By Steven P. Marsh
Ron Wasserman fell in love with the seductive syncopations and improvisations of jazz as a young musician, but the relationship faded and he abandoned tiny, smoky jazz clubs in favor of the New York State Theater in 1988, when he landed a permanent job playing double bass in the New York City Ballet Orchestra.
Nearly three decades later, sparks are flying again between the 54-year-old musician and his youthful obsession: He started a 17-piece big band, the New York Jazzharmonic, last year, and is presenting its next concert, featuring famed violinist Lara St. John and tango artist J.P. Jofre, this Sunday at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia in Manhattan.
“I trained to be a jazz musician and a classical musician, and at one point I guess I couldn’t do both at the same high level I wanted to,” the slender, gray-haired Wasserman says, sitting amid piles of scores and other papers in the music room of his trim lakeside cottage in northern New City. So he gave up jazz and settled into a career with the ballet.
The ballet job is prestigious but seasonal, so Wasserman had plenty of time for freelance gigs. “A few years ago, I started realizing that I didn’t enjoy doing the freelance jobs anymore, and I was pretty happy playing just the ballet,” he says. “I could pay my bills with the ballet. I decided to do more stuff that interested me … I got into a tango band.”
That was Jofre’s Hard Tango Chamber Band, a band specializing in the sexy, highly stylized dance music of South America that took the world by storm in the early 20th century.
Jofre, an Argentina-born bandoneon player, is two decades younger than Wasserman. He presents a stylish image, favoring clothing in a palette of black and white with turned-up shirt collars, and setting off his short, dark, curly hair and facial stubble with distinctive, white-framed eyeglasses. That’s a sharp contrast to Wasserman’s taste for comfortable casual attire when he’s not in a tuxedo or suit for a performance.
The pair met three or four years ago, when Wasserman hired Jofre to play bandoneon, tango’s essential instrument, in an NYCB performance of a ballet using tango master Astor Piazzolla’s work.While working together on the ballet, Jofre asked Wasserman a life-changing question. “He said, ‘Hey, I have a gig with my band. Do you want to play in my band?’ I’m like, ‘Sure, what do you do? Do you do Piazzolla arrangements?’ And he said, ‘No, I do my own stuff.’”
Wasserman was intrigued. “I said ‘OK.’ And I got to the rehearsal and I was like, Wow, what is this? This is unbelievable. He’s really world class as a composer. He’s one of the most talented young people I’ve met.”
Jofre is quick to return the compliment, calling New York Jazzharmonic an “incredible big band,” and Wasserman “one of the most generous persons I know.”
Playing in Jofre’s band was liberating for Wasserman. His rediscovered passion for jazz blossomed and inspired him to focus on composing, which resulted in “The Four Seasons of New York Jazz,” his “behemoth for jazz big band.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be a 90-minute piece,” the irrepressible Wasserman says of the composition, modeled on Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” a still-popular 18th century violin concerto cycle that typically clocks in under 45 minutes. “It was supposed to be a 20-minute piece, and it got away from me.”
Realizing that it would be hard to find an existing ensemble to play such a larger-than-life masterwork, Wasserman decided to stage it himself. “Then it occurred to me that if I was going to go to all the trouble of getting a band together, rehearsing them, booking a performance space, I wanted it to have more of a life than just this one performance.”
With that goal in mind, Wasserman put together the New York Jazzharmonic last year, road testing the band in front of an audience of 2,000 at Manhattan’s Washington Square Music Festival in July. “I was the king of jazz for one night” he says of that concert.
He finally unveiled his masterwork in November, in the first installment of his band’s concert series.
St. John, who’s also featured on Sunday’s bill, discovered the JazzWharmonic at its debut. “I first heard the Jazzharmonic last summer on a fabulously warm evening in Washington Square Park — there were thousands of people there, all of them enjoying themselves,” she says, adding that the show left the crowd feeling “transported back into an earlier New York City era, in the manner of a Woody Allen film.”
With the end of the first season in sight, Wasserman is eager to build on the Jazzharmonic’s initial success. His big plans include moving the concert series into the larger theater at Symphony Space, presenting a major, never-before-performed piece by Fred Hellerman of The Weavers, and creating an ambitious new jazz ballet.
To keep the momentum going, Wasserman knows some things will have to change. “I can’t financially support it myself for more than two years,” he explains. He’s already thinking about the need to focus more on fundraising for the group, which is incorporated at a nonprofit.
“I think what we’re doing is unique. There’s plenty of large jazz ensembles, but none of them have a concert series that brings classical name people as their soloists and commissions a concert for them to play,” he concludes.
The show is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sunday, March 27, at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia in Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway, Manhattan. Tickets are $25, $10 for students and children. GO HERE TO BUY TICKETS ONLINE.
What’s next for New York Jazzharmonic
The New York Jazzharmonic performs all the shows in its concert series at Symphony Space in Manhattan, concluding May 15, with a program slated to feature a suite of new works inspired by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s classic album “A Love Supreme.”
The big band plays in the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater there. Check them out for free at Washington Square Music Festival, featuring the holiday-themed world premiere of Fred Hellerman’s “Fourths of July.” Smaller subsets of the main group — the weeHarmonic trio and the miniMonic quartet — do shorter shows in the theater’s lobby bar. Wasserman also is in talks for a show Rockland County later this spring.
There’s an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign underway to pay the 88-year-old Hellerman an honorarium and to help cover the costs of reorchestrating his orchestral piece for big band.