On a Sunday night in July, saxophonist Roy Nathanson was speaking from what might be called the stage—actually more like the corner—of the basement room at the Sycamore Club, a small, friendly bar near his home in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Working with a scaled-down version of Sotto Voce, the band that has backed him on his last two albums, he introduced songs by neighborhood. “We’re gonna do a local Ditmas Park song,” he said before one; “These are all Flatbush tunes in a sense,” before another. “I grew up on E. 19th Street.”
At a Soto Voce show, even jazz standards are played as memoir. As the band vamped on “Slow Boat to China,” Nathanson recollected hearing his dad play the song; he recalled trying to dig a hole to China in the backyard as a kid—a job he didn’t finish, he explained, because of his own “cultural revolution” on the streets of Brooklyn.
Nathanson’s three-decade career in music has stretched from the Knitting Factory to National Public Radio, from John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards to his own Jazz Passengers to his recent work merging his often autobiographical poetry and prose with his unusual, never-quite-on-kilter compositions. He’s a musician who knows what it means to be an entertainer. He has channeled Groucho on stage, and can mention Sonny Stitt and Italo Calvino in the same breath. As a saxophonist and bandleader, he handles the O’Jays as easily as he does Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and has a considerable songbook of his own as well.
It’s rare to find an artist reinventing himself 30 years into his career, finding a new voice within an aesthetic he’s long since established. But the last five years have seen Nathanson chasing a new muse, earning a master’s in poetry (his work was first published in the Rail), and moving back to the old neighborhood. Those factors are the combined impetus for two of the strongest records of his career.
“Secretly I guess I always wanted to move back here, but I didn’t realize how much I wanted it,” he said, sitting on the second-floor terrace of the house he shares with his wife and son, a black dog, and a black cat. “I see it as urban archeology.” From such a modest height, he can’t quite see the faded advertisement painted on the side of a building, no longer readable, but he remembers what it once said. He can’t quite see the streets where he ran and played as a young boy, but as he speaks he points outward as if he could.
“I loved it here,” he said wistfully of the old Jewish/Italian neighborhood, now equally populated by Haitian, Jamaican, and Indian immigrants. “I played clarinet. I hung around playing basketball in the schoolyard.” His father, too, played clarinet, and performed in a brother act called “Artie and Marty” in the Catskills. (Uncle Artie studied piano with Willie “the Lion” Smith.) His mother was a singer. But neither of his parents quite made their living at it, and the family packed up for Florida when Roy was thirteen.
Nathanson made his way back to the city in the seventies. He studied saxophone with Jimmy Heath, played in Charles Earland’s band, and began working his way into the nascent Downtown scene, composing for experimental theater productions. He got a gig playing in the Big Apple Circus band, where he met trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, who remains his closest musical partner. And as a member of the well-dressed jazz-noir outfit the Lounge Lizards, one of the defining bands of the early Knitting Factory scene, he began to think about image and presentation on stage. Before long he was looking to present his own stage persona, something closer to his father’s vaudeville than Lurie’s Hollywood cool. In 1987 he put together the Jazz Passengers, with many of the same musicians (including Fowlkes and guitarist Marc Ribot) that he was playing with in the Lizards.
“John was this sexy guy; it was all about distance, and that was the opposite of what me and Curtis felt,” Nathanson said. “It should be funny! We wanted to have more of a direct relationship to jazz history and sort of a goofball thing. It was a more nerdy, more weirdo, more oddball thing. Our showman thing was everyman, but it wasn’t every man, it was every weird man, every oddball.”
Over the next couple of decades the Passengers, with some changes in lineup (but never without Fowlkes’s smooth voice and horn), would release a string of inventive records, combining unusual, slightly-off arrangements with a classic New York humor. They eventually caught the attention of Hal Willner, who all but invented the tribute-album trend by producing records dedicated to the music of Charles Mingus, Kurt Weill, and classic Disney films. Willner paired the Passengers with Deborah Harry and Elvis Costello, among others, on the 1994 album In Love. Harry soon became the band’s first full-time singer, bringing out a new aspect in Nathanson’s writing and bringing the band to much wider attention, for better and worse.
“We were known to be this comic band and I never meant it to be a comic band,” Nathanson said. “I meant it to be a full thing, like a good novel or a good film has different layers going on. And I think I sort of bought into the humor. But then Debbie left the band and we couldn’t get booked anymore, and I had a kid and started teaching. And maybe it was for the better—I mean, I’ve got everything I want. The irony was getting this teaching job, and not feeling like I had to have the Passengers tour all the time got me writing.” (An added irony, perhaps, is the fact that the original lineup of the Passengers, along with Costello and Harry, is currently working on a new album.)
While the Passengers’ name was appearing less frequently, Nathanson was taking on larger and more unusual projects. In 1997, with funding from Meet the Composer, he created Dreams of Someday with students at P.S. 188 in Queens. He released his first album under his own name, The Fire at Keaton’s Bar and Grill, in 2000, marking his first foray into long-form musical narrative. He went on to produce several jazz operettas for the NPR show The Next Big Thing, and penned The Rock Concert, a story of childhood and geology, for the Passengers in 2005.
Nathanson’s new-found interest in storytelling was bolstered when the New York Board of Education required him to get a master’s degree in order to continue teaching. (He teaches music at the Institute for Collaborative Education near Union Square.) While, not surprisingly, he initially considered getting a music degree, he eventually chose to push himself in a different direction and entered a Master’s program in poetry through New England College.
The eventual, perhaps inevitable, merging of poet and musician was developed over a series of workshop gigs at Barbès in Park Slope, and was documented on the 2006 CD Sotto Voce, released by the Brooklyn-based label Aum Fidelity. Opening with the infectious “By the Page,” an upbeat tale with vocal harmonies about Nathanson’s father paying him to read when he was young, the CD introduced a strong new band featuring Fowlkes, latter-day Passengers Sam Bardfeld (violin) and Tim Kiah (bass), and the human-beatbox vocal percussion of Napoleon Maddox.
Nathanson’s projects this year have included a book of verse published by the German imprint Buddy’s Knife and a CD of new songs on the Yellowbird label—both bearing the title Subway Moon—as well as the second installment of the Sotto Voce project. The songs, poems, and stories were all conceived on the Q train during Nathanson’s commutes between Midwood and the Manhattan high school where he teaches. With typical candor, Nathanson writes in “new guy to look at”:
Today I’m the guy to look at on the subway
I’m the guy falling asleep
all bent over
bad news caught in my throat
like a cold
I got the call about the clicker
Doctor says get cracking
Ante up sez he
Start telling time
A little humor, a little pathos, a touch of mortality. Elsewhere, he touches on taboo, revealing an attraction for a teenage Russian girl riding in the same subway car as him. This time, however, the story crosses into a moment of middle-aged fantasy: Nathanson follows the girl off the train, but loses her before getting to street level, his middle-aged legs (and perhaps his attentiveness to detail) slowing him in the chase.
The layers of sentiment in the verses unfold differently in different contexts: the book, the CD, and Nathanson’s live performances all work in very different ways. The memoirs in verse are set to music on disc; on stage, they’re framed by less formal recollections: a cassette he had in the seventies; a poem his late brother wrote that was lost to the wind while Nathanson was (what else?) waiting for the train; headlines scanned on the subway to form a single text—all these are revealed as source material.
Despite this ability to frame and reframe his thoughts and sometimes very personal feelings, Nathanson is modest about his naturalness on stage. He is, however, more than forthright about the comfort he’s found in his new incarnation as a musical memoirist and radio playwright.
“I’m not a showman,” he said plainly. “I thought I was, but I’m a storyteller. That’s really different than the Louis Jordan thing.
“I feel like I’ve gotten more credit than I deserve, and less credit,” he added with a laugh. “I never get the right amount of credit.”
Roy Nathanson plays the last Sunday of every month at the Sycamore, 1118 Cortelyou Road in Flatbush.
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.