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Jazz and Arts Spotlight: Outpost 186 in Cambridge

An unmarked hotspot, hidden entrance and word-of-mouth crowd are all part of a speakeasy's allure. The intimate 25-seat Outpost 186, a unique art, media and performance space in Cambridge, Mass., is none of those things on purpose (but unlike a speakeasy, no alcohol or beverages are served there).

Often hard for first-timers to locate, a YouTube video provides tips on finding the venue for those attending one of the regular experimental and improvised music performances held there. It's located in a building that Founder Rob Chalfen's family has owned for over a century.

Avant-garde saxophone player Joe McPhee will be playing at Outpost 186 in Cambridge on Saturday January 24, 2015 with Daniel Levin and Chris Corsano.

"My great aunt Sophie ran it as a boarding house before 1920," Chalfen said. "I recently came into sole possession. It's the former site of the New Words feminist bookstore."

The building's colorful history matches Chalfen's cultural background, growing up in the epicenter of Massachusetts' art and music scene with his dad, a classical pianist and painter, and mom, a "jitterbugging jazz record collector" who founded The Newton Arts Center and was active in the early days of WGBH radio.

"Tiny Trails" by Aria Tudanger whose work is currently on exhibit at Outpost.

I recently caught up with Chalfen to talk about why he started Outpost and learn more about it. If you might want to check out a show, class or exhibit, you can see the calendar of events .

What was the inspiration for starting Outpost 186?

Outpost was the lineal continuation of Al Nidle's Zeitgeist Gallery, where I worked with him as the latest of a long series of galleries, publications (Street Magazine), a publisher's group (Small Press Alliance), low-power FM community radio (Radio Free Cambridge, Radio Pandemonium) and other alternative-culture projects. Al moved out of Cambridge and is currently running Zeitgeist Lowell.

Can you talk a little about your background in music?

I studied classical piano with Alfred Kahnwisher and blues piano with Muddy Waters' pianist Dave Maxwell. I hung around the '60s folk scene as a kid and met various old-time bluesmen like Bukka White, Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry and Muddy Waters. Later I was in bands and the whole psych/blues/rock shtick. I've played piano, cornet, sax, flute, drums and tissue-paper comb. At UMass Amherst I studied jazz performance with Max Roach and percussion with Vishnu Wood.

What has the evolution of Outpost 186 been like since it began?

I've tried to create it as a sort of positive feedback circuit for creativity and innovation in the arts, as opposed to conventional entertainments, which have their outlets elsewhere. As such, I think it's been pretty much a success. I hope that it's a contribution to the culture of the city. People tell me that they appreciate it.

Is there anything that surprises people when they first come to Outpost 186?

That such a place could still exist! Also that nothing is served; it's just music and chairs.

For people who may not have heard about you before, can you briefly explain what is offered there and the hours/days you're open?

Experimental/improvised chamber-type music, jazz on the modern tip, some folkie stuff, poetry, scary cold-war movies, fine art. Outpost is open during performance times only, typically 8-10 pm.

What kind of opportunities are there for community musicians, artists, performers to participate?

Outpost operates mostly as a rental, so anyone can apply to play, but I curate it, acting as a filter to select the most sonic and conceptually adventurous stuff, and pass on most amplified conventional rock and dance stuff.

Anything new or upcoming that you're excited about?

My subconsciouscafe production series is bringing in some great jazz masters like Ras Moshe, Joe McPhee, Dan Levin and Dave Burrell through the spring (2015).

Outpost 186 186 ½ Hampshire St.
Inman Square
Robchalfen [at]

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