Q&A with Steven Bernstein: On Respectability


Sexmob’s debut, Den Of Inequity, is two decades old. And now, Steven Bernstein’s troupe is set to issue new work, Cultural Capital, on April 14.

(Photo: Greg Aiello)

Two decades ago, slide trumpeter, composer and bandleader Steven Bernstein caused some members of the jazz community to “clutch their pearls,” because of the provocative name of his band. Even though Sexmob was as steeped in the jazz tradition as many of its straight-ahead counterparts, the band was much more inclined to play avant-garde makeovers of tawdry blues and rock than the urbane hard-bop that typified most ’90s mainstream jazz.

In spite of its salacious moniker, Sexmob thrived worldwide, playing scores of major jazz festivals and receiving a Grammy nomination for its 2006 disc, Sexotica. It’s only now, though, that Bernstein’s group is making its first New York City mainstream club run on March 8 and 9 at the Jazz Standard—with keyboardist John Medeski as a special guest. That’s part of a four-night run for Bernstein, who also will be performing with his rabble-rousing Millennial Territory Band Orchestra. Coincidentally, that latter troupe played Monday nights at the club from 2002 to 2004.

Coinciding with the 20-year anniversary of Sexmob’s debut disc, Den Of Inequity (Columbia Records) and an April 14 release of its newest disc, Cultural Capital, Bernstein talked about Sexmob’s emergence and why it’s taken the mainstream New York jazz club scene so long to give the band its due.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk about Sexmob’s upcoming engaging at the Jazz Standard.
I’m very excited because we’ve been touring and playing for years. In New York, we started out as a residency band, doing 11 p.m. shows called “the Late Night Hang” at the Knitting Factory. After that, we went on to do midnight shows at Tonic. We’ve always done a lot of big concerts in New York at places like Symphony Space, but we had never really played at a bona fide jazz club. Even though it’s just a two-night run out of a four-night run, it’s a big deal for me that Sexmob is doing something like this in New York City.

The way it came about—there was a tribute to Roswell Rudd at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in November of last year. It was supposed to be Roswell’s gig, but his cancer had progressed to the point that he could no longer play. So, we decided to make the concert into a tribute to him. He was still here with us. Some people performed certain songs that they had recorded with Roswell; Archie Shepp was there. We had a bunch of singers like Fay Victor; Terry Adams was there. Then Sexmob played some music from the New York Art Quartet.

Afterward, we were like, “We played this music in a place like Jazz at Lincoln Center. And the building didn’t fall down; nobody died.” That inspired me to call up Seth Abramson at Jazz Standard and say, “Hey, we played at Dizzy’s and it was cool.” Even then, there was concern over the band’s name. So, I said, “Well, call it Steven Bernstein’s Sexmob.”

Why do you think there’s concern over the band’s name?
That’s an interesting thing about perception. The name Sexmob comes out of the tradition of other band names like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, because Sexmob is a band. Except for bands like the Modern Jazz Quartet or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, in jazz, it’s more about the bandleader’s name being on the marquee. And of course, there was concern with the word “sex.” But calling it Steven Bernstein’s Sexmob sounds more respectable in jazz.

One of the things that I love about Sexmob is the “devil may care” attitude toward the music it covers. You’re not afraid of exploring the barrelhouse legacy of jazz. With the constant, understandable elevation of jazz as an artform, do you think some people’s perception of the music has gotten too antiseptic, and for lack of a better word, unsexy?
Absolutely! [Laughs] When we were doing these late-night shows, it was wild. We were doing shows from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. David Dinkins was still the mayor; New York was definitely more opened. And there was a lot of stuff going down at our shows.

When I came to New York, there was the Danceteria, the Mudd Club and the Squat Theatre—that was my social world. There was all of this intersection between the jazz musicians like Lester Bowie, Joseph Bowie, Frank Lowe and the Danceteria and the Squat Theatre scene.

I love jazz. But I don’t feel the need to be called a “jazz musician.” I think I probably listen to more jazz music than anyone else that you’ve ever met. I still buy records and get really excited when I discover a jazz record that I’ve never heard before. But I don’t feel that people of this generation really understand that jazz was pop music.

Benny Goodman’s band was the Nirvana of its time with the exception of Goodman having African-Americans in his band. But basically, it was a bunch of young, white dudes playing very loud music for a lot of other drunk, white people, dancing and getting laid. Now, when you talk with people about Benny Goodman, that’s the last thing people think about. They think, “Benny Goodman, swing, sophisticated music, suits and elegance.”

Will Sexmob be providing any music commentary in response to the #metoo movement?
No. When I’m on stage, I try to give people a chance to lose all of that and just be with music and be transported to another world and be given a balm for all the pain they’ve been dealing with.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Sexmob’s debut disc, Den Of Inequity. Looking back, how do you think that album has endured?
I still meet people who talk a lot about that album. For a lot of people, it was their first chance to see that jazz could still be rebellious music.

It came out during the peak of the CD era. I remember asking for a hidden track on it and the guys from Columbia Records had never heard of a hidden track.

Do you see the release of Den Of Inequity as opening the door for the Bad Plus, who also had a run on Columbia Records?
Absolutely. They were smart enough to have a strong band with a cool band name, too. And they were smart enough to not have the word “sex” in it. [Laughs] But a big difference between Sexmob and the Bad Plus is that they are a piano trio. Unless it’s like Cecil Taylor, who is really pushing the boundaries, a piano trio is something that still can play at a hotel. Our music was definitely more “in your face,” sonically. Even though the Bad Plus’ music is “in your face,” stylistically and musically, it’s still just bass, piano and drums. That made it easier for them to crossover into the regular, mainstream world. DB

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