By Alan Krawitz
Flushing Town Hall’s venerable musical history is certainly not lost on its highly accomplished jazz producer, Clyde Bullard.
Bullard, a jazz musician himself who has played bass with the likes of Bill Withers, Gloria Gaynor, Ben Vereen, Tony Bennett and Eddie Murphy knows full well that Flushing Town Hall has hosted some of the finest musicians in the world.
The venue, built in 1862 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, celebrates its 150th anniversary this year and Bullard thinks it’s high time that the people of Queens know how influential their borough has been in the development of a variety of great music, with jazz in particular.
“I don’t think that most people know how many great jazz musicians have lived in Queens and have performed at Flushing Town Hall,” said Bullard, who took the reins of the venue’s jazz program in 1998.
He added that more jazz icons have lived in Queens than any other place on the planet and that is one of the reasons for development of the Queens Jazz Orchestra in 2008.
The orchestra, a 17-piece brass band, was formed to “revive the music of some of the great jazz icons who lived in Queens during their careers and also to nurture the next generation of great jazz musicians,” Bullard said.
Some of those jazz icons include Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespse, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne and Benny Goodman.
“One of the visions of Flushing Town Hall is to present world class artists, musical styles and genres that don’t get much media attention,” Bullard added.
And a group of professional musicians who have definitely flown under the media’s radar for years are historic NEA Jazz Masters. NEA Jazz Master status represents the nation’s highest honor in jazz and is bestowed upon an elite class of musicians by the National Endowment of the Arts. “It can take almost 50 to 60 years for a jazz musician to attain that status,” Bullard explained.
He added that NEA masters routinely perform at festivals around the world and lecture frequently.
Some of those masters who’ve performed at Flushing Town Hall include Jimmy Heath, Brad Weston, Jon Hendricks, Freddie Hubbard, Barry Harris, Curtis Fuller, Quincy Jones and Nat Hentoff.
In addition to being recognized as the pre-eminent destination for great jazz in Queens, the town hall has been home to African American and Caribbean music icons as well such as NEA Jazz Master and Latin music icon Eddie Palmieri, Barry Gonzalez and many Brazilian artists as well.
“Other types of music we’ve hosted by way of performances include South Asian and Indian music, folk, rock ‘n’ roll and more,” Bullard said.
Further, the venue has regularly featured classical music concerts with musicians from the Queens Philharmonic.
And in addition to hosting a series of free summer concerts as well as great jazz players such as the upcoming Dandy Wellington and his Band, Bullard said that every month the venue helps to continually nurture jazz in the borough with free jazz jams.
The jams happen every month, usually the first Wednesday, from 7pm – 10pm and are open to professional jazz musicians, graduate students studying jazz, music educators and the general public.
Calling Flushing Town Hall the “Jazz capital of Queens,” Bullard, who has toured the world himself as a jazz musician, said that in 2004 Flushing Town Hall received an honor from the Village Voice for conducting the best jazz tour in New York City.
The tour spotlighted where some of the borough’s famous jazz musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, etc. had lived and played.
“Any artist we book here at Flushing has a high degree of professionalism and stature because people that come here know their jazz and can’t be fooled,” Bullard said.
Moreover, Bullard said that the theater itself is a very professional experience for high-level artists as well since the venue features a rare Steinway Grand, known by musicians as the “Rolls Royce” of pianos.
“Flushing is a destination for jazz, world and classical music,” Bullard said. “In many ways, I have the best of both worlds here as a musician and an administrator who can ensure this history moves forward.”