Photos, Artwork and Text by Lawrence White
The first thing I notice about Susan Brink is the soft, warm tone of her voice and her deliberate manner of speaking. It is as if she pre-edits the superfluous, self-enhancing embellishments that a lot of people hide behind instead of focusing on the actual point. It is refreshing to experience.
This same trait is on display in everyone she speaks to. For instance, during our short photo-session, Susan had the opportunity to exchange comments with a middle-aged, white building worker, and a very young, hip African American girl who was posing for selfie photos. There was virtually no dip or drop out in either conversation. She also had an encouraging nod for the two guitar musicians who were rehearsing in the parking area by her studio, which they gratefully acknowledged.
That connection occurs in her communication with the established musicians and developing personalities Susan meets in the world of jazz. Her deep well of knowledge and authentic respect for jazz leads to interesting insights and perspectives that are effectively displayed in her writing and speaking about jazz through the many publications that have published her work and through her radio show “Jazz Sanctuary” on 105.3FM WOOC. Deservedly, this lead Susan to receive the Jazz Hero Award for the Capital Region for 2020 by the Jazz Journalist Association.
Susan has been living in a world of music since she was a child in Northern New Jersey. Her cousin, Sam Marowitz, played alto saxophone with Gene Krupa, Loue Armstrong, Betty Carter, Errol Gardner, Buddy Rich, and appeared on literally hundreds of recordings. Another cousin Sue Allen was a vocalist with Sinatra, Betty Carter, Harry Belefonte, Nat King Cole, The Pied Pipers with Mel Torme. Her grandfather, Harry Weiss was a pianist who lived in Schenectady and his first cousin was Sid Weiss who played bass with Sinatra and others. One time when Sinatra was on the road they stopped by her Grandmother’s house for a big dinner.
When Susan was very young and visiting her Grandparent’s home she asked where the note “A” was on the piano keyboard, thinking that is where the scales started. When she was told where it was, she took a knife from the kitchen and carved the letter A into the piano key so she would always know where it was. Her Grandfather did not become angry but pointed out that the scales stared at Middle C and later shipped the piano to her home as a surprise. This formed the beginning of a lifelong love of music and the culture that surrounds it.
After studying broadcasting in Boston, Susan had a calling to be a midwife and went to nursing school. “I was looking for something more real” is how she put it. Shortly thereafter Susan experienced a bad automobile accident that required a great deal of recovery and therapy. During this period, she helped out the many musicians she knew with the typical jobs of mailing lists, working the door at gigs, and putting up posters, etc.
She soon became part of the volunteer artist-activist group Ladida and help create open stages and open microphones at unique venues in New Jersey. Susan recalls, “For instance, we took over the Hoboken waterfront, with permission, and built six stages. It was before gentrification and it was a mess, but it functioned well on a creative level. Film, fine arts, poetry, two music stages all of the disciplines were represented.”
“We also discovered a rundown place in Montclair where there was nothing happening downtown at night. We opened up an open stage and microphone in the basement at night and what do you know? The next thing the pizzeria opened, a Mexican restaurant came next, and suddenly the whole neighborhood blossomed and we became another example of the arts saving a struggling city.”
Lake George Jazz Festival
In explaining her transition to the jazz scene in Capital Region Susan says, “I was living in Queensbury and walking my dog in Sri Chinmoy Peace Mile at Cole’s Woods and I noticed a man on the trail wearing a Spirit of Life Ensemble tee shirt. I commented on the shirt as we passed and that is how I met poet and jazz impresario, Paul Pines.”
“Paul told me he was the curator and organizer of an annual musical event which turned out to be the Lake George Jazz Festival. Up until then I promoted a few jazz series in the area and was working with musicians and opening rooms to become places for jazz. I was also booking gigs at Borders and Barnes and Nobel, so it was great to be given the opportunity to work with Paul on the festival from 2002 through 2010. After that, I met Steve Pierce who is Executive Director of the Center for Independent Media and we worked together to create shows there. That has been a lot of fun.”
“Then, while at SPAC during the Freihofer's Jazz Festival I wandered to the gazebo and an amazing band was playing that turned out to be Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence. When they finished playing, I told them I had to get them up here, and Steve was very generous in providing a home where I could book musicians like this. It has been an informal thing with Steve and the Sanctuary ever since.”
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Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence, SPAC 2014
When I ask Susan how this is all connected to her radio show, she tells me, “Steve wanted to create programming and find hosts for a radio station they were planning to launch. He asked me if creating a show was something I would want to do, and after a few years, I finally decided to try. I worked on getting musicians to come on the air with me, and I talked to people in the industry to get some support in building a library of legacy artists and new releases. Tim Coakley, Danny Melnick, and Lydia Liebman were very helpful in that effort.”
Susan goes on, “My attitude has always been that there are many rooms in the house of jazz and there needs to be a place for all of it. You can’t narrow it down. There is a hundred years of this music and I wanted to hear it all played. I did not want to see it get siloed and neither did Steve. Every show you are going to hear from all of the various stylings through the years, plus, you are going to hear a lot of new music because we support living artists. In fact, Jazz Week, who has been publishing weekly jazz radio airplay charts since 2001, nominated WOOC as Jazz Station of the Year with programming under 40 hours.”
Freihofer's Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Are Center
I ask Susan her feeling about the health of the jazz scene today she responds, “I never felt that jazz was dead. Just the opposite. The jazz scene is vibrant. Jazz is being taught in colleges and universities and there more and more clubs. Café Lena has jazz nights. A couple of years ago Café Lena started a jazz residency at the club. Chuck Lamb leads a local trio with a guest artist and the place is packed. When Vic Juris played there it was standing room only.”
Susan continues, “Then there is the Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute at the end of June through July, so they are here during the Jazz Festival. It is now open to the public and the cost is only $8 to see world-class musicians playing in an exquisite setting.”
In closing our interview, I ask Susan to explain her feelings about the culture of jazz. She responds, “Some people have this conception that you have to be a junkie, or you have to be cooler than who you really are to enjoy jazz. I always tell people, get rid of that. It’s music. Take it seriously but don’t be so serious. Do you feel it? Do you like it? Does it make you smile? Is your foot tapping? Are you digging it? Are you closing your eyes and saying, yeah? It either moves you or it doesn’t. If you don’t like one kind of jazz, wait for another tune or two on my radio show and maybe you will like this other subgenre I will be playing. I don’t care if you call it Black American Music or BAM, or creatively improvised music, spontaneous composition or you can call it jazz. To my ears, it's all good."
©Lawrence White 6/1/2020