Que Pasa, New York?

Photo by Jiri Sebek

How do artists get their work done in other cities of the world? Where is it viable to live? It's probably silly to begin our investigation in New York. Just 30 years ago, New York was still opening its arms to the tired, poor, huddled masses of creatives. But now?

Grooving Up Slowly

Clare and I spent the afternoons and evenings exploring New York. We had a crew of old friends to take us around.

One friend, Josh Wynter, is an actor living in Brooklyn. Josh is a physical theatre graduate from the Dell'Arte International School. He currently appears in the hugely successful independent online science fiction series Pioneer One. Josh also performs at the Jekyll & Hyde, a theatre restaurant. He's the rare actor making a living in New York.

One night we went to see Josh perform with the Big Apple Playback Theatre (BAPT) at Guild Hall on East 29th Street. BAPT is a troupe of nine plus Ann Belmont, who accompanies the performance with guitar, recorder, percussion, and slide whistle. BAPT describes itself as "an improvisational physical theatre company in which the actors reenact audience members' life stories." There were about 50 people in the audience. We were invited to offer our dilemmas, anxieties, and ambitions. Four or five members of the troupe improvised from this material.

Later, there were longer stories. One woman got up on stage to share the tale of her disastrous experience of buying a 200-year-old house in upstate New York. The troupe duly interpreted. Another young woman spoke of her difficult move from Northern California and the ultimate acquisition of her -- gasp! -- own apartment in Hell's Kitchen. There was a round of empathetic applause from the Manhattanites in the audience. I guess it's hard to get a place in this city.

After the BAPT performance, Clare and I went out with our New York crew. I was introduced to Tom and Cindy, a couple in their mid-40s. They're both lawyers. Tom is balding, bespectacled, pale as a green potato. He passed a cake shop window and started singing softly, already embarrassed:

"Crème tangerine and Montelimar -- a ginger sling with a pineapple heart."

"But you'll have to have them all pulled out after the Savoy Truffle," I said.


Tom was a serious Beatles geek.

"You know," I said, "I've been looking for a worthy opponent in Beatles Trivial Pursuit for a long time."

Tom nodded very seriously and gave me an impromptu entry exam. "What date was 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' released in the UK?"

The best I could guess was December 1963.

"Nup. November 29, 1963."

Very late that night Clare and I shared a cab uptown with Tom and Cindy. I asked them how Manhattan had changed in the last few decades.

"We're lifelong New Yorkers," Cindy said as we passed the banks and insurance companies and shoe and handbag stores of Madison Avenue, then the apartment buildings of the Upper East Side. We turned down the 86th Street Transverse Road through Central Park. "With all this wealth Manhattan has lost something."

"Poor people!" suggested Tom.

"Crime is really really low."

"Sure," said Tom. "They locked everyone up!"

December 8th was the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's assassination. At lunchtime I walked down Central Park West to the Dakota Building at 72nd Street. News crews were shooting footage of the murder site. Fans were handing out photocopies of handwritten poems. Religious nuts were trying to piggyback on the anniversary ("IMAGINE....Jesus"). At Strawberry Fields in Central Park the memorial mosaic was like a Buddhist shrine heaped with roses and candles, lyric sheets, photographs of John and Yoko, and granny smith apples. Serious fans sat cross-legged around the mosaic in mournful contemplation. Everybody else was standing and singing Lennon's Beatle songs: 'Come Together', 'Ticket To Ride', 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away', 'Help' (with perfect two-part vocals), 'She Loves You' and 'I'll Cry Instead', the great B-side of 'Can't Buy Me Love'.

I stopped to listen to two pudgy and very sombre American kids, a brother and sister in their early teens. A pair of rose-tinted, round Lennon glasses sat on top of the girl's head. The kids sang a very slow and ethereal version of 'Because' accompanied by a guy on arpeggiating guitar. At the same time another group nearby were singing 'I'm Only Sleeping'. I bought a badge with the ever-relevant Lennon slogan: WAR IS OVER (if you want it), pinned it to my jacket, and crossed Central Park.

That night our New York crew invited us to a gig in a small 2nd floor apartment above a plumbing supply store at 223 West 28th Street. The venue is run by Zeb, aka Saul Zebulon Rubin, a heavy-set grey-bearded in-demand jazz guitarist with a brood of talented musicians. We paid our $10 at the door. There were free potato crisps, $2 plastic cups of cordial, and $5 plastic cups of red wine. Our new friends Tom and Cindy were in the audience. I told Tom I'd been at Strawberry Fields that day. His pale face dipped towards the floor. "I was in the city when John was shot. I was 17. I've never gotten over it." That was the end of the conversation.

Artist: Gregory Porter

Album: Water

Label: Motema Music

Image: runs a jazz vocalist series every Wednesday night. Tonight's performance featured Gregory Porter. Zeb led a guitar trio. Porter appeared dressed in a pin-striped blue suit, crisp white shirt, neck stocking, and big brown cap. He sang standards like 'Cherokee' and 'Skylark' as well as original tunes to a room of about 50 people. As the set wound down, somebody requested a protest song called '1960 What' from Porter's new album. The trio didn't know this number, but within 30-seconds Porter had them vamping on one chord. "The motor city is burning!" Porter sang. "Burning down! And that ain't right."

Porter's excellent debut album Water (Motéma Music) has just been nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album Album. He's one of the best new singers I've heard in years.

Another night Clare and I had tickets for an 11pm set at the Village Vanguard with Cedar Walton. Walton played on some of my favourite Art Blakey LPs like Mosaic (1961) and Free For All (1964). Walton was joined by David Williams on bass and Willie Jones III on drums. I needn't have booked tickets. There were about 30 people in the room. Baby, it was cold outside.

Walton played standards like 'Body and Soul' and 'Lover Man' and 'Young and Foolish', as well as a Sam Jones tune Clare loved, and a few originals. After the show I stepped over to chat to Mr. Walton. I discovered we have a mutual acquaintance, Dale Barlow, the superb Sydney saxophonist (Dale had a spot in a very late incarnation of the Jazz Messengers). Walton was surprised that young people had come to hear him. He was gruff but pleased. "I thought young people liked hip-hop."

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