Perhaps the greatest challenge facing jazz and improvised music is reaching audiences of the uninitiated to expand the base with fresh listeners. Original jazz and improvised music is underrepresented on radio and nearly invisible to the average public, who often think of jazz as music of the past. Despite a growing thirst for different sounds, many people are at a loss for where to begin. And that’s where a place like Tea Lounge enters - a popular location that is not exclusively for music, but presents challenging and creative acts.
“The café not being an ‘exclusive’ venue gives us a lot of freedom in deciding what we’d like to present and, most importantly, the opportunity to attract an audience that would never set foot in a ‘jazz’ club,” says General Manager and music programmer Oren Arnon. After the success of the original Tea Lounge on 7th Avenue, opened in 2000, the owners launched the second, larger location about three years ago.
With its 4000 square feet of space ensconced in a neighborhood full of artists and musicians, owners Greg Wolf and Jonathan Spiel realized they could feature and support local talent: not only music, but also visual arts. The music series started about a year later as a weekly Thursday night slot. As enthusiasm from patrons and musicians grew, it blossomed to its current 2-3 nights per week, generally Wednesday through Friday, without a cover or minimum.
There is no formula for choosing performers, though the focus is on freer improvised and genre-subverting music. Arnon strives to balance established names like saxophonist Tim Berne, guitarist Charlie Hunter and bassist Mark Helias with nascent artists, such as trumpeter Dan Brantigan, saxophonist Jeremy Udden and drummer Ziv Ravitz. The fostering of new talent is something that Arnon hopes to see more of, as several groups that tested the waters at Tea Lounge have gone on to perform around town. Brook’s Qawwali Party has become the most frequent guest, its energetic blend of Sufi spirituals and Western improv eliciting a raucous dance party on several occasions.
“The social aspects of this kind of music have been neglected - it’s about more than just the music, it’s about bringing people together, having a couple beers and enjoying a sonic experience that’s being created right there with them,” Arnon says. Tea Lounge is inviting, with a spacious open floor plan. Comfy couches and plush easy chairs are strewn through the room in small clusters to enhance conversation. Like many klatches, chess and backgammon boards are available, as is a vintage tabletop Ms. Pac Man.
Harmonizing with the living room ambiance, the few dozen varieties of the moniker beverage are brewed and served in individual pots. The baristas also offer a range of coffee drinks that complement the prominently displayed sweet baked treats or fresh sandwiches. Additionally, Tea Lounge has a fully stocked bar with 10 beers on tap, including local favorites Six Points Brownstone and Brooklyn Lager.
The laid-back vibe is further reflected in how the music is presented. There is no stage, only a small alcove at the back of the room to the side of the bar. Performer and audience are on the same level for a shared sense of intimacy. This kind of proximity, however, can create potential conflicts of interest. Not all patrons come for the music and some may find it a distraction to be ignored at best or something to be competed with at worst. This can rankle performers and serious listeners. But Arnon feels the room is large enough to accommodate different activities concurrently and performers should earn the audience’s attention.
From its neighborhood-centric origins, Tea Lounge has matured into a vital component of the burgeoning Brooklyn jazz and improvised music scene and by extension the NYC scene. Arnon receives handfuls of demos every week from musicians wanting to play there. Perhaps more importantly, Tea Lounge has become a destination for music enthusiasts from outside Park Slope. “More and more people are coming in to TL on music nights to see what’s going on without knowing who the musicians are or what their deal is,” Arnon says, “just based on the knowledge that there’s a great neighborhood hang with a great scene evolving around high quality new music.”
~ Sean Patrick Fitzell