Walking through Washington Square Park on Sunday I came upon a few musicians—a washtub bass, a couple of horns and a banjo—playing a nice old American tune, and I stopped to listen long enough to enjoy a beautiful trombone solo. It made me think of Jack Teagarden. The trombone player was a young woman, and she reminded me of Jack Teagarden not just because of the wonderful velvet sound coming out of her horn, but because of the casual manner she had with it, which made it look effortless. She played her trombone as if it were something anyone could do, as if she had just come along five minutes before and decided, ‘Oh, what the hell, I’ll play a little music.’
While the banjo played his solo, the trombone lady reached into her pocket, drew out her phone and checked to see what it was doing. After she did that, she dropped it back into her pocket, and lifted the horn to her lips just in time to fall in with a stream of velvet notes that I found dazzling, uplifting, and funny. The music made me forget all the things that there are in the world to be worried about with good reason and for those moments while I listened, my head was completely empty and I felt happy. I thought of my friend Liza, as I do almost every day for all different reasons, and remembered something she told me once that I’ve never forgotten. She said, “No matter what anyone wants to say about America, just remember, we’ve got jazz, baby.”
I left the little quartet playing and wondered if any of them knew that Eddie Condon used to live right there, right at the edge of the park, at 27 Washington Square North. Liza was his daughter, and lived there as a kid. Her sister Maggie still does. I walked towards Bleecker Street and thought of the stories Liza used to tell about Eddie Condon’s club, which was on West 3rd Street. She and Maggie used to stand in the window of their apartment and watch Eddie walk across the park to the club, beautifully dressed and carrying his guitar. Maggie told me not long ago about how much fun it was to play in the club as kids, because down in the basement where the kitchen was, Wild Bill Davison had set up a marvelous, elaborate, electric train that ran right through the oven, and thanks to the cats working the mouse job, there were always litters of kittens to play with.
On my way home late in the afternoon, I passed the house at 61 Perry Street where the painter Loren MacIver lived from 1938 until she died at the end of the 1990s, and thought of the wonderful times I spent there, often with Liza, visiting Loren. In the time machine of her painting studio was an old grand piano, and I remembered sitting between Liza and Loren one evening and listening to Loren’s friend Willard Roosevelt play what I think was one of his own compositions. Afterwards Loren told us all that once upon a time, Billie Holiday would come once a week and play that very piano, just for the fun of it.
Liza knew a thousand songs by heart—all kinds of songs—she liked old spirituals, she liked songs from the Velvet Underground, and she liked a lot of great old jazz songs. One evening, sitting in her place on Leroy Street, she sang Ten Cents a Dance for me and I can still hear it in my head. She told me a story about visiting the Taj Mahal in the middle of the night once. It was deserted and lighted by the moon. She stood there and sang Amazing Grace to the Taj Mahal, and when she had finished, a watchman in a turban stood up from where he had been sitting in the shadows and clapped. When she told me that story, I saw it play out like a movie in my head, where I still have it to see anytime I want to. I remember that she had a jar on her worktable with a white Lilly in it. She said, “If this flower were a movie, I bet it would be a good one, don’t you think?” Something else Liza used to say was that we have an obligation to be happy. That one stuck with me for all kinds of colliding reasons. Liza had a way of saying a lot with very little.
When I got home on Sunday evening I poked around the internet until I found the lady trombonist, whose name is Emily Asher. I was very happy to see a little notice from her, saying that at eight o’clock on September 27th, which is this coming Tuesday, she will be playing her first show as a bandleader at a bar called Mona’s on Avenue B off 14th Street. I felt very lucky to have stumbled upon the little group of musicians in the park that afternoon, because I almost didn’t. I was on my way to meet a friend, and at the last minute I went out of my way on purpose to walk through the park. Liza always insisted on taking the scenic route whenever we went anywhere together, even if it meant going blocks out of our way. It used to irritate me when she did that if I felt like I was in a hurry. Liza was never in a hurry. If she were here, I’d ask her to meet me very early on Tuesday evening and wander over to hear Emily play her pretty horn. Something I’ve noticed about happiness is that from a distance it looks effortless. But I think that is deceptive. I don’t think happiness is effortless, but I know that a nice song can make it feel that way. So, if you can, try to make it on Tuesday night.
22 September 2011