Where the Downtown sound remains the same


By Andrey Henkin

Bruce Gallanter and Manny Maris defy all the snooty stereotypes surrounding record store clerks. Since opening their shop, Downtown Music Gallery (DMG) in May of 1991, the two have fostered an open, inviting atmosphere in their scruffy little record store on the Bowery. Both typical, Village shop and anachronism, co-proprietors Gallanter and Maris have created a modern-day salon, one that sustains imaginative artists who are largely ignored by the mainstream music industry.

“I view the nature of this establishment as being an alternative to how records are generally marketed at the retail level,” says Maris, a hefty man with broad features and undeviating black clothing. “You come in here and discuss what your desires are and we see whether we can interface with them or we can get the things you’re looking for that other stores don’t carry.” This can be anything from British saxophonist Paul Dunmall’s self-released solo albums, to the complete catalogue of Soft Machine (Gallanter’s favorite progressive rock band), to the myriad recordings on saxophonist John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

The store, much like the music it carries, developed organically. Named after an early ‘80s record store called the Soho Music Gallery, DMG was born out of the ashes of Maris’ store Lunch for your Ears, where Gallanter was an employee. The term “Downtown” refers both to the store’s geography and the subculture of musicians — jazz, rock, progressive — who lived and performed there during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Through Maris and Gallanter’s affiliation with these musicians, who were centered around places like Studio Henry on the corner of Morton and Bleecker or the Knitting Factory when it was on East Houston, DMG became “a home for people who like adventurous music,” says Gallanter, a slight, birdish type with an air of hip librarian. “That’s what my dream has been. There needs to be a home for music that doesn’t get played on the radio, music that gets forgotten by major labels…I’m happy when people come in here, people who don’t know us but just wander in, and say ‘I can’t believe there’s a store that sells this: avant garde, modern classical, world, psychedelic, progressive…’ ”

One of DMG’s longest-running associations has been with the music of John Zorn, also a Village mainstay. Gallanter met Zorn at Studio Henry in 1979 and Gallanter has championed his music since then. After Zorn founded Tzadik in 1995, DMG became an affiliate. Any orders placed on the Tzadik website are processed through the extensive mail-order segment of DMG and the store is the only place where buyers can always find any of the label’s more than 400 releases.

In 2005, Zorn opened his club The Stone, named after the late Irving Stone, a champion of avant-garde music in New York. “Zorn asked me if I would help him and I said I would do anything because I thought it was a great idea,” recalls Gallanter. “The Stone is a throwback to the early days of Studio Henry. It’s a cozy place, run by musicians, and there’s no distractions…it’s the perfect environment for people who want to make some serious music.” Monthly guest curators book its shows, which means that one has to be asked to play at The Stone, an approach that is simultaneously inclusive and exclusive.

In December, Maris turns 51 and to honor the occasion, he approached Zorn to book a birthday show at The Stone. Instead of one night though, Zorn gave over the month’s curatorial duties to Maris and Gallanter, who have spent the past year booking over 50 sets of music from as wide a range of musicians as would be found on DMG’s shelves. Some, like saxophonist Lol Coxhill, bassists Hugh Hopper (a founding member of Soft Machine) and Joëlle Léandre, are making rare appearances from Europe, and others, such as guitarist Fred Frith (of Henry Cow fame) and Zorn, are resurfacing from their heyday of defining the Downtown sound. “I’m honored that Zorn would ask us,” says Gallanter. “I figure this is a once-in-a-lifetime fest.”

For more information on Downtown Music Gallery, visit www.downtownmusicgallery.com. For this month’s schedule at The Stone, visit www.thestonenyc.com.