They Came With A Dream – “Doing Jazz” in New York

By [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1996/97, I went to Manhattan to “do jazz”. When I got back, still full of the New York energy, I wrote this…….

All the musicians singers actors artists writers go there. Twenties thirties forties – everyone with a dream. (Fifties and sixties – who went there with a dream when New York was different – not all high rise.) Israeli Latin American Southern States Northern States…. from places that are not Manhattan. I sit in an armchair in the Mona Lisa Cafe in West Greenwich Village – every few seconds someone walks past carrying a guitar – Guitar City.

What they do for their art. The conditions they live in….paying out like someone of means to live in dire poverty, hand to mouth, downtown in the Village. As Roommate Finders sent me to see: for no small fee, rooms with no windows, (holes in the wall), rooms with internal windows only, rooms facing directly onto a brick wall two inches in front, rooms curtained off in a loft. (I would have to ask: does the room have an external window, four walls and a door?) For an average rent of $800 per month. For slightly less you can afford a curtained-off space in a living room or a mattress on the floor in the entrance, by the front door.

Roommate Finders – you try calling but everyone has voice mail and the hardest thing is to speak to an actual human being. They have to be able to get back to me so I buy a cell phone which it turns out has not yet gained coverage of much of New York – useless in the entire West Village and Chelsea, for example. Each ad receives one hundred or so calls, so they don’t get back to everyone. The situation is so impossible, with hundreds of dollars spent just on speaking to people’s voice mail.

Well I don’t have to be on the streets – if the worst comes to the worst I have a return ticket to England. “But you came with a dream” say the porters and janitors, without knowing why I’m there. “You came here for a reason – you should give it your best shot.”

The housing situation fills me with despair. I tell myself: I came for a reason – I have to give it my best shot.

Staying in Jersey City with the kind hospitable friend of a cousin – 31st floor, view of the entire skyline of Manhattan. PATH trains to Jersey stop around midnight so I get back in time each night. Don’t realise they also start around midnight. Start waking up each morning thinking – why am I here? Oh yes – I’m here for the jazz – and once I find somewhere to live downtown can go jamming to the early hours.

With my tenant in London three months late with her rent and the denial of New York banks of any affiliation with banks in the UK – the virtual impossibility of accessing my money, the insecurity – and some major error of judgement, decide for now to take something down down down town and East East East of the East Village – East of Chinatown – really East – the Lower East Side. “Don’t go there – you won’t get the right vibe” says Osi – a young Israeli singer. “Are you sure you want to live that far out?” asks Malcolm the drummer. But with my characteristic downfall – an inability to take advice from people with more knowledge and experience – I decide to go there as it’s not too much money or commitment.

The place is much much filthier than I’d noticed, but people remind me I’m lucky it’s not infested. The landlady has an assortment of the strangest friends who are there all hours, day and night, sleeping on the sofas.

The taxi driver who takes me and my suitcases is an aged German who does not know the way, does not know English, and can hardly see. He gets furiously lost, stops to ask people the way though his English is barely up to it – he cannot pronounce “Grand Street” – and has tantrums at these various “arseholes” who don’t know what they’re talking about. He asks me to read the street signs as his eyesight is not up to the task. I have all my belongings with me in his taxi, and I think of the African proverb: “Don’t tell the turtle who is carrying you on his back across the water that he stinks” – so I sit there quietly, willing our arrival. Which finally occurs, at which his eyesight is sufficiently restored to look at the area and apartment buildings and ask with incredulity: “You like to live here?”


All these people who come to Manhattan with a dream…….what they do for their art! Living in squalid dire poverty. Waiting tables. Israeli jazz guitarist Amos – it took such a long time – years – he said, before he was actually performing. The jazz pianist I met at Smalls – it took two years before he stopped being freaked out every day by Manhattan, and a further three years til he actually started to feel at home, and was finally playing for a living. Now he has regular work playing piano in a couple of restaurants.

And then there was Malcolm, house drummer at Arthur’s Tavern. His story begins some ten or or so years previously when he was on tour from his home country Barbados with his calypso band in Canada. The day they were scheduled to fly back home, he lay on his hotel bed staring at the ceiling, and said to the rest of the band: I’m staying here.

A few years later he decided to go to New York and simply turned up with no place to go. He worked as a chef for a couple of years before pursuing his real career as a drummer. As a chef, he broke his leg and had to leave work early one day because his leg was hurting so much, and then got fired. So he couldn’t pay his rent and his landlady wanted to kick him out, but he persuaded her to let him sleep in a storage cupboard with all the stored furniture and odds and ends til his leg healed and he was able to find work. He never looks back, just forward. Never despairs. One day – perhaps jolted by his situation on the edge – the thought came to him… card – marriage. He was sitting in a cafe – saw a woman sitting there, and thought: she’s the one.

After a year they married, and eventually got a house in Brooklyn. He worked in different jobs – as a chef, also selling jewellery. He set up a stand in the streets and his wife, a fellow Bajan, started making jewellery to sell and would join him at the stand. In the early days there would be some African Americans (“they’re not African. They’re black Americans!” insisted Malcolm, himself as black as jet) who would spit on him and curse him for doing menial work.

Then the drumming really started taking off and Malcolm found himself working more evenings and nights. Meanwhile his wife’s dream of fashion design had also taken off and she was successful and busy by day and their paths rarely crossed. Neither were willing to sacrifice any part of their dream for their marriage, so the time came to go their separate ways, and Malcolm left his marriage, their house in Brooklyn, their belongings all behind him, focused ahead and moved on.

Arthur’s Tavern – apart from Malcolm on drums, there was Terry…….on voice and piano. An African-American grandmother with a daughter in her forties and other children – she sang for hours and hours into the early hours of the morn, accompanying herself on piano. She sang jazz and blues like it was as natural to her as eating and breathing. The control in her voice, the suppleness, the raunchiness, expressiveness, energy. She lived in a garret in Brooklyn – no piano – just a little keyboard.

Then there were the two old blues singers/pianists in their eighties. Surely you’re not supposed to be able to sing anymore at that age? But did they sing? Did they play? Do I breathe, eat? And their voices! The piano was simple blues – second nature. So these African American Southerners – the real thing – at the top of their careers and at the top of their ability – are playing in Arthur’s just for tips – taking home as little as $10 per night – to a mixed audience: the real jazz and blues lovers including an old gentleman escaping his mean wife, who cried to think about how mean she was and what she’d do when he got home. Some just in Manhattan temporarily, and out for the evening. Some tourists come to “do” the jazz while in NY. Some sleazy men shadowing and stalking any likely or unlikely female – some people, I was told, would even make out in the washrooms downstairs – which seemed quite a feat as there was barely enough room even to take a simple pee.

Smalls is small. You stand in line and eventually when enough people have left there’s room for you to go in. It’s where young-and- up-and-coming jazz musicians have a place to perform, new jazz composers have a place to air new jazz compositions, and where there are hours of opportunity for jamming. A band will start at 10 pm – another at midnight. Finally at two a.m. (though invariably running late) another band will come on to play and open up the jam, which continues until 8a.m., though finishes earlier if there aren’t enough people to play. You get sax players, bass players, turning up with their instruments at three four five in the morning. You get newcomers from the Southern States – drummers, pianists – come to NY for the jazz, just checking the place out. You get jazz lovers regulars couples groups who just want to chill out in the early hours. $10 to get in – then non-alcoholic drinks on the house for an all-night shift. You can bring your own alcohol.

The bands vary from extremely good to extremely mediocre. The jammers play in any key – without charts. They put their name down on a list and are called up – they decide on a song, on a key, and are off.  Particularly innovative and exciting are some of the Israeli musicians and the oriental blend of jazz they introduce. There’s Omer Avital who, curved in deep embrace around his bass, caresses the most unlikely sounds from it such as the strumming of an oud. And his compositions and breathtaking musicians. There’s Amos who plays guitar and real oud. There’s the Israeli bass player who turns his bass into a percussion instrument – and who succeeded in breaking the basses of two other musicians because of the way he played. And where did he have the money to pay for their repair? The expense was left to Mitch – the owner of Smalls – to meet and quickly so the basses were playable and the musicians back on the road. He wasn’t going to invite them back to play, Mitch told me after some nights of these Israeli performances. What they play isn’t jazz. People don’t understand it so they don’t come, so he makes a loss. Yes the Israelis come to listen, but they don’t pay.

But the Israelis continued to play there. And Mitch opened it up for rehearsals throughout the day at no cost. He let me practise and vocalise there in the day although inhibited by comments from musicians such as “Still singing that song?” “Yes she’s been working on that same song for the last ten years”, or intimidated by musicians wanting to join in – play the song in bossa tempo, and finally – once I landed in the Lower East Side – finding the will to sing and my interest in jazz being sapped out of me.

On Saturday early evening at Smalls, six to nine, there’d be a no covers jam – students from the New School who didn’t get paid, and if there was time, it would be followed by musicians who could go up and jam. Singers would be called up sometimes.

Arnie Lawrence, founder of the New School, had a more open definition of jazz – anything is jazz if there’s improvisation. So Middle Eastern music can be jazz. Classical music used to be jazz, in the days of Mozart, Bach. He’s opening up a New School in Jerusalem where he now lives – and his vision involves getting master musicians of all cultures to teach there. He put me in touch with Jackie Paris (who “played with all the cats”)  for some singing lessons.

In Arthur’s Tavern, I met a young poet – she was there on her own from Canada. Every now and then she takes off for NY, stays at the Y, and takes in the nightlife. She showed me a poem she was moved to write at a previous venue by the extent to which “the music sucked”.

I also met there a young Israeli girl of about 21 in a blue feather boa at the bar – one of the army of brave young artistes who hit the university of the nightlife of Manhattan – while taking classes courses waiting tables by day. This was a young aspiring actress who could not afford to go to drama college. She was dismayed that I’d lost my will to sing. She told me of her ex-boyfriend who played the guitar in a way that moves the heart of anyone who listens. But he lost the will to play – every day he picks his guitar up and tries to play for a little while but then gives up. He doesn’t have it in him any more. She hoped so much I would start singing again.

When in NY, I thought, do as the New Yorkers do. So I decided to wait tables. In the Mona Lisa Café, the waitress who was an actress mentioned to the next table who were chatting her up she was leaving for Europe to film in a few days. So I knew there’d be a vacancy. I asked the waiter if the manager was there. The waiter’s English wasn’t sufficient to understand me. I went up to the manager – a sour dour man – and said how much I loved the café (his response was sour and dour) and did he need more staff? He asked if I had a resumé – a national insurance number – and said he didn’t need anyone for the moment, but would keep my number in case he needed someone to fill in. I asked the waiter for the check but his English wasn’t sufficient to understand.

I had a phone message one day from the Mona Lisa manager to turn up at 10 a.m. “for training” which I duly did, having had to cut short my all-night outing the previous night. What did he mean by training? They would teach me the work for a few hours. No I wouldn’t get paid. No, there wouldn’t be work straight afterwards. They’d see if I was good enough first, and then they’d see what shifts were available. But there might not be any. And if there were, they couldn’t guarantee whether they’d be day or night. Which would I prefer? (Day – because I’m in NY for the jazz – at night.) Well they would probably only have night shifts. And no there’s no pay. (Tips only.)

Somehow, at this stage of my life, I didn’t feel willing to submit myself to this exploitation, so I said it wasn’t for me, and left without training.

Feeling rather dejected, I sat and ate a pizza, and the Israeli manager of the pizza place offered to take me up the road to an Italian restaurant owned by a friend of his where they have music. I went there armed with a demo but there was nothing to play it on there. So the restaurant owner asked me to go to the piano and do my thing. I had already ceased to function and lost my will to sing and play. I dragged by fingers to the keyboard and dragged my voice out, but there was no energy, and I tried to hide my intense lack of confidence. It was sounding very mournful so I tried to do something with higher energy and emotion, and managed to get an applause. A couple of customers made requests I couldn’t fulfil, not knowing the songs. Afterwards I got up from the piano and approached the restaurant owner, and he simply asked me if I was interested in waitressing.

Most mornings I woke up asking myself what I was doing there, and by evening I would know the answer: it was for jazz: to listen learn sing participate in the music life of the city that never sleeps. But now – worn down by accommodation searches and freaked out by the Lower East Side – unable to think or to sing, it was clear I could no longer do what I had gone there to do and there really was no longer any reason for me to be there. I had mirages of lush grass, oak trees and evergreens like someone hallucinating water in a desert. It was time to leave.

The commitment of those who come to Manhattan, spend a fortune to live like paupers in appalling conditions, who wait tables for years before they’re doing what they came to do in little restaurants and bars – for virtually no money. These people who hold on to their dream (but let go of love), even while cooking or waiting tables (acting skills used to recite menus……)

Their passion and commitment to their music, their instrument, their dream. My father used to tell me: there are people who eat drink breathe sleep dream music. So this is where they congregate.