The Project

More about the WKCR Soundscape project

In brief

Soundscape was a New York performance venue founded and curated by Verna Gillis. Between 1979 and 1983, Soundscape offered specialized programming of Latin Jazz, Afro-Cuban music, avant-garde improvised music, and “world music” performers from many nations. Many Soundscape shows were recorded and the library of recordings has been donated by Gillis to the WKCR permanent archives, for broadcast on air and to be made available on the web.

Soundscape online

Visitors to the WKCR website can now explore the Soundscape archives. Click “The Sounds” to hear recordings; Click “The Scenes” to view photographs of Soundscape performances. Both of these areas, and also a discographical-style performance history will be expanding from their present embryonic state across the next months and years, as new data comes in. Check back in for the latest developments!

The Story of Soundscape

In 1979, Verna Gillis opened Soundscape for public performances at 500 West 52 Street (corner of 10th Avenue), and it operated continuously into 1983. Soundscape officially launched its music programming in the fall of 1979, starting at the top of the Free jazz and improvised music spectrum with Derek Bailey and Sun Ra. For most of the first year, improvisers in the avant-garde constituted most of the presentations there—scores of New York-based players including David S. Ware, James “Blood” Ulmer, Oliver Lake, and Milford Graves performed. Musicians from Europe—Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, and Hans Reichel— made their New York debuts. In the period after most of the Jazz lofts of the 1970s had closed, Soundscape was an essential presentation point for the diaspora of free Jazz players at home (Marion Brown, Robin Kenyatta) and expatriates returning to the US—Steve Lacy, Sunny Murray, Frank Wright.

In 1980, Tuesday nights were established as the regular weekly jam night for Afro-Latin musicians. Many, like Andy and Jerry Gonzalez, Hilton Ruiz, had deep New York roots, others had arrived from Cuba only recently: Paquito D’Rivera, Orlando “Puntilla” Rios, Jorge Dalto, and the powerhouse conguero Daniel Ponce. Strong positive support from music journalist Robert Palmer, and radio exposure on WBAI and WKCR helped to boost Soundscape programming into strong second and third years. By 1983 Gillis’ focus was shifting to concert presentations and the regular Soundscape schedule was dismantled.

The tangible Soundscape legacy in the 21st century includes at least the 300 hours of music audio-recorded at the club, dozens more hours retained by musicians who performed there, a small number of video-recorded performances, and hundreds of still photos of the shows. Most of these will be made available online as we continue to assemble the WKCR Soundscape archive.

You and Soundscape

The foremost goal of WKCR’s Soundscape project is to expose these powerful sounds. Along the way reconstruct the step-by-step history of a significant and broad-minded music program, using the tools of archival and discographical research. Part of that history is told through the “official” channels of the organization’s record-keeping, and part will become clear only from the memories and documentation of those who played at the venue or attended as audience members. As the Soundscape project moves forward, you’ll see the puzzle become more and more complete.

And you can be part of the completing of it: The WKCR Soundscape page on Facebook is the best place to weigh in with your observations, recollections, memorabilia, or questions, and to get the fastest updates on late-breaking news about Soundscape on air and on our live stream.

Soundscape on WKCR

Many 1980–82 sets from Soundscape were broadcast on WKCR in their own time but with a delay—played back on tape during the “Monday Live” editions of Jazz Alternatives days after the performances took place. These recordings, remastered from the original tapes, have never sounded better than they will during the September 2010 radio series on air.

You’ll be able to hear additional sets never before on radio, and the Soundscape sets that were never commercially released on LP or CD. WKCR’s on-air presentations will reintroduce these performances in context of their time, alongside contemporaneous works by the same musicians, and, in many cases, spoken annotations by the musicians themselves, reflecting from the distance of 30 years.

See the schedule here:

Other “Soundscape”s

The word “soundscape” was originally a concept central to Murray Schaefer’s work, The Tuning of the World….Soundscape became the brand name and heading for the music production activities of Verna Gillis. In the 1970s it meant her WBAI radio show, Soundscape, “Music from Everywhere.” Since the early 80s, the word has been the umbrella for concert presentations around New York and around the globe, and her management of Youssou N’Dour, Roswell Rudd, and a host of others for longer or shorter periods. [Yomo Toro, Los Lobos, ] Soundscape was also the name of a West 52d Street performance space that Gillis curated. (See above)

About Verna Gillis

Verna Gillis (b. 1942) has been a force in music presentation in New York and the world for most of four decades. In the decade after college she would realize that her “real talent was working with musicians, but not being a musician.”
She and her husband, sculptor Bradford Graves, were devoted world-travelers and keen listeners, studying both the traditional musics of the world and virtuoso performers within world music and the Jazz avant garde. “Brad was the one who, when we went to a concert at Hunter College, said, ‘Look at that notice for an M.A. in ethnomusicology; you should do that…’ And he was right.” This study led to Gillis to teach her own courses in ethnomusicology. Her 1970s field recordings in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Ghana, Suriname, Peru, and the United States, with more than 25 documented releases on Smithsonian Folkways and Lyrichcord Records.

Gillis began the Saturday afternoon radio program Soundscape: Music from Everywhere in 1972. She shortly began presenting concerts in the WBAI Free Music Store series, and became caught up in the musical worlds of Don Cherry and Milford Graves. Coming out of the experience of producing concerts at the Soundscape venue, her musical world as a producer went as global as her listening pattern: She managed Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour to the high point of his career in the mid-Eighties, and produced landmark New York concert events featuring Celia Cruz, the “downtown” school of jazz artists, and the first concert of hip-hop.

It was also Verna Gillis who brought King Sunny Ade to Roseland In 1983 it was also Verna Gillis who brought King Sunny Ade to the Savoy and then Roseland (it was the first African Pop to be presented in NYC; Robert Palmer in the Times called it “the pop event of the decade!”), and Don Cherry to record in Mammoth Cave. She nearly pulled off the million-dollar notion of staging Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America” on the deck of the USS Intrepid, and celebrated Thelonious Monk’s music in the Interpretations of Monk concert during the last year of Monk’s life, with performances by his colleagues and disciples. These and other factors from Gillis’s career relating to the Soundscape experience will figure into the stories told during our investigation.

Read more about Verna Gillis here:

Check out the Soundscape Sounds

Check out the Soundscape Scenes