That healing jazz thing on a porch in Brooklyn

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That healing jazz thing on a porch in Brooklyn
Musicians gather outside the home of saxophonist Roy Nathanson in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, on Sunday, June 21, 2020. For 82 days straight, a diverse group of musicians found their way to a stoop in Flatbush, and everybody followed the sax player. Todd Heisler/The New York Times.

by Michael Powell

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- He was our heard-out-the-window Pied Piper, this saxophonist who signaled the arrival of evening by playing that haunting hymn “Amazing Grace.”

He began playing in the depths of plague and loss in Brooklyn, those early April days when the wail of ambulance sirens was our city’s night song. It took several days of listening out our window in Flatbush for my wife, Evelyn, and me to slip on our masks and wander around the corner to Marlborough Road.

We found our neighbor, wiry jazzman Roy Nathanson, 69, with a gray-flecked goatee and a Groucho Marx smile, blowing up a storm on his sax on his second-floor balcony, while in the yard below jazz teacher Lloyd Miller thumped expertly on his stand-up bass.

Nathanson’s band grew by the day. Albert Marquès, a Barcelona-born Latin jazz musician and public-school teacher, began piping away on his melodica as his children, ages 3 and 6, danced and twirled on the sidewalk. Haitian jazz guitarist Eddy Bourjolly came in from Canarsie, while Eric Alabaster, a retired teacher and drummer, and Mo Saleem, a Pakistani musician marooned by the virus, kept rhythm on drums and the dholak, a two-headed hand drum.

In rain and chill and welcome shafts of sunlight, the audience grew, young and not so young, African Americans and whites and Pakistanis and Mexicans, masked and occupying spaces between cars and trucks and on lawns and in driveways. It was like this the world round, Italians and Argentines, French and Greeks and New Yorkers, singing and playing in rebellion against the darkness.

Nathanson and his band played each evening from April 2 until Father’s Day, 82 days total. In that time, they started a website, raised donations for local food pantries and penniless musicians, and lit up a neighborhood.

What, I asked Nathanson, led to this journey?

“Everything had stopped. I had no more gigs,” he replied. “I had seen the Italians singing off their balconies, and I thought, yeah, yeah. I want that secular-religious healing thing to happen here.”

As he played, as musicians migrated to the sidewalk outside his house, the repertoire expanded to songs by Bill Withers and Al Green, John Coltrane and the Beatles. This was not the usual fare for these accomplished musicians. Nathanson is an old East Village guy, a veteran of the Lounge Lizards and Jazz Passengers, a buddy of Elvis Costello and Debbie Harry, an out-there jazzman. Marquès is about Afro-Latin jazz and played with Arturo O’Farrill. Bourjolly and his trio, Mozayik, dig Herbie Hancock and Creole-infused rhythms.

But Nathanson was their maestro, and they shared his intent to explore the American Songbook. “You play the melody so that people can hear it in their brains, so that it speaks inside,” Nathanson said. So they riffed off “Tennessee Waltz” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Imagine” and “My Favorite Things.”

Late one afternoon, four Central American men raking out a garden paused and wandered up and listened and clapped approval. Another afternoon, a Mister Softee truck nosed onto the block and the sight of the crowd brought the driver to a halt. He shut off the ignition and tapped his hands to the music on the wheel until the musicians took bows. Pakistani women sat on porches and clapped, as did an older white couple on a nearby stoop every single day.

This was Flatbush as Nathanson had known it as a boy and as he wishes to recreate it, dowager Victorians and prewar buildings and Little Pakistan and West Indian communities overlapping with Black and white homeowners, streets running beneath canopies of sycamores and oaks. He grew up here a working-class kid in a chaotic family until he rode the subway into the city and settled in the East Village. He returned to recite the Kaddish when his brother committed suicide.

Years later, a gentrified co-op board in the now gentrified East Village voted to toss Nathanson out, a jazzman found guilty of practicing his saxophone. He came home to Flatbush, he and his wife buying a house on Marlborough Road with a white dogwood in the front yard and a backyard patio that borders the B and Q tracks. Our conversation took a Morse Code quality as subways rumbled by.

He smiled. “Growing up here, man, it was Shangri-La,” he said. “The architecture of this neighborhood is like the architecture of my life.”

His virus band came together by happenstance, musicians sniffing out a chance to play. His son, Gabe, a student at the University of Vermont and a butter-smooth trumpet player, came south and joined his father on the balcony. Aidan Scrimgeour (who plays in the jazz-folk band Pumpkin Bread) also lives on Marlborough with a half-dozen bandmates, all packed into half an old Victorian house. He heard the music trickle through his window, grabbed his melodica and jogged over.

Marquès shook his head. Since the age of 3 in Barcelona he has sung in choirs and played in bands. The virus fell like a dark curtain, snuffing his sound. He tried to keep going on Zoom, but, please.

“To teach, to play, you must feel the music” — he tapped his chest and stomach — “in here.”

“It takes 45 minutes to dress my kids and 20 minutes for us to get here on our scooters and we play five minutes,” he said. “And it’s the damned highlight of my day. It’s kept me sane.”

Bourjolly, who wears a wool cap and a bandito bandanna as he plays, is no different. He drove in from Canarsie, so eager he often was first to arrive. As the months passed and dogwood and blue hydrangea bloomed and rose bushes popped scarlet red, he could barely see Roy and Gabe and Lloyd Miller on that bass.

They were playing as if by Braille.

“It’s beautiful; I love it; we are communicating with a musical language,” he said. “It’s social distancing intuition.”

For Alabaster too the 5 o’clock gig took on an outsized importance. A retired public school music teacher, a former composition student of legendary saxophonist Jimmy Heath, he long ago turned a room in his house into a meeting place for the Pakistani musicians who flocked to this neighborhood. They called it Erik Ki Baithak — Eric’s gathering place. The grandson of Jewish immigrants, he felt a kinship with these wanderers and they taught him to play the beautiful and mysterious tabla. He has traveled five times to Pakistan to visit friends and play with teachers.

Pakistan is at times a troubled land. Do you have problems, I asked.

“I’ve been in some uncomfortable situations.” At this he paused, shrugged and added: “But, you know, who hasn’t?”

In late May on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that punctuates the end of Ramadan, Nathanson and Alabaster had a talk. Saleem had felt despair as the plague kept him from playing and earning enough money to send to his family in Pakistan. So they asked him to break out his tabla, the twin drums of the subcontinent, and set it alongside Eric’s drums. With a yell, Nathanson and the band took off on a rollicking whirling version of “Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.”

Nathanson jumped and bounced on his balcony like a dervish, he and his son Gabe, playing call and response with Salaam, who smiled and beat a treble- and bass-toned fury on his tabla. It was a jazz Eid.

Not for the first time in 90 days of impromptu jazz on Marlborough, the eyes of those listening and watching grew red and souls jumped and we howled against the darkness.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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