The man who made Roulette into New York's music lab

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The man who made Roulette into New York's music lab
Jose Davila, Liberty Ellman and Henry Threadgill at Roulette in New York on Oct. 2, 2008. Unlike many similar experimental arts venues now lost to time, Roulette has thrived and grown. (Rachel Papo/The New York Times)

by Steve Smith

NEW YORK, NY.- Saturated in sunlight on a recent afternoon, the spacious Tribeca loft that once housed Roulette somehow feels smaller than it looms in memory. For nearly 25 years, an array of established and emerging composers, improvisers, electronic producers and choreographers held court in the long, tall main room. Visitors had to pass through a kitchen: a reminder that the loft was also the home of Jim Staley, the trombonist and composer who was a founder of Roulette.

Unlike many similar experimental arts venues now lost to time, Roulette has thrived and grown, now occupying a 14,000-square-foot space in downtown Brooklyn. But Staley, 73, who still lives in the Tribeca loft, has decided that the time has come to step away. When this season ends in June, he will give up his role as artistic director.

It’s another evolution for a vital institution that has seen many. Roulette was established in Chicago in 1978 as a way for five recent University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign graduates, including Staley, to produce their own work. But the collaborative changed course after Staley, an Army veteran, moved to New York.

Joined by two other Roulette founders — graphic artist Laurie Szujewska and composer David Weinstein — Staley hosted a modest five-concert series at his loft in 1980. After that, “We got a lot of proposals,” Staley said. “And we just decided, let’s do them all. We ended up doing about 30 concerts in the fall.”

Pursuing an aesthetic guided as much by John Coltrane as by John Cage, Roulette became a crucial laboratory for the downtown-music scene, providing artists like John Zorn, Shelley Hirsch, George Lewis, Ikue Mori and many more with space, resources and recorded documentation of their work. Those artists still perform at Roulette, forming an enduring community with newer generations whose development they helped to nurture.

Zeena Parkins, the estimable harpist and composer, recalled starting there as a fledgling sound engineer in 1986, soaking up all the sounds on offer.

“I learned how to mix sound,” Parkins said in an interview, “how to run cables, how to record, and I would get to see all of the artists who performed there.” By 1987 she was presenting her own work at Roulette, and she now serves on the organization’s artistic advisory council.

In 2003, Staley moved Roulette to Location One, a SoHo gallery. Seven years later, Roulette left Manhattan for a new home in Brooklyn, a Beaux-Arts theater renovated and rewired with state-of-the-art audio and video facilities. Orchestral concerts, staged operas and multimedia events became part of the mix.

In planning for his departure, Staley split his leadership role between two staffers with long ties to the institution. Matt Mehlan, a musician and producer who joined Roulette in 2006 as a sound engineer, will become artistic director. Jamie Burns, who came from the publishing world in 2014, now serves as its executive director.

Mehlan, a founder of the now-defunct community art space Silent Barn, said in an interview that the core mission Staley conceived would remain — but evolve. “The experimentalism that Roulette is premised on has seeped into so much of culture,” he said. “I have this deep belief that experimental music is at the core of all music. So we have this opportunity to educate our future audiences on what our history means, and where it takes us into the future.”

That future includes a role for Staley as a producer. Interviewed at the loft where Roulette first planted roots in New York, he discussed its conception and evolution, and why it was time to move on. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Roulette has been an archetypal New York City space for decades, but most people don’t know it started in Chicago. How did you wind up in Tribeca?

A: I’d just finished up at the University of Illinois. The year before, I went out to California, the Bay Area and LA — this was in 1977. While I loved it out there, because I’d been in San Francisco when I was in the Army, I was looking for a place that had the intensity I’d had at university, but at a professional level. So New York ended up making the most sense.

Q: Were you already aesthetically aligned with the music scene that was evolving in New York’s downtown when you arrived?

A: When I was in Berlin, again in the Army, I’d made connections with (composer and trombonist) James Fulkerson, and I played in some of his things. Minimalism was really strong at that time, in ’72, ’73. At the same time, I was very close with Slide Hampton, who was very generous with me, so there was the jazz influence.

I took all of that back to the university, so when I came here there were strong connections already. John Cage had been in Illinois. It wasn’t such a leap to come to New York, particularly downtown. I walked into a building that Meredith Monk lived in, and Margaret Beals, and Roma Baran, Laurie Anderson’s producer and recording engineer, and that just said, “This is the right place to be.”

Q: What made you turn your home into a performance space?

A: Everybody was doing things in their lofts at that time — theater, music, dance, whatever. I thought, let’s try it out; people would get to know the place, and then it won’t be so hard to get somebody to come hear your own work.

The first one was supposed to be Ben Johnston, but he postponed. So Malcolm Goldstein (a violinist and composer) ended up being the first concert. The place was filled, with Cage and (Merce) Cunningham and everybody in the scene. The room sounded great, it looked great, it felt great. So all these people said, “Well, I’d like to do something.”

Q: Why did you move Roulette out of your loft to Greene Street?

A: The building had been brought up to code, so it was no longer commercial-with-living. This was during Bloomberg, and his people decided that artist live-work meant I personally could do my work here and perform for people, but I could not have a series where other people’s work is being presented.

Q: After that, why did you leave Manhattan?

I decided, OK, it’s time to move to Brooklyn. The critical mass of artists and people interested in this work are in Brooklyn now. And when I walked into that space, it was like when I walked into this space. It was: “This is an incredible space. This is wonderful. It feels great, if we can afford this and make it work.”

Q: You’re still a performing artist and composer. How much of your own work were you able to do while operating Roulette?

A: A lot, up through Greene Street. But when we moved into the new space in Brooklyn, it really took over. I stopped doing my own concerts; I just didn’t feel like it was the right venue for what I wanted to do.

I did a couple of things with other people, and of course I played on improv things that Zorn put together. The nice thing about improv is that you work with what you have, so it’s not such a leap to jump back into it. But I haven’t been focused on projects, and now I’m rethinking what I might want to do.

Q: So this was the time to step away?

A: It’s not something I needed to do, to stop. It’s something I felt was best for the organization, for someone else to come in. I’m having less and less of a relationship or understanding of a lot of the younger artists and what they need, what they want to do, what their work is. I can see the value of it, and it has to be presented. But I don’t always feel as much of a connection with the work or the people, and it’s important that the artistic director is connected with the people.

Q: What made Matt Mehlan the right person to take over?

A: I knew he was somebody who really understood. He’s a composer and a musician himself, and he understands that you give people what they need. You don’t need to hold their hands; you just make sure they have what they need to realize the work they want to do.

Q: But you’re not leaving Roulette completely.

A: I’ll be there as a producer. I’ll do special projects, if I have things I want to do. There are a number of things that carry over from this year that I’ve programmed for next year. But the majority of it is going to be Matt’s programming, and he’ll go forward from there.

Q: So what are you looking forward to doing next?

A: You know … I’m looking forward to looking forward.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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