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Still bopping

The Bop Shop is one of the last great independent music stores


Three months ago Down Beat magazine ran an extensive article titled "Where to buy jazz." It wasn't about large chains that deal in volume; it focused on those small, idiosyncratic stores you might find in the hippest neighborhoods of New York City, Boston, or Chicago. But the picture illustrating the article had a two-word caption: Bop Shop.

There's no doubt about it, one of the last of the great independent music stores is right here in Rochester. Tom Kohn has owned the Bop Shop for 23 years. In recent years he's branched out, sponsoring over 100 concerts in the Village Gate atrium and many more at Milestones.

The Down Beat article goes on to say that the heyday of brick-and-mortar stores is over. That will not come as news to Kohn; he knows he's a dinosaur.

"A customer will come in and if I don't have it they'll get it on the internet," says Kohn. "It's kind of sad because I can probably land it in three to five days and I can probably beat the price. Sitting at home and buying everything you want to buy at the computer... there's a point where it becomes kind of creepy because of the lack of human contact."

Kohn knows that the internet is the future of the record business if not the present. Thanks to the Bop Shop's website, his store on Amazon, and his items on eBay, a substantial share of his sales come from Finland, France, Australia, and other countries.

"I couldn't live without it now as a tool," he says. "But I get so much out of helping people find things and discover things. You can't sing a song to somebody on the internet and have them help you find it. And I get that all the time. You can't ask the internet which Miles Davis album to buy first."

What sets the Bop Shop apart from surviving brick-and-mortar stores is its staff; every member is either in a band or an aficionado of the music.

"In the music industry I'm the upscale restaurant to the fast food," Kohn says. "I don't do this because it's a business, I do it because it makes me feel good at the end of the day. The point is trying to make it easy for people to find out and discover things."

He doesn't have to convince some of the top musicians in jazz. Keith Jarrett, Kenny Wheeler, Bob Brookmeyer, Branford Marsalis, George Russell, and others have visited his store.

It's the younger generation Kohn is a bit perplexed by.

"They prefer downloading something without art work. I need something to make it make sense to me."

He also bemoans the lack of outlets for truly innovative music. As a result of homogenized radio, he believes there is less curiosity than there used to be.

He puts on a CD. It's Petra HadenSings: The Who Sell Out (Charlie Haden's daughter). It's all a cappella and it's a hoot, but you won't be hearing it on the radio. He's made his point.

At the same time he's encouraged by some recent events at the store.

"They're asking questions," he says. "A kid came in today and he went to the Peter Brotzmann bin." Brotzmann, a German saxophonist, is a wild improviser.

Kohn can't resist relating a story about a rare Peter Brotzmann record he found at a record store in Binghamton. The store was going out of business and he was looking through the stock to see if there were items to buy for resale at the Bop Shop. When he found the Brotzmann record he put it on the store's turntable.

To illustrate the sound of Brotzmann's record, Kohn makes elephant noises.

"The owner looked at me in horror and said if you take it off, I'll give it to you." The record, Brotzman's first, is now worth over $1,000.

Kohn is perhaps most outspoken when it comes to the current pop music scene.

"I have no time for people remixing shit at home. I'm sure I'm showing my age, but I just have a very hard time embracing anyone who would take a little computer at home and make a record," he says. "The media seems to be embracing this tsunami of homemade records. Any 16-year-old can buy the equipment and make a record. The whole hip-hop thing is nonsense. Music to me is art and it's also something that, as in good art, shouldn't be that easy to make."

But, he admits home recording has its good side, opening the doors for people who really have talent.

Kohn's taste in music is all over the place from jump blues all the way to free jazz.

"I think some of the most creative music that's happening right now in the country is the new jazz --- Ken Vandermark, Joe McPhee, Paul Smoker. I think Mike McNeill, a young, local jazz pianist, is going to be a star."

Kohn refuses to give up on free jazz concerts in the Village Gate atrium even though he loses money on many of them. There are exceptions: 200 people came to see David Murray.

For those who don't understand the abstract nature of the music, Kohn offers an analogy.

"Many people look at a Jackson Pollock painting and aren't sure of what to make of it," he says. "Is it beauty or chaos? It's really the same thing at times. But the first time I went up to a Jackson Pollock painting in person and looked at it, I've never experienced anything quite like it. I understood that what improvisers are doing musically is what those guys were doing on canvas."

Kohn records every concert. After his engineer makes a finished product of it, he gives a tape to the artist. In some cases an album results. (Kohn has no financial interest in the CDs)

"The acoustics of the room are very special. It's all about the spirit and it's all about the moment," Kohn says. "Some of the greatest moments in jazz have been experienced by a few select people and never documented."

He encourages people to give the concerts a try: "If you don't like it, leave. It's free." His last concert this year features the Steve Rush/Tom Abbs/Geoff Mann Trio at 8 p.m. June 22. (Info:

Kohn has also gotten involved with the Rochester International Jazz Festival. This year Kohn gave festival promoter John Nugent a list of 20 or 30 acts to consider and Nugent hired quite a few of them.

"Last year's festival was great, I think this year's going to be astounding," Kohn says. "It's such a beautiful thing for the community. We all live in this place together and it's a great city. There are great things going on and I wish people would get off their duffs and go out and support things more."

The Bop Shop is at Village Gate Square, 274 North Goodman Street. 271-3354

Kohn comments on Bop Shop concerts released on CD:

Kahil El'Zabar/David Murray --- We Is: Live at the Bop Shop (Delmark)

"One of the greatest tenor saxophonists of our time (Murray) and one of the most active members of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, percussionist El'Zabar, played a rousing duo concert in 2000 which went from gospel spirituals to avant-garde roar."

Paul Smoker --- Duocity in Brass and Wood (Cadence)

"Smoker is the artist who has performed the most at the Bop Shop. This double disc set is comprised of two concerts he gave in 2001, one with bassist Dominic Duval and one with bassist Ed Schuller. Despite the unorthodox lineup, this record has garnered excellent reviews in the international press."

Nu Band --- Live at the Bop Shop, Rochester, NY (Clean Feed)

"A group of leaders --- trumpeter Roy Campbell, reed player Mark Whitecage, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Lou Grassi --- was performing for only the third time ever as a group in this exciting set recorded on a cold winter's night in January, 2001."

DKV Trio --- Trigonometry (Okkadisk)

"A Chicago powerhouse trio with saxophonist Ken Vandermark, bassist Kent Kessler, and drummer Hamid Drake released this set they recorded at the Bug Jar in a Bop Shop co-produced concert."

Trio X --- On Tour... Toronto/Rochester (Cadence)

"Trio X is multi-instrumentalist Joe Mc Phee, bassist Dominic Duval, and drummer Jay Rosen. This disc contains the definitive version of a Joe McPhee classic, 'Old Eyes.'"

Sabir Mateen/Ben Karetnick  --- Sun Xing (JMZ)

"New York underground saxophone legend Mateen paired up with Vermont-based drummer Karetnick for this remarkable set of duets. The musical journey went from sections of impassioned, Coltrane-ish spirituality to moments of beautiful quiet meditation."

Ralph Alessi --- Hissy Fit (Love Slave)

"Alessi, a former Eastman School of Music faculty member (who's gone on to international recognition) brought in a sextet he called Modular Theatre (including legendary cellist Hank Roberts) for an evening of jazz and poetry."