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Building Blocks: Steve Baczkowski, Music Director of Hallwalls

“Music is something that can only be experienced live.”

Bio: Buffalo-based saxophonist Steve Baczkowski performs solo, in trio with drummer Ravi Padmanabha & bassist Brian DeJesus, and in frequent collaborations with guitarist Bill Nace and drummer Chris Corsano. A new trio LP Mystic Beings with Corsano & Nace was just released to wide acclaim by Open Mouth Records and Old Smoke, a new live trio recording with Corsano and bassist Brandon Lopez will be released on CD by Relative Pitch Records in Spring 2019. A new recording highlighting Baczkowski’s 20-year duo collaboration with Ravi Padmanabha will be released on Astral Spirits in the summer.

Baczkowski began playing alto saxophone at age eight and switched to baritone by the time he was twelve. He studied music in high school at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts and went on to studies in music, saxophone performance, literature and ethnomusicology at the State University of New York at Buffalo ‘94-99. In 1999, Baczkowski became the Music Director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo, N.Y. (a 45-year old, multi-disciplinary, non-profit, artist-run cultural organization – where he has since produced and presented hundreds of concerts of contemporary music as well as numerous community-based artist residencies.

Baczkowski has organized multiple ensembles over the years including the Buffalo Improvisers Orchestra, Buffalo Suicide Prevention Unit, Organ Donor and many others and he regularly performs with the 12/8 Path Band, Buffalo Afrobeat Orchestra & Buffalo Jazz Octet. He frequently collaborates with musicians from all over the globe and has appeared at festivals in the US, Canada, Mexico & the UK.

Steve Baczkowski is as calm, cool and nice as you would expect a Buffalonian saxophonist to be. Steve started his quest for musical knowledge in the school system of Springville and then solidified it when he and his mother moved back to Buffalo and Steve joined the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.  “The identity of ‘I am a musician’ really took hold of me then.”

Photo courtesy Jack Zuff – Hallwalls

It would be an event at the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts that would unknowingly start Steve on his path to Hallwalls. During his senior year, Buffalo composer, educator and master flute player Michael Colquhoun came to the school on a “Meet the Composer” grant project.  He taught some improv workshops and gave a project to a select group of students to perform Terry Riley’s “In C” composition for the school and at an outside venue. Steve was among those students chosen and the outside venue was Hallwalls, so his first interaction with the historical venue was as a student performer.

What are some of the challenges that you see in the area that have a recurring affect on the arts scene?

I have a really positive attitude about this community.  I mean, we face the same challenges in the arts community that any city faces. But every time I go to a city that is a comparable size to Buffalo or even bigger, I am amazed at how rich our creative cultural scene is. It’s amazing what we have here; the visual arts,  the media arts, the theater, the dance and particularly the music community.  It’s very active, we have players from all different disciplines and masters of all different styles.

I’m really encouraged by that – its part of the reason I stayed here because you can have a great relationship with this community, you can make an impact, it’s small enough that you have to deal with each other here. There is a lot of cross over and a lot of sharing of resources and partnering. The musicians here are doing all kinds of things, it’s not just one kind of music. They’re doing improv and rock and electronic, everything and I think thats a healthy thing and I think its a unique characteristic of the time we are living in.  People are being exposed to all kinds of information.

To go along with that, a challenge that we end up seeing, which is not specific to Buffalo, is the fact that we have access to so much information, it makes it easy to stay home and get your creative stimulus through the internet. You never know when someone will check out a video on Youtube and be turned off by the element of the video. That has an effect on the live music scene. I like to highlight the unique value of a live performance. Music is something that can only be experienced live, a recording is not a live performance. You have to see it for yourself, the recording will only give you a small fraction of the experience.

What’s a good way to combat this, how do we get people to go out again?

You know, that’s the question right, I’d say you gotta bring the music to the people. To go on an idea that Charlie Keil of the American Studies department taught me, is that music is an integral part of a community. Music should be available both as performers and as listeners. There shouldn’t be a divide in the two. He founded an ensemble that brought a concept of mobile street bands based on musical theories that are easy to teach and easy to share. He would tell the horns not to tuneup together, not to be so focused on the specifics of the melody but to be open to the whole experience.  Participatory discrepancies , the rawness of it, these are what brings the interesting colors and textures.

I started playing in his group, we did parades and protests and any kind of function that needed some energy. It was amazing what music brings to these situations. It centralizes the energy. There is a certain celebratory element that becomes a part of the protest, a part of the parade, it changes whatever the cause or event is.

So, I think thats one way we can do it.

You can reach out to people in this way, and you’ll find that people are very open, they want to be exposed to different kinds of music. They just don’t know how to go about it .

Do the parades and the festivals and the protest gigs on the street corners. Bring it to them.

What advice do you have for young musicians?

It’s a challenge related to what we were talking about earlier, there is a lot of information out there. And that can be very advantageous because you can learn an awful lot but it can also contribute to this nostalgic idea that the greatest music and greatest ideas have already been done and all you can do is try to replicate it the best you can… And that is absolutely not true. I confront that all the time even with my peers and bandmates. You know, each generation has their nostalgia like “oh, when John Coltrane was around music was at its best, during the 60’s music was this… each of them have their uniqueness of their time, but that hasn’t changed, that’s still happening now.

So, my advice is generally don’t imitate. I mean you can learn from others but it’s important to do what comes natural to you. Embrace it , if you cultivate that, you’ll find that it is something that is unique to you. That will turn into some kind of rare and special thing.

I’ve learned a lot from so many people but the main lessons I’ve learned are; don’t stop, and be yourself. You know, I can do my best impression of John Coltrane but I’ll never be John Coltrane. But nobody in the world can out-Steve Baczkowski-me.

There will be some people that are interested in what you’re doing  and they will recognize that what you’re doing is unique. Then they will want you to add to their community. Stay true to who you are.

Photo courtesy Gene Witkowski – City of Night

What is a favorite “Buffalo Moment”?

Well… haha there are a lot of those. Theres a certain resilience and accepting quality to the people of this city. I think it’s made up of people who are very willing to roll with things that are thrown at them, in fact, there’s a video of a late night on Main street after Curtain Up that I think really captures the character of Buffalo.  The wonderful Buffalo Niagara Youth Hostel was hosting a series of performances outside of their space . It was two of my good friends performing a guitar and drum duo and it was just ecstatic free improvisation. A sea of every kind of people you could imagine free flowing to the magic of this improv music. People dancing at two thirty in the morning  in the street and it was one of these moments that felt completely unique to Buffalo. There’s just a no BS kinda vibe about the people in Buffalo and a very high tolerance of accepting whatever is going down. People are very willing to go with the flow.  Very easily in another town you could see a couple of squad cars pulling up and ending this beautiful moment …but here, nobody seemed to care.

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing in Buffalo, what would it be?

Well, I wish our city wasn’t so divided.  It was chopped up and led to segregating the population by interrupting our park systems that Olmsted designed so beautifully. It completely compromised the flow of the city, the energy of the city and the grandeur of the city. It divided the population in a way that is on racial lines.

If I could snap my fingers and restore Delaware Park to what it was meant to be, I would.

Your idol comes to town, where are you taking them?

Haha, well I am fortunate in that I get to do that a lot through Hallwalls. Generally one of the first things I like to do when I bring people to Buffalo is I bring them to the grain elevators. I have a long relationship with the elevators , I used to climb around in them as a child, I started playing music in them as a teenager. They have such a unique role in the history of our city, kind of like our own ancient ruins. Us being a harbor city and the connection of East to West, these elevators really represent a unique part of Buffalo’s history. So I love to bring people there and show them how we’ve been able to reuse them as a center for arts and community.

Photo by Jon Piret – Silo City

Only in Buffalo would a place like Silo City be committed to cultural events. Anywhere else, that would have been torn down by now. But people like Rick Smith and Kevin Cain have been able to see the value in revitalizing these spaces and making them useful and the importance of cultural capital highlighting what is already here in our city.

Hallwalls actually just got a major grant for an artist residency there, HARP (Hallwalls Artists Residency Project) . We are bringing in three artists to create an installation in Silo City. It’s one of the big projects I’m working on right now and I’m really excited about it. “Rio Negro” is the name of the project and basically we have three iconic artists coming to set up in Silo City using rain sticks and gongs and other natural instruments that are being activated by an automated system along with a soundtrack. A really cool project that we are looking forward to bringing to Buffalo, so be on the look out for it this September.

Who would you recommend as a “Building Block” of Buffalo?

John Bacon- Drummer, composer, educator.

Steve, we thank you for your time and contribution to Buffalo.


Music program: Peter Evans / Cory Smythe

Lead image courtesy Marek Lazarski

About Building Blocks:

A renaissance is not built solely on the shoulders of the big and powerful, it is the workings of the commoners of society coming together and pushing small blocks up against the big ones to set a solid foundation for change. In the midst of the new, vibrant and ever expanding Buffalo, we find ourselves needing to know more about it! Who are we missing? Who is behind it? Who are the unsung heroes responsible for the rebirth of our great city. Who do you know that has made a difference?  We are calling on you to send us candidates for our upcoming series of interviews titled “Building Blocks.”

What we are looking for:

  • Individuals or organizations that have withstood the test of time. The ones who have stayed true to their values in the slow times and have now pushed forth and flourished in the new.
  • People who have initiated successful start ups in the areas of business, energy, arts or education.
  • People who have given their free time to the betterment of our community.
  • People who have created better situations for their fellow Buffalonians.
  • Basically, anyone that you think deserves a mention in the progress of our great city.

Please email us at subject line “Building Blocks” with any recommendations along with any contact information you might have.

It’s time that the foundation of our rebirth, big or little, be recognized and appreciated for their efforts.

Also see:

Building Blocks: Rahwa Ghirmatzion

Building Blocks: Anthony Caferro

Building Blocks: Kevin Gardner

Written by Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson moved from Melbourne, Australia to Buffalo, New York when he was 13 years old. After consistently relocating to different countries around the world, his family fell in love with the charm of the City of Buffalo and the people who call it home.

After high school, Evan attended Indiana University and studied politics. Upon returning to Buffalo he became an Adult Education Instructor for BOCES before teaching ESL to refugees in the Buffalo Public Schools. Evan then taught and volunteered abroad living in South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.

He currently works in adventure tourism and plays music in local bands.

View All Articles by Evan Thompson
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