Monday, April 18, 2005

New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones

I was in New York City recently, for the first time in several years, and it was odd to be in the position of having been away for so long. Even before I lived there, I generally got to the city at least once every month or two, and during my brief time on TV — anyone remember VH1’s 4 On the Floor? — was in Manhattan pretty much every other week.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it, but I’d also be lying if I claimed to be eager to move back. I’d forgotten how loud and filthy the city is — I’m not sure which was more depressing, watching people throw their trash onto the subway tracks, or realizing that I was the only person in the station bothered by the sight — and was reminded that, in many ways, what tourists love best about New York is the endless ways to spend money it offers. So long as Americans equate strolling by the overpriced boutiques along Fifth Avenue with sight-seeing, socialism never has a chance there.

A lot had changed in the few years since I moved away. The mammoth Time Warner complex was a construction site then, not a skyscraper hunched over a shopping mall, and subway trains had not yet been plastered with American flags (a move no doubt meant to reassure tourists that despite the state of the MTA, they have not been unexpectedly transported to a third-world country). And it may just have been a function of where and when I traveled, but it seemed like there were fewer musicians playing in the subways. Particularly on the platforms, which back in the day was a forum for quite a few gifted Chinese classical musicians; this trip, the only platform performer I caught was a dazed gospel singer who seemed unable to remember more than half a verse of the spiritual she was singing.

Still, while jazz may be dying in the clubs, it continues to have a place in mass transit. In addition to a fine young tenor player whose subway-entrance soliloquies added some old-school 42nd St. feel to the Disney-fied Times Square, I caught a ragged-but-enthusiastic combo wailing loud and free (or at least only loosely following changes) at the Grand Central stop. Even better, they actually had an audience. Now, that’s the New York I truly miss.

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