By Mia Sato
Hanah Jon Taylor can’t remember a time in his life without music. As a child growing up on the southside of Chicago, jazz and blues rang through the streets and in the home – he recalls his father bringing home hard-to-find records from his trips as a Pullman porter, and once, he and a friend heard live jazz spilling out from a bar on the way home from serving evening mass – John Coltrane was performing inside. The kids bought food, sat outside on the stoop and listened to one of the greatest jazz musicians play on the other side of the frosted window.
Jazz, an iconic American export with its roots in black New Orleans communities, may not resonate with many young people today. As with many genres of music, the founding principles and guiding ideals that make jazz what it is have been lost through the years, at least to many mainstream audiences. Hanah Jon Taylor wants to change that, starting with Madison.
Taylor and his longtime friend and collaborator Susan Fox opened Cafe Coda, a small club in the space that was previously the Fountain bar, that caters to live jazz. Taylor envisioned and built Cafe Coda as a place where audiences come for the music, and hopes it will create a jazz venue on par those located in bigger cities like Chicago and Minneapolis. The location, atmosphere and aesthetic of the venue are important, of course, but Taylor says the centerpiece must be the music – not background noise to a pool game or television program.
“More than anything, [a jazz venue is] a listening place. It can be a dance place, an art gallery, but it has to be a place where the music is presented with suitable staging,” Taylor says. “And that place is non-existent [in Madison].”
But it’s not just the lack of a suitable venue that spurred the birth of Cafe CODA. Taylor points to a “diversity crisis” that he sees in town in which people are failing to prepare for a vastly different Madison that will exist in 20 years, making it a ripe time for a club of this sort to take root in the community.
“I think it’s important for us to start cultivating the ideas of diversity by broadening the musical perspective or experience here,” Taylor says.
Fox thinks there is also the market and the interest for a proper jazz club in Madison.
“I think jazz in Madison has taken on a new life because of the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium. There are events held on a regular basis that make jazz more accessible,” Fox says. “I think there’s a greater awareness of jazz because people are hearing it on the street, for instance. I think it will benefit us because there will be more people who are open to jazz.”
There’s historical significance to the time of the opening of Cafe CODA, too. Fox says this year marks 100 years since jazz was brought to Europe, as well as 100 years since the building the club is located in was built. She says it feels like the right time.
If Taylor could have it his way, Cafe CODA would be even more than a place to experience a different kind of music – it would be a place that encourages young people to question loaded genre labels that might discourage listeners from seeking out music that falls under these umbrella terms.
“I think it’s important for young people to learn to make fewer distinctions in general, but for sure when it comes to art. Because art is a reflection of life,” Taylor says. “But sometimes, the term itself keeps us away from the art.
“I’m sure that with the music we present at Cafe CODA, it’s going to destroy somebody’s false notions of what jazz is,” he says. “Art is a living thing, and so is jazz music. It’s not a museum piece, it’s not something to be sought in an archive. It’s the sound of the bus, dammit – kids yelling, the sound of skates.”
But as someone who prefers less distinctions and definitions when it comes it music, how does Hanah Jon Taylor understand jazz, his work? What does it all mean, then?
“Life,” Taylor says, lightning fast, like an instinct. Without missing a beat, Fox jumps in.