It seems that this blog is often turning into a forum for obituaries of people who have moved me. That may very well be, for I if I am going to write about things that are important to me, then that needs to include losing people or artists who have touched my life. I guess as one gets older and more of those key players in a person’s lifetime pass away, it becomes even more important to acknowledge, reflect upon, and celebrate lives well lived.
Along those lines, several weeks ago I was so sorry to read in the NY Timesthat Jazz artist Billy Taylor had passed away. Here is another blog post about it on Mirror On America. I was also so sad to read about the passing of George Shearing in today's NY Times. When I want the kind of harmonic jazz that is both contemplative and inspiring, I think of Billy Taylor and George Shearing. Their music has a distinctly classy and urban New York feel to me. I love it for the harmonic, sensitive and thoughtful sound, as well as for the fact that it reminds me of early years in New York, listening to live jazz in the city. That sound reminds me of being very young and feeling the world was there for the celebrating and taking.
I was very young. A good friend of my then-fiancee, Phil's and mine, Norm Freeman, was a student at Julliard. Our summer evenings would often be like this: I would work until my shift was done at Capra's Restaurant in Stony Point, NY. That was usually until about eleven at night. Norman and Phil would pick me up and we would then zip into New York City to catch some live jazz. Getting down to the village about forty minutes later meant we could catch at least one set in a club.
And in the early seventies, you could hear some great music in the clubs at night. We most often ended up going to the Village Gate (Top of the Gate) or the Village Vanguard or the Half Note. At the Vanguard we caught the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestra in a place where we would descend a flight of stairs into a smoke filled and alcohol fueled room. The experience was transforming. I can still see the bass player in my mind's eye-spacey and totally grooving to the power of the music. Here is a nice history of the Vanguard.
Because Norman was studying with the drummer Ray Mosca, we went to the Half Note where Mosca was playing with Zoot Sims.
Photo: New York Times
And then there was the Top of the Gate. I liked it there best of all. At the Village Gate we did have the ernomous pleasure of hearing Billy Taylor live, in an intimate setting. He was one of a number of Jazz greats we heard there, most of whose names are hard for me to recall. But I especially remember Billy Taylor, though. Norman asked him to play his signature piece, “There will Never Be Another You,” which he did. His music was so lovely. I still enjoy listening to it and it is a favorite in my studio. We had to leave when he was on a break, just sitting with some friends at one of the tables in the room. He looked up with a lovely smile and gave us a nod good-bye. I can still see him sitting there, incredibly classy, handsome, and just plain nice.
New York in the seventies was totally unlike New York now. Of course, that’s stating the obvious; forty years would make a difference anywhere. But apart from the physical (there was much more evidence of 19th and 18th century New York than there is now) and the technological, there is the sense of the city that has changed greatly. Let’s face it. New York today is cleaner and safer than New York in the seventies, largely thanks to Rudy Giuliani who transformed the place completely.
Want to imagine NY in the 70s? Imagne Scroses’s “Taxi Driver.” That is a nice snapshot of the city back then: gritty, grimy, ruthless, and hurting. Still, we were young. We were fearless and game for anything, including the rough streets of NY.
In contrast to the grime, New York was also exciting and happening and full of great things in the arts and socially. Wonderful creative things happened. Great art was made. And the city held for me, even then, an attraction that is hard to put into words. There is a line in a Kenny Rankin song, “Killed a Cat,” that sums it up for me back then:
New York, you're a mother
And like no other
You been oh so good to me
I remember how you felt
I was innocent
And I wanted you
And I did want New York. Badly. But it was never to be. My life took other directions.
I found this site about a book of photos, New York in the 70s: A Remembrance by Allan Tannenbaum I may just have to get it. Take a look at the wonderful photos there. This is my memory of the city back then when I was just beginning to take it all in as a young adult.
By the way, it does not surprise me that our friend Norm Freeman added "minister" to his resume, and not only that, but a minister who incorporates music into his services. We have fallen out of touch over the years (I should do something about that), but the Norm I remember was always kind, thoughtful and sensitive. He was so much so, that he was almost an old soul even while so young. His seriousness and his dedication to his music was palpable. Music is one of the best ways I can think of to have a truly spiritual expereince, so it makes sense that he would take it to that level officially.
Thinking back to that summer of 1971 and hearing Jazz in the city and being young and carefree makes me remember a simpler time, even while I am saddened to think that Billy Taylor and George Shearing have passed away. Thank goodness for the ability to record sound. It makes it possible to be nineteen again in the best of ways.