Village newspaper: Music in the air

By Pago Habitans*

A sure sign of spring is hearing music outside again: the ambient sounds of piano bars; Street artists; outdoor concerts; the various strains of music wafting through the neighbors’ open windows. Booming car stereos and loud restaurant sheds are another story.

I was walking along Barrow Street just west of Seventh Avenue the other night when I heard a small band playing – piano, drums, bass and some woodwinds and brass. As I got to the middle of the block, I discovered the sound was coming from an upstairs rehearsal studio at Greenwich House Music School. It was my old friend brother Ben who played the clarinet, which didn’t surprise me. You never know where it might end up.

Ben seemed to have seen me, as he nodded in my direction as he dipped and raised his clarinet in time to the music. What I heard defied easy description. It was a lively mix of styles: not quite jazz, not quite pop, with a touch of dance band that sometimes seemed 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 next to me on the sidewalk. He asked, “What do you think of our happy little group?” I was still formulating an answer when Ben preempted my answer. “We are not particularly accomplished, but we are enthusiastic! I said I thought they were actually very good. Also, I couldn’t imagine how they managed to put all the different styling elements together.

“Neither do we,” Ben replied. “We invent it as we go along. Most of the time it works, and when it doesn’t we have Thadu to bail us out. Just then, a man, who looked familiar to me, stuck his head out the window and summoned Ben inside in a language I didn’t understand.

“It’s Thadu,” Ben explained. “You met him with Hattie at the Hudson Park library. Thadu used to play alto sax, but he got a bit deaf, so we’re glad to have him in his place. Hattie is up there too. She sings in the upcoming number. I remembered that Hattie had been a singer in the Cafe Society in the 1940s.

In an instant, Brother Ben left me and took his place in the rehearsal room. After a few adjustments, the play began. At first, a muted solo trumpet suggested a melody which was then taken up by the piano. There were flourishes of wood as the rest of the band gradually entered and a clear melodic line was established. Then a dramatic cut after which Hattie started singing:

When the moon swings low

On Bleecker Street

And the stars adorn the trees. . .

When the winds start to blow

And the bass gives the beat

As a trumpet blows the breeze. . .

It was the story of a singer who goes from one bar to another in search of the lover who left and left her only sixteen bars of a song he had started writing for her. . It may have been a cliché but the music worked its magic and for a moment I forgot where I was.

When I finally looked up to the second floor of the music school, the windows were dark. There was no one on the street and the only song I heard was my cell phone ringing.

* “Resident of the Village”, otherwise known as TP Miller

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