Independence Day is next week, and the venue—a bar-restaurant with a piano-shaped stage built into one corner, jazz seven nights a week—is done up in stars-and-bars bunting. The food is ethnic, some kind of Mediterranean fusion. A giant clock, the kind you would see in a train station, hangs on one wall, and a giant TV, silent as the clock, hangs over the bar. The Yankees are playing the national pastime-that-was. A third wall is decorated with a rather lurid painting of jazz legends in a jam session, and, on a shelf high above, foot-tall porcelain clowns, each playing a different instrument.
The musicians take turns eating at the single bar seat reserved for staff. The pianist, a young woman of Asian descent, is occupying it when I arrive; the bass player, young, male, African-American, follows her. Scampi. Comped? How much? Half, maybe, the rest paid for out of the tip jar: a fishbowl on a pedestal beside the piano, a few dollar bills floating in it. Too big to carry around soliciting, like they would at Arthur’s Tavern, like they used to at the St. Nick’s Pub.
When the bass player finishes eating, someone on staff is dispatched to find the pianist. Like she’s an errant busboy, smoking weed in the basement. It’s the sort of indignity musicians have suffered since antiquity, beginning with their exile from the Republic.
Why the rush? I’m happy to drink my wine and read about Ed Poe until she’s good and ready. The guy next to me, in the only other occupied seat on the stage-side of the bar, seems content to watch the Yankees. A couple on the other side chats away under the porcelain clowns, and someone else reads the paper. The bartenders, skinny and dark, stand around like coin-operated automatons.
Appear she does, looking slightly flustered, and the other two follow her up onto the stage: the rhythm section, although in a piano trio the distinction is probably meaningless. If there’s any applause, I don’t hear it. No one introduces them, and they don’t introduce themselves. She looks over her shoulder a couple of times while drums and bass fumble with sheet music. The music rack is down, the lid up, the piano turned away from the bar, so that we, the patrons, can see her face, but not her hands.
After a tune or two, I start to wonder what the music is doing here, seven nights a week. Why the stage, the track lighting? Why the baby grand? It’s not a noisy bar, where the music helps create that juke-joint atmosphere, maybe a few people dance, the noise on the bandstand mixing in and out of the noise of conversation, in turn feeding and feeding off the energy of the patrons. At the same time, the music is much too loud and prominent to be a digestif—although, since the main dining room appears to be in the back, the owners might have thought it could serve that function, from a distance. Nor is the place a club-shrine, where arty people go to just listen, silence their cell phones and keep conversation to a minimum. Shoved into a corner, yet thrust up onto a stage; playing against the Yankees, yet loud enough to dissuade conversation: the music seems to have no clearly-defined role.
Maybe enough that it’s here at all. But it does make me wonder what the musicians are playing for, besides tips and a scampi coupon.
Perhaps in response, the band doesn’t talk once during their set. They do no more than sift through sheet music, murmuring. It’s a bit like watching someone sort dirty laundry; I almost feel the need to look away. As for the pianist, the leader—it is her trio; her name is on the bill—she stares straight ahead while she plays, without seeming to look at anything, not even the keys or her own hands. Maybe she’s looking through the open windows and door behind me, at the makeshift terraza on the avenue, at the cars and pedestrians making their way through the breezy late-June evening. Making music out of their moving figures and the City night, dreaming about all these lives separate and distinct from her own, people she won’t ever see again, and how she fits into this inscrutable jigsaw; and when, if ever, she’ll be done paying her dues, make it, play for the tourists; and whether she’ll ever be able to call this place home, and what that will mean when she goes back to Tokyo, or Seoul, or Boston, or Los Angeles, or wherever it is she’s called home up to now.
The guy next to me never takes his eyes off the TV, but his body does rock a little when they play a burner. He applauds politely when the set is over, too; but then somebody has just hit a home run.
At last she does speak. In a thickly-accented English, she introduces her bandmates, herself, holds up her CD with her face on the cover. The drummer is texting. A moment later he goes out front to smoke a cigarette. She, too, disappears again, leaving the CD buried under the scores atop the piano.
I can’t tell you who she sounded like. She sounded like pretty much every dreamer who came to this town before her, and yet like nobody but herself, pitching those few pennies into the wishing-well of improvisation—there are plenty at the bottom of that fishbowl, and plenty more fishbowls like that one. I can’t remember what she played, either. A mix of originals and standards, again, like pretty much everybody else: something people can tap their feet to even if they’re watching the game, nothing too “out,” too corny, too anything.
As for her name, that doesn’t particularly matter either. There are dozens, maybe hundreds like her in this City: graduates of the Berklees, renegades from the Julliards, devotees of that other national pastime, cobbling together their lives on bandstand after bandstand, hawking their CDs wherever they go, playing an always-contemporary music itself cobbled together from a thousand accents, one foot planted firmly in the future, dreaming about a time when they’ll be done paying their dues, the flag will mean what it’s supposed to, and the clowns will climb down off those high shelves and file out the door.