Thursday, June 18, 2009

You can't Park here...

Take a moment the next time you're walking through any of the parks in Manhattan-- not just Central Park but smaller ones like Washington Square Park, Roosevelt Park or even some of the wider concrete spaces like Union Square-- and you might just have the chance to hear some truly beautiful and original music performed by the legions of talented musicians who take to the streets to support themselves in the summer (hmm, apparently they are so good that they inspire run-on sentences...)

The technical term for it is "Busking," and it is a tradition stretching back to at least Roman times (and applies to numerous forms of art and performance). Obviously the quality can vary, but I have personally been amazed at the level of musicianship that I see around town. There's a jazz urban legend about New York that there are dozens of sax players better than Coltrane driving cabs around the city. I had personally put this in the alligators-in-the-sewers category, but the first time I caught the "E" train from the West 4th Street subway stop I heard a solo sax player who sounded like a late period John Coltrane/Eric Dolphy hybrid. So I now approach sewer drains a little more carefully...

From the jazz musician's perspective, it's a no brainer. Which would you rather do: pay $30/hour to practice in a dingy, roach-infested, air-condition-free practice warehouse, or sit outside in a beautiful urban park and share your music with people from all walks of life, many of whom will throw you some money? Right, next question. The only potential problem is city regulation/enforcement. For the subways, NYC licenses a limited number of performers, but the parks are theoretically fair game as long as you're not holding an amplified concert or something.

Unless you're me. When it comes to outdoor performance, I must have obtained my degree from Murphy's Law School, because in 17 years of attempts, I have never once failed to encounter some sort of problem (and including such diverse locations as Harvard Square, Tel Aviv and Paris). It's gotten so bad that I feel guilty accepting invitations to "busk" with other players. A few days ago a good friend of mine (and excellent tenor player), Connell Thompson, asked me to sit in with his group in Central Park. Perfect weather, perfect spot-- on a pathway right above the Bethesda Angel Fountain with a few park benches for people to sit and listen. It was a nice acoustic quartet with bass, vocals, guitar and tenor sax and they were playing mostly standards, and people were really getting into it. I showed up, played one song ("It Could Happen To You," ironically enough) and an unmarked silver car immediately drove up. A Kojak-looking man rolled down the window which prompted the following exchange:

Kojak Man: You guys are going to have to stop, you are in a pathway.

Guitarist (after looking at the wide open stretch of concrete that Kojak just drove up on): Ok.

Kojak Man: And just in case you were wondering, I'm the police.

Guitarist: We weren't wondering, but ok.

And thus ended my Central Park debut. Though not before I was tempted to start playing "Don't Stand So Close To Me" or "Gee, Officer Krupke." Sorry guys!

So, the next time that you see some musicians busking in a park, take the opportunity to stop and listen to what just might be concert-quality music. You might be hearing the next John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley or Eric Dolphy. And you may not have long before they get chased away. So throw money and watch out for the gators...


  1. Hey man I know that "Coltrane/Dolphy hybrid"... haha that's the guy Connell and I talk about.

  2. You wouldn't know his name by any chance? I'd love to link him :-) And he's scary, isn't he?

  3. Gator sketch! :)

    On a more serious note, I love to picture you spending a lazy summer afternoon in Central Park, serenading the passersby. Don't give up on this...the fates will smile on you eventually.

  4. I would hope so, because they've been flat-out laughing to this point...saw another great "busker" in the subway the other day, a saxophonist playing traditional Chinese melodies, his tone sounded completely different than any saxophonist I've ever heard before (except some old recordings of French classical players)