As a wholly American art form, jazz has had a hard time gaining a foothold on Long Island. So much so that you can count the places on one hand that give fans a chance to enjoy the genre in a live music setting. Which makes the creation of The Jazz Loft such a crucial and necessary occurrence.
Located in Stony Brook, The Jazz Loft recently celebrated its second anniversary this May. Built on the site of what had been The Suffolk Museum and The Garden Exchange, this nonprofit exists where jazz can be performed, preserved and learned about. Tom Manuel is the president and founder of The Jazz Loft. For him, the existence of an entity like this is crucial for ensuring that people from all walks of life have access to what he considers one of our country’s greatest cultural resources.
“Before we started, we said if it was going to exist, it was going to have to to meet needs in the community. So we created music programming for individuals with special needs—autism or different things. We have this wonderful programming where we offer sensory-friendly concerts and workshops for special needs kids. We paired up with the Nassau Suffolk Autism Society and whenever we do these events, they are absolutely sold out almost immediately,” he explained. “The other big thing to me are our educational components. Today was day four of the jazz camp that we’re doing. We’re exposing kids to this music for the first time. They’re learning about America’s gift to the world and in a lot of cases, they’ve never heard it before.”
A trumpet player since first picking the instrument up in fourth grade, Manuel knew that he was going to make music his life by the time he was graduating from high school. The 30-something educator wound up getting an undergraduate degree at Boston University, a Master’s degree at Five Towns College and a doctorate at Stony Brook University. Along the way, he became an educator and after a 15-year stint in the public school system (Islip and Three Village), he changed gears and has held a faculty position with the Stony Brook University Young Artist Program directing their jazz program. His love of jazz found him often keeping company with significantly older jazz musicians (“I was basically an 18-year-old kid hanging out with guys in their 80s”), soaking up their stories and gaining not only their trust, but their friendship.
He ascended to the unofficial position of being a jazz steward and wound up with a 10,000-plus piece collection of musical memorabilia that includes sheet music, instruments, photos and artwork. Among the items now on display at The Jazz Loft are the archives of late jazz/R&B great Arthur Prysock, Jr., record masters from Ella Fitzgerald and Hoagy Carmichael and a three-tier bandstand constructed from remnants of Manhattan’s storied Roseland Ballroom on 52nd Street, which was razed in 2015.
Interestingly enough, Manuel wasn’t looking to do anything with his collection until an article written about it caught the attention of Ward Melville Heritage Organization President Gloria Rocchio, who told him about a building her organization owned that she could offer up depending on Manuel’s pitch.
“I got together with [jazz trombonist Ray Anderson, who is a] friend of mine and director of jazz studies at Stony Brook. We made this whole pitch to the board of this grand dream of this place that we all wish existed and it never did. It would have this huge performance space, all the equipment you needed, educational programs and a museum. We said we had no money whatsoever and left laughing,” Manuel recalled. “They probably thought we were nuts. And then the phone call came and [Gloria] said that while they had a lot of people that had far more resources than us, [the board] kept coming back to the proposal. They thought it was so passionate that they thought they had a solution, which was to sign us to a 49-year lease for a dollar a year. So we did a year of fundraising and a year of renovating the building, which was falling apart and we opened up a year to the day.”
One of the by-products of The Jazz Loft is the Harbor Jazz Festival, a five-day event that featured performances by pianist Bill Charlap, guitarist Frank Vignola, vocalist/bassist Nicki Parrott, tenor saxophonist Houston Person, drummer Matt Wilson and vibraphonist Warren Chiasson. Having passed its third year of existence, the festival has showcased a number of other famous names including vocalist Freddy Cole, vibe player Harry Sheppard and Paul Simon bassist Bakithi Kumalo. As a jazz surrogate, Manuel is proud of the programs The Jazz Loft offers the community and is very pro hands-on regarding the relationship between visitors and his entity, which is ostensibly a museum.
“I don’t mean to sound corny and like a Hallmark card, but it’s an honor to do [oversee The Jazz Loft]. When people come here, we have a lot of stuff that’s not locked up or under glass or roped off. Sometimes people will comment and ask whether I worry about this stuff,” he said “I always say that all the people that I got this from—the first thing they would say is to let someone play their instrument and not to lock it up or put it under glass. Take care of the music and maybe make copies first, but let people use it. They would be the first ones to say to get it out of the file cabinet or out of the case and to let a kid play it.”
Visit www.thejazzloft.org to find out more information about The Jazz Loft.