Monday, 14 January 2013


Take the ‘A’ Train to Sugar Hill.
   Looking for something away from the standard New York tourist trail, I happened on an entry for Marjorie Eliot’s jazz concerts. The first time I saw Marjorie was in a movie starring Al Pacino as a cop named Frank Serpico. Marjorie portrayed the victim of violent crime in one of the world’s most brutal cities…
   New York: in the 1970s, as much known for being the Bad Apple as for the jazz-man’s appellation Big Apple. These days, New York is still a dangerous place – for different reasons. Witness the flooding as a storm comes calling at high tide. Waves wave the subway goodbye.
   The next time I saw Marjorie Eliot, she was opening her apartment door to me in Edgecombe Avenue. Jazz splashed into the hallway, as though some elixir of life escaped its confines – spreading vitality to the wider world note by note.
   If you think you’ve discovered jazz by listening to any of the ordinary popular mass-market releases of the past fifteen years…then that’s your thought and good for you. Dig deep. Find Fats Waller tinkling those ivories. Discover Lady Day doing incredible things to incredible songs.
   There are no mistakes in jazz. In jazz, there is simply…improvisation. Jazz has many homes. Sometimes it seems as though jazz has no home at all. It throws a hat on a peg and calls a hallway home, for the time being.
   This is the story of my visit to one of the many homes of jazz. A big green apple painted in skyscraper tones – New York, New York. Though it’s not just the dizzying skyscraper heights that seem made for jazz.
   You can also feel that decadent vibe underground. The subway is packed with people, and scattered with musicians who will veer in and out of jazz as the mood takes them. It is illegal to beg on the subway.
   If, however, you happen to sing as you stroll down a railway carriage…
   And you happen to be holding an empty cup in your hand…
   Who are you to complain if people decide to throw money into that cup?
   No matter how refined jazz becomes, there’s always going to be that hint of decadence about the music. By decadence, I mean fun. What you mean by fun is your own business.
   Mr Einstein’s equation E = mc2 can also be written mc2 = E. Taking a leaf out of that book, it’s possible to say, no matter how decadent jazz becomes, there’s always going to be a hint of refinement about the music.
   Whisper this, folks. Jazz isn’t exactly the new kid on the musical block. There was a time when jazz was wholly reviled and simultaneously praised as a rebellious lowdown dirty young item. That era is not the period through which we’ve lived. I’m wary of nostalgia for a time that never was.
   Why jazz? They keep telling us jazz is dead. And we let them tell that lie so we have more jazz to ourselves. When writing fiction, you shouldn’t listen too closely to the music in the background. If you do, you won’t be writing fiction – you’ll be listening to music. Let the background sound slide around.
   Jazz knows how to slide.
   I listen to instrumental jazz in the background. Or movie scores. Sometimes I combine the effects and listen to a jazzy movie score. If I want to stop writing and listen to vocal jazz, I will. Anyway, when writing fiction don’t get too caught up in the music.
   Plenty of people will tell you they hate jazz, though they’ll not realise they’ve enjoyed it in movies down the years. Jazz doesn’t have to try too hard. It isn’t there pretending to be cool or affecting a pose. Oh, people attempted to force that foolishness into every aspect of culture – even jazz. Charlatans are soon unmasked.
   My trip to Marjorie’s home began with a transatlantic telephone call. I decided to invest in the expense. There’s a miserly Scottish theme to this tale that I must return to. For once in my life, I was delighted to be put on hold while the answering service kicked in.
   Music played while I waited. This was clearly a jazz recording made by the musicians who regularly attended Marjorie’s apartment concerts. Once in a lifetime, I enjoyed the music playing while I was on hold. I left a message saying I’d try to drop by and catch a Sunday concert.
   And so…
   There I was in New York on a Sunday afternoon, heading for Harlem. I was low on time, having swept in from Coney Island. I’ll do my bit for tourism and say I really liked the aquarium down there.
   How to get to Harlem from midtown? Take the ‘A’ Train to Sugar Hill. That blue ACE line beckons. My best bet is actually the C train. There are no C trains to the stop I’m after. Instructions posted to subway pillars warn that C trains are temporarily out of commission. Either take the A train or hop on the red 123 line and pull the ripcord as you near journey’s end.
   I turn to look for the A train’s location. An Asian man is one step ahead of me. He spends time rattling the metal gate clamped across the route to the A train. I hop one step ahead of him by marching to the surface and heading for the red line and a rendezvous with the red uptown train.
   That was my original plan. Penn Station was closest, and I considered the red uptown train. But I was looking to do a tourist thing. Taking the A train. A blue train. To Sugar Hill. The frantic trip through Penn Station to reach a red line uptown train didn’t quite turn me into a native New Yorker.
   But I could see why so many people bustled.
   Take the ‘A’ Train is almost an Ellington composition. There was an Ellingtonian hand to the music – and that hand belonged to the Duke’s son, Mercer. Billy Strayhorn threw the piece into the round filing-cabinet. Mercer’s hand reached in and saved the composition from obscurity. The Duke adopted Strayhorn’s number as the band’s anthem.
   There’ll be no A train for me today as I head for Sugar Hill. I am, of course, wrong.
   Harlem. The Jazz Age. Prohibition. Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes. The Cotton Club. Duke Ellington. By the time I pass through the turnstile and head for Harlem, I’ve already been through the place and enjoyed raucous jazz at a reconstituted Cotton Club.
   So I’m returning to Harlem. And I’ll bump into someone I met there. Small world.
   Keeping an eye on the stations. I cross 110th, thinking of movies from 1970-land. The Seven-Ups, Across 110th Street, The French Connection, and, naturally, Serpico. I’d read the book by Peter Maas. Frank Serpico’s dissection of cop-speak had me in stitches.
   I was no longer travelling through the New York of the Jazz Age, or the violent New York of so many cop movies. The producer of Serpico, Martin Bregman, had trouble getting the film into production after a glut of violent cop movies in the early 1970s.
   New York had a violent reputation and dined out on it for decades after the crime statistics started to fall. Blinking on emerging from the subterranean journey, I walk through a lovely sunny afternoon. The only crime was that the afternoon wouldn’t last.
   By this time I’m up in the 150s. Most of my tourist maps don’t climb that high, which is a crying shame. There is much to see downtown, but there’s much to see all over New York, and by that I refuse to restrict my definition to the isle of Manhattan.
   You might be forgiven for thinking that the area’s favourite son is Duke Ellington. Passing the Duke Ellington School, I walk through a very Spanish Harlem in which most of the inhabitants indulge in a love of what I can only describe as street chess.
   No, they don’t race along the canyons passing pawns to each other. That image was prompted by my walk to Washington Square, when I shadowed a game of American Basket Football.
   The school may be named for the Duke, but Tito Puente is the local hero in this street going by what’s playing on the air. I’m now late for the start of the concert. Let’s say I’m stylishly late.
   I’ve reconnoitred the landscape in my mind. Leave the train. Head north. Turn east. Catch sight of the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Turn right and I’m on Edgecombe Avenue at a building Duke Ellington might have called a Harlem Airshaft. The building is no mere airshaft. Paul Robeson once called it home.
   Triple Nickel. So called for the 555 address. An inhabitant strolls out into the glorious daylight. I ask if Marjorie Eliot is still running concerts.
   “I believe so.”
   Armed with that information, knowing she hadn’t missed a Sunday concert, I advance on Marjorie’s abode. I am buzzed in to reach apartment 3F. This makes me nervous. I have no desire to upset the music by throwing in a note of discord.
   There are no mistakes in jazz. In jazz, there is simply…improvisation. My improvised trip across the city carries me to this point. I expect the musicians will work around my unexpected note. Marjorie opens the door. There’s a cliché here that happens to be true…
   You just follow the sound of the concert to find the right door.
   She welcomes me and throws a jazz tune at me by uttering the words Special Dispensation. At least, those words sound like a jazz tune. Composers had a lot of fun with wordplay. I think of Minor Yours by Art Pepper or Jumpin’ off a Clef by Al Haig.
   Music soars. I warm to Marjorie for her use of the phrase in our brief conversation. She says more than I do. We cause minimal fuss to the guests. It’s standing-room only for me. Not everyone can stay for the second set, so Marjorie assures me I will be seated eventually.
   Sunday. I’m late to the party, and pass well below the salt. But I don’t mind. I’m practically in the kitchen. The view is unimportant. I’m there to listen. Dozens of people are crammed in. Mentally, I see an empty space gradually fill as folding chairs stretch their legs. There’s much preparation in making wonderful music happen. Many rituals are involved.
   I hear the bass-man doing his thing. He’s giving Jimmy Garrison a run for his money.
   Straight down the apartment’s right side is the hall. More chairs are camped there. I spy Marjorie’s friends and all the regular visitors. You couldn’t be happier to see a more mixed bunch of enthusiasts. I come under the heading of irregular visitor.
   There’s a familiar face in the crowd.
   Out of sadness, music. Marjorie started the concerts to fill the despair of a Sunday on which her son died. During a break in the concert, I’ll spot a dedication carved to a second son. There isn’t a sad atmosphere, though. The jazz is terrific.
   Marjorie has a sense of pride in the arrangement of a structured jazz concert. Even the buzzer, admitting another latecomer, chimes with what’s going on. The music flows. It is divided into two vast sets of an hour each. Vast, though over too quickly.
   The afternoon daylight mellows and the blue fairy lights come on. There’s a break, and some leave-taking. Everyone is offered one of those Granola-type health bars and a cold fruit drink. I pocket the bar for later and consume that fruit drink.
   There’s a chance to take a few photos of the piano and the bass. I sit, framing the shot through an arch. And I do something I’ve done several times before. Not paid attention.
   I commit to the centre of the image and snap away. The light is fading. Only much later, do I realise that a woman leaned against the arch and canted her head in a pose for my photograph. If I’d looked left or right, I’d have taken that in.
   It’s absurd that I didn’t see this. She’s RIGHT THERE in the picture.
   We kick off with the second set, and I sense something about Marjorie’s pride in a structured jazz concert. The music lives. I suspect, strongly, that we’ll be given a performance of the Rodgers-Hart number, My Funny Valentine.
   There’s no mention of this, except through the vibe in the air. Light fades as flowers do. Early evening. Marjorie takes a turn at the piano. There’s the illusion of singing. She plays without opening her mouth. I think of Chet Baker and Julie London. (Both are represented on the soundtrack to yet another 1970s cop movie, Sharkey’s Machine. Burt Reynolds didn’t film in New York, though.)
   Jazz invites darkness, though the fading light is a welcome thing. The humanity of the artistry fills the space. For a few minutes, it’s all about Marjorie working her way through pain in a beautiful rendition of a classic. I’m happy to put her arrangement up there with some very big jazz names.
   To finish the show, the musicians gather and belt out…
   Of course. I do take that A train in the end. Musically, at least. Mercer Ellington’s hand reaches into the basket and saves a tune played in Marjorie Eliot’s packed parlour. That’s almost the final note. I meet a familiar face.
   She’s my tour-guide from earlier in the week. We went around in her company and stopped off at the Cotton Club. She’d never been to Marjorie’s before. Sunday wasn’t even her day off – she’d handled a gospel tour that morning. I suspected she’d return to Marjorie’s – a business card was handed over. My writer’s mind says a friendship was formed.
   Marjorie came by. She thanked me for being so patient without a chair and, by extension, without a view. I declared that even from around the corner, I could tell that she had a great bass-man who really enjoyed what he was doing.
   The great bass-man instantly loomed over me to thank me profusely for that. It was time to take my leave, so I returned to Marjorie for that long-shot. There’s a miserly Scottish theme to this tale that I must return to.
   I took a chance on the concert being there. This was my last night in New York. In Scotland, I’d stuffed an envelope with dollars for the concert. What if the concert doesn’t go ahead? Spend the money on food during your last day in New York. You’ll still have to eat before you fly home.
   In the Jazz Age, inhabitants of Harlem Airshafts would throw rent parties. I wasn’t in the Jazz Age, and the Triple Nickel isn’t exactly an airshaft. No – Marjorie’s concert wasn’t a house-rent party. I am Scottish, and miserly, and never put money in an envelope for her. If you hear a vicious rumour of that stripe, ignore it.
   I handed her the money in the envelope and she, not expecting that, thanked me. The cash went some way to defraying the cost of feeding the musicians, I’m sure. With that, I was out the door. At home, I’d stare at a Chet Baker album. Minor Yours. Jumpin’ off a Clef. No. My Funny Valentine is on the other disc. I went through the photographs and discovered that a woman had improvised a pose…


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