Stories and observations around four days in October spent in New York City covering two nights of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s sets at Harlem Stage
Cold, Wet, and Expensive
The Quest for the Finest Chicken and Waffles in the Land
I’m Not Stalking Marcus Gilmore
…But I Never Did Take The A Train
Artist Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
A Sleep-Induced Accidental Walk
SoHo and a Bad But Probably Misunderstood Vibe
Thanks Yous and Shout Outs
In six years of working together, Nextbop co-founder Sebastién Hélary and I had never met. I happened upon the site after Patrick Jarenwattananon coordinated the Jazz Now lists at NPR’s A Blog Supreme, a collection of lists of albums various jazz journalists and bloggers would use to introduce a newcomer to the genre but only albums made in the last twenty years. I contributed a list of my own on a blog that I had previously been using for unedited drafts of editorials in my college newspaper but was at the time using for playlists of the KRTU San Antonio radio show that had recently been handed over to me, The Line-Up. Jarenwattananon posted that list on A Blog Supreme; Seb read my picks and went through my past playlists, and reached out to me to ask if I wanted to write for the site on a weekly basis. I said sure and eventually my editorial skills shone through which ultimately led to me becoming editor of the site. All of our correspondence in all this time had been digital– email, Facebook messages, Skype calls and Google Hangouts. I’ve told this story before. I’ve told this story numerous times like those funny little anecdotes one tells at parties like how I got a bum knee for sliding down an escalator or that time I failed to get the late Roscoe Lee Browne to say “rubber baby buggy bumpers”. These are curious occurrences that seem all too fascinating, little jewels of time that sparkle in my life, let out for others to see when polished, framed, and gussied up for company.
Thus, after so long of us working together and the increasing desire to have a conversation without it be through the pecking of thumbs on phones, which honestly isn’t conducive to paragraph structure at length, we determined that it was due time to meet. After much discussion, we felt it appropriate to meet in New York City, the jazz mecca, to coincide with our good friend trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s Harlem Stage shows in celebration of the release of his new album, Stretch Music (Introducing Elena Pinderhughes). So Seb hit up Christian to coordinate the coverage, plans were eventually made for the first weekend of October, and we eventually made our way there. Steps were put in order, to some fuzzy degree. Our purpose for this trip has some vague clarity– cover Christian’s shows, finally meet, catch some other shows, see the sights. This was some semblance of a plan but I had no idea what I would face. There was no definite sense of accomplishment. There was no clear goal in mind. Anything could happen, which is normally exciting or could fill one with trepidation, but for me, I was somewhat blank. Every friend I told about this trip was excited for me, which only left me feeling cold and them warm with some lingering resentment, my normal response to the expectation of emotion. I was dodgy and sullen inside, but trying myself to put on a cheerful face. Yet as I mentally prepared for this trip as time approached — considering how much money to save for one of the most expensive cities on earth, thinking about the impending hurricane gaining strength as it approaches the eastern seaboard, tracking down who I’d try to run into from the jazz world and of various friends from college — I still wasn’t quite sure what I would encounter. Yet as the trip grew nearer, this unsurity was likely key to enjoying this trip altogether.
Cold, Wet, and Expensive
Hurricane Joaquin was building alongside the eastern seaboard. Throughout the last week of September, the storm system steadily built up, gaining strength while plopping on Bermuda for a day before broaching the east coast, certainly tearing up all the Category 3 hurricane could while seriously affecting the weather of the space surrounding it, the New York state area included. South Carolina would ultimately get slammed, the storm causing billions of dollars in damages. Moisture and cold peppered New York, resulting in a cold and wet first weekend of October that somehow brightened up by Sunday, just in time for the Polish Parade which would make its way down Fifth Avenue before I left town but would block traffic downtown all the same. I had my eye on this weather pattern before I began my travels. All my trips usually involve some two weeks of mental packing and periodic checking of the weather, adapting in advance so the real time work can happen when it needs to. I never was a Boy Scout, but somewhere along the line, I tried to get my writer’s version of “Be Prepared” down. I knew it would rain that weekend, that the temperature would hover between the 50s and 60s, that it’d be bleary but not unbearable, nothing I couldn’t hack with my trusty cardigan and the outer shell of my all weather jacket I had bought at the Phipps Target back in Atlanta almost a decade ago. I felt a certain pride as the travelling man, preparing myself for the elements.
I had a concern for years about New York City. I had heard tales of its high expenses. I was baffled at the prices of things from stories but I couldn’t truly believe it with my own eyes, no matter how much I steeled myself. I knew something was up when I saw the line for cabs and learned it was $55 into Manhattan, however it was $16 for a bus into Port Authority Bus Station in Times Square. …And we’re off to the races. I peered out the window of the bus, taking in the sights as New Jersey eventually gave way to New York. I tried my best to maintain my jadedness that I held for so long for the city, but as the bus passed the shimmering, crystal-clear New York Times building before pulling into the Port Authority, I was indeed struck. Damn, I was in New York City. Not long after, I emerged from the bus station and hit the street, I took a brief moment to walk a couple blocks, realizing I was in Times Square, that this is that place that everyone talks about, that there are Broadway theaters strewn all about here, that it’s perfectly alright to look around for a minute instead of barrelling through to some agenda. I peered in wonderment, allowing myself moments of awe, like any normal feeling human would do to such grandiosity. Nevertheless, I limited all stupor-filled wandering to those two rain-spattered blocks, for I soon typed Ginny’s Supper Club into my Nexus 6’s Google Maps app and determined a route on the subway to Harlem.
Ginny’s Supper Club sits in the basement of the Red Rooster at West 126th St. and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. It’s part of a pocket of Harlem that’s on the come up and the prices at assorted bars and restaurants in the area are coming up with that prestige. It’s part of what a friend described as people trying to bring about “that new Harlem Renaissance”, though that may not be possible in Harlem’s specific economic landscape quite yet. I was here for pianist Ray Angry‘s set that Meghan Stabile put together for Revive Music. The place felt swanky and had a nice vibe; I felt underdressed but passable (cardigans make everything possible, cardigans class up anything, cardigans are grown up hoodies). Yet there were only three beer taps I could see and they were all unlabeled, stark wooden blocks. Upon inquiry, I learned the drafts were broken. The bottled beer was filled with mostly the usual macrobrewery selections, lagers and pilsners, which I tend not to drink. So I had a fifteen dollar drink full of bourbon and ginger and other assorted spices. Seb arrived and we embraced immediately, found a table and gawked the menu, ultimately deciding the prices forced us out of eating there this evening, so I resolved myself to having my second fifteen dollar drink of the night. The Marc Cary jam session at Gin Fizz upstairs next door was about the same– a paltry beer selection and ghastly prices. Coming from San Antonio where craft beer is sweeping through the city, and speaking as a guy who has been bartending recently at the chillest little craft beer bar in town with a significant employee discount, my disappointment was palpable. Everywhere I seemed to turn, I was surrounded by $8 Coronas and Heinekens pitted against the option of $13 cocktails. So many meals were between $20-$30. Toiletries were twice what they should be in every CVS and Duane Reade Pharmacy. Over time, I had developed the theory that the costs of everything were so high in Manhattan not because of baseline supply & demand or population density but because everything here was being imported onto an island.
It was all some confluence of elements that made sure the grandiosity of the city couldn’t be camouflaged. Yes, Manhattan is charming, but I wasn’t charmed by it. I felt about it the same way I do with hip hop– I understand its appeal and even like its great works, but it’s not a thing I’d like to spend much time in or specialize in because it doesn’t suit me. It epitomized everything about one of those places where one would want to visit but wouldn’t want to live because it epitomized every fear one had about the city. I had said it was prohibitively expensive and everything I saw proved it to be true. Perhaps it was argument by anecdote. Maybe I was wandering into all the wrong places. I could have by chance stumbled upon too much of the upscale. However, all I had was affirmation and it was enough for me. I wasn’t wrong about this place, to my benefit and to my wallet’s detriment.
Late one night as Seb and I were wandering the streets of Manhattan in amazed confusion, not certain of Google’s advice and a bit turned around, a guy noticed our predicament and asked us where we were looking for. We told him the cross street. He told us it was on the right. We thanked him and turned right. As we walked, he asked us for two dollars for a beer. A number of thoughts went through my mind immediately: 1) I generally don’t give out money to panhandlers. 2) Having now been in the city for a few days, I’ve seen $2 not stretch very far here. It’s a drop in the bucket on the way to a beer. That seems like some marathon task in this place. 3) Dude, all you did was say “turn right”. There weren’t any other directions than that. It was literally one direction. We weren’t even that lost. Five more minutes and we’d have found it. That’s not worth two entire dollars.
We kept walking. He followed us, getting louder. “You can’t spare $2 for a beer?! I was at least being honest!” We quickened our pace some until we arrived at the hotel in peace. Aggressive panhandling adjusted by inflation– yeah, that sounds like the New York I imagined.
The Quest for the Finest Chicken and Waffles in the Land
My friend, J.D. Swerzenski, reminded me recently that I have been on a quest for the finest chicken and waffles in the land for more than five years now. I’ve mentioned this quest in my past writings, numerous Instagram posts, and prattling occasions with friends. To many, I’m the jazz guy, but I’m also the chicken and waffles guy, or the guy who talks too fast, or the guy who still never learned to drive. It’s one of those attributes about me that had become somehow iconic. So when I entered Terminal B of the San Antonio International Airport, a straight shot terminal that could be almost referred to as a hallway that services airplanes even though it serves America’s seventh largest city, I went with the usually ill-advised idea of eating food at an airport, having seen them available at the Alamo Alehouse on the breakfast menu. It ended up being the epitomization of airport food– the waffle and chicken were almost certainly prepackaged, but this, too, was part of the quest. Finding the finest chicken and waffles isn’t the point of the quest, it’s unlikely that I’d stop having the dish altogether once I have determined to have found them. The value of the quest is in the quest itself– it is in the seeking, in the discovery, good or ill, in which I find satisfaction. Even the worst chicken and waffles — the Eggo waffle, the tiny, bland grocery store wings — provides some additional step in the quest.
I had always constrained the limits of the quest. The quest always defined “the land” as South Central Texas. I had done so to avert disappointment at my little resources and my general lack of travel. Yet my hunger for fulfillment in combination with my literal hunger couldn’t hold back the idea of figuring out how these chicken and waffles are, no matter how far outside of Texas I may be. Yet such a hedging always felt like cowardice, like I didn’t have it in me to make such a journey in the way I felt it needed. Like I in the back of my mind felt relief to have missed Dame’s Chicken and Waffles in Durham, North Carolina, when I was covering the inaugural Art of Cool Festival because then it would put new territory into play. I limited myself out some arbitrary sense of respect to the nature of quests. I broke boundaries, earlier this year in New Orleans, and later in New York City because I just couldn’t say no to the combination of fried chicken and waffles but also because I couldn’t say no to discovery, even if there would rarely be a chance to return to my findings. If Harlem’s historic Amy Ruth’s chicken and waffles — a dish they named The Rev. Al Sharpton — was the endpoint of the quest (it wasn’t: it’s quite good but Bacon in Austin is still the best I’ve ever had), as the quest goes on, how often would I have the opportunity to come back and confirm such a claim? Rationalize this, I try, but it all still reads the same in between the lines– the land reaches as far as these feet touch and these tastebuds travel. Where there are chicken and waffles, I must go. Such is the way of the quest.
I’m Not Stalking Marcus Gilmore
I’m not stalking Marcus Gilmore, but he is kind of everywhere. I’m not quite sure how it happened but I managed to see him play three times in two weeks. The previous Friday, he was backing bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner on the kit for his San Antonio gig at Alamo City Music Hall. The 350-person capacity venue that has been booking mostly hip hop since it converted into this smaller space of the old Merchant Ice House just east of downtown sold about 250 tickets. As I waited in the crowd with a friend, I wondered who the drummer would be, tracing through the usual suspects and cross referencing them in my head with last known Instagrams and Facebook updates. I was delighted to see Gilmore up on the stage, yet I was moreso glad that numerous people in the crowd asked who he was, too. His subtle killing always shines through and adapts trickingly. Eventually, a group shouted to Thundercat “Who’s your drummer?” which rushed the show to band introductions but with honor, and this was right before “Lotus and the Jondy” which requires a complete and total assassination of percussion to accomplish to completion, which Gilmore clearly did. I sometimes have doubts about San Antonio, our sleepy little town that’s America’s seventh largest city, but it got hip to Thundercat (as they rightly should) and gave the drummer love. It was an awesome show.
A week later, I arrived in Harlem and walked into Ginny’s Supper Club at the invitation of the always amazing Meghan Stabile of Revive Music for pianist Ray Angry. I walked in just at the tail end of the first set and who did I see on drums once again but Marcus Gilmore subtly killing as usual all until he’s much less subtle in his killing. A week prior, he was thumping vibrantly with some sort of neo-funk (without the cliché of the word “funk”) and now he’s slotted into the perfect encapsulation of the post-bop sound (without all the cliché of the post-bop sound). Angry has a voice on the piano that feels like it’s cribbing from Robert Glasper’s tickling tones, but he’s cribbing in a way that works. One can draw a line to his inspirations, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, his backing back of Gilmore, Matt Brewer on bass, and Jacques Schwarz-Bart on saxophone raises these original compositions and an interesting take on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (which totally comes out of left field for a jazz club full of black folk in Harlem) to a height where the craft of this session is made clear.
However, the next day Seb and I caught guitarist Gilad Hekselman’s second set at Greenwich Village’s Cornelia Street Café celebrating the release of his new album, Homes, and there was Gilmore on drums right alongside Joe Martin on bass. The trio filled the narrow basement club with their prickly tunes and Gilmore softly but steadily clanging in the corner. Hekselman’s new album seems calmer than his previous foray, 2013’s This Just In (which I still keep in rotation). Yet this is a cloying sort of calm, hiding in these prickly songs the potential for so much more energy right beneath the surface waiting to be uncovered. On the album, this trio is putting in work, but that second set at Cornelia Street had moments that felt like they were doing a line dance on a high wire. Hekselman’s easy demeanor was a little less easy, Martin’s bass was bouncier, Gilmore rattled somewhat more intently.
After the set, I spoke with Gilmore about our weird crossing of paths. He asked me what I was doing in San Antonio. I told him, “I live there.” We didn’t speak for too long, but it was nice to see him in such different contexts– various gigs with various styles, assorted hangs at spots around town, versatility as countenance in action.
A not so insignificant fact about being black in America is the notion of being other, that one’s background is skewed and thus one’s perspective as would be the case with anyone, for we are all what we see everyday. Yet blackness seems to invite some different sort of experience, internationally and most certainly in the United States. Blackness gains a sense of awareness for the sake of survival, skepticism for the sake of protection, and the same sort of pack sorting mentality as the rest of the world, though one would hope we have a better idea of its function than most. Blackness is a state of other so foreign, many are a touch more frightened by its sight, willing to deny it credibility, comfort, control, and creation. Even a recoiling at such a claim is a denial that such an argument is true, and would be part and parcel of the black experience. Circumnavigating the denials is part of it. Such a second sight, it’s packaged with our DuBoisian double consciousness, can fatigue like eyeglass strain, for while those not of our shared phenotype and the experiences therein see us as a categorical other, it is this casting that can at times cause us to frame ourselves this way as well. This life of Negritude is an isolating life with a comfort that is only truly brought about by sameness, like any other consolation through pack mentality.
The entire time we spent in New York City, I never once got off the island of Manhattan. It was just a four-day trip and there was so much to do and so much to see, there just wasn’t time to get out to Brooklyn or any of the other boroughs. Yet there was a little bit of reassurance in the fact that the majority of our time in New York was spent in Harlem. Christian’s shows, the focal point of our trip, were at Harlem Stage in the midst of City College. Our first meeting point was at Ginny’s Supper Club at the basement of the Red Rooster, where we then hit up Marc Cary’s jam session next-door at Gin Fizz. We spent our first night crashing on Meghan Stabile’s futons in Harlem before departing the next morning for chicken and waffles at the historic Amy Ruth’s Restaurant.
That Friday morning at Amy Ruth’s as I looked through a menu where each dish is named after some famous black figure (the chicken and waffles are The Rev. Al Sharpton; the fried, smothered, baked, or barbecued chicken is The President Barack Obama), I was equal parts tickled and prideful of the #peakblackness of this establishment. However, it was Seb who noticed he was the only white guy in the room. While I did feel a bit protective of him in the walk up 116th St., just off Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd., this didn’t truly stare me in the face until it was staring me in the face. Seb is in a place where he is the other and I was like everyone else. The night before at the places with the $12 drinks, the crowds were mixed but the skew was still quite black, but here where Jennifer Holiday’s not teeeeelllllling you she’s not going nowhere without her signature fried shrimp and waffles, I got to have a meal like anybody else, laugh to myself about the waitress’s charm and perfectionism, and be a person for a bit.
Shortly after we arrived, a couple came in– a tall dude with dreads pointed and arranged in cool, berzerk directions, the lady, light-skinned and chic. Both Seb and I noted them, largely because we both thought the dude’s hair was dope, but we didn’t say anything about it. Later that night, as we entered backstage of Harlem Stage for Christian’s show, there’s that dude again– young guitarist Dominic Minix. Seb and I were taken aback, both looking at each other with the hey, it’s that guy! expression before we got down to the bottom of this. He and some others in the band were staying in a spot near that upper part of Harlem and wanted to check out Amy Ruth’s as much as we did. We all marvelled at the coincidence.
After the show that night, percussionist Joe Dyson led us through a park behind the theater to the train station that was much closer than the one we used when we arrived. Dyson lives in New York and knows his way around, so these gigs were a nice return home for a bit before heading out on the globe again with Christian. The next night, Seb and I tried to find that same route again but got lost, wandering farther and farther uptown through Harlem, past the 135th St. YMCA I seemed to have only remembered from glancing references in African-American literature classes back at Morehouse. This Harlem was still pretty gritty, but it also still was filled with people who looked like me. I knew we’d be fine. It was an innate comfort I don’t often feel. My trusting nature and general naïveté usually gets me by on a lot, but that pesky second sight will always be there. Yet here, for a few days in Harlem, the sights aligned and my consciousness was one. I could see why black folk have gotten enlightened here all these years.
I have often referred to Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah as the Patron Saint of Nextbop. He has over the years through his friendship and kindness given us exclusive videos and streams, access to his music making process, the use of his image for the purpose of spreading his music and this music overall. He has always been extremely gracious to us. This much is true, though, Christian wouldn’t want me to say thanks all this much. He has seen the work that Seb and I do as crucial to the life of this genre. We’re young people who tell everyone we can about a niche genre of music. People say they appreciate what it is that we do and I half believe them (I’m self deprecating like that). Christian was the focal point for this trip. Seb and I had our reasons for finally meeting in the jazz capital of the world, but we still probably had to have an idea of what gigs we’d see, who we’d run into, and where to stay. Thus when it came time to make the planets align, it was Christian who managed to get us a hotel room in the middle of Manhattan for two of the nights of our stay.
The way these things work in the 21st century, one can have a working rapport, a relationship, an understanding of who we are to some degree from afar for years without having met in person. I met Christian a little over a year before I met Seb. We vibed immediately, speaking of our admiration for one another’s work, our approach to creation in our respective fields, means of interpretation, and ultimately about being artists while being broke motherfuckers from San Antonio, Texas, and New Orleans, Louisiana. To say that we help each other when we can out of a place of love is putting things lightly. We at Nextbop walk a tenuous line as journalists. This publication fought off that title for quite some time until we ultimately succumbed; we put music in a context, we may be cheerleaders of the genre but I suppose “journalism” is the closest approximation of what we do in this realm. In that regard, it is best to let folks know where there is bias. Well, we speak glowingly of Christian Scott here at Nextbop because he’s been so great to us as well as because he is such a talented musician (with the capacity to surround himself with equally impressive musicians). He has by far earned our praise, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t note the pesky details that accompany such facts.
Artist Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah has an emotional intensity microphone. His stage setup has had it for some time. It’s not referred to as the emotional intensity microphone, but if one notices its appearance in the middle of a set, it’s clear this is its intended role. This is not the microphone he uses the majority of the set. In times that don’t require such emotional intensity, he may grab it to speak, but it’s in such a subtle position it’s as though it appears from thin air and disappears in much the same fashion. It’s a stealth microphone, hidden in plain sight. However, when he reaches that moment near the end of his set to close with “K.K.P.D.” from 2010’s Yesterday You Said Tomorrow — a song about police brutality and the dissention that comes from police being in a state of perpetual fear and suspicion of everyone with dark skin and the wave of emotions that comes from falling under such a domineering, untrustworthy thumb that’s more and more apt a song with each passing day — there that microphone pops up once again, just off to the side where he left it, as if off to the side is where black folk go where things get serious, like walking away from a very good joke when told in a circle of friends while swept up in laughter (there’s some Negroes out there who know what I’m talking about). It takes a very raw soul to make music that taps into such emotional intensity; it takes a very contemplative soul to be able to plan and prepare blocking for such moments.
When explaining to people what it is that I do and often when explaining the context of Christian Scott, I have often referred to him as the next Miles Davis. Such a comparison is reductive, helpful only to the uninitiated who need some sort of entry point into the music and require a name to tack onto for assistance. However, the innovative spirit, the mien of cool, the casual professionalism, it’s all there. Yet it’s modernized with graciousness and loquaciousness. He’s frank, upfront, able to banter but understanding that banter is interplay (just as music is) and involves cohesive rhythms. Moreso, he means what he says, which is why he says a lot, and just about all the words are important. His band introductions are compositions. Sure, any live show will eventually run through who is playing what instrument, but Christian will tell a story about every member of the band. They’re as much a part of the show as the songs. For the most part, they’re solos. There may be those brief moments where Corey Fonville is prompted to give his impersonation of Christian’s grandmother that he used to crank call Christian for years or when Dominic Minix bellows in his deep voice or when Warren Wolf shows off his guns (all the better to lug around a vibraphone, one would imagine) when others are tagged in, but much like any other solo in jazz, the band has that listless look players have in the background while waiting for their cue, a practiced sort of attentiveness that just needs a certain amount of brainpower to keep up, a secondary ear and sense of timing. It’s also a sign of the connection this band has. It’s been through various permutations over the years and Christian has had moments for band introductions with these sorts of speeches for some time. It’s important that context in this music is clear, in the intention of the compositions and in those making the music in the first place. Every part of this is important– the players, the past, the tradition, the philosophy, the stories. That stage banter is part and parcel of this.
That banter is also part and parcel of this band’s rapport. The hang is real. The rapport amongst these dudes is practically mandatory that’s a joy to be around. Their time in the dressing room before the gig is watching YouTube videos of jazz greats, studying them as much as they’re clowning them, as only trained ears know to do. One of the best Facebook videos ever is of Corey Fonville getting ahold of one of Christian’s horns for a moment to do an impression, posing for the windup and the pitch. It’s fucking hilarious, and as Christian walks out to see what transpires, even he knows this. Hanging with this band means being able to hang. There’s a vibe here like everyone is able to chill with their really cool boss, but there is still that notion that everyone is part of implementing an artistic vision and that part is still kinda foremost. It’s a rapport dripping with balance, of camaraderie, of deference to skills and talents, and of a learned understanding of each other that can come from making music together but largely of the trial by fire that comes with making such music.
And Christian’s music requires such fortitude because it is emotionally intense. It’s evocative of joy, love, strife, contemplation, sensuality, and overall ebullience, but it does so through careful intermingling of precision and trust, an intellectual wrangling of emotional creation en masse. It is effectively being an artist. Such artistry also involves presentation. The sincere appreciation this group shows for one another is part of it, but so is the glisten in Christian’s angular horns, or the sharpness of his fade, or the vibrant pattern of his pants on Saturday night. He knows what he’s putting out there because it’s all part of it. It’s all part of him. Such is artistry as well. He’s here because he knows who he is and what he’s doing and he’s making the most of what he has to say, with every note, brass-laden contour, outfit, and word he makes.
A Sleep-Induced Accidental Walk
You don’t know a city until you’ve walked it. This is one of my many mantras that I toss about like those aforementioned little anecdotes at parties. It’s birthed from experience, or stolen from someone I forgot sometime ago sheepishly, or mangled together with the roots of some piece of media I had long since consumed. Yet these things are still truths to me, proven time and again in my experiences, or so I fooled myself into believing to be true as all confirmation theory does. One may know a city quite fine without walking it, but things get a lot more interesting when you do.
My mantras being born from my confirmed realities, it’s true because it’s defined by my constraints. Driving is one of those many things I hadn’t gotten around to doing, sort of like being a music writer in the genre of jazz for over half a decade and never having been to either New Orleans or New York City until this year. The only way I know any city is by walking. It’s the only way I can. This constraint is by extension true, though not necessarily universal. Nevertheless, this particular mantra would prove to be quite true in regard to a city that so depends on walking and public transit. It would also easily lend itself to one of my favorite indulgences– accidental walks.
An accidental walk once led me one spring night past a small house across the street from a graveyard in East Austin where the concrete porch was entirely packed with people sitting cross-legged on the floor, smoking cigarettes, a cloud of smoke billowing over their heads in the night. Perplexed, I asked while passing, “What are y’all doing in there?”
“We’re having wild orgies!”, someone shouted back.
Jostled, I moved along. My delicate nature too sheepish for even the joke of such a thing.
An accidental walk led me to the historic Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, a place where anyone who has lived there knows the location of such a place is an important bit of information to have. Accidental walks have taken me to the wrong restaurants that end up being the right restaurants, down streets that meander to nothing until the times down the line when they’re the right routes to new locations with actual intentions. Accidental walks are little adventures, sometimes inevitable, and thus must be welcomed with the most optimistic of countenances.
After our first night of seeing Christian and the band up in Harlem, then seeing Gilad Hekselman play in Greenwich Village, and then having more than a few beers with an erstwhile writer of ours, Stephanie Jones, at a spot on back uptown on Broadway that had an actual decent craft beer selection, we drunkenly forged back downtown to the hotel.
It must be noted that I have a tendency to fall asleep anywhere. It’s one of those attributes of mine that is some combination of adorable and irritating, depending on the context. As one who doesn’t have health care and haven’t yet gotten around to finding the reason why I fall asleep so frequently in public, though one could surmise the influence of alcohol and my laissez faire lifestyle could be a culprit, I don’t quite call it narcolepsy; I will say that my body takes care of itself in every moment it gets and it tends to read moments others don’t. So frequently, while hanging with friends, or out at a show, or chilling at a bar, or essentially anywhere when I am disengaged from a moment for a tad longer than my brain can handle, I’ll often shut down most aspects of consciousness, somehow staying awake enough to maintain safety but certainly missing most finer points of conversation or the nuances of many musical performances, no matter the genre or volume. It can be an impediment and it’s annoying at times, but there’s something a little comforting in finding rest whenever needed, to have the strength of will to let down one’s guard just enough at any moment.
So Seb and I drunkenly rode the subway back to our hotel at around 3am– he reading an article on Gawker about Canadian pop punk singer staple Avril Lavigne dying in 2004 and being replaced with a body double all these years, I asleep, which considering it’s 3 in the morning shouldn’t be all that frowned upon. Our stop was on 50th St. We missed that one and Seb looked up from his phone moments after the train stopped on 42nd St. He nudged me, asking if we had already missed our stop. Suddenly roused, I was about to spring into action when the doors closed again and we headed farther downtown. By the time we reached 32nd St., we were entirely ready to get off the train, but now we knew we had a good twenty blocks to walk.
As we emerged from the subway station, ascending the stairs but not quite reaching the top, all we could see was brightness. It was 3am, and from all appearances, we were truly about to walk into the morning. I was tired and a bit bewildered. How long was I asleep?! What is with this city? Did they import the sun?! It all became clear when we reached the street and marvelled at the gigantic illuminated signs of Times Square beaming into the rain-spattered night, lighting our way through the quiet Manhattan streets, leaving us free to do all the tourist-required gawking that the magnificence of what man and commerce hath made is worthy of that would be in the way of so much traffic at any other hour. In the calm of the morning, free to stop and check Google for directions, to take pictures of a wet, mostly quiet New York City, I understood being a tourist. I had a walk where I got to see what I don’t normally and ask my usual questions of how they do this, maintain it, fund it. I could meander through the streets and see the sights, but my mind would still reel back to thoughts about the gargantuan impossibility that Manhattan seems to be, and yet here it stands in all its beaming glory.
After learning how close the Ed Sullivan Theater was to our hotel and getting a last bit of direction from a not-quite-so-kind stranger, we got back to the hotel at about a quarter to 4, realizing that was one hell of a walk, and a damn good Friday quite worthy of yet another of those little adventures one tells stories about.
SoHo and a Bad But Probably Misunderstood Vibe
Saturday had the second of Christian’s sets, assorted hanging with friends, and wandering, with all jazz business essentially done at the end of the night. I was set to fly out Sunday afternoon. Seb was taking a train back to Montreal on Monday, so he was dedicating all of Sunday to eating, he learning to be quite the chef in Québec, so it was cool to see him indulge this other passion while here. My knowledge of things gustatory is quite shallow but somehow my ability to interestingly describes things prevails, which is to the great appreciation of my chef friend, Robbie Nowlin, who called me mere minutes after I posted a photo of the famous cronut at SoHo’s Dominique Ansel Bakery to ask me my thoughts on the much hyped dessert. The cronut, the combination of the flaky croissant and the ever versatile doughnut, is a mass of dough and sugary glaze so messy it absolutely necessitates eating while seated. Each month has a different flavor, and this month’s creme-filled one felt inspired by the complication of tiramisu. It gave me the realization that though I have always considered sugar my greatest weakness, I just can’t eat it like I used to. This isn’t to say I didn’t lay waste to the pastry, but I damn sure wasn’t getting another. Despite all this, it was tasty. Not one hour wait in line when it debuted tasty, or the clamoring twenty minute wait in line that day had Seb not pre-ordered his a week before tasty, or even the concept that one must make a reservation for a pastry a week in advance tasty, but it was still pretty tasty.
From there, Seb and I wandered through SoHo on the only sunny day we saw that weekend, at a balmy 62 degrees (Fahrenheit, which is almost 17 Celsius, Seb would want me to note). We window shopped streetwear stores with price points farther than the streets I usually travel. We passed galleries with a seeming starkness that felt little like the hearth of the San Antonio contemporary art scene I had fallen into as of late. The streets had a vibe I wasn’t digging. I told Seb I don’t know where we’re heading, but we’ve got to get the hell out of SoHo.
Yet a super trendy pastry seemed wholly indicative of this place– a doughnut that costs more and isn’t a doughnut, streetwear that costs more but isn’t streetwear, art galleries that cost more but don’t have a sense of grit. I knew I was missing something. My four days in New York felt like my first South by SouthWest festival– for everything I was seeing (for free, since I was on a lists for shows, at that), I was undoubtedly missing numerous other things. Many of those things, I wouldn’t have gotten access to anyway. The massiveness is part of the appeal, and part of its detriment. Had I more time to bounce around in this atmosphere, where could I go? What could I see? Accomplish? I had but a mere glimpse of New York, of Manhattan even, and even SoHo may not be so snooty as it seems, though it did seem really snooty, but perhaps I was missing something that time could absolve.
But not this time. I quickened my pace to the subway; Seb was taken aback at my heightened stride and soldiered along. SoHo really wasn’t agreeing with me.
We eventually made our way back to Times Square to Port Authority where we would part ways– I to hop on a bus to Newark Liberty International Airport to fly back to San Antonio, he to eventually head to Nomad to make his reservation for a three-hour tasting dinner at the Michelin-rated restaurant, then to take a train back to Montreal on Monday. We hugged once more and devoted ourselves to seeing each other again, likely in March in Austin for our annual jazz day party at El Sapo during South by SouthWest. I got to the airport, decided to have one last fancy, overpriced meal– stuffed dates, cured meats, and a Lagunitas Hop Stoopid IPA that I foolishly spilled on the bar. I sat by my gate, basking the sun beaming through the window as I called my mom, as I do every Sunday, regaling her of the tales of my weekend and discussing plans about my dad’s upcoming birthday. My friend and neighbor, as far as two people who live in respective properties in the woods in an urban setting can have neighbors, artist Justin Parr, picked me up from the airport and we hung in his kitchen for a while before I headed back home into another usual but always unusual Monday. My sister texted after I landed as I rode back to the Southside asking about dinner later.
As life returned to normal, people asked me how my trip was. I told them a few stories, but I was never quite sure how to respond. My feelings about the city are still quite the same. It’s a bubble and there are benefits of maturation inside that bubble as much as there are hazards to its exclusionary nature. I was there for just a brief time on an unseasonably cold weekend. I had no new epiphanies or restored clarity about my role in jazz, or even where I’d go in my career. I had another crazy weekend in a series of crazy weekends, and I’m cool with that. Nevertheless, I went to jazz mecca. I knew I would make my way back. If I’m still in this jazz game, New York and I will probably cross paths again, and likely for a while. I may not have been charmed by New York, but I am continually drawn.
Thank Yous and Shout Outs
Thanks to Christian Scott, the band, management, and all o’ y’all– for your generosity, your energy, your openness, your artistry, and for being just plain cool to be around. I know you don’t like me saying thank you so much, because you, too, appreciate what we do, so we mutually appreciate each other. Thus, let me say, thanks for being continually inspiring for us to do what we it is that we do.
Thanks to Meghan Stabile– for your continual dopeness, positivity, drive, hospitality, your futons, and for the look on your face when you realized you were the first person to see Seb and I in the same room for the first time. It’s like the feeling The Doctor gets when someone sees the TARDIS for the first time and says it’s bigger on the inside. It’s cool you were a part of that moment.
Thanks to Gilad Hekselman– for the show, and for putting y’all’s foot in that set on Saturday.
Shout out to Marcus Gilmore– For real, though, it was a coincidence, but let me know next time you’re in San Antonio.
Shout out to those two dudes from The New School we hung out with after Gilad’s set– cool hang, and good to know folks at New School read Nextbop.
Thanks to Amaury Acosta– for showing us how you see New York. It was mad dope hanging with you. Let me know when the next (U)nity joint drops.
Shout out to Maria Neckam– it was nice meeting you. Looking forward to the next album.
Shout out to Kyla Marshell– it was great hanging out with you again. I’m still thinking about the parallels of scenes and how advancement works in the arts. You’re doing great work. And I’m excited to see where we’ll go with SunDryed Affairs with Dalia at the helm.
Shout out to Robbie– no really, that call was perfect.
Thanks to Justin– for the ride to and from the airport, and for everything, ya hippie.
Thanks to Seb– for bringing me into this life, for working with me for so long, for being my bro. We’ll figure this thing out.
Thanks to you, dear reader– for reading, all this and for following us and keeping this going with us.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.