A New York Weekend

In reviewing my book in the American Alpine Journal, Peter Hahn “wonder[s] what happened ‘after the Nose’ and why he [me] ended up a dedicated New York City dweller.” So do I, sometimes. The short answer for after the Nose is sex and then twice, love. A longer answer would trot out other interests and the unlikeliness of a livelihood in climbing. As to New York, it was love again (and still again), and New York City is a great city for other interests. Which gets me to recent days.

Thursday night, after dinner in a cozy French restaurant (Rosamond, lamb chops, me, a big bowl of mussels) we went to see a production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Two Character Play,” a late work not often produced. It is unusually dense for a Williams play. The two characters, brother and sister actors, come in before the play they are going to perform (the man peeks through the “curtain” to see if the audience is there—we are), and eventually they begin their play which stumbles along, recalling old times, adlibbing, rewriting. At the end their audience has left (although we haven’t), and we are left wondering what will become of these two Beckett-like souls who can keep warm in the cold and abandoned theater by replaying their play (they remember they were warm in the play). The actors, Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif plumb depths of feeling not usually seen as they bounce off each other, continually testing the line between reality and acting. The play isn’t one of Williams’ best, but in this production it had a strength and vitality that went beyond the ramshackle nature of the plot.

Friday night, we ventured to Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem to see the Jimmy Heath Big Band. Jimmy Heath, tenor sax player, composer, arranger, is eighty-six, and in almost sixty years of performing has probably played with just about everybody. The occasion was the annual Charlie Parker Festival (put on by the City Parks Foundation), and, yes, Jimmy played with Bird, too. The music was straight ahead, tight, swinging, big band jazz. Nothing fancy, nothing where you might sit back and wonder if you just heard what you thought you heard. It was music that made you feel alive and glad to be there, to be alive. Almost everyone in the band soloed at one time or another including Jimmy. They were having fun, so we had fun. After the concert we waltzed through the park, the soft touch of late summer air brushing our skin, reluctant to let the feelings fade.

On weekends, if we are home and the weather permits, we eat outside, our breakfast anchored in fresh squeezed orange juice and the NY Times. While I consider the crossword clues, bees and butterflies flit among the flowers. Rosamond assesses the development of her garden that provides gallons of gazpacho and pesto for the winter. Saturday night, we went to see Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” very loosely based on a butler who served eight Presidents over three decades. It has been extensively reviewed, mostly favorably with some reservations, so I won’t say much here except that Daniels is not after subtlety or nuance.

On Sunday afternoon, we went down to Tompkins Square Park to close out the Charlie Parker Festival and mainly, for me, to hear Lee Konitz who blew my mind in 1953 playing “Lover Man” on a ten inch LP with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. It still is one of the most beautiful solos I have heard. About the same time Konitz played with Stan Kenton whose band I listened to a lot, and again, his solos are mini-masterpieces of invention and beauty. And he played with Miles on the “Birth of the Cool” dates. At a time when Bird ruled his roost, Konitz, a little Jewish kid, found another way to play alto saxophone. Like Jimmy Heath, he is eighty-six, now, and doesn’t try to overwhelm an audience with technique and fire. Rather, he is so laid back that many listeners might not hear what he is about. The second tune he played was “All the Things You Are,” a song noted (and loved by jazz musicians) for its unusual but eminently logical chord changes.  Konitz didn’t bother much with the melody, and the pianist didn’t lay out the chords clearly. Everything was suggested, and it took me a few bars to realize what song they were playing. The thing is, the chords were in Konitz’s head, as they were in mine once I picked up on them, and then his soloing displayed a logic that some might have thought was just noodling around. He has always liked to see where a song might go, playing odd notes and then providing a context for them. The same with his rhythmic explorations. Twice he started a song unaccompanied, just a melody woven from fine silk. But there were no flashy runs of sixteenth notes, no keening in the high register. He is like a bower bird, bringing little gems into his nest, but you have to know how to look into the nest which is, after all, not very impressive from the outside. He also played “Body and Soul” which one might think was owned by Coleman Hawkins, but again Konitz found new beauty, new ideas. The set was only an hour long, because other groups that we didn’t hear filled out the earlier afternoon. I won’t say it was enough, but it will have to be.

At both Marcus Garvey Park and Tomkins Square Park people overflowed the seating area in front of the outdoor stage into surrounding grassy areas. It was a very mixed crowd reflecting the diversity that one expects in New York City, all bound by a love of the (free) music. It should be noted that jazz was the first cultural institution to break down the black/white barrier. Hampton and Goodman, Artie Shaw and Billy Holiday, Miles and Mulligan and Konitz among others.

As we went to and from our car to Tomkins Square Park, Rosamond, who grew up on the Lower East Side, pointed out the spot where her grandfather had a garage, the street across from the park where she lived, and her junior high school. More anchors, but not the kind that weigh you down.

On Monday evening, we had dinner with a friend in a small restaurant across from Washington Square Park (Arctic char nicely prepared). All this is far from being a typical weekend in New York, but that it is possible at all says a lot. On Wednesday, we had dinner with another friend in Brooklyn. Tomorrow we fly to Montana to see my grandchildren (and their parents).

2 thoughts on “A New York Weekend

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