from issue #2: ‘New York City, 1978’ by Paul Pax Andrews

NEW YORK CITY, 1978 by PAUL PAX ANDREWS

In New York, the sax-quartet stayed in a fifteen dollar a night dive on Broadway (the Times Square Hotel-Motel) and Forty-First Street. Because of the recently changed U.S. mental health laws, most patients not considered dangerous had been sent back into society, duly medicated and left to their own devices. The top three floors of our Hotel were home to a hundred of these lunatics who constantly rode up and down the elevators or paced the lobby and corridors. Zombies, doped and weird yet mostly they were pleasant and chatty. Whispering. Muttering. Some were very polite and greeted us each time we returned. In the lounge, there would be several people just sitting for a moment then getting up, walking around the room then sitting again, chain-smoking. Beautiful leather Club Sofas and Chesterfields adorned the Art deco, mirrored lobby. The manager suggested that we lock anything valuable in his safe. His face became quizzical when we gave him the baritone saxophone. One afternoon a well-dressed woman took a piss in the elevator right there in front of us. Squatting, while she complained about the old, slow contraption (it was such a dawdling old relic with the cage doors). At first I thought these were just normal New Yorkers.

Australia was a billion miles away and I loved this city with its ‘larger than life’ attitude. Everyone had a hustle. Twenty-four seven, the car horns honking with blinking lights everywhere. I could go for a walk at dawn or midnight yet the same amount of people were on the street, it didn’t seem to matter. Maybe I look obvious, but this hustler taps me on the shoulder, “Hey buddy, tell me, sorry for asking but is that a Praktica thirty five mill, single lens reflex?” He is trying to get his hands on my camera, “I used to have one of those. Do you mind if I take a look? Wow! A great camera huh?” He is relentless. What do you say to someone like that? Some schmuck must have bought that line, occasionally. (His daily hustle). Another street-dealer tried to sell me some hash and I said I didn’t have any bread. “Money! I ain’t seen money for so long, it thinks I’m dead!” he announced, charging off along the footpath.

In Times Square our tenor player Rod, originally from Florida, is freaked out at being in New York, sure we would get mugged and bashed or something terrible would happen to us. He stayed in the hotel-room the whole time, smoking his head off, scared that we might not return safely. I explored as much as I could and had no bother. Well, except Bev the Chinese doctor, she bothered me! So beautiful and she knew all the best places to go. Jazz, love and Autumn in New York… How lucky am I? The sweetest moon-faced girl smile. Black ponytail and the wonderful music. ‘Second Avenue South’ to hear Nat Adderley, then on to the ‘Village’ and ‘Little Italy’, Chinatown, I was having a ball. Mostly people just wanted to talk and listen to my accent and tell me all they knew about Australia (nothing). “Oh Yeh, Australia, sure, near Switzerland? Mountains and shit! Central Europe right?” So confident, yet with no idea.

We were eating outside on the footpath, lox and bagel, when a skinny dude raced from a doorway and picked up a garbage bin to defend himself against a crazy screaming Chinese cook who was wielding a meat cleaver. Right there in front of us, just ten feet away! New York was its own Jackie Chan movie, it was full on. Later that same afternoon and I’m in Washington Square taping the buskers, dealers and freaks on my walkman, when a crazy Mexican guy walks over and asks me to record the band for him on his cassette-tape (my walkman). “Don’t tape over ‘Side B’ man, that’s my guru you know, my main man, not the main man, but my maaaiiiin man! You know what I’m saying?” as he hands me a toke on a fat joint, right there in front of everyone; old women with curlers (also smoking joints), Latinos and Puerto Ricans, Afros everywhere. The ‘Square’ is just alive with artists, musicians and freaks. The odd copper on a horse, shiny white helmet and smiling and talking to the girls. The quintet was awesome. A tenor player sounds like Joe Henderson on ‘Recorda-Me’, a piano on a trolley, conga player swinging, hard. Beautiful drummer with Elvin’s energy, it was serious. Serious street-jazz. Twenty percussionists are having a jam over on the other side of the fountain, creating a plethora of sounds, throbbing. Alive.

It felt good to be amongst it. I relaxed as the people become less scary in their exuberance and open joy. Energy was everywhere. New York seemed alive with music.

After each song, one of the cohorts would come and hustle the audience for money with a hat, while the dealers each had their own rave goin’ on, “What d’y’all want? Boy? Girl? Acid? Guaranteed to get you high my man! What you want? (He looked at me from one eye over the shades, as he passed by) Reefer?” I’d sheepishly buy one joint for a dollar, walking away I could hear “Tight Ass Honky White Mother!” A number of the street corners around Times Square and the Village had a dealer or two. All this happened right next to the cops who were too busy minding their own goddamn business to interfere. Mostly, five dollars or ten would buy me a small bag of deadly red dust; ‘Acapulco Red’ something or other. Upon inspection, the Tally Ho contained only a sprinkling of pot…but fuck it got me high! One time I asked an associate what I was smoking and he replied, “Toledo window-box!”

Just being in New York was like living twice as fast, while constant sounds and endless thunderous, hustling droning energy kept me awake. Saturday night; it’s three a.m. and I am on a heavily graffitied subway train travelling back to the hotel, from way out in Queens… Bev lived out there somewhere, near Corona. “Y’all must be from out of town. Nobody rides this subway out here at night,” one of the only other travellers warned me. I had no fear so I just enjoyed myself. Out every night and had a ball. One time I got off ‘Uptown’ and climbed the stairs to the street, took one look around, then straight back down again to the train. I remember a few black dudes, wearing big hats. Too big, hats.

Next day on Broadway, I saw Sweeney Todd, with Angela Lansbury. That was something else. Now I was scared. Scared to death; during the opening scene, when the siren sounds a foggy blackout. I discovered Stephen Sondheim while in New York and he’s been another great love of mine ever since, one of my favourite songwriters; ‘Joanna’, ‘Pretty Women’, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Harm You’, ‘By the Sea’. Such great songs.

(In 1986, I played alto and bass clarinet in the pit orchestra for the Sydney Theatre Company’s productions of ‘Company’, ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, ‘Into the Woods’. Kevin Hunt and I still want to do a jazz-Sondheim album, one day.)

Each Monday night at the Village Vanguard, I heard the Thad Jones, Mel Lewis Orchestra, I was transfixed each time. What a band! I had heard Basie, Ellington, Buddy Rich’s big band and Woody Herman’s but this was so different, fresh, modern with unbelievable virtuosity. Such masterful arrangements; I was in big band heaven hearing the great Dick Oatts on alto, Ralph Lalama on tenor, Thad on cornet is so sweet with Mel Lewis on drums, playing ‘Consummation’ and those other great songs from their repertoire. Jim McNeely played piano. Jerry Dodgion on lead soprano (that’s what gave the sax-section its individual sound), musos everywhere, barely room for an audience with all of us crowded in together. Fifteen dollars cover charge, for each set. A one drink minimum. Jam-packed. New York heaven. (I had only dreamed.)

Tuesday night; Charlie Rouse sextet at ‘Sweet Basil’s’, with George Mraz on bass, Roswell Rudd on trombone (he has always been a favourite of mine). Once again, it was a twenty-dollar minimum for each set. Sensational to be hearing Monk’s tenor, live. Each time I came away with a new sense of unimaginable inspiration coupled with, ‘how can I ever be good enough to be an improviser?’ Feeling insecure yet possessed. Obsessed. Joyous. Nervous.

Each part of my being was committed to taking this energy back home. Three weeks in New York had changed my life, seriously. It was a great, no, the greatest honour to be an improvising musician and to take risks and to practice, right there with an audience, night after night. Giving freely, fresh ideas, expressing oneself to whoever might be listening; an ongoing, never ending search for something we only find when we find it. If we find it. In the moment. A great responsibility, from a wonderful history. I was impassioned, in love with the music but a new struggle had begun again. How could I possibly belong to any part of this wonderment? What could be my role?

from Without A Song © 2012 Paul Pax Andrews

Ebook available @ Smashwords

This excerpt appears in Contrappasso Magazine #2, December 2012
Photography (CC) by Derzsi Elekes Andor @ Wikimedia Commons

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