When you step into The Jazz Loft, you immediately feel as if you’ve entered a musical antique shop — it looks like a colonial stone house on the outside, tucked away by the water in a quiet, picturesque part of Stony Brook Village.
Before I sat down with The Jazz Loft owner, Stony Brook University artist in residence and alumnus Tom Manuel, I had a chance to perceive my surroundings. The space is lit by not one, but two ornate chandeliers and upon closer inspection, a placard says the chandeliers used to hang in famed New York City music venue Irving Plaza in 1927.
In his 20s, Manuel was touring and playing jazz with musicians over 60 years his senior, who had decades ago played alongside musical icons like Benny Goodwin and Duke Ellington. Manuel’s passion for the shared experience of music was further ignited by the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts from some of the greats. At first Manuel would borrow photographs and memorabilia to display to his students.
“I was an old soul; I always played with the old timers. Eventually the guys I was playing with ended up giving me stuff,” Manuel said. “The building we’re in was a museum in the 1940s and 50s, and before that it was a firehouse built in 1909.”
The parlor we were sitting in was decorated with the actual furniture of late jazz musician Teddy Charles. With The Jazz Loft, Manuel sought to emulate the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where anyone who walks in is immediately immersed, as opposed to looking at something through a glass window or over a rope.
The Jazz Loft isn’t just an immersive museum well-adorned with treasures of the Jazz Age — it’s a performance space. Every Wednesday night, it hosts jam sessions, where anyone can come and perform or watch and enjoy. The Jazz Lofthosts interdisciplinary events as well, where painters, writers and poets come to the space to collaborate creatively twice a month.
The size of the building was deceptive, and indeed I was astonished when I entered the midnight-blue painted room, which had vintage chairs and a three-tiered stage with about a dozen podiums for the performers, each decorated with a caricature of a famous jazz artist.
Filling in the gap of an artistic community space that promotes musical culture on Long Island was no simple task and with little funding, Manuel admitted there wasn’t much promise to the venture.
Before The Jazz Loft’s inception, Manuel fulfilled his aspiration to share music through teaching. He trained classically as a musician, but it wasn’t until attending Stony Brook University for his doctorate that Manuel discovered and fell in love with playing jazz. While he wasn’t sure why he wanted to teach, something about the fleeting nature of jazz history called to him.
“I realized that once this generation of older musicians were gone, kids would be learning about them in a history book,” Manuel said.
Manuel has worked toward promoting the value of music education through trips abroad. He traveled with a team to help at a school his friend created in Haiti and found himself inspired by the school’s children.
“In a nation that is one of the poorest on the planet is this beautiful little school where kids are actually going every day and learning how to read and write,” Manuel said. “And that’s one of the greatest gifts you could give any human being, is the ability to read and write so they can learn.”
On his second trip to Haiti, he noticed that music education was absent. So, they assembled a team of musicians and shipped instruments and equipment to Haiti, embarking on ingraining music into the children’s educations.
“We’re actually going down Nov. 14 to train students there to be music teacher candidates.”
Manuel similarly helped establish a music education program in Liberia, and even directed the students’ first concert in a blend of folk songs and jazz.
“The message of jazz is ‘let’s share what we know.’ American jazz has so many African and Caribbean influences, it doesn’t sound that different. We mixed a lot of blues and New Orleans street band tunes, then jazzed up some Liberian folk songs. We did the same thing in Haiti with their traditional music,” he said.
Jazz especially allows for and almost requires the raw expression of emotion. Since improvisation is a chief component in jazz music, one may believe that the musicians lack classical training, but it is quite the opposite.
I gently coaxed Manuel into playing his trumpet for me as we walked through the performance space. He graciously obliged, and the brassy notes reverberated throughout the room, each purposeful and elongated. It sounded like a tune you would hear during the opening credits of a wistful, romantic comedy from the 1950s. I felt transported to some rainy day in a black and white New York City, nostalgic for the time and place his music has created for me, even just for the minute he was playing.