Monday, November 07, 2005


Yesterday I saw two of the weirdest and most extraordinary gigs I’ve seen in my life.

Kenny Young & the Eggplants had been asked to play on the ‘comedy stage’ at the New York Marathon, so the TH and I headed up to 132nd Street in Harlem at 11am to see them.

There was no ‘stage’ as such, (rather a sidewalk with a bit of tape on the ground,) although clearly quite a lot of comedy. For starters, the organizers had thought to provide a PA, but no microphone stands………so a NY marathon volunteer was ‘volunteered’ to become a ‘human microphone stand’ for Kenny for the entire hour long gig.

And then there was the vexed problem of an audience. We are talking deepest Harlem here. The marathon had kicked off, but at this time of day we were at the stray wheelchair phase of it and this was not a spot where anyone in particular was going to come to watch it anyway. A few very bemused locals wandered past looking like they’d seen a lot stranger things going on in their block but were not going to hang around to check this particular one out, possibly on account of the low flying helicopters and heavy police presence.

Not counting the TH and I and a couple of other Eggplant mates, there was in fact an audience of one. And she was loving it. She was particularly loving the song ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, which is not part of the Eggplants set, but which she nevertheless kept requesting approximately every couple of minutes. At the top of her voice.
‘The audience’ was so persistent that at one point Kenny actually performed a couple of bars of said requested tune, which actually only made the heckling situation worse.

Things got a little hairy when Gil launched into his usual ‘break the place up’ mode during ‘Savage Eggplant’. The locals were not at all sure about this. Firstly if anyone was going to smash up their neighbourhood they clearly thought it should be them and secondly they couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting arrested. Actually none of us could…..

He then scared ‘the audience’ away...

I think these folks constitute what is referred to in marketing terms as ‘potential attenders’. They didn't want to get any closer to the 'stage' though...

Still, all was not lost. The band played really well despite everything and by the end had managed to acquire quite a following……of three.

So we hung out with the Eggplants, had brunch and cheered on the marathon, then headed up to Apartment 3F, 555 Edgecombe Avenue in Sugar Hill (North Harlem). This is the home of Marjorie Eliot, musician and actress, who, for eleven years, has hosted a (free) jazz gig in her front room every Sunday (without fail) at 4pm.
Through the impressive marble lobby, imagining the legendary previous tenants Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Johnny Hodges and Andy Kirk (who used to teach Sonny Rollins here) and up to Marjorie’s apartment. We tapped on the door and slipped in.

The place was buzzing. A regular apartment, but with fold-out chairs filling the living room, the hallway and half of the kitchen, lots of chat and maybe 50 people –all ages and nationalities, many of whom clearly knew each other and were ‘regulars’. We somehow didn’t feel out of place though – the atmosphere was warm and welcoming, strangers said hello and we were ushered to the best remaining two seats – restricted view in the hallway.

A few minutes later everyone had sorted themselves out with seating and the gig began. Marjorie played (piano) first, a slow and deliberate ‘Amazing Grace’, almost a prayer. The bass, guitar, and finally a vocalist join in. Rapturous applause. Then Marjorie stood up to deliver the first of what became three small speeches during the afternoon. I want to describe them as sermons, because although not religious and in no way ‘preaching’, there was a sense of worship in the room, heightened emotions, and clearly a group of deeply loyal followers. Marjorie briefly described how she had started these performances, in memory of her musician son, who died aged only 28 in 1992, then went on to thank the audience for making these events so special and meaningful. ‘Everyone who walks through this door becomes part of my family, no matter what colour your skin’. And it really did feel like that.

She went on to apologise for some incident which had occurred prior to our arrival, which had clearly upset the regulars, two of whom were wiping away tears at the mention of it. We never did find out, but I'm guessing someone had caused a disturbance and had to be ‘removed’ from the apartment. ‘In all my years of doing this, nothing has ever happened like this before and I never predicted it’.

And then the music. The gig runs like clockwork – there is obviously a set list, although I can’t see it written anywhere, and Marjorie and another pianist take turns to play and a saxophonist sits in for some numbers. It is by no means a random jam session – the tunes (all standards such as ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘Body and Soul’ and ‘How High the Moon’), and the line-ups, are all meticulously planned.

An interval and Marjorie hands everyone fruit bars and fruit juice in paper cups. Then she speaks again to introduce the musicians and the second set, and also to mention that earlier this week the BBC had interviewed Elvis Costello in her apartment about the tragedy of Katrina in New Orleans. She spoke with great affection for Elvis, who she had not known previously - explaining that she had been incredibly impressed by his knowledge and understanding of racism, prejudice and politics. ‘You do know who Elvis Costello is, don’t you?’ she asked. ‘Yes, Diana Krall’s husband!’ replies someone in the audience……

The gig runs till 6.30pm and at the end Marjorie says goodbye personally to everyone at the door. She hugs me and thanks us for coming. She is an extraordinary person, wirily small and thin, yet hugely charismatic, dramatic, strong. I feel quite emotional as we leave. This was by no means ‘great’ jazz we had just heard, but the spirit in which the music was played and the event itself was something quite profound. Reminded of Commuter Jazz days at the RFH and how I had always considered that my 'family’, and touched by the enormous power of music to bring people together and communicate a shared spirit of love.

Walking to the subway.
Me: ‘We have a really huge living room…..’
TH ‘Don’t even THINK about it!’


Blogger Bloominjools said...

You know - the thought occurred to me about half way down the post!

8:52 AM, November 08, 2005  

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