Stephen Burke

Ithaca Notes

In 1993, I moved to Ithaca from New Orleans, and although I was enthusiastic about the ease and simplicity of small town living, I was somewhat concerned about the differing amounts (that is, the possible paucity here) of things to do in terms of entertainment, particularly live music.

For aficionados, New Orleans is as much a music scene that has a city as a city that has a music scene.

Ironically, upon arrival here I got involved with a fledgling music event called the GrassRoots Festival, which aimed in part to create, or at least solidify or define, a music scene for this region.

GrassRoots took some inspiration from the Crescent City and bayou country by importing musicians from there. Louisiana headliners the first few years included the ReBirth Brass Band, jazz singer Charmaine Neville, and Cajun musicians Balfa Toujours, Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys, and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. The Preston Frank Zydeco Family Band played the first GrassRoots, and each one since.

Sometimes the mountain comes to you (low-lying Louisiana is at least a musical mountain, in metaphor), but most times you have to go to it, and spend time, if you really want to scale it.

Zack Knewstub is a pianist from Ithaca who relocated to make that effort. Five years ago, at age 24, he moved to New Orleans to become a professional musician by means of complete engagement.

I spoke with Knewstub after a gig of his here on a holiday visit home, and asked him about cities as music scenes.

Knewstub cited certain similarities between Ithaca and New Orleans, saying both places have a lot of musicians, avid audiences, and respect for musical tradition.

In Ithaca the foremost tradition is “old-timey,” as it is commonly known: countrified folk music, stemming mainly from the Appalachians, played on string instruments.

In New Orleans the tradition is jazz, although Knewstub noted that some musicians consider the word limiting and practically pejorative. (Among them is New Orleans luminary and favorite of Knewstub’s, trumpeter and pianist Nicholas Payton, who instead uses the various terms Traditional, Modern, Avant-garde, Neoclassical, and Post-modern New Orleans Music.)

“New Orleans is really a musical melting pot,” Knewstub said. “You have to know a lot of styles to play there.”

At the same time, Knewstub said, there are fundamentals. “Slow blues is a requirement,” Knewstub said. It was not a forte of his, but he developed it in semi-private (not by design) at the first gigs he could get, at the foot of the ladder, in clubs and bars from 3 - 6 a.m.

Knewstub has climbed the ladder to where he now plays more civilized hours, and has work “every night.”

Opportunities to gig are a major difference between New Orleans and Ithaca (and perhaps between New Orleans and anywhere). But Knewstub also cited in New Orleans a “genuine interest” in music that is practically a civic ethos, with “respect and appreciation” for musicians.

“But it has to be earned, “ Knewstub said, harking back to those 3 a.m. gigs (among others) where “if they don’t like what you’re playing, they’ll let you know.”

Knewstub cited the importance of mentors to any music scene, and mentioned Ithaca’s colleges as potential sources of mentors for musicians who want not just to study, but to gig. He said he has wondered why music teachers don’t take more opportunities to play (and create) more frequent gigs in town.

With particular affection and regard, Knewstub spoke of a (non-academic) mentor of his in Ithaca, the late Bernie Upson, a bassist who played regularly (often with Knewstub on keyboards) at Maxie’s Supper Club, the (now-defunct) Felicia’s Cafe, and other venues.

Knewstub said Upson’s work ethic helped create and maintain chances to play, work, listen, and learn in a town where such opportunities, in his words, “are not limitless.” (He laughed when I suggested this is a polite way to say “pretty limited.”)

Knewstub showed his own dedication to maintaining scenes by playing out while on vacation here. Maybe he will be back for GrassRoots: July is a lot more temperate in Ithaca than New Orleans (New Orleans holds its epic Jazz and Heritage Festival in early spring). Presently for Knewstub, Mardi Gras calls, along with all that regular work.

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