NEW YORK – A few dozen jazz musicians gathered last month at the Wilson Live basement in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. The omicron variant was spreading wildly outside, but inside the party was on.
Two of the jazz world’s most famous New Yorkers were about to take the stage – Ali Jackson Jr. on drums and Aaron Goldberg on piano – alongside a few young players. It was an unofficial reopening during the pandemic and a symbolical celebration after the place was badly damaged by Hurricane Ida in September.
Since its opening in 2018, Wilson Live has been a magnet for jazz lovers. The managers are Omer Avital, a bass player and big name in the Israeli jazz community in New York, and Yoav Aderet, a contractor and real estate man with “the soul of hippie,” as he puts it. Aderet also plays another key role – he’s in charge of the hummus. The two men and a relative of Avital’s bought the building that houses Wilson Live in the cellar.
“During Hurricane Ida the sewer burst and flowed from the streets into our basement; we had invested around $100,000 in the place,” Avital says. “During the flooding we lost musical instruments, it got wet and smelly, and we had rats. We had to repaint the place, buy equipment and repair our Steinway piano. We spent another $15,000 to fix the place.”
Wilson Live has a lounge, a rehearsal room, a kitchen, a recording studio and a stage, but it’s not an official live music venue. No tickets are sold, and the live shows are advertised by word of mouth.
According to Avital, a few friends are responsible for the day-to-day operations – drummer Itay Mizrahi, piano player Gadi Lehavi, saxophonists Alexander Levin and Yonatan Guedj, and drummer Alon Benjamini. Then there are the 50 to 100 musicians who perform there.
“I’m the elder of the gang,” says Avital, who calls the young ones who visit “our jazz youths. They’re excited and there’s always a thrill. When you come to New York you need a warm place. Quite a few of Tel Aviv’s jazz artists, those who perform at venues like Beit Haamudim, play here when they visit New York.”
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Avital compares Wilson Live to the Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village, which was a brand name in the ‘90s. “Smalls is mainly for tourists nowadays,” he says. “The emphasis here is on the community. You have to give the young folks coming here a platform to create on. Wilson is very Israeli but it’s also very universal. Many Americans and international artists come here.”
In 2014, Haaretz music critic Ben Shalev wrote that “Avital found the rare middle ground between the universal and the local. His music – jazz at its best – is Israeli at the same time. Some call it ‘falafel jazz.’” That moniker caught on.
“It’s part joke and part serious,” Avital says. “It’s a combination between Israeli jazz musicians, American music and Israeli ‘social music.’ We have jazz that can connect [popular Mizrahi singer] Zohar Argov with Bach and Shostakovich. So ‘falafel and hummus jazz’ is a joke, but it expresses what we do. We mix everything.”
A place without pretense
Not only the young perform at Wilson. Ravid Kahalani, for example, a founder of the band Yemen Blues, has become a resident and even recorded songs at the site. And David Broza worked on his new album at Wilson Live; Avital oversaw the arrangements and orchestration.
“Omer is a very unique figure in the music world and an inspiration to many New York musicians – a sort of mentor and spiritual father,” Broza says. “He created a center for jazz at Wilson, a center for creation in the most pulsating metropolis in the world. It’s the place you come to experience something on cold and warm nights, on COVID days and any other day.”
As Broza puts it, “it’s a place with no means but a lot of soul and good energy. A place without pretense. You can let in a maximum of 20 people seated, and that ignites what’s happening there. I’m rehearsing and suddenly somebody takes out a saxophone, and somebody else has a trombone, and suddenly we have an orchestra. I once went there and the taxi driver asked me if I was sure that was where I wanted to get out. I suggested that he come inside, and he did and sat there mesmerized.”
“When I was there during the peak of the pandemic, I sometimes asked myself what I was doing there. I’m 66 and might come down with the disease. But I got carried away. The place is like a gem. That’s the beauty of New York. You’re in a place with great musicians and most of them, except Omer, still don’t get exposure. I’m listening to the music there wondering what sort of hummus they ate that got them to create this music.”
Wilson Live’s story is also the story of Israeli jazz in New York. The city continues to host a raft of Israeli jazz musicians including Gilad Hekselman, Yotam Silberstein, Anat Cohen and Itamar Borochov.
“Israeli jazz studies are extremely high class; very good musicians come out of Israel. But still, Israel is a very small country, and even if it has good clubs, the possibilities are limited,” Avital says.
“If you want to advance in the jazz world you have to come to New York, which is one of the most important places in this field. It makes sense. Jazz is an American culture story. The number of Israeli jazz musicians coming to New York is disproportionate to the country’s size. Israelis also respect the roots of jazz, and they’re more loyal to jazz tradition than the Europeans.”
'When I was there during the peak of the pandemic, I sometimes asked myself what I was doing there. I’m 66 and might come down with the disease'
The pandemic created turmoil in the Israeli jazz community. Shows were canceled and many musicians returned to Israel as the money grew scarce. Now some of them are coming back to the Big Apple. “It was hard on me too,” Avital says. “Like many artists, I didn’t work for two years.”
From real estate to jazz
Avital, 50, was born in Givatayim near Tel Aviv and went to Thelma Yellin High School, which specializes in the arts. “I did my matriculation exam on jazz, joined the Israeli Air Force Band and played bass. I played with everybody – drummer Arale Kaminsky, pianist Dan Gottfried. I was a kid,” Avital says.
“I came here in 1992 because playing jazz in New York was a dream. I worked in moving, did some gigs, studied at the New School. The ‘90s were good for jazz and I met the best musicians in New York. When Smalls opened, I played there regularly.”
When he returned to Israel, he co-founded Yemen Blues and was in a band with trumpet player Avishai Cohen.
“We combined North African music and jazz,” Avital says. “But all told, I felt that coming back to Israel wasn’t what I was looking for. There’s something very limiting in Israel. There’s talent and tension, but there’s no release.” In 2005 he returned to New York and started touring in Europe.
In 2014 he met Aderet and his life took a turn. Avital learned about construction and real estate, and the two worked together in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Aderet, 55, grew up in Haifa. He was an educator in Israel, and when he moved to New York he managed construction projects.
“I started buying and renovating buildings eight years ago,” Aderet says. “When we bought the Wilson building in Bushwick in 2016, it was a bad area. Just next door there was a triple homicide with dead bodies on the floor. Wilson was a damp, dark, rat-infested basement. Initially we were only thinking about a rehearsal room, and slowly we grew. We don’t sell tickets. There was no business plan. There was a fantasy.”
Now the two are trying to win a license to operate Wilson Live commercially. They’re considering setting up a restaurant-café. A bakery operated in the basement a century ago, and the ovens are still there. Aderet is also dreaming of a festival in Europe or Massachusetts.