Top of the Hub quitting jazz

In light of the changes taking place at the Top of the Hub (TOH) I’ve been asked to write a little something.

published in

 The TOH turned 50 years old in 2015.  For all but about a year in the 80’s it has been a jazz room.  Pianist Ray Santisi  and drummer Harvey Simons (sorry I can’t remember the bassist’s name, George?) were there at the beginning for close to 20 years and then vocalist Maggie Galloway took over in the mid 80’s.  There was a year in the 80’s when they turned into a disco but abandoned the idea because clean up was too much trouble.

 Until about a year ago the general manager was Raphael Oliver.  Raphael’s idea was to have the jazz music as a service to the patrons.  He was not interested in having people come up specifically to listen to the music but wanted the music to be there to provide a classy atmosphere.  He saw the music as a gift to the patrons.  When the economy tanked in 2009 he could have dropped the 7 night a week jazz policy to save money but chose to keep it going.

We did take a pay cut but still made about what the union would pay, more or less.

 It was a better situation for us that the venue didn’t expect us to bring folks in.  We didn’t have that pressure and were able to play the best music we could for the folks who were there.  The GM told me he actually didn’t want our fans to come up because they were generally poor (my word) and didn’t spend much but they hung around and took up space.  Jazz fans are intelligent, intense and patient Listeners, with a capital L.  Not casual background music party folks.  The old joke, “how do you end up a millionaire in Jazz?, start with two million”  is appropriate.  The Hub was doing well financially and could support maintaining a Jazz room.  And they did, up until now.

 I started playing at the Hub with Maggie Galloway in 1993.  There were different music schedules over the years which eventually solidified into Jazz 7 nights a week with a few regular bands alternating weeks or months.  One group would play Tuesday through Saturday and one group would take Sunday and Monday. 

 At the beginning it was a Tux gig for the musicians and coat and tie dress code for the patrons.  The band has since gone to Jacket with optional tie and patrons can wear anything.  It’s not uncommon to see folks in shorts and flip flops next to folks in fancy evening attire.  The No hats for the gents policy is even fading.  Ten or so years ago they renovated and for the first time installed TV sets at the bar.

 I took my job very seriously as the booker/musical director though I didn’t have a whole lot of power.  The GM had a favorite group here or there over the years who I was told to hire, but they were good and that was fine.  The fill in bands and Sunday/Monday groups were up to me. 

 Most people will never hear jazz. It’s hard to find on the radio and very few venues offer it. Unlike pop music which you can’t avoid, one doesn’t generally bump into jazz by accident in their daily travels.  You have to seek it out.  The Hub was one of the very rare places in the country where ordinary folks (meaning people who were just out to see the sights without having a music agenda) would bump into Jazz every night.  I figured that since most folks haven’t heard much , if any Jazz, and wouldn’t know good from less good, that I had a responsibility to make sure the music was the best it could be.  If someone who doesn’t know hears a mediocre band they are told is a Jazz band, they may just think they don’t like Jazz.  The bands were good. 

 It was interesting that we noticed local folks didn’t seem to pay much attention to the music.  I’d say 80 % of the time if folks were really applauding they were from out of town.  Midwest or California people frequently sat in disbelief at the people who paid no attention to us.  I don’t know what that says about Boston if it says anything at all. 

 We did notice that it often felt like people would think of us as background music, which I have no problem with, or they would think of us as not actually playing instruments.  Like we were not real. It was very common for someone to actually walk up on stage while we were playing and ask for a request, not waiting for us to finish the tune.  One night someone came up and walked past Maggie while she was singing and came to me at the back of the stage to ask about some tune.   I think maybe they thought of us as a hologram projected from an ipod.  People are so used to talking over their portable music that when they see real people playing they may not realize they are real. 

 Most people don’t actively listen.  They don’t have to.

(Here comes the old fart routine…)

When I was young… we didn’t have portable anything.  We had a stereo that was fixed in one room.  If you wanted to listen you went into the room and sat and listened.  It was an event.  If you believe in supply and demand you must believe that music is of less value now because we can have it anywhere at any time, and most people don’t want to pay for it.

 Peter, the new GM said he wants to go in a different direction and go with something more contemporary. He’s bringing in an agent from Las Vegas and said he wants young attractive women singers singing contemporary music.  (I thought maybe we could play more contemporary like free jazz or Stockhausen but that’s not what he means.) 


I recently started reading a book by Susan Cain called Quiet, subtitled “The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking”.  It begins by talking about self help icon Dale Carnegie (How to win friends and influence people) and his influence in changing American culture from one of Character to one of Personality.  The basic shift is from the Internal to the External.  Or from honor, manners, integrity, to attractive, charismatic, energetic. 


Maybe the abandoning of the dress code and adding televisions and going contemporary is part of the shift that Susan Cain is talking about. 


I don’t know that Jazz music is any better than any other music.  I know that it represents a music with a very high level of expressiveness, intellectual complexity and instrumental virtuosity, equal in it’s own ways to western “classical” music.  This is where my ignorance will get me into trouble and where I’ll stop comparing since there are so many musics I know nothing or very little about that must have similar levels of complexity and virtuosity and expressiveness.  I don’t know that the music that gets played at the Hub now will be inferior to what I did and we will just have to see.


I do know that there are so very few places to hear (and play) high quality Jazz music that this is a blow to the musicians who play Jazz in the area and maybe more of a shame that this great, now underground, music will be heard by fewer “ordinary” folks.


I started playing professionally at 16 in 1971 and my first steady gig was with a Jazz quartet which had a two week stint at the Apramount Café in Springfield, MA.  After two weeks we were fired and replaced by a banjo player and tap dancer.  If it were people like Gregory Hines and Bela Fleck I wouldn’t have minded.  I shouldn’t be too quick to assume or judge, maybe they were great.   Maybe the young women singing contemporary tunes now at the Hub will be as well.


December 3, 2015,   Bob Nieske

Recording Rant


Here's something I've been thinking about for a while. Recording has ruined the music business for the majority of living, working musicians.

Recordings have kept alive the music of the great musicians of the past so we can keep them in our living rooms and enjoy and study them and play them at  parties for our friends. It's always great to turn someone on to someone they've never heard before and watch their reaction. This is good...but it is too easy.

Music, and Jazz in particular, is alive. Recorded music is dead. I sometimes think at the end of a great performance: "It's too bad we didn't record THAT!"...but the fact that it wasn't recorded makes it more special. The people who witnessed the performance shared something personal that would live on in their memory. If it were recorded and mass produced the value would be greatly and demand.

Imagine what it was like in Beethoven's day when someone would hear a piece maybe once or twice in their lifetime! It would be like magic. You can only take it home in your memory. You better be paying attention. In Beethoven's time musicians would sit in the audience and transcribe sections of the concert as it was going slowing down the tape recorder!...I only know a couple musicians who would be capable of doing that today (and I ain't one of them).

In some ways I think we have arrested the development and evolution of the music, and pretty much killed off the apprentice/mentor relationship.

Imagine: If there were no recordings people would have to go out to hear living  musicians. There would be many more local pockets of creativity developing and finding their own sound paths. I wonder how many original thinking singular minds would emerge. The fabric of improvisers would be richer by far. If you wanted to learn you would hook up with more experienced musicians. Your ears would have to grow because you would have to get it on the first listening because there might not be another chance.

There would be more musicians working and making a better living because if  people wanted to hear music they would have to either play it themselves or go out where it was being played. People of today's generation wouldn't still be trying to sound like Coltrane or Monk or Bill Evans or Miles because they would never have heard them...except through legends and stories told by people who did hear them and through their written work....and they probably wouldn't be worried about the "correct" changes to a tune because every region would develop their own sound...

Musicians of today's generation would be trying to sound like the great local players who play regularly in their area...the music would be evolving on a local level in hundreds of regions around the country at the same time.....that would be exciting.

I got a CHALLENGE for you!

Go 2 months without playing your cd's or records or the radio. Then go to a club where there is live music.....the music of your choice and see how you like it. This means you have to avoid recorded music.....listen to talk radio or no radio...get to know yourself again....Watch sports on tv instead of sitcoms......I bet only 2 percent of the reading audience can do it.....maybe 1 percent. I'd say it's the equivelent of quitting smoking...and almost as important

Take me out coach!

I'm just ranting...

by the way...if you want to buy MY CD's send me an E-mail !!!

Limitations and the "What if?"

Limitations and the “What if” attitude or “Let’s Play Chess!”


I hate to make generalizations but here goes.  There’s something about each instrument, or the role each instrument plays, that attracts people with specific personality traits.  Of course the nature of the instrument will also change the personality of the person who plays it.  Nature vs. nurture is a question here but largely irrelevant for my point.   There are scores of musician jokes (pun intended) that illustrate the musician/instrument correlation (I include vocalists as instrumentalists here so don’t be hurt) and if you want to hear some jokes just ask a musician. 


I’m a bass player.  When I was young I played little league baseball and was most comfortable playing Catcher.  I think there is a correlation.  Bassists are (for the most part) not glamorous or attention seeking.  Catchers can’t even be seen.  They wear masks.  The level of involvement in their respective situations is also similar.  The rhythm section plays more than anyone else in the band and within the rhythm section the bassist is the only player who supplies both time and harmony.

The drummer has no harmonic contribution and the chording instruments ,while playing in time, are not the primary caregivers of the time like the bass and drums.  In baseball the catcher and pitcher are the only players involved in every play and the catcher also sees the whole field, helps the pitcher decide what to throw, knows all the hitters on the opposing team, and communicates with the manager between pitches, all while wearing a mask. 


One of the primary roles of the bassist is to be supportive of the soloist.  Interactive without overpowering.  Knowing just the right thing to say at a dinner party, so to speak.  This supporting role sometimes conflicts with the ego of the immature bassist or is at odds with the chops oriented bass soloist who has trouble separating soloing from accompanying.   At a master class at New England Conservatory Steve Swallow was talking about what his music asked of the bassist.  He said something like “as far as bass playing is concerned, I hate to say it but you need to play roots”.  He said “I hate to say it” because he knew there were young bassists in the room and he was telling them something they didn’t want to hear.  It’s like telling a puppy to heel.  So Bassists are both supporting and controlling while being self deprecating.  Sounds like a mess if you ask me. 


You could make a VERY GENERAL case that the lower the pitch of the instrument the more supportive the role (and person).  So the more traditional, higher range, soloing/lead instruments are less supportive and more spotlight seeking.  [Is the ice getting thin? It’s getting very warm.] 


I’ve very rarely heard a bassist take a painfully long [and therefore] self indulgent solo.  Though there are some who think any bass solo is painful!  I have, on the other hand, personally witnessed thousands of horn solos I thought would never end.  Even Coltrane had a problem with this and complained to Miles that he couldn’t stop playing, to which Miles replied something like “just take the blank-ing horn out of your mouth!”  Accompanying these solos can bring one to the brink of insanity.  Well not quite but it’s very dangerous because it can cause you to lose interest in the music and become resentful, mad and bored.  Anyone who has felt this way in a personal relationship knows it’s a recipe for divorce.  It’s a very unhealthy way to live. 


There are a few ways to TRY to solve this problem.  The first would be the Miles approach which very few people can get away with.  You could try a modified Miles and call the offender aside politely between sets and use a joke to hint about non stop playing.  I haven’t had much luck with that one since almost everyone agrees with you but assumes you’re talking about someone else!  Of course you could just be totally direct and sincere and say “I think it would be better if you played more concisely”  but we musicians are so darn sensitive you could risk alienating a friend for years with that little remark.  The last option is what I’ve come to call the “What If” approach.  This “What If” idea developed out of a boredom with playing but has far reaching applications to all musical and life activities. 


You’ve just played your 30th chorus of “There will never be another you” and you realize you are not listening to the (never ending) soloist so much anymore and every time you pass through a particular change you play the same thing.  At this point you are ingraining mindless playing or what they call “phoning it in”.  The more you do this the easier it gets until it’s 2nd nature and before you know it that’s just the way you play.  The “What If” game is simply saying to yourself “What if I try this” which is a way of imposing a Limitation (or organizing principle) on yourself.  What if I only play on the G string for a chorus; what if I walk the melody; what if I start every chord on the third; what if I walk in octaves;  what if I only walk in the bottom octave of the bass.  I tried the lowest octave thing on a Blues once behind a trumpet player and he said afterwards,  “What was that thing you were doing?   I never heard that before, that was great!”.  So you see even if only one person is Whatiffing it can effect the whole band and inspire participation and interaction on a higher level, which is what it’s all about.  If everyone is Whatiffing then you’ve really got something and playing transcends being merely worthwhile and/or fun to being Joy and a (depending on your beliefs) spiritual human interaction.  


A final note is a reminder to let yourself be open.  That’s what this is about.  There was a time when I played a lot of chess.  I would read books and study.  One day I was playing bass and when I play I can see my fingers on the instrument in my mind, with my eyes closed (you should really avoid looking at your fingers with your eyes open while you are playing.  It’s a recipe for poor intonation and bad technique).  All of the sudden I started seeing the shapes of the chess pieces and started playing lines based on these shapes.  Rooks are either one string chromatics or cross string perfect 4ths.  Knights are 5,2,1 or 1,2,5 diatonically for example.   Bishops are augmented 7 or diminished 7 chords moving across the strings (Major 3rds or minor 3rds).  The King can move a half step in any direction and the Queen can do all of the above except the Knight’s moves.  This was a revelation to me and I’m sure something John Cage would have approved of.  You don’t always need to be thinking about harmony or tonal centers as a determiner of note selection.  You can use your own organizing devices.  After all, Music is Sound Organized in Time and YOU are the ORGANIZER.  So I encourage you to ask “What If?”  and then answer with another question … “Why not?”


Bob Nieske   July 12, 2012

What should I listen to?

What should I listen to?

Check out Manhattan from George Russell’s 1958 New York, NY suite.  George is one of the greatest jazz composers and his New York suite is one of my favorite pieces of his. In the introduction John Hendricks raps his poem about New York.  At the end he says he wrote the shortest poem ever about jazz, “nuttin about huggin or kissin, one word…LISTEN!”

 That’s the answer.  Listen.  Listen to everything from every angle while you’re playing.  Same thing when you’re listening to recordings or in the audience of a live performance.  You need to train yourself to listen by listening.  Listen from the inside.  Don’t be a casual observer.  Listening demands active participation.

 Take a recording you like and get comfortable.  Listen to the bass part all the way through, then listen to the horn, then listen to the drums, then the piano.  When you listen to the drums zero in on the hi hat, then the ride cymbal, then the bass drum, then the snare.  Then listen to how the bass and drums are combining.  Does one sound ahead of the other?  Are they rushing or slowing down?  How does it FEEL to you?  Comfortable or uncomfortable.  If it feels comfortable or uncomfortable go through all the instruments and see where it feels the best or the worst.  Do the same thing when you are playing live. 

 There is a very good drummer who I sometimes play with and for a long time I had trouble hearing his 4’s.  When he played his 4 bar solos I would be counting and still have trouble coming in at the right place.  I shouldn’t say the right place, I should say I had trouble coming in together.  Saying the right place implies that one of us was wrong.  I started listening to his hands and then to his feet and realized his hands were ahead of his feet!  What an ear opener!  Then I listened to where I was counting and realized I was rushing my counting compared to his feet.  I tried to relax and listen to everything as a whole and hear his phrases.  Once I started to learn his phrasing tendencies the 4’s became much easier to hear.

Where does the sound come from?

Bob Nieske June 4, 2012

Where does the sound come from?

 One day when I was rehearsing with Jimmy Giuffre (If you don’t know Jimmy you should check him out) I was tuning.  Pling pling, pluck pluck…  Jimmy interrupted asking “What are you doing?”, “I’m tuning”, “well it doesn’t sound like music”.

I thought I’d tune first and then get to the music and said as much.  Jimmy replied something like “you should never touch your instrument unless you intend to make music”.  I thought “Wow you’re so strict Jimmy! “ 

 Of course Jimmy was right.   Don’t take anything for granted musically (or otherwise for that matter).   There’s an awful lot to consider when you play, no matter what style of music.  What’s my tone like?  Am I in tune?  What kind of attack and how do I end this note?  Am I dominating, supporting or equal relative to what’s happening around me?  Where’s the time?

 Everything we encounter is a teacher and if we don’t take our instrument seriously we’re teaching ourselves that it’s ok to just pluck a couple notes mindlessly, and that can/will infiltrate our “serious” playing.

So the first place the sound comes from is your CARING what you sound like and playing attention to every note.

 Think of a sprinter at the start of a race.  She’s waiting for the starting gun.  Her feet are in the blocks.  Her hands are on the starting line.  She is poised and waiting.  The gun fires and she’s off.  What happens?  Her feet push off from the blocks, but if you think that’s all that happens you’re missing something.  That would be like thinking you only pluck the string with your finger.   It’s the finger, the forearm the elbow, the weight of the arm, all the way back to the center of your spine between your shoulder blades.  It’s how you breathe and stand.  Can you feel your feet on the ground?

Feel gravity through the bottoms of your feet on the ground, take a balanced stance and let your mind travel from the ground up through you between your shoulder blades and down your arm to your fingertips. Pluck an open D string with one or two fingers.  Don’t pull the string sideways but push it down as you pull it sideways.  Let your plucking finger come to rest (follow through) on the fingerboard and the A string simultaneously.  If you only pull sideways you get a dead sound.  If you push down while pulling sideways (especially with a stopped note) the sound is more complex and alive.  When you push down you get the string vibrating against the wood of the fingerboard, giving you that growl on the lower strings.   From time to time send your awareness to various parts of your body to look for tension.  The shoulders are a prime tension area. 

 Also be aware of how much you are moving when you play.  I see players who are moving and emoting all over the place when they play but if you close your eyes and listen the playing is lackluster.  Watch the great players and you’ll see there is very little wasted motion.  Play efficiently. 

Which fingers should I use for plucking?  I’m not sure it matters.  Very good bassists use different fingers and combinations of fingers for different attacks.

A few things to consider:  Hand angle can be determined by finger length.  If you are plucking with your first and second fingers the hand angle should be the same as the angle created by the difference in the length of the first and second fingers.  If I want a very big (not necessarily loud) sound, especially on the E string, I’ll use my first finger but not the tip, the side, from the middle joint to the tip and pressing down, not pulling across.  You’re almost plucking from the knuckle right at the halfway point of the finger.   That’s about 2 inches of finger surface on the string.  Using the tips of the first two fingers gives you about half that.  It seems to me that more surface area means more sound, although the side of the finger has hard knuckle and the finger tips are softer so that will affect the sound too. 

The great bassist Rufus Reid recommends using a volume pedal.  I agree.  Any amplified instrument needs volume control.  Guitars have knobs and vocalists use distance from the mic.   If you just plug into an amp you have to stop playing to adjust your volume.    With a pedal you have much more control and variety of choice.  You can have the amp volume up and pluck lightly for a softer more sustained sound or have more attack by having the amp volume down and louder plucking.  That can be great if you’re playing in a soft situation where you want to play aggressively.

What is Jazz Composition?

This was a mission statement that I wrote as part of an application for chair of the Jazz Comp. department at Berklee. I didn't get the job which is for the best, I think. I enjoyed writing this though.

Feb 24, 2012

What is Jazz?

Jazz swings, has syncopation, has improvisation, has a blues influence, incorporates elements of music from any culture on earth, is musically complex, is simple. Jazz has many of these things sometimes and sometimes none of them. 

What Jazz has consistently been is a music that celebrates the freedom of the individual.  The soloist, expressing the current time with what is at hand, developing an individual Sound and Concept.

What is Jazz composition?  Jazz composition is music written by Jazz musicians.

I think the idea of trying to be cutting edge is a problem because it can distract from the essential idea of Individual Expression and lead you away from yourself.  We should not try to be new but try to be unique.  It is in being uniquely yourself that you may stumble upon newness.

I think the Jazz Composition department should always have at its core the idea of being uniquely oneself while realizing that we are not purely individuals but also members of a group of individuals within a tradition.

The curriculum should include a strong emphasis on melody, harmony, orchestration, ear training and history within the Jazz traditions of small group and big band writing.   

Although I am not a fan of sequenced music I realize sequencing is a useful tool and getting better all the time.  With computers there is a danger of developing an unrealistic sense of what instruments can do.  It might be interesting to have a class where students sequence their pieces and then have them played live. 

I think Jazz Comp students should be introduced to composition ideas from the contemporary “classical” schools, maybe making something like CM 311 (Contemporary techniques in composition) required instead of an elective, possibly replacing Conducting 2 which I think is less important.   Possibly something about writing “free” music, which isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

There should be opportunities for live performance at every level of Jazz Composition study.

I think it’s imperative that we have something like a “what if?” attitude and a questioning underlying whatever we do.  “What if I try this or that?”  We have no bassist, OK lets assume Bass doesn’t exist, what do we do now? Write an arrangement of Speak Low for 7 trumpets. Pretend you’re an alien and never hear this music before.  You might ask: “how come that person is hitting a metal disc (ride cymbal)  all the way through the piece?” Does that make sense or is it just convention or habit?

When you ask questions like that you get things like Jimmy Giuffre abandoning the drum set in the 50’s and later abandoning groove all together or Ornette letting go of the changes. What if I play or write it this way? 

Maybe have Jazz Comp department T-shirts that say “What if?” on the front and “Why Not?” on the back.

© Robert Nieske 2015  email me at: