New York, 1948
by Paul Perilli
We’re due there this morning. Manhattan, place where everything’s bigger, fast, more expensive, better. Where the Cotton Club is. Minton’s Playhouse. Carnegie Hall. Savoy Theater. Armstrong. Parker. Giillespie. All the places you want to play in. Musicians you want to play with. They’re there. Here. I’m getting more excited the closer I come to them. Each flashing crossing gate we go through means I’m nearer. Lewis Bolton. Just a boy, eighteen, Dexter keeps reminding me when he sees my head getting too big. Up-and-coming trumpeter ready to take on New York.
Time comes when the train rounds a bend and crosses from trees into something I describe to Dexter as large and exciting. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Some dream you had you just remembering. Something inside you changes when you cross into it. Your guard comes up in fear you’ll need it. The excitement building in me’s more from the expectation of being in it than from seeing it; eating a big breakfast near our hotel up in Harlem, going to 52nd Street looking for Bird and Dizzy. Just to put my eyes on them. Damn.
It’s morning, eight, nine o’clock. I don’t know. My watch is somewhere back in Cincinnati. I don’t have money to buy another. And I heard you don’t need a watch in New York. You never go to sleep so why you need to know what time it is?
The whistle blows when we roll under a trestle whre a tall man with nothing covering his chest stands watching us, waving hello. By the windows, I wave back. Dexter traded places with me when we stopped in Albany so I wouldn’t keep bothering him. He’s in the seat next to me, eyes closed and body reclining like an oversized penguin in a gray suit. He wants to sleep. And so will I, later in my room in Harlem. Right now, next to the double pane of glass, I can’t keep from looking at the rows of houses all linked to each other so it seems everyone’s sharing the rooms in them, then to the projects so big each one might be an entire nation for all I know.
I’m up in my seat, just about standing on the cushion to get a look at it all, wanting to jump out at it.
I say something about Manhattan being greater than any place I’ve been and ever will be.
This is the Bronx, not in Manhattan yet, Dexter tells me with half a laugh. Keep your excitement down a while longer. You’ll know when you see it. I won’t have to tell you. His eyelids go back to the position that keeps out the view, including me.
We’ve come to record on a big label. Columbia. This’ll be my first time in a studio. I’ll be doing it in the place that no place else is like. Center of the jazz life, no question. Of all life, it sure seems. Like some city of concrete and glass described in the Bible. So many people you’d need the rest of your years to counth them all. So many places to go and people to seduce you with what they have and want you to have too that you won’t be able to resist very long. Or at all. Anticipation to get as much of it as you can comes when you see it all at once. Makes you know you’re somewhere special. Everything converges here and you’re in it.
Working through the cities with Dexter’s orchestra, from Kansas City to New York, all the way across the map of big and small dots that become a blur after a while, seem the same as the last one and one before that. All the stories I’ve heard about what was at the end before we start the same route back didn’t satisfy my expectations of being in it. Only made me want to get here faster.
There it is, I tell Dexter. Spin toward him. His lips break apart but his eyes don’t open. They know what mine are seeing.
Our hotel’s on 139th, not far from Minton’s where I plan to spend some time. IT’s called Cecil, strangest name for a hotel I think each time I look at the sign with black letters out in front. Like it’s a friend instead of a building. The rooms in it are big though. Clean too. But could sure use a brush and paint. Some soap and water applied to the windows and hallways. We’ve stayed at better. But even so, it has more to it than all of them put together. Impresses you like a man or woman with a strong character. Doesn’t matter w hat’s covering them on the outside, you know the someone that’s inside is enough.
We spend the morning unloading and unpacking. Only one bellhop’s on and he’s buys enough. Dexter employs me, Benny and Lester to do the work the older guys in the band don’t want to do. Dexter days we all paid our dues doing things we don’t like, though Benny has another way of putting it he doesn’t mention in front of him.
We take the suitcases and instruments upstairs. Flattened hands asking for tips, that we hold out to each of the guys, stay as empty as the day we come out of our mothers.
In a few hours everything’s in the room. Some brought their own luggage up. But we lugged most everything else, instruments, suitcases, boxes of music, satchels of personal stuff. Everyone’s happy to be settled but us. Since we don’t have to be in the studio until the next afternoon, the rest of the day’s ours to look around. And we’re anxious to get out on the streets.
Dexter tips the bellhop a few dollars only. He’s tight as the belt around your waist. Gives us five dollars to split three ways. But we beg another five out of him. And that about counts as being a miracle. When he hands it to us he follows it with instructions, nothing illegal, right. Don’t want to contribute to your delinquency, if we know what he means. Then comes the big wink. He knows it all, the whole story about youth, having been there before. Knows we know he knows. As bandleader he’s got to say something to us even if he’s sure it’ll pass between our ears without stopping. Just like a lot of other things have. Most everything really.
139th never gets tired, and neither will I unless Benny or Lester nails the door to my room shut from the outside and doesn’t let me out until it’s time to go to the studio. But neither of them’ll do this. They’re in need of someone to do it for them too.
Stay on the up and up, Dexter says. Leave me and Lester being led around by Benny. Benny was here last year playing at Roseland. He’s seen places and things we don’t know a damn thing about. IN a little while we’re going to carry on like tourists, preparing for a night on 52nd Street, The Street, to hear jazz and do other things we’ve yet to identify but know the short list of possibilities to choose from.
Things about New York I came to on the cab ride from the train station to Cecil’s is that it makes you fell you may never be able to get out of it, and may not want to. The places has your attention. Full of buildings you can’t see the top of. Cars coming at you from all angles. People bumping you their shoulders and bags and no apologies for doing it. It’s a wonder our driver didn’t hit anything anything on the way from Grand Central to Harlem. But by some miracle he avoided it all and when we got there he didn’t seem happy about his good fortune.
In a corner of your mind you know you have to got back to Kansas City. But right now that’s up ahead, some weeks away. You know if someone were to ask you what you’re planning to be doing until then you’d say you’re not going to sleep until you find out.
The other guys stay in. Put their clothes on hangers, settle in for the weeks ahead. Experience o the being on the road since they were seventeen tells hem comfort and organization come before any fun. Me, Lester and Benny don’t need what they do. No need for organization and comfort. Shirt’s as good on top of the dresser as in it. Dinner will come when it’s dinner time. Breakfast in the morning, or afternoon if that’s the time we happen to get out bed. Staying around the room’s waste of time. This is New York. Want to stay in, you can do that in Kansas City. Maybe it’s preferable there. I don’t know. Haven’t tried it. I’ve barely been to bed since I left Oklahoma City three years ago. There’s no reason with so much to do: the nightlife, all the women, the liquor I supposed to be young to drink.
We wash up. Change. Head to the lobby where the hustler’s and prostitutes hang out. If you need something done for you it’s available around the corner and don’t cost too much. Word about this came to us via tall lean gentleman. We pass right by him and head to the street.
Dewey Square’s across the way. A little park where musicians sit around and get high. Everything’available: pot, Dexedrine, heroin, coke. Pushers by the entry gates ask what you might need on your way in. One of their people’ll get it for you while you wait by the benches. This is what we know from Dexter. Came to us on the train ride. We forgot Dewey Square. Want to walk. And walk we do along 139th to Broadway, on down there all the way to 52nd. We keep up with the fast movement of the city, the subway roaring below our feet, gusts of wind coming up out of the vents. Only breeze we get all afternoon. Nothing’s going on yet in the clubs. We know this already. Just want to see what they look like. Press our noses into the windows like a bunch of freaks. We’ll be back later. Sure as sugar as sweet. So we go the steps and get on the subway. Whoa. It’s a rocket. We take it as far downtown as we can, right to the point of Manhattan, where we jump and wave at the Statue of Liberty. The Lady’s nice enough to light at torch and raise it up for us. After that we take the express back to Harlem and the Cecil.
Why we decide to come to the Hotel? Is my question for Benny and Lester. If we don’t want to go in it, let’s get the away from it. Got three weeks around here.
We start away again, toward the subway on Broadway. No more footing it long distances. Feet are tired, and shoe lather’s expensive. But before we get too far Benny turns around, heads us back to Dewey Square without saying a word about what he has in mind. When we get it he holds a hand back that tells us to stay put.’
There’s a punch of guys sitting under the trees, drinking for brown bags. Two big fellas are by the entrance. Looking this way and that. Got suits on. Colorful ties. Benny’s got then dollars. Dexter gave us and he’s going right for them, for something more than what Lester and me had in mind.
He stops next to two men. There’s some nodding. Spinning around. No blue coats anywhere. In fact we haven’t seen a single a near here. Only downtown, and we were respectful. Would’a made Dexter proud. Benny starts walking in the park with a slow gait like he’s talking his grandma for a constitutional after late mass. He greets another guy, hands something to him and gets hands something back in return. Something else said, Lester and I know. We speculate on the topic whithin the abilities of our imaginations, think we know what’s going on.
Lester’s and my room’s selected to take the cocaine up to. Real fine stuff it is, Benny says. Opens up in the little plastic bag it comes in. Lester and me sandwich him. Benny’s done a bit of coke before and tells us what to expect. Hold on boys. Shows us how to take it. It’s my first time, I say like a virgin. We snort. Suck the powder up our noses. I don’t know what it is about it but it feels a sudden burst of energy that might take me to California and back in the same day. Things come into focus like I’d never looked at them before as they really are, beautiful colors that amaze. The everyday going-on can be wonderful. You look out of the window and could spend a week inspecting what’s across the street. Makes you wonder what your eyes been focusing on so far. After this we go back to 52nd Street. We’d covered a lot of ground that day and weren’t even tired. Spend the rest of our money going from the club to the club looking for Bird and Dizzy. The clubs are so close to each other, one after another, and we’re in awe of the whole scene that includes Three Deuces , Town House, Beat Club. Most are small, the size of two-car garages, jam-packed with people.
We don’t find Bird or Dizzy but we do hear Hawkinds, Monk and Powell. They’re damn fine enough so it isn’t so bad a time. Not so bad a time at all.