Looking for Lost New York With Stephen Crane and Two Jazz Legends
By Stuart Mitchner
The New York bus stops outside the building I work in. Several times a day I see it idling in front, waiting for the light to change. In the car last week listening to a CD of live jazz from May 1953, I hear the announcer say “We’re coming to you from Birdland, Broadway at 52nd Street, the heart of Manhattan” and I know it’s time to get on that bus. I’m thinking of the lost city of automats and movie palaces when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and I was allowed into jazz clubs in my mid-teens.
The Dizzy Gillespie All Stars with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis are playing “The Sunny Side of the Street,” the whole band’s singing the chorus, telling me to “grab your coat and get your hat and leave your worries on the doorstep.” Who cares if it’s gray and wet and windy outside, the song works for me. I may be “walking in the shade with those blues on parade,” but “I’m not afraid ‘cause this rover crossed over.”
There’s no sunny side on the bus this morning, but I like how the rain is flicking at the window as we make our stop-and-start way down the Lincoln Highway on Coach America.
The Story of the Word
I’ve been getting in the mood for the city by reading around in the works of Stephen Crane, who was born in Newark on November 1, 1871, and died in Germany on June 5, 1900. Three of his novels are set in New York: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which he self-published in 1893; The Third Violet (1897), which takes place in the art student milieu of Chelsea; and George’s Mother (1896), which begins, like my day, “in the swirling rain” that makes “the broad avenue” glisten “with that deep bluish tint which is widely condemned when it is put into pictures.” The reference to painting reflects Crane’s time living in the old Art Students League Building on East 23rd Street, where he finished his most famous work, the Civil War classic, The Red Badge of Courage (1895).
I’m a long way from Crane’s New York as I come out of the tumult of Port Authority and head down 41st Street. As far as that goes, I’m a long way from my New York, what with the digital fantasia of Times Square flashing through cycles of incessant imagery to my left as I cross Seventh Avenue. In Bryant Park they’re playing ping pong in the rain. On the third floor of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library I sit on a marble bench watching tourists posing in front of the four massive panels of The Story of the Word, the work of Edward Laning (1906-1981), who taught for many years at the Art Students League after it moved to its current location on 57th Street.
Walking down Fifth Avenue, I pass Lord & Taylor, soon to be, like so much else in Manhattan, a thing of the past, sold to an office rental outfit the New York Times says is “very much rooted in the virtue-and-shell-game ethos of 21st-century capitalism … a story of the new economy cannibalizing the old.”
On my way east on 23rd Street, Crane’s old neighborhood, I’m thinking of a photograph, one of the most charismatic images of New York Bohemia, in which Crane is lounging on a sofa in a studio in the old League building. In his early twenties at the time, he’s movie star handsome, laid back, cool, dressed in what might charitably be called informal attire, ready to hit the road to the Wild West or Cuba.
“A Gesture of Menace”
Whenever I read Crane on New York, I imagine him seeing ahead to the story of the city I know, as when he visualizes the demise of the “mournful old building” that housed the studios of the Art Student League, “awaiting the inevitable time of downfall, when progress, to the music of tumbling walls and chimneys, would come marching up the avenues. Already, from the roof one could see a host advancing, an army of enormous buildings, coming with an invincible front that extended across the city, trampling under their feet the bones of the dead, rising tall and supremely proud on the crushed memories, the annihilated hopes of generations gone. At sunset time, each threw a tremendous shadow, a gesture of menace out over the low plain of the little buildings, huddling afar down.”
At the same time, I can relate my experience of the jazz-haunted city to Crane’s account of Minetta Lane, an alley off Sixth Avenue I used to take on my way to the Village Gate on Bleecker or the Five Spot and Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place. In “New York Sketches,” Crane puts you there with “the street lamps, burning dimly” that “cause the shadows to be important” and the “Sixth Avenue horse-cars” that “jingle past one end of the lane,” which “ends in the darkness of M’Dougall Street.” The inspired move that makes shadows important is Crane all the way, the sense of a free spirit of invention within a lyrical mixture of irony and attitude. After offering evidence that Minetta Lane was one of “the most enthusiastically murderous thoroughfares in New York,” he lets you know that it was built on the grave of Minetta Brook, “where, in olden times, lovers walked under the willows on the bank.”
Monk at 100
I can also relate Stephen Crane’s New York prose to the music of Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), whose 100th birthday was marked by a recent 10-day festival covered in Tuesday’s New York Times. I’m thinking of the way Crane pounds out ironic riffs like the one on important shadows, which could be the title of a companion piece to Monk’s “Brilliant Corners.” Listening to “Round Midnight,” I can hear the color and movement of Monk’s music in Crane’s imagery: “In little songs of carmine, violet, green, gold./A chorus of colors came over the water.”
A sign of Monk’s continuing appeal can be found in “In Time All Time,” a song by Mark Stewart, better known as Stew, the composer of the musical Passing Strange who was in town a few weeks ago. In his tribute, Stew sings, “Mr. Monk is such a ray of wisdom and light/He dried all the fears from my eyes/And in time all time will be time.”
When Stew says “Let us dance this waltz and unwind,” I remember Monk moving slowly, thoughtfully in place beside the piano one summer night at the Jazz Gallery. In his biography The Life and Times of An American Original, Robin D.G. Kelley describes what happened at the same club when Monk “counted out an extremely slow tempo” that had drummer Frankie Dunlop thinking “Every measure felt like a lifetime” as he “struggled to make something happen and maintain the tempo against Monk’s off-meter phrases.” Suddenly Monk “got up from the piano to dance” and “sidled up alongside Dunlop,” saying “I told you it ain’t easy to swing when you’re playing slow.” This is the man the Times story calls “jazz’s most popular composer,” who once said “A note can be as small as a pin or as big as the world. It depends on your imagination.”
Dizzy at 100
“Yeah. Be happy!” is what Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) said when an interviewer mentioned the “big part” humor plays in his “musical personality.” According to British jazz critic Michael James, Gillespie’s “tough but resilient” lines “speak of a joie de vivre capable of surmounting every obstacle.” James points out how “the beautiful coda” in “Groovin’ High” is “in marked contrast to the pyrotechnical flights of his solo, and yet there is no real clash between the two, both offering the same élan and joyous abandon.”
I was lucky enough to see Dizzy Gillespie more than once at Birdland, where in the space of a minute he would move from slapstick antics to trumpet playing so fast and firey it left you wondering if you even heard what you thought you heard. Listen to the two explosions on his 1947 breakthrough record “Manteca” and you understand what he’s talking about in his memoir To Be or Not to Bop: “If you play every note that’s down there, it will become involved and stiff so instead eliminate those notes and make it so the note will be heard without being played.” Which reminds me of Stephen Crane and a writer he influenced: it’s the Ernest Hemingway theory of composition: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”
So back I go to “On the Sunny Side of the Street” live from Birdland, the song that roused my New York nostalgia and put me on the bus to the city. In the days when the clubs let in underage kids like me, the deal was you were there for the music and not the liquor. In Birdland you could sit near the bandstand in a section they called the bleachers and the $1.80 minimum brought you a coke or ginger ale, and hours of music, live, up close. The only time they wouldn’t let me in was when I showed up with a younger friend. It was no use pleading, they were turning us away when a genie stepped out of the shadows. It was Dizzy Gilllespie. Putting one arm around me and one around my friend, he said “These boys are with me” and escorted us inside.