Michael Bloom on a variety of Asian percussion instruments and Craig Schildhaur on bass, with Debris' Steve Norton guesting on saxophone. John Voigt and drummer Lawrence Cook playing with Sabir Mateen, Jameel Moondoc, numerous others. The intermissions between Debris' sets, during which the musicians crowded the book aisles, drawing up plans for the next wave of energy."

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