By Pago Habitans*
One sure sign of spring is hearing music outdoors again: ambient sounds from piano bars; street performers; open-air concerts; the miscellaneous strains of music that float out of neighbors’ open windows. Booming car stereos and boisterous restaurant sheds are another story.
I was walking along Barrow Street just west of Seventh Avenue the other evening when I heard a small band playing—piano, drums, bass and a couple of woodwinds and brass. As I reached mid-block I discovered the sound was coming from an upstairs rehearsal studio at the Greenwich House Music School. Playing clarinet was my old friend Brother Ben, which didn’t surprise me. You never know where he might turn up.
Ben appeared to have seen me, since he tilted his head in my direction while dipping and raising his clarinet in time to the music. What I heard defied easy description. It was a lively mix of styles: not quite jazz, not really pop, with a little dance band flare that seemed at times to give way to reggae or calypso.
I was caught up in the music when I heard a voice announce a break—“Take five!”—and in an instant Ben was standing beside me on the pavement. He asked, “What do you think of our happy little band?” I was still forming a response when Ben pre-empted my reply. “We’re not especially accomplished, but we are enthusiastic!” I said I thought they were actually very good. Also, I couldn’t imagine how they managed to put together all the different stylistic elements.
“Neither can we,” Ben responded. “We make it up as we go along. Most of the time it has a way of working out, and when it doesn’t we have Thadu to bail us out.” Just then a man, who I thought looked familiar, put his head out the window and summoned Ben back inside in a language I couldn’t understand
“That’s Thadu,” Ben explained. “You met him along with Hattie at the Hudson Park Library. Thadu used to play the alto sax, but he’s gone a bit deaf, so we’re pleased to have him lead us instead. Hattie’s up there as well. She sings in the number coming up.” I remembered that Hattie had been a vocalist at Cafe Society in the 1940’s.
In an instant Brother Ben left my side and was taking his place in the rehearsal room. After a bit of tuning up, the piece began. At first a muted solo trumpet suggested a melody that was then picked up by the piano. There were woodwind flourishes as the rest of the band gradually entered and a clear melodic line was established. Then a dramatic cutoff after which Hattie began to sing:
When the moon’s swinging low
Over Bleecker Street
And stars adorn the trees . . .
When the winds start to blow
And the bass sets the beat
While a trumpet shoots the breeze . . .
It was about a singer who goes from one dive bar to another looking for the lover who’d gone and left her with only sixteen bars of a song he’d started to write for her. It might have been a cliche but the music worked its magic and for a time I forgot where I was.
When eventually I looked back up to the second floor of the music school the windows were dark. There was no one in the street and the only song I heard was the ring tone on my mobile phone.
* “Village Resident,” otherwise known as T. P. Miller