Notes on a Night at Quinn’s, Late February: Featuring Joe McPhee, Michael Bisio, Chris Corsano, Steve Swell

Steve Swell, Joe McPhee, Chris Corsano, Michael Bisio

No More Beatlemania, Once Was Enough!
It’s Time for Joe McPhee, Michael Bisio, Chris Corsano & Steve Swell Mania!

The entrance to Quinn’s is crowded. I start looking for familiar faces, but then I find myself doing math, calculating fractions, rounding, converting to percentages. Who else is masking? How do the numbers compare to my classroom? To the grocery store?  

For the first time in two years, I’m at Quinn’s to see live music, and it’s weird. Beyond the obvious emerging-from-a-pandemic reasons, Quinn’s is for sale, which kicks things in a different direction, makes me wonder how much longer this scene is going to last. Then again, I’ve had similar thoughts since I first came to Quinn’s. That’s part of what motivated me to write a book about the place—I didn’t think it could keep going. 


James Keepnews booked tonight’s show, which features Joe McPhee (saxophone), Michael Bisio (bass), Chris Corsano (drums), and Steve Swell (trombone). 

James, who also MCs, says to Joe, “What do you think, one long set or two short ones?”

Joe: “That’s up to Steve.”

Steve: “I’m up for anything.”

David Smolen (like me, a fellow civilian): “How about two long sets?”

Steve: “You don’t get a vote. (laughs) Let’s make it two shorties.” 

The first set starts abruptly. The band is tuning up one moment and mid-flight the next. Gone is the gearing up, the revving of engines, the sights and sounds that suggest lift off. “The warm-up became the first set,” James observes. I wonder how improvisers figure out how to start. What do you play to put things in motion? How do the other musicians respond? How do you answer the initial idea in a way that sustains others? 


I was listening to an actor (Rick Overton) on a podcast earlier today. He was talking about his dad’s love of jazz and comedy. His father helped run the Jazz Loft in the ’50s. “The thing about being a jazz guy is you got to be cool. And cool means showing no vulnerability whatsoever.” That certainly fit with the version of cool I grew up with. Cool was knowing everything that needed to be known, already having the knowledge other people wanted and knowing what to do with it.  


David and I ran into each other outside of Quinn’s. He’s a cabinet maker/woodworker by trade. A few weeks ago, I contacted him about building a bookcase. Initially it looked like it was going to work out. But I didn’t realize he’d retired and wasn’t taking on new jobs. He felt bad about declining and said so when he first saw me. There was no air to clear, but he didn’t leave it to chance. Inside the conversation shifted to talking about living in NYC, specifically trading “You missed it!” stories. He moved to Manhattan in the early ’80s. On paper his rent was $100/month, but he traded odd jobs around the building for most of that. His was the era of seeing great jazz like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and a lot of punk and new wave at CBGB and the Mudd Club. I lived in a different neighborhood (Astoria) in a different time (’90s) with a higher rent ($500) and different bands, but we encountered the same thing: NYC was so cool before you got here. Too bad you didn’t get here in time!

Those “You missed it!” cranks unknowingly helped more than they knew. They heighten my appreciation for an experience like Quinn’s, laid back and consistently presenting adventurous music—helped me realize I need to actively support great things/creative endeavors.


“I’d say that (description of vulnerability) doesn’t jibe with my experience, but I’m not necessarily a ‘jazz guy,’ whatever that means to people. I guess I could see a version of a so-called jazz player who projects invulnerability. But I’m no expert on anybody’s experience but my own.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as being more ‘vulnerable’ per se. I mean, somebody could put it that way if they wanted to, but I wouldn’t say the feeling of trying to tune in to everything around me necessarily reminds me of a feeling of vulnerability.” —Chris Corsano 


The band fires on all cylinders, loud, fast, masking the noise and worry in my head. Despite the familiar confines and friendly faces, I’m still rattled from a rough start to the day. But then late in the first set, there’s a moment when Steve Swell sustains these soothing long tones on trombone. Chris Corsano plays with bundles—louder than brushes, quieter than sticks—that skitter across the drums. Michael Bisio slowly see saws his bass while Joe McPhee eases across the landscape, so graceful, so generous, almost in ballad mode. Lighter than air, and with such emotional gravity. No one cuts to the core like he does. This is when I fully arrive, feel present and open.


Just before the music begins, I receive a text from my partner Joh wishing she could be here, adding, “I hope tonight is restorative,” referring to our conversation from this morning. I flash back to one of our first dates. We went to see Joe McPhee. Moments after meeting, Joh and Joe were raving about Get Out, which was in theaters, though I hadn’t seen it. They probably sprinkled in spoilers, but who’d notice such things when your sweetie and one of your heroes are bonding over Black cinema?

I close the text, order a drink, and wonder how many more nights I’ll experience here at 330 Main Street. Part of me wants to ask around, get a sense of who’s going to buy the place and whether or not they’ll continue presenting these Monday nights. But how much do I want/need to know? It’s like when I recently read that only half of the players on my favorite team, the Mets, were vaccinated last year. Do I really want the details?


“As far as ‘cool’ goes in its most literal and traditional sense, there are as many definitions for it as there are people who are/wish to be cool. Bottom line, if you have to define it, then you ain’t cool. But I’ll give you this, coolness is not learned and done, but is always evolving and maturing as we learn and grow. Example: not burning a bridge with someone who has treated you like an asshole but never forgetting it, and in some cases, never hiring that person for a gig ever again. But still shaking their hand the next time you see them.”—Steve Swell


I brushed up against a panic attack this morning, a whole-body dread from the moment I woke up. It was peaking 15 minutes before students walked into the classroom. My thoughts scrambled and my worries spiked. It felt like everything personal was in flux—my parents’ health, my kids, finances—while everything political was collapsing. Plus, the ongoing stress of teaching during a pandemic. It all coalesced this morning and slammed with full force.   

In the fall of 2020, the day before school began, central office held a very inspiring meeting. We sat outside on a beautiful sun-drenched day. We all brought folding chairs, soaked in the rays, shielded our eyes from the sun, and listened to the pitch perfect messaging. They recognized the challenges of working in-person during the pandemic. We were starting the year in hybrid mode, half of the class in person, half of the class at home and on screen. It was reassuring to hear our superiors recognize the social/emotional challenges we’d experienced. When they said support was on the way and would continue throughout the year, I believed them.

By the fall of 2021, that had all washed away. The day before school we sat masked in an auditorium and the theme was “Rebounding!” Life was back to normal, they proclaimed, and it was time to close the academic gaps! No one spoke of social/emotional needs. I don’t know what was worse, the embarrassing denial of reality or the lame basketball analogies. Before long safety protocols were being phased out even as the numbers increased and the explanations were delayed and hazy. The talk of “Rebounding!” faded.

Over time, I’ve learned I can weather a lot. But this morning something changed, lurched into the wrong lane head-first into the oncoming momentum of the oncoming day and all I feared it would bring. Instead of wondering “How much can I take?”, I was thinking “Why bother? Why fend off x or y when it’s only going to come back?” I sat at my desk trying to edit my morning meeting slide and for a moment I wondered, “How much longer do I want to bother?”, which scared me. 

Luckily, a few minutes before school started, Joh returned the message I’d left earlier. She opened the floodgates to rational thought, helped me voice and puncture my anxieties, and respond to that question of “Why bother?” It deflated the stresses enough to get me back on track, like a truck stuck beneath an overpass letting out enough air from its tires to pass. I try to remind myself that any day any student could come to school thinking, I don’t want to be here. I have to allow for the fact that I might start the day that way, too.


As the first set ended, James came to the mic. He acknowledged the musicians. He thanked the bartenders and kitchen staff. He acknowledged the musicians again and highlighted the collaborative nature of their performance. Then he lingered, addressing the war in Ukraine. “Time/space doesn’t need to be seized. It can be shared. This is the ideal political structure.”  


“Miles Davis was cool to me. I don’t know if he showed vulnerability or not. He had a way of cutting through all the bullshit. The way he played. The way he looked. He was his own person.”—Joe McPhee


At one point, Chris Corsano is soloing on a drum stick. Not just with a stick, but on a stick. A couple days later on social media, I found this from David Greenberger: “Chris is a wonder. He brings cliché-free believability and emotional resonance to a realm that often brings forth the mere dazzle in the hands of others.”


I run into another friend just before the second set starts. He travels for work and lately he’s been stressed by the constant air travel. He’s also missing home more than ever, and he can’t sleep through the night regardless of where he is. He’s out by 11:00, but up for the day by three or four. He’s not sure what triggered the changes, but they coincide with hearing an unusual cover of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” He heard it on a flight and can’t shake the haunting melody. He’s here for similar reasons, connection, catharsis, relief.


“Being cool is one thing, but this music is all about being vulnerable. Allowing yourself to be open to everyone, every vibration as well as putting your ‘self’ out there leaves you as vulnerable as it gets. The strength to risk that degree of vulnerability can have rewards beyond beyond.”—Michael Bisio


Sometimes the band is so loud, so aggressive I feel they’re charging toward me, a thundering stampede that threatens to sweep me away or perhaps pummel me. Other times I feel they’re soaring above, birds in formation, flying independently but moving together, rotating leaders as often as they change directions.

Theirs is not dance music, but it is celebratory. The high energy, the constant, kaleidoscopic motion. I’m in awe of the alchemy. It’s my kind of party music, or as Joe said to close the set, “This is like a dream come true coming out of this Covid bullshit.”


Photo by James Keepnews

Band credit (left to right): Steve Swell, Joe McPhee, Chris Corsano, Michael Bisio

Author’s note: If you’re new to the world of Joe McPhee, check out this scene from Severance.

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