Listen Up. Free, Top-Notch Jazz Hidden Away on Tribeca's White Street

Joy F. Brown sings at The Hang on March 8, with Dan Weisselberg on bass and Ilya Lushtak, guitar. James Polsky is at the drums. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Mar. 13, 2019

This may truly be Tribeca’s best kept secret.

Free for the listening, top-flight jazz musicians gather for two-hour jam sessions most Friday evenings at Church Street School for Music and Art. It’s called The Hang and it’s all thanks to a Tribeca resident and self-described “ok” drummer, James Polsky. By day the principal owner of a wine storage and retail company, Polsky is devoted to supporting jazz artists, and exposing new audiences to their music.

“I’m all about keeping the music alive,” said Polsky, 54, founder of the non-profit organization, Keyed Up!, which subsidizes gigs for musicians at close to two dozen venues in the metropolitan area. By his account, Keyed Up! has paid musicians some $1 million, matched by the venues where they perform.

A two-minute sampler from The Hang, performed March 8 at Church Street School for Music and Art. Joy F. Brown, vocals; Paul Sagawa and Dr John Satchmo Mannan, soprano sax; Ilya Lushtak and David O'Rourke, guitar; Dan Weisselberg, bass; James Polsky, drums. 

The organization rents a room at the Church Street School where a small but appreciative audience sits around six paint-splattered tables covered by white table cloths. The lights, turned down low for the evening, bathe the room in a purplish hue. But otherwise there are no clubby pretensions here, just great jazz, with a healthy portion of standards and ballads from the 1950s and 60s.

“So you’ve got this thing in the middle of Tribeca,” Polsky said, “and it’s a really nice vibe." But, he admits he could do a considerably better job of letting the public know about it. “I’ve heard this thing called social media is eventually going to take off,” he joked.

Polsky invites a rotating roster of working musicians who happen to be available that night. And he knows many, having founded the Jazz Standard club on East 27th Street in the 90s, and being around jazz much of his life. But about two years ago he made a special discovery. Her name is Joy F. Brown and she is The Hang’s featured singer.

“I recognized that she had something unusual,” Polsky recalled. “There’s something that makes the hairs on your neck stand up. Like an electricity to her.”

On a recent evening she brought a soulful luster to interpretations of songs such as “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)and “My Ideal, and a heart-wrenching finish to “Never Let Me Go.”

Brown, 44, has only been singing jazz for the past three years. The daughter of a Pentecostal preacher who forbid her to listen to secular music, she grew up in the church singing gospel, then received classical training in college. But for many years she hardly sung at all, though she took to listening to jazz—Coltrane, Monk, Tatum and others. It was on a whim that she began singing it. A friend asked her to entertain seniors at a cafe, with songs they remembered.

“I didn’t know any jazz songs so I had to look up lyrics and stumbled through that set, but fell in love with the music,” she recalled. The gig led to invitations to jam sessions, introductions to prominent musicians and finally studying with the well-known jazz pianist, composer and teacher, Barry Harris. “My life,” she said, “has never been the same.”

Adam Rose, on the board of Jazz at Lincoln Center, also discovered Brown and will be producing her first album with an all-star crew of musicians. “A lot of these guys are helping me out of love of the music,” she said modestly, “and really being kind to me.”

Brown, who worked for many years in administrative jobs, said she is pursuing her career full time now, and it’s come with a price.

“I did it for the sake of the music,” she said. “It’s such a pure art form. For the first time I felt I could sacrifice for this.”

Just how much sacrifice, Brown prefers not to reveal publicly; suffice it to say that she’s endured some hard times recently that have tempted her to reconsider a life in jazz.

“Every time I’d make up my mind that I would give it all up I would go to a jam session at Small’s and hear such beautiful music,” she said. “I’d say, ‘I can’t walk away.’”

Such music, of course, can be also heard at The Hang on Fridays, from 5:15 to 7:15 p.m., at Church Street School for Music and Art, 41 White St., except when the school is closed. Admission is free, donations are welcomed.