Jasper Stadhouders was in a musical trance, immersed in his guitar at the Downtown Music Gallery, a tiny record store in New York City. Beads of sweat appeared on his furrowed brow, his eyes were scrunched shut. His hands channeled his whole body, as they traversed the neck of his well-used electric guitar, festooned with worn stickers. He used a spoon, both as a string tapping implement and a percussive tool, on the body of his guitar. The spoon was soon replaced by a sharp, dagger-shaped rock, stroked like a bow across the six strings. At one point, he paused, to detune his guitar.
Stadhouders, 35, is that rare guitarist who can play any genre of music on his instrument. He does that to dizzying complexity with a variety of ensembles and bands across Europe, where he is based. This recent evening was just him cutting loose, stepping beyond the structures that define what is musical, surrounded by towering racks of CDs and records. He explained that a trip to America isn’t complete without a pilgrimage to the Downtown Music Gallery (DMG), a rare space in the pantheon of free, improvisational music.
Every Tuesday, the DMG in Manhattan’s Chinatown transforms from just a store to an underground music venue. Down a decrepit set of stairs on the non-descript Monroe Street, between the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges, a coven of seemingly mad musical scientists pushed the very boundaries of sound creation. Some bands veered toward brief melodic interludes of haunting beauty, others eschewed the hubris of pitch, scale and rhythm. Instruments were turned into adventures, with fresh discoveries around every guitar neck or snare drum.
Owner and co-founder Bruce Lee Gallanter, 68, has been a one-man institution for this underground scene. He started hosting gigs at his store over 30 years ago and curated a style of music called Downtown Music, a loose term coined for jazz musicians from the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
“It’s an open-ended thing. Downtown music is people not worrying about a genre,” explained Gallanter. “They’re gonna try to do whatever they want to do. They’re gonna borrow from different genres. This way people don’t set expectations too much. When you play jazz, people expect you to play in a certain way.”
The DMG provided a platform for artists playing genre-bending free music that encompassed avant-garde jazz and contemporary composition, experimental and improvisational music from around the world.
Every Tuesday at 6 p.m. Gallanter and whoever is around to help, move racks of records, to create a little room for a stage. They bring out a drum kit and amps, usually tucked away behind shelves and set up a slew of fold out chairs in the narrow aisles. Musicians descend the stairs carrying their instruments and set up quickly. All of a sudden, the record store was transformed into a concert stage. It was a place where musicians felt free to express themselves through open improvisation.
“So you’re in this place, it’s like a crossroads of the world, and yet you’re entirely local,” said Mark Daterman, 56, who is a retired school teacher and lifelong musician who has known Gallanter for over 40 years. “There’s an international thing going on that’s connected to Europe and all the different scenes all over the place. And Bruce is connected to all that,” he said.
This sapling of a community blossomed into a full tree over the last three decades to pull in musicians, record labels, collectors, customers, listeners and friends into the orbit of the gentle, but astute Gallanter. He has a quick, open smile, expressive eyes behind his rimmed spectacles, a shock of white hair and humor tinged interactions with his customers. His easy manner is belied by a formidable musical intellect that combines a finely honed instinct for sonic greatness with an encyclopedic, granular memory for names, dates, performances and stories.
“It’s like we’re a family in this place. People feel that vibe and feel at home. They don’t get this snooty record guy that’s gonna make fun of their music taste,” said Gallanter.
For Gallanter, buying Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ pathbreaking debut album, Freak Out, as a 13-year-old, sparked a lifelong obsession with music.
“I’ve worked at Tower Records and we executives would talk but nobody listens to as much music as Bruce. I mean, he’s in a league of his own,” shared Rob Tefft, 60, a regular in the audience at the DMG. Tefft was once in management at the legendary record store before it shut down in 2006.
From 2003 to 2009, the DMG was in the Bowery, just around the corner from a branch of Tower Records. There was a cluster of around 15 record stores occupying the area but most of them closed after they couldn’t afford rent anymore, Gallanter recalled.
In 2009, Gallanter was forced to move DMG to its current Chinatown location after the rent for the Bowery store increased from $4,000 a month to $10,000. He had already struggled to make the $4,000, due to a downturn in the sales of CDs and records after the advent of easily accessible digital music, first on listening devices and then on phones.
The DMG has stayed afloat through three decades and the Covid-19 pandemic thanks to its global mail order business. Every week, Gallanter sends out an email newsletter to over 7,000 subscribers. He writes reviews, features and has a catalog of available music, both new and old. Locked down during the pandemic, the newsletter became a space for him to express more personal feelings and memories, a lifeline for Gallanter. It was hard for him to stay home when the store occupied such a vital part of his life and routine.
“There was this feeling of universal loneliness,” said Gallanter. “I don’t live with anybody and I felt kind of lost. I did my best to take care of myself every day. I would go and sit on the train platform near where I lived because that’s the highest point in Rahway and I watched the sunset. I learned to pace myself and to do some meditation and listen to the birds chirping. That helped me deal with things better.”
Once the newsletter hits inboxes, customers order hundreds of rare CDs via email, DMG’s store on Discogs.com, or directly through record labels like Tzadik, (owned by the prolific composer/musician John Zorn) for which DMG is a distributor. The store is a specially curated assemblage of music. Most of the catalog is composed of small record labels that are self produced by the musicians. Some are collectors items that can’t be found anywhere else. This is music that would have been lost to the world if not for the DMG, which also remains an important center to nurture musicians.
Claire de Brunner has been playing the bassoon for over 45 years and has been a fixture at the DMG, both on and off stage, since 2007.
“Bruce really cares about the music. He knows about the music,” said de Brunner. “He’s doing it out of the goodness of his heart, and when we play here, we don’t make any money. So it’s really, you know, a musician’s place to play and that’s why it’s special.”
Despite the love and support they have nurtured, sustaining the store and the scene is looking increasingly more difficult for Gallanter. He shared, “Over the last couple of years our mail order has been slowing down and people are buying less CDs. So I’m trying to figure out what I’m gonna do with this place. At this point we’re having a hard time paying the rent.”
Beyond his responsibilities to the store, Gallanter has a private musical life. He has amassed over 100,000 rare records, CDs and cassette tapes that comprise his personal collection, along with almost 3000 concerts that he has recorded over the decades. The sheer volume of this vast analog collection has taken over his two bedroom apartment in Rahway, New Jersey, leaving him space for a work desk, a half kitchen and a bed.
“I’d like to have my home back, and find a safe space for the music,” said Gallanter, who lives very frugally to support a robust scene that is completely free. No money has ever exchanged hands at the DMG gigs.
Reflecting on his legacy, Gallanter said he wanted to create a library that would house his collection of music after he passes on. Something that would serve as a repository for musicians, academics, journalists and music lovers. For him, this is how music and musicians that would otherwise be forgotten could be enshrined in the collective cultural memory. Gallanter is currently seeking help to finance, set up, and sustain this publicly accessible, free archive of rare music.
“I find that creative music inspires people. I find that free music, free gigs is an example of democracy in the making because it’s a bunch of humans creating something,” said Gallanter reflecting on his years in music. “They don’t have to speak the same language, they just have to understand the parameters of creating stuff. It’s more about cooperation and understanding than it is about division and all the other stuff that breathes down our backs and separates us.”
Here’s a video of Bruce Lee Gallanter talking about his dream of creating a music library where people could donate their rare collections before they pass on. Watch for information on how you can be part of it.