Just last week here in NYC, I was down in SOHO to deliver one of my paintings to a dear friend. Even through my COVID mask, I caught a whiff of something I knew so well, but haven’t smelled in years-a true NYC slice of pizza. I jokingly told my friend Joan on the phone that the sign outside said they had the best Sicilian pizza in NYC, and she quickly informed me that it wasn’t true. Nevertheless, once that smell hit I was lured inside, the same way a pie out of the oven made Tom from the old Tom & Jerry cartoons blissfully float in the air to the windowsill where the pie was cooling. Inside I saw an old man behind the oven and I noticed that the cash register was old school, it wasn’t about entering your debit card.
When my beloved slice arrived it had that extra dripping mozzarella mid landslide, over a river of perfect red sauce. The crusty bed was the perfect pillow like texture and temperature, with the heat gently heat rising off and escaping. Yes, a symphony, took place in my mouth. I wasn’t sure if these places still existed in NYC, but what was this really about?
I couldn’t sit at that socially distanced table by myself without thinking back to what was really far more important, the post gig slice, where real talk always took place. Over my 30 years in NYC, many many times after the gig, it was time to go cop a slice with Ras Moshe, Sabir Mateen, Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell, Raphe Malik, Bern Nix, and my whole crew over the years. Sometimes it would be a diner like the Remedy on Houston, or Chinese like MEE on 9th ave Hell’s Kitchen, but the slice version was a personal favorite in the lower east side. The one on the corner near Tonic was a personal fav. Moon Pizza near the Stone. The Daniel Carter version might easily last 3 hours. One time with Roy and Sabir somebody tried to sell us expired lottery tickets. Roy let him know that we saw right through such a lame hustle. The bar at CBGB’s Gallery was another spot of jazz reality sessions with Tazz.
Now in 2021 I wonder how many post gig slice sessions are going to go down. Just recently someone slid a paper under my door in Queens about a “unique town house” for sale with the unbelievable price of ONLY a million dollars! One time Bern Nix and I went to a book release party at a nice apartment in Tribeca. At the bar a guy whispered to us that if we were interested he had the inside track on buying the place for 19 million. Now Bern Nix was living in an SRO, and at the time I had about $19 to my name. We just looked at each other, Bern did his sardonic laugh, and we told the guy we would be in touch.
As fate would have it, and as the stars have aligned, my living here in NYC journey has come to an end, and what a journey it has been. I’ll be right over there in Philadelphia, 80 minutes from Penn Station. I can’t leave my NYC music people no matter what, I just can’t keep up with the ongoing mission to turn Manhattan into a mindless playground for the rich. The rent is too damn high. The artistic culture I know still exists, but so much of NYC is down on their knees worshiping that cash. COVID came to town and moved in. COVID took my buddy Giuseppi Logan, and now brother Aaron Martin Jr in DC. 2 great, free, alto players. I can’t take it. The underground has been pushed under the underground. After I was forced into a knee replacement, my wife Sue and I decided to seek a change in venue. Philadelphia became our target, with it’s own deep history in jazz.
Reflecting on my NYC journey, it’s the places and the people that stand out the most. My first stop was the Jersey City YMCA so that I could get to the NYC music scene in the early 90’s. I wrote a crazy book about this period. Who stands out though is Eugene. Eugene was an older gentleman who got me a room near him on the 6th floor at the Y. He got me off the 4th floor where I was about to be robbed. Eugene had mastered the Y, and had 2 rooms combined with a big TV inside. He was a great, great jazz singer. He helped me get a bike, and the 2 of us would ride all around the village in NYC to different jazz clubs where we would sit in, Eugene often getting huge applause. Eugene was also deep into a Course in Miracles and got me to go to his Universal Church. He really looked out for me. I love and miss him.
The next person was my man Keith. Keith was true NYC. I roomed with him in a railroad apartment in Hell’s Kitchen on West 50th and 10th ave for $400 a month. Keith had been there a long time, and I hope he still is. He was a true original that I met at my day gig at Tower Records at Lincoln Center. Keith’s favorite pastime was to get lit, and listen to Eric Dolphy with his cat. Hell’s Kitchen wasn’t what it once was then, but it was still Hell’s Kitchen! There was a rehab next to our building where the guests were always on a smoke break. The kicker was I could just walk to my jobs at the time, Tower, Sam Ash in Times Square, or Barnes and Noble on 5th. I was able to make it on unemployment for 6 months when Tower went bankrupt. Part of my NYC journey included 30 years of low paying deep hustle full time gigs to survive. I’ll never forget working all day unloading trucks and then going to the Pink Pony to play a set. I fell asleep when I got there until Daniel Carter arrived and woke me up so we could put our horns together and hit.
Next was the couple from the stars. Rolegio and Mirella. After some really bad life decisions I ended up in a room in their apartment in Washington Heights. They were from DR and spoke no English. My Spanish was banging at the time from selling trumpets to Mariachi cats at Sam Ash, and got way better though I know I sounded grammatically insane. The deal was $125 a week cash. After a year or so I became like family and was able to freely use the kitchen. I could practice my trumpet there. When I was sick once, Mirella made me chicken feet soup. I Love and miss them. I was living with them when I met my future wife, Sue.
I have to stop off at some job memories, and the folks within. Tower Records was a whole other universe. CD’s reigned supreme. We never thought digital music would do us until suddenly it was all over. I could write a whole blog about Tower, where I first met Jack DeSalvo, Tom Cabrera, and Francois Grillot. Stand out memories are doing unlimited overtime before Christmas and then buying a new Bach trumpet from Sam Ash in cash with the loot. I was in charge of moving the whole damn store once from Lincoln Center when we had to move up to the 70’s for a few years. Up there the clear highlight was being the jazz buyer, and shading people I didn’t like. Stanley Crouch was pissed! As the buyer I curated a year of gigs on a Saturday Brunch series that we even had catered at first. We had a standup piano. I tried to get all my people booked on this series, and the highlight was Roy Campbell playing a 2 hour set with his quartet. Sam Ash on the now extinct music row was another trip. My boss then, Richard Tucker, always looked out for me. I was always practicing there, and most of the staff thought I was crazy or just couldn’t play as I was working out harmelodics. I did 2 bids at the Ash, and I was there when the original building was condemned and we were forced to move across the street in 2 days. Selling horns for commission still has a bad taste in my mouth, but I sold horns to Charles Gayle, Sabir Mateen, Sweet Lee Odom, Ras Moshe, AND his dad! When the Ash moved to 34th st I met Art Baron and Claire Daly, who both joined the 12 Houses, so once again it was about the people and not the gig. My bosses down there were rough on me for being real with customers and I affectionately called them cue-ball and pin head. My last gig was far and above the supreme one, when Roberto Romeo helped me escape retail jail once and for all. Roberto is a NYC legend as a great repair man and owner of Michiko studios. Working the desk at Roberto’s I got to hang with Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp! Roberto is tight with king Sonny Rollins himself, who loves his shop cat Micio. I spent thousands of hours shedding there, 3 hours a day for years. Roberto’s winds is real true NYC music history, and I made some good friends as well. Maybe I’ll write about Rod Baltimore another time.
Shifting to music, I’ll never forget the legendary Jimmy Lovelace. Jimmy was a great drummer and known for wearing a white suit. He is revered today in memory, though my memory was not the Jimmy that people know. Lovelace sat me down at Smalls during a jam session and told me to quit music. He told me he was looking out for me, since I just didn’t have it in my soul. Lovelace heard me when I was trying to play more free on standards, which wasn’t cool at Smalls I suppose, but either way, he tried to spiritually kill me. Or maybe, he actually tried to save me, by forcing me to get serious about my path, I don’t know. I kept coming back and almost fought him over my situation. That whiplash shit has stayed with me ever since, and this was in the early 90’s. The memory I’ll keep from that time was playing rhythm changes with Roy Hargrove, when I just dragged everyone into a whole tone improvisation. Roy dug it, and getting his sanction felt great. I was trying to be a straight trumpet player back then. Everything changed when I met drummer Ryan Sawyer at the Rhinecliff Hotel in Rhineback NY where I had exiled myself temporarily to the realm known as relationship land. Ryan gave me a room at a house in Jackson Heights Queens. Ryan left a note for me to go to Tonic during the day on a weekend to see William Parker and the Little Huey Orchestra. I didn’t know who WP was then. When I arrived they were rehearsing and I’ll never forget it. Roy Campbell and Alex Lodico were on fire. Right there I dreamed I would join the band not knowing I eventually would! Sometime after this I met and studied with Ornette, changing not just my life, but my mind and soul.
After that is a long list of people and experiences that could only happen here. Countless sessions in Francois Grillot’s kitchen. NYC is where I met and played with Giuseppi Logan and Bern Nix. Bern was NYC to the core. He was so NYC that as the city began its cultural descent into cash worship and superficiality, he felt more and more out of place, even lost. How many door gigs does it take to get a million dollar townhouse? Towards the end Bern was saying no to the door gigs saying what’s the point. Going down this dark path I’ll never forget, never forget, trying to get Bern a gig at a festival (not Vision) when they wanted a demo, and then rejected him. 13 years with Ornette Coleman not enough? That kind of shade, political, ageism, whatever, that’s when I saw the other side of NYC. The side that says fuck you no matter who are or what you’ve done. The cold, merciless part of NYC that doesn’t care if you arrive, stay, or leave. I’ve written about Giuseppi quite a bit, but the NYC memory of G that stands out is one that I may not have written before, and was told to me by Roy Campbell. Sometime in the 80’s Roy ran into G on the street. They decided to go somewhere together but G said they had to stop by his house first. G then took Roy a few blocks to a phone booth on the corner-he said he lived there in the booth!
So thanks for everything NYC. I’m out. I’m mean we’re still cool, we just don’t have to live together anymore. You were of course that mythical place to go so that I could find myself, be myself, and find out if I had what it takes to roll with the masters of the art and my personal heroes. It was never about you though, it was about the people here! My music brothers and sisters that are with me to the end no matter where I go. 12 Houses forever. Surviving you is a badge of honor, and also of fortitude. I don’t know if you even recognize yourself in the mirror these days. You yourself may be now dealing with your own karma, and your own inevitable end. I think nature might take you out and wash you away long after I’m gone.
Imagine that, the year, 2150, you and a million human stories entombed underwater for eternity.
That might be dark, but hey as Larry Roland says, we’re in a fallen world.
As ever, we artists of the world remain as the LIGHT.
Don’t think I don’t appreciate you NYC.
Here’s to ALL my people in NYC over the years, then, now, and in the future. A salute and raised glass to all. We still have a lot of music to make.
Finally to you NYC, all I can say is what I always say.
As I came in, and as I go..
Dedicated to the great Aaron Martin Jr 3/24/21
TBC In Philly!
Also, please tune in to Arts for Art 3/30 at 8pm for Me, Larry Roland, and Ryan Sawyer-for Giuseppi, Bern, and Aaron