How Small Towns Produce Big Music

Music lovers often express amazement when they hear a great concert in a small town played by local musicians. World-class art is proper to big cities or resort-style festivals, not to backwaters—so runs the reasoning behind this attitude. But the logic founders in its conflation of demographics and aesthetics.

Leipzig in the first half of the 18-century had a population of just over 30,000, which made it one of Germany’s largest and most thriving cities.  This commercial and university center would be considered a “small town” by many modern Americans, especially those refugees from big cities who find themselves, as they sometimes put it, “in the middle of nowhere.” 30,000 is about the population of present day Ithaca, New York, also home to a university. Ithaca is officially a city, but it’s often referred to by residents as a “small town”.

Small by present-day  urban standards, Leipzig’s musical offerings have not been surpassed by modern cities 1,000 times larger. Services in Leipzig’s principal churches featured elaborate music by J. S. Bach  performed under his direction. The orchestra and chorus were made up of students from the school where he taught and from the university. Many of these musicians would go on to become the leading musicians of the next generation. Bach’s own family was rich with musicians, who in turn enriched civic cultural life. Leipzig was also full of outstanding amateurs and enthusiasts; the local scene was visited on occasion by famous musicians from not-so-distant Dresden, where the sumptuous Electoral court had one of the greatest stable of performers and composers in the world. Dresden was even “smaller” than Leipzig.

If one was in need of more profane fare than the unrelenting diet of guilt and piety in the churches, one could hear Bach along with members of his family and university students at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig. Imagine yourself sitting over some strong coffee and having a chat with Bach, and then, after he’d excused himself, watching him work his way through the crowded café to lead a Handel cantata and play one of his own harpsichord concertos. That’s “small” town living for you! Starbucks has nearly 20,000 outlets across the globe—almost as many as Leipzig had inhabitants—yet you’re not going to get Zimmerman’s level of culture in any of them, neither in Seattle nor in one of the ten Starbucks in Shanghai with its population of nearly twenty million.

I thought of Bach and of Zimmerman’s as I talked with my neighbor, the brilliant bassist Nicholas Walker, before an evening of jazz at an Ithaca restaurant and concert venue about as far from the quiet street we share as Zimmerman’s coffee house was from Bach’s apartment. That is to say, not very far at all. You walk a hundred yards along the crumbling path above one of Ithaca’s many gorges, cross the bridge over that gorge, then go another block along a battered brick-paved street and find yourself at a 19th-century carriage house of clapboard and large, hand-cut blocks of local Cayuga blue stone. Derelict for decades, the building was lovingly restored some years ago and now hosts an excellent jazz concert series  as well as miscellaneous classical offerings upstairs in the converted hayloft.

Nicholas was sitting at our table a few feet from the bandstand. I had a glass of red wine and was waiting for my supper—local grass-fed beef tips — along with my wife and a couple of friends from a bit farther down our winding street. I asked Nicholas why John Stetch was monkeying with a microphone, trying to get the arm of the mike-stand to stay up between the lid of the Steinway grand and the strings. John is one of the most inspiring and inspired jazz pianists on the planet, a musician with great reserves of both creativity and generosity, and with a slew of distinguished recordings to his name. He moved to Ithaca a few years back from New York City for the greener provinces of Upstate, and he has been a vital part of civic cultural life here ever since.

 But why would a player with a large dynamic spectrum on his instrument, ranging from gossamer arabesques in shimmering pianissimo to brash block chords set up by thunderous glissandi want to put an amplifier between himself and his audience in the ideal space for chamber music that is the hayloft? The space is the size of a tennis court (more like singles not doubles) with a high steeply-pitched ceiling like an A-frame, good acoustics, and little outside noise as the provincial traffic dies down in the evening. Perhaps it is deemed necessary to have reinforcement if the hubbub of the supper-club gets too loud. But then this closes a vicious circle: talk gets louder—music gets louder—talk gets even louder—music gets even louder.  By the end of the evening your ears are beaten into submission rather than rewarded for listening closely.

I’m not a proponent of the statue-like silence and stillness required by the sometimes stultifying deportment said to be required at classical concerts. Neither do I condone full-throated conversation about oils slicks and foreign wars while trying to listen to music at a club.  I’ll bet Bach didn’t stand for shouting coffee drinkers at Zimmerman’s either. The point is that amplification saps direct musical expression, just as it stomps the whispered aside of the salon-style listener. John didn’t crank up his amp to anything approaching ear-splitting levels, but the message is still clear: the fully self-sufficient piano needs to get louder. O jazz, reclaim your acoustic roots even as you explore the new!

Nicholas had more to say on the subject than I did, but it was about time for the concert to start. I asked how he felt it was to be joined by visiting trombonist Bret Zvacek. Nicholas shrugged in his amiable, slightly mischievous, way, “We haven’t played a note together.”  As expected, it was to be an evening of standards, the shared musical repertoire of jazz that makes such ad hoc gatherings of musicians possible and often so rewarding. Jazz is held to be America’s classic music and this country’s gift to the rest of the world.  The quartet made up of the house trio and the visiting trombonist was its own musical melting pot, and it was difficult not to indulge in a bit of benign racial profiling:  the ascetic Ukrainian from Edmonton, Stetch on piano; the furtively energetic Irishman, Tom Kilian from nearby Elmira on the drums; the ruddy-cheeked and cheerful Slav, Zvacek up front on trombone; the red-haired Scot, Walker patrolling both the Lowlands and—so commanding is his technique  high up on the bass’s fingerboard—the Highlands. After the first tune—a bright and optimistic rendition of Henry Mancini’s Days of Wine and Roses—Zvacek introduced the band members, but flubbed Walker’s name, calling him Nicholas White.  “Well, yeah, I am white,” joked Walker in a faux-rueful, self-effacing reference to the African-American origins of jazz. This Carriage House quartet may have not been Rainbow Coalition, but it was abundantly diverse, and especially so where it mattered most: musically.

As his elegant and energetic CD from 2002, Day in May demonstrates, Zaveck is a lyrical musician, who creates graceful and often unexpected melodic lines in his improvising and in his engaging original compositions, three of which were sprinkled among the standards on the evening’s program. But Zvacek can play fast and furious when he wants or needs to.  Especially when he put down his slide trombone and picked up his valved instrument there was no shortage of bluster and bite, as in his adventurous opening and closing cadenzas of As Time Goes By, and in darting lines above the trio’s double-time proddings. Nicholas Walker can get down with the greasiest of bassists from that instrument’s illustriously greasy past, as he did in Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova classic Triste: his exuberantly funky solo proved again the paradox of the blues that they are simultaneously melancholy and uplifting. But Walker can also find a transcendent voice that, even when down low in the bass’s range, escapes to another realm: this largest of string instruments became mysteriously small, graspable, sweet in his bowed solo on Kurt Weill’s Speak Low.

John Stetch has so many different ways of tackling a tune that one never knows what to expect. One suspects that Stetch often surprises himself. There is the contrapuntal back-and forth between left and right hand that scurried around the Days of Wine and Roses. There is J. S. Bach-toccata style, two-fisted approach to Triste. There is the jabbing, smartly syncopated notes plucked from disparate octaves and separated by long, irregular pauses from the whirring harmonic pace of Duke Elllington’s Cherokee—a feat about as difficult as putting your index finger between the spinning spokes of a bicycle and pulling it without a scratch. Tom Kilian tasteful but energizing brushwork was expertly gauged to the chamber setting of the Carriage House.  When he went to the stick it was with just the right amount of weight and wallop.

At intermission—timed perfectly with the conclusion of desert (strawberries and pound cake)—I had a chance to talk with Zvacek, who is director of the jazz program at the State University of New York in Potsdam. He and his wife, a classical pianist, were going to drive the three-and-a-half hours back to Potsdam after the show. We talked about his CD and he sold me a copy. After a few minutes he asked me what I did, and I told him that I mostly worked on Bach’s music. This allowed me to segue into a quick account of Bach’s famous 1747 visit to Potsdam to play for Frederick the Great. The real destination of my digression was the favorite regiment of Frederick the Great’s father Friedrich Wilhelm—the Potsdam Giants. The fanatical soldier king impressed tall men from across Europe; the minimum height of 6’4” was very tall in those days, remembering that the average recruit was a foot shorter. Given this bit of the Prussian past, I’ve long thought the San Francisco Giants should have a minor league team in Potsdam, New York—The Potsdam Giants. Zvacek liked the idea, and then told me that the name of the Potsdam high school team was the Sandstoners, because of the quarries in the region. This works, too, because of the hundreds of wonderful Sandstone statues grace Frederick the Great’s Potsdam palaces and parks.  But the kids in Potsdam, New York shorten the name to the Stoners—which is far better and funnier than my Giant.

We could have gone on with this, but it was back to the bandstand for a brisk reading of Miles Davis’ Seven Steps to Heaven.

Were these the kind of irrelevant and amusing stories that Bach exchanged with the musicians and patrons in Zimmerman’s? Did they add to the joy of hearing music in such a vibrant setting? Is “small” a state of mind? Yes, yes, and yes.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at




DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at