Monday, November 08, 2004

All that jazz

I never went back to Georgia...
-- D. Gillespie, Manteca

The trip to NY was excellent: the talk went well, and I had an attentive audience; I had lots of good conversations, some technical and some not; I met some very sharp people; and I was able to get some new ideas and to share some new ideas. I was impressed; I hope they were; and beyond that, I'm still sorting out my impressions and may or may not share them further on another day.

I also had the opportunity to get out and explore a little in my first trip to New York.

Sometime near my arrival at JFK, I got Manteca stuck in my head. It was there while I walked through Penn Station; and I'm sure I was humming to myself while I took a walk in the area around NYU. The song played intermittently in my head from Wednesday night until Friday afternoon. And then I went out on Friday evening.

I walked along Broadway to Union Square where -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- I ducked into a Barnes and Noble to find a quiet corner and record some of the day's conversations before they vanished from my head. The sound system was playing a fiery, bluesy sort of jazz, and the trumpets in my mental soundtrack were replaced by harmonicas. Then I went to see a group play at the Village Vanguard. Sax, drums, guitar, and bass fiddle supplanted the mental harmonicas, though now only the fiddle remains. Slap that bass, slap it 'til it's silly...

When I went back to my host's apartment, his CD player cycled through Dave Brubeck's Take 5, and when I left the next morning, Take 5 and blues and the bass fiddle lines from the previous night cycled through the back of my head, with Sinatra bubbling up in the in between moments. I walked down 5th Ave toward Central Park, passing by all manner of grand buildings and land marks on the way, pausing to admire the New York Public Library and to duck into the main Barnes and Noble store on 18th Street. My previous impressions of New York City were shaped half by The Muppets Take Manhattan and half by an architecture professor at Maryland who spent two weeks in a seminar course talking about Frederick Law Olmstead and the design of Central Park -- or at least, that's what I thought. But as I walked along the way, it was remarkable how familiar things seemed. New York City permeates so many images, through books and radio and television, that it hardly seemed such a strange place after all.

I walked to the lake in Central Park, and there I enjoyed the sun and watched a small child feed bread crumbs to a swan. The kid was young enough that the swan was much larger than he was. But when the kid threw his bread crumbs, the swan curved it's neck down to gobble up the morsels, and the kid was suddenly taller; whether it was this change in stature or the greedy behavior of the swan, quite out of keeping with its normal dignity, the kid was enchanted by the sight. He laughed, and did a little dance, and people all around him grinned a little. The squirrels and the pigeons and the ducks, though, steered clear of the whole scene -- I suspect none of them wanted to rile the swan.

It was a perfect fall day: the air was clear and a little crisp, the leaves were shades of brown and orange and red, and the sky was that special shade of blue that only seems to come on a few days each fall. But I eventually did walk from the park, since I had to catch a plane a little after 6:00. As I walked out, I passed two musicians. One was a guy with a sax and dark glasses playing what I took to be an unfamiliar jazz tune for a few notes -- before I recognized a tune from Fiddler on the Roof. If I were a rich man, said the sax; I would deedle-die-doh-deedle-idle-dum! I hummed under back under my breath. Not long after the sax had faded into the background, I saw an old Chinese man carefully setting up a pi-pa, a type of Chinese string instrument. I slowed as I passed, wanting to hear what he would play. He played Greensleeves.

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