Riff Raff

Jim Ryan's experimental jazz and the Boom Boom Room mural controversy part II

New Music, Same Old StoryOn May 15, 1997, out-there experimental saxophonist John Zorn was in the middle of a set at New York City jazz spot the Knitting Factory when he abruptly stopped. He proceeded to chew out a group of patrons in the balcony who, in a fit of impropriety, were talking loudly over his skronk-jazz stylings. "You up there," he snapped angrily. "Shut the fuck up and listen to the music."

The chatterboxes at fault? Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and his wife Dagmar, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Lou Reed, and Reed's girlfriend Laurie Anderson.

Funny story, but it also helps to underscore the essential truth that experimental jazz and idle chatter don't mix. Jim Ryan knew from experience that they rarely do. The flutist and sax player spent the late '60s and early '70s in Paris, where he took part in a jazz scene whose musicians played pretty much anywhere and everywhere. "In Paris there was a great renaissance of free jazz from '68 to 1973 or '74," he recalls. "Everybody was playing in every middle school and everybody had to have a free-jazz group. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Steve Lacy, they were all there. It was a great time."

Jim Ryan.
Jim Ryan.

So when Ryan moved to Oakland in 1993, he soon became part of the local creative music scene, playing gigs with his band Forward Energy, starting a zine called Outside to document the shows and musicians, and booking Thursday nights at the Luggage Store Gallery in downtown San Francisco. From the inventions of the Mills College Music Department and San Francisco's Tape Music Center in the '60s up to today, there's never been a lack of experimental musicians in the Bay Area. The problem's always been places to play and finding one in which to get comfortable: Berkeley's Beanbender's, the most visible and centrally located space for live showcases, was forced to leave its home a year ago when the building changed hands. Given all that, Ryan knew he had an uphill climb when he proposed the idea of a weekly "new music" series at Berkeley's Starry Plough. After all, Berkeley ain't Paris, and the Plough is as much a bar as it is a club. "We wanted to bring the music into more of a club atmosphere," says Ryan. When he approached Plough booker Misty Gamble last fall about the idea, she went for it, and gave a green light in October to book shows every Wednesday evening.

But aficionados of cerebral electronic songs and atonal noise-jazz aren't exactly the type to hit the bars and get wasted; nor are barflies usually conversant about artists on the Tzadik label (to the extent they're conversant at all). So last week, Ryan and Gamble agreed to cut the performances back to the first Wednesday of the month after February. "Although we were drawing quite a few people, the music irritated some of the regular drinkers," says Ryan. "They left, and the bar totals started going down." In the meantime, he's looking into other options. "We're going to try for some of the art venues, galleries, and other places that don't serve booze," he says. "It works better for more of the experimental stuff."

Art Project, IndeedThe situation surrounding Michael Krouse's plans for a mural on the Boom Boom Room's outside wall wasn't supposed to get this messy -- at least not so soon -- but with Arts Commission hearings only just beginning, things have already grown contentious. Shortly before press time last week, Krouse pulled the plug on a scheduled open forum at the Boom Boom Room about his design ("Painting, in Black and White," Jan. 12). Krouse said he made the decision to cancel the forum once local black community newspaper the Sun-Reporter published a story on his project on the front page of its Jan. 6 edition with the headline "Blacks jam mural plan." "When that article came out, things changed," says Krouse. "I wanted to have the open forum before this became an issue. This changes the perception of the whole thing."

Last week, Krouse penned a strongly worded letter to Amelia Ashley-Ward, Sun-Reportereditor and publisher, complaining that he was neither approached about nor quoted in the article, except for excerpts of a letter he wrote in October to Culture on the Corner Director Mel Simmons, who has publicly criticized Krouse's design. Krouse also accused the anonymously written article of "blatant bias" for reporting as fact that his design "shows a black prostitute trying to lure a white man into buying sex," which was Simmons' assessment of the mural. Simmons told us last week he felt the Boom Boom Room -- where the mural is slated to be painted, and where Krouse works as a bartender -- was the wrong place for a community forum on the plan, and Krouse concedes this point. He says he's interested in looking for a neutral place within the Western Addition to plead his case, preferably with a moderator attending. "I don't want a Jerry Springer free-for-all," he says.

This week, however, all of this was mooted. A press release from Boom Boom Room owner Alex Andreas, stating that "the controversy has unnecessarily engendered vocal divisiveness," announced that the club was withdrawing its wall from murals of any sort. "In realizing that there is very little chance for a productive exchange of ideas ... let alone the possibility of consensus of any kind, it is necessary for the Boom Boom Room to make this wall unavailable," said the release.

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