January 11, 2011
All that jazz
During the daylight hours, Shaggy Hair Boy and I wandered around the city, walking through neighborhoods that reminded me of Sesame Street, stopping to buy bagels or hot soup, going into churches with big stained glass windows, and taking the train whenever we felt like exploring a new section of the city.
But at night, we went to jazz clubs.
Shaggy Hair Boy plays both classical piano and jazz piano, but he doesn’t get much opportunity in Snowstorm City to hear live music. In Big City Like No Other, there were so many venues to choose from that we couldn’t fit it into three nights, although we tried our best.
The first night, we went with Brooklyn Friend to Birdland, the famous midtown jazz club. We’d heard the pianist on youtube so we knew the music was going to be good. On the train, Shaggy Hair said to me, “How big of a place is this going to be? Like … the size of a gymnasium?” I think he was thinking of the music festivals his older siblings have gone to; they sometimes have to stand in big crowds of people for hours just to get a glimpse of the performers.
When we walked into Birdland, Shaggy Hair Boy was surprised and pleased. It’s a smallish restaurant, with three semi-circles of tables. “This is sooo much nicer than I thought,” he said. We chose a table about 15 feet from the black grand piano. It’s an elegant place, with white tablecloths, men in suits and women in black dresses, delicious food served quietly. Since I don’t drink and Shaggy Hair Boy is underage, I told Brooklyn Friend she was our designated drinker, and she obligingly ordered a glass of wine. Shaggy Hair Boy ordered tiramisu, even though he had no idea what that might be, because he thought the name sounded cool.
The little tables are quite close together, like they often are in urban restaurants, and I know the etiquette is to ignore the people right next to you, but naturally, I couldn’t resist talking to the man next to me, a well-dressed distinguished man who seemed to know everyone in the place. I told him that Shaggy Hair Boy played the piano, and that’s why we were sitting where we could watch the pianist’s hands.
Distinguished Man said, “Oh, your son must meet him.” He went off somewhere and returned with a man in dark suit, whom we recognized as the pianist we’d come to see. He walked around the tables to come shake Shaggy Hair Boy’s hand and introduce himself. He chatted with us for quite a while, asking Shaggy Hair Boy who he was taking lessons from, where he was going to college, and that kind of thing. I introduced myself by saying, “I’m Shaggy Hair Boy’s mother.” He laughed as he took my hand and said, “What? You don’t have a first name?”
He couldn’t have been nicer. He talked with us until the drummer signaled him from the bar area, and he went to take his seat at the piano bench. Shaggy Hair Boy turned to give me a big smile and then focused his attention back to the piano. Six more musicians came out— three violins, a cello, a bass, and the drums — and we settled down for a wonderful night of music. I think Shaggy Hair Boy had expected to hear some of the jazz standards he’s learned, but instead we heard lots of contemporary music, jazzed up. We stayed until the end, of course – as did everyone in the room — and then Shaggy Hair Boy went over to buy a CD and talk again to the pianist, who said to him, “I have no doubt we’ll meet again.”
That night, when we got back to Brooklyn Friend’s apartment, Shaggy Hair Boy was so filled with adrenaline that he couldn’t sleep. He used Brooklyn Friend’s computer to send an email to the extended family; he knew his grandfather in particular was eager to hear about the night. He ended up writing a ridiculous long email, including such details as, “This place had the longest crackers I’ve ever seen,” and “My mother didn’t know you could buy Metro cards out of a machine until I showed her.”
The next evening, we met my sister Urban Sophisticate at Smoke, a jazz club on the upper west side. It was a long narrow restaurant, with white tablecloths, great food, and red velvet curtains hanging behind the quartet who played while we ate. “When your great grandmother was growing up, she lived 20 blocks uptown from here,” Urban Sophisticate told Shaggy Hair Boy.
I’d forgotten that. My mother’s mother lived in Harlem near the beginning of the last century. Her father was the rector at the church, and my sister has actually gone back to the same church, which is still there.
After we said goodbye to my sister, who had to work the next day, we took the train down to the village to go to a small jazz club a friend had told me about. The club was marked only by a little neon sign that said smalls. (I’m not even using pseudonyms for the names of the clubs because they already sound like pseudonyms to me.) We walked down a staircase into a narrow, dimly lit basement room that held a bar, a bunch of random chairs, and at the very end, a black Steinway grand piano that someone told us was over a hundred years old. There were mirrors and posters and musical instruments in dark cases piled up the corner.
We took two chairs right up close to the piano, so that we were basically sitting with the musicians. One trio played, and then another, and then somewhere around midnight, they began what they called the After Hours Jam Session. That was the coolest part. A trio of musicians would begin a melody, and then another musician would join in, walking to the front of the room, and taking a solo. First a man with a trumpet, maybe, and then a woman with a saxophone. Eventually, they’d end that song, and someone different would sit down at the drums, or maybe the bass, and then they’d start another. More and more musicians showed up as the night went on, and I lost track of how many different ones we heard.
Every time I looked around, I saw people unpacking or packing up instruments. It seemed like many of them just came for a song or two, or maybe a drink, and then they’d leave, and other musicians would arrive. Some of them seemed to know each other, but sometimes also I’d hear people introducing themselves to each other just before a number would begin. We were sitting so close that we could hear all the conversations.
When I was a kid, my father and his friends would jam in the basement of Picnic Family’s house. We kids would play on the floor beneath the music, just hanging out as they played. This place wasn’t much bigger than that, and the informal feel was just the same. We stayed until the place closed, sometime after 3 am.
We heard other music too on this trip– a woman playing jazz piano at Arturo’s, two different groups of musicians at Fat Cat, and even a young man playing piano in Washington Square — but Birdland and smalls were what made the trip really special. And of course, we’ve still got a long list of clubs to check out next time ….
Posted by jo(e)