Jazz in San Francisco: Danny Grewen

To celebrate this month’s music issue, we’re posting a piece written by Joseph Bien-Kahn on San Francisco Jazz trombonist, Danny Grewen.

Even dressed up, Danny Grewen is a little disheveled—in a pinstriped suit, a polyester button-down with the collar open, and a fedora he’s still all herks and jerks. Grewen is lugging around a taped-up trombone and a messenger bag open and overflowing with tape recorders, loose wires, and microphones when I interview him. He has a head of curly black hair and boyish good looks that clearly serve him well. But the thing that strikes you most about Grewen are his hands—they are strong and calloused and cracked; the hands of a blue-collared worker. The stereotype of the coddled artist continues to persist, but in today’s San Francisco, if you want to play jazz and pay rent, you have to work.

I met Grewen at Trouble Coffee in the Outer Sunset. Every once in a while he’d say something too sharp and a little too dark when talking about the city, and then burst out into untended laughter. He talks the way he moves, quick spurts with long breaths, a mischievous grin peeking out of his stubbly jaw. He kept his bag over his shoulder and recorded the interview on an ancient tape recorder he’d found at the corner of 45th and Kirkham for his own records. Grewen’s well loved in the neighborhood—at the coffee shop and later at the Flanahan’s Pub a few blocks down, everybody knew his name. But because of a jump in rent, he’ll soon be forced to move.

It hardly needs restating that San Francisco’s rents are rising at an alarming rate. According to a November 2013 article in the New York Times, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is a staggering $3,250, the highest price in the nation. Only 14 percent of homes are accessible to middle-class buyers.

The city is changing which is what cities do. But it means it’s becoming harder and harder to be a musician in San Francisco, especially a jazz trombonist. It’s nearly impossible for Grewen—who grew up in the Richmond, San Francisco’s sleepy northwestern district by the beach, with his mom (also a musician), and attended the School of the Arts—to stay. Now he’s crashing on couches, looking for something affordable in the most expensive renters’ market in the nation.

He left the city once, briefly, to play jazz on cruise ships—“Well, that’s not really jazz is it?”—but has spent the last fifteen years gigging around San Francisco. It’s been a long time since music was lucrative here, but Grewen has made a fine living playing jazz trombone. But now, at 36, his steady gigs are disappearing. He says the jazz scene was “happening” in the late 90s, right when he came back to the city: “Bruno’s was a great club. It’s still there, but if you remember what it was like, it was a beautiful place. There was even two bands going in one night—one in one room and then that one would stop and the band would start in the other room.” Bruno’s no longer hosts jazz performances, according to its website: “Every week, we present a brilliant line up of entertainment featuring a collection of the Bay Area’s finest DJ’s spinning an eclectic mix of party jams and dance music.” If you want to run a club in San Francisco, hip-hop and house music are the way to go. Jazz just doesn’t fill a room in today’s city music scene. Grewen says he doesn’t want people to go see jazz because it’s something they ought to do—he wishes people would get excited about it again. He doesn’t think it should feel “like your supporting a relative that’s down on their luck or something; it’s fun music.”

Grewen told me he’s seen a lot of San Francisco’s jazz musicians move away—some to the East Bay and many to New Orleans. The problem is, when a city becomes too expensive for musicians, it changes its character. The success of eccentrics like Grewen was one of things that gave San Francisco its flavor. “You want to try to hold onto the things that made great cities great,” Randall Kline, the founder and executive artistic director of SFJazz, explained. “What was great about this city, San Francisco, was this whole creative class—people who lived here who were not just musicians, there were tons of artists, actors, it was just a vibrant scene. Now there’s a lot less of that per capita then there was.”

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The following is an excerpt from S.D. Chrostowska’s novel, Permission, which was recently published by Dalkey Archive. 

Composing a work boils down to creating favorable and even extreme conditions for the emergence of an idea and the precipitation of that idea. Real physical and physiological conditions for tapping into one’s inspiration or, indeed, the lack thereof. All day yesterday I carried in my head the intention to write, but could not find the right conditions for it. I could not even tell if I was under the influence of inspiration. Fed up, around four o’clock, I made my way to the Centre for the History of the Book, where for the next few hours I waited and then listened to a public talk by a world-famous scholar professing to break the pattern of euphoria and depression about the future of the book. He promised to make a “sober,” “philosophical” intervention into this “bipolar prophesying” prevalent in academic circles, but achieved little more than an inventory of existing ideas—without pushing the question of the future of the book far enough to really “make a difference.” In his closing statement, he paraphrased Wilhelm von Humboldt—the university is the only institutional place where the different tonalities of the different enthusiasms of different generations can inspire each other—which later sent me in search of Humboldt’s memorandum of 1810. The lecture ended, a poor man’s reception commenced in a darkling room, whose only appointment, besides a table and rows of empty shelving, was a maquette of the building we stood in (appendaged to the main library), and within a quarter of an hour the last of the lecture’s attendees had dispersed. I, too, promptly left the place, which with each passing minute became physically more oppressive, as I imagined the scale model containing this same room with another miniature of itself, and so on into infinity. I headed over to the book stacks to escape this boxed-in feeling, which bodes poorly for inspiration, to browse through some of the titles mentioned during the lecture. Strange, I reflected on the tram ride back, how much I worked to get inside the university, putatively erected in the Romantic vein—upon freedom and isolation—and where the entire world unrolled itself like a map, as it must to birds in flight. Now—after years of opening doors and closing them quietly behind me—I am left with the abstract sensation of standing inside one of those Chinese boxes, which as you know contain only smaller and smaller versions of themselves. On getting home, I dipped into Humboldt’s writings and found it inspiring fare.

There is a fuller and more immediate effectiveness of a great spirit than that possible through his works. These show only a part of his being. The entirety flows pure and wholly through his living personal self…. Written works—literatures—then take it mummified, as it were, over those gaps which the living effectiveness can no longer leap…. However great certain thoughts and works might be, it is hard to bear when the human being seems to disappear in them, when the truth of feeling is sacrificed to the artistic product, when the person yields himself completely to his work with an egotism that can’t be gainsaid.

I woke up the next morning just as the Good Friday pageant began drawing small knots of people outside my house. Year in year out, I have been the involuntary spectator of this fervent re-enactment of the passion, crucifixion and entombment of Christ, which glides just past my window and is entirely framed by it like a moving picture. I always soak up the drama in spite of myself and, exactly like last year, stood inside looking out and hearing the frills of fanfare, the plaintive song of old women clad in raven-black, the intermittent barking of Roman soldiers as they flogged the Son of God down this narrow street. As the parade wound its way around the bend, I caught the last glimpse of a life-size effigy of the Messiah lying in state on a catafalque, which inexplicably was my cue to resume this note.

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5x5: Brian Evenson

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 Illustrations by Josephine Demme

In this series five different writers talk to one writer about five (or more) of his different books. In this second interview, Brian Conn talks to Brian Evenson about ImmobilityRead the first interview with Colin Winnette, the second with Matt Bell.

Brian Conn in Conversation with Brian Evenson

I was kicked out of a reading room at the Providence Public Library while rereading Brian Evenson’s Immobility. I had been there for several hours when an oily man in a crooked tie approached me. This room is for students and people with laptops, he said, looking away. Not for casual reading.

Well, the rules are the rules. But as I walked out of the library I wondered whether the oily man’s accusation of “casual reading” was justified. Is Immobility casual reading? I still do not have an answer to this question. Immobility is a science fiction novel featuring scenes of graphic violence, a description that suggests the kind of novel that might be read casually. But it is also a novel about not knowing who or what you are; and that theme is not developed casually, but is instead integrated so thoroughly that by the time you reach the end you are likely to have forgotten forever what you once meant by the word human.

That is not among the usual effects of casual reading.

There’s a deadpan humor in some of Evenson’s writing. The scene in Immobility in which one of Horkai’s keepers holds him down while the other prepares the bone saw is a strangely funny scene. It’s a scene that elevates your heart rate and your breathing rate and maybe it just seems funny because you don’t know what else to do with that excitement.

Maybe that’s nervous laughter. After all it is a bone saw. It cannot be serious. It is apparently serious. Evenson offers us no help in understanding whether he is serious or not, whether or not this is a casual book. His language (the substrate of narrative) tells us that we do not know what language is, that language does not know what language is, that we are all blind.

Since so many of the usual categories break down when applied to Evenson’s work, for this interview we had recourse to magic. I spoke to him in his office at Brown University.

—Brian Conn

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I. THE THREE OF CUPS

BRIAN CONN: I brought tarot cards. I had this idea that we should use them to talk about Immobility. I don’t know if you spend much time with tarot cards.

BRIAN EVENSON: A little.

BC: I’ve spent a lot of time with the major arcana. Let’s take those out and only use the minor arcana, so you and I will have equal knowledge. I’ve also brought Arthur Edward Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot. We could take three cards, one after the other. The first we could use to talk about Immobility. With the second we could focus more on you and your habits as a writer. And the third—I think you said once that this book might be part of a longer series, that there’s a larger world here?

BE: Right.

BC: So maybe the third card we could use to talk about that stuff. I don’t have a particular ceremony. Should we just look at the top card?

BE: Sure. It’s the three of cups.

BC: The three of cups. Maybe we should look at it before we consult Arthur Waite. What do you think is there?

BE: Well, there are three cups. Everyone is raising a cup, so there’s a kind of festive or joyous mood. The number three is obviously important in the three of cups, but also in my work, I think.

BC: In Immobility particularly?

BE: Well, in Immobility there are three people who are traveling, but there’s a duo within the trio. It’s a triple that isn’t ever completely triple.

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Dear Beloved Believer Reader:

We are writing to you with an announcement of a brand new Believer endeavor! This September, classified advertisements are making a return to the printed page, where they can enjoy a long, healthy, semi-permanent existence on acid-free recycled paper. If you have a message to convey to the world (including but not limited to limericks, love letters, song lyrics, marriage proposals, and under-appreciated tweets) but hadn’t heretofore found a medium worthy of your words, consider this your moment: the Believer is introducing a “Classifieds” section at the inarguably reasonable cost of $1 per word. Ads can be placed by visiting believermag.com/classifieds, calling (415) 642-5609, or emailing customer@believermag.com (use “classified submission” in the subject line). All submissions subject to editorial approval and nit-picking.

There’s more! As a whimsical, celebratory mid-morning twist, we’re awarding anyone who purchases a subscription the chance to claim some of this space gratis. All you have to do is subscribe or renew (or buy a gift subscription) TODAY between the hours of 10 am—1 pm PST and we will reward you with 25 words of ad space in a forthcoming issue. Forward your time-stamped order confirmation and your ad to customer@believermag.com to claim your space.