Escape from New York

The sun hangs high over lower Manhattan and blinds; you should put on sunscreen but the thought doesn’t stay in your head long enough to produce action. Gusts of wind snatch floppy hats, pull at clothes and hair; a shocking blast of sea spray to the face chastens. A seagull effortlessly keeps pace, flapping languorously – we’re no longer weird, he sees this every day. Wave back at a group of conspicuously tanned middle-aged yachters lolling on their deck. “Remember when we used to take public transport, Brian?” 

I grew up in easy reach of the Pacific Ocean. Though never the outdoor type, I liked knowing I was never more than an hour’s drive away. In fact I always prefer being close to land’s edge– I start to get anxious when I get too far from the coast– I’ve been told that’s not unusual for Australians. And the Pacific was the only ocean I knew. But after nearly 20 years in the northern hemisphere, my allegiance has shifted. In my mind, the Pacific is clear and sunny and friendly, made for happy beautiful people. The North Atlantic is dark and deep, mysterious and brooding, and infinitely more interesting. A couple of times every summer I grudgingly agree to spend a day at the beach– it’s not that I particularly dislike it there, it’s just that grudgingly is how I do things. It’s kind of my “brand.” Until few years ago, a trip to Rockaway beach meant 45 minutes on the A train, which possibly sounds romantic to non-New Yorkers, but it is decidedly not. But in 2017 the Rockaway ferry was launched, and it changed everything. For the price of a subway ride, the ferry takes you from Wall Street, south around the bottom of Brooklyn, under the stately Verrazzano bridge, and back up the other side, past Coney Island with its ancient creaking fairground rides, and into lovely Jamaica Bay. If you’re lucky, or pushy, you might grab a seat on the top deck, but I usually settle for leaning over the back railing and watching the city disappear.

Entry to Rockaway is rough. The free shuttle to the beach is too horrific to consider: small, clapped-out vans with no suspension, torn broken seats, airless and stinking; on their last tour of duty before the knackery. I opt for the walk across the peninsula– it’s only ten minutes, but it’s an adventure though an almost cinematically rundown industrial horrorscape. Under crumbling rail bridges, past abandoned lots, burnt out cars; the gangs of beach-bound teenage girls in flip flops huddle tightly together, tote bags clutched nervously. But mixed with the stink of exhaust and urine, the ocean air holds a promise; and the rumble of the Atlantic infiltrates the sounds of traffic and wailing winos. 

Finally up the ramp to the boardwalk, and the sea breeze immediately blows the city off you. The pimps and hustlers make a final desperate grab for your pockets as they’re blown back into the shadows. Now it’s safe to stop and look around– the beach and the boardwalk stretch forever. The water is inviting, but food and drink are the priority– the promise of eating good food with my feet in the sand is really what gets me out here. This summer only half the stalls are open– I dearly miss my ceviche place– that was dynamite. But a new favourite is the Caracas Arepa bar, dishing out Venezuelan flat patties made from corn flour, split and filled with delicious things: sweet fried plantains, fresh cheese, homemade hot sauce. Take a couple down to the wide wooden steps leading down to the beach, plant your feet in the sand, cold beer at your side, and inhale. If you tire of the ocean vista, swivel around and watch the parade of weirdos sliding along the boardwalk, reminding you that while you’re in another world, you’re inescapably still in New York City.


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Everyone goes to Rockaway. It’s free, easily accessible, very egalitarian. Be careful posting on Instagram that you’re there– you’re bound to get a message from someone you don’t want to see who’s just down the beach. Pegging a spot in the sand can be a challenge– I recommend parking your towel where there are lots of women, singly or in pairs– they’ll generally be reading or chatting quietly, and your day will be peaceful. Try not to get stuck near a gang of young single dudes– they’ve had a meeting and decided that the mating rituals of the animal kingdom carry the best chance of success with the ladies– they’ll be barking and preening and putting on overt displays of strength and athleticism and competitive stupidity. It’s these fellows who also seem fond of blasting Hot97 to cover up the annoying sounds of gently lapping waves and laughing children. Shouts of “Cerveza! Pina Colada! Nutcrackers!” announce the arrival of the drinks guy dragging his cooler of booze through the sand. He’s got beers and premixed cocktails, the nutcracker being a homemade NYC specialty of liquor and juice- sugary and powerful. It’s all presumably illegal, but the cops turn a blind eye. 

Loaded up on sugar and booze, it’s time for a dip. I will never understand Americans at the beach– maybe 10 percent go in the water– but it just means more water for me. Your aquatic experience depends on the mood of the Atlantic– she may be serene and relaxed, tolerantly allowing you to float on the gentlest of undulations; or she may be in a foul mood, sucking you under and spitting you out for having the impudence to leave the boardwalk. Either way, as a city dweller, a dunk in some salt water is one of the most revitalising experiences still available; it’s an immediate connection with the unknowable forces of the universe. I find it reassuring to put myself at the mercy of something that immense and powerful and mysterious, and the salt makes my hair look cool.

Dry off in the sun, stroll back to the food stalls for some fried clams and just one more beer. When it’s time to call it a day, try to time the return ferry for sunset (in high summer, you can’t beat the 7:15). It’s a very different experience to the ride out– everyone’s exhausted and sunburned, and the beer buzz is wearing off– in the old days the grubby subway ride back to the city would just make you want to cry. But on the back deck of the ferry, sun going down over the bay, head filled with salt air, splashing wake, and engine rumble, it’s about the gentlest reentry into reality you could hope for. 


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New York City: Signs of Life in the Smoking Ruins

The host eyed us with disdain. “You’re with the band…?” Having been on both sides of this equation, I know the drill. Musicians, particularly jazz musicians, are the bane of the restaurant industry. Anthony Bourdain knew: “I need more jazz musicians in my restaurant? They’re fucking deadbeats!” Thinking quickly, we stammered, “but we’re going to spend money, honest!” The bar is called Fiddlesticks, which annoys me for some reason. Imagine taking a date there, falling in love, and having to tell your grandkids that you realised she was your destiny, all your heart desired, as you held hands under the table at Fiddlesticks. Honestly. Anyway, perched on tiny stools over the Greenwich Avenue subway grate, C and I obediently ordered our state-mandated snack, allowing us to drink to our hearts’ content. Every seven minutes we’d lean sideways to avoid the plume of stale corpse-breath erupting from beneath our feet as the A train rumbled by. A restaurant down the block fired up the barbecue, sending wafts of sweet, meaty smoke along the street, as masked pedestrians shuffled by, eyeing us suspiciously. And crammed into a doorway, the band swung like nothing had changed, Jerry Weldon’s towering tenor sound bouncing from one side of the Avenue to the other, only a few residents hip enough to keep their windows open. The atmosphere was claustrophobic but jubilant–  we can drink and listen to music– it’s better than it was.

At an old favourite, 1803 in TriBeCa, we sat in the ruins of our city and ate grilled oysters, while a band of our friends and heroes played their hearts out, their music echoing through the deserted neighbourhood; intently ignoring the iceberg out the porthole and the water lapping around their shins. —The word “parklet” is an unwelcome addition to the lexicon: outside hundreds of foundering restaurants across the city, one lane of roadway is abducted, swallowed by the sidewalk, overlaid with wooden decking and outfitted with tables and chairs, sometimes clear plastic dividers so our neighbours don’t infect us. We laugh and drink and bask in the cheerful hubbub and try not to look over at the abandoned apartment buildings all around— Musician friends, some we rarely saw in normal life, dropped by to bump elbows. Mask on, mask off. On a warm August evening this was possibly the only live music in New York City, and those of us still here don’t want to pass up an opportunity. In the end we took our masks off and blew. There’s no alternative. Nobody knows what the fuck to do. The rules go too far and not far enough. But at the end of each tune, the small crowd erupted, glasses raised, shouts of encouragement. Uncertainty reigns, but music and wine helps. 

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The High Line snakes along 22 blocks of Manhattan’s west side. A disused elevated railway line, it was revived and reopened as a public park about ten years ago and was, until recently, a major attraction for infuriatingly slow-walking tourists. On Saturday night, beneath the park, in the walled-in courtyard of the Guardian Angel church, it was muggy and airless. Bus-stop-style benches seemed to sink into the rubber matted floor. The band and I poured sweat as we attempted to reach a masked and clearly sober audience of wide eyed young people who seemed unsure how they got there; peering down from the rooftop, more bemused faces, but these folks had sensibly paid more to be further away from us. At band level, hands started reaching into shopping bags containing wine, beer, champagne, even the occasional cocktail shaker– this was entirely appropriate: if there’s one thing I know about church, it’s always BYOB– and by set two things were loosening up. Jerry Weldon arrived to help us out on tenor as pizza deliveries started showing up, and by 10pm the squares were stomping their feet and making out extravagantly with people they’d just met. There was no bar, no pictures of jazz legends on the wall, no surly doorman; but for a few hours, the place was a jazz club.

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Sunday, and I dragged my feet along a path I know well. Every week for months I’d planned to visit Smalls, and of course nothing ever came up to stop me, but still I hesitated. They now put on a live-streamed concert every evening but the idea of descending that legendary staircase after so many months of lockdown felt like volunteering to spend a night in a haunted house. I know so many of its secrets. I’ll delve more into this someday, but the promise of some swinging music from my buddy, and fellow club manager, Carlos Abadie, finally got me down there. And in a way it was as eerie as I expected. The club will reopen the first day it’s allowed, but for now dust hangs in the air; the chairs are stacked, the walls are bare, the bar shelves and fridges are empty, and of course there’s almost nobody there. I wiped off a bar stool and slouched up the back of the club, feeling guilty but I don’t know why. The cats breathed air into the vacuum, vibrations making the air shimmer, dust billowing; a glint of possibility. Strangely the music hasn’t changed, hasn’t become suddenly sad and uncertain, it’s just become incongruous with its surroundings. New York City still has a faint pulse but you have to know where to look. 


 

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South Brooklyn Badlands and a Bar with No Name

I’m standing at a bar, pushing my luck. I’ve got a beer in my hand and I’m wearing out my welcome. Currently in New York City, I’m allowed to order a drink at the bar, but not drink it there. Mask on, distance observed, I’m supposed to order and pay, then take my drink and get the hell out. But I want to sit here. I want to lean back in a rickety stool, eavesdrop on neighbours’ conversations, maybe pass an eye over some sport I don’t care about on the TV in the corner, spin a beer mat between my fingers, and order another one. That’s what neighbourhood bars were invented for.

  I arrived in Sunset Park uncharacteristically early, to give myself time to poke around. It’s a fair hike from my part of town— a good 30 minutes on the N train over the Manhattan bridge, down through swanky Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, past the cemetery, and into South Brooklyn— so I’ve only made it out here a handful of times. For a very hot minute I even had a steady, if soul-crushing, gig at a Chinese restaurant, playing jazz standards in the face of requests for something “popular.” But every time I visit I’m delighted— this neighbourhood is a trip. Like most of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, demographics have shifted gradually but surely over the years: Irish, Polish, Italians, Norwegians moving in and out. Midway through the 20th Century, the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans moved in; and in the 80s Sunset Park became home to Brooklyn’s first Chinatown.

 Last time I was here, maybe a year ago, 8th Avenue was heaving with shoppers and workers, a chaotic, noisy, shouting, jostling tangle of humanity. It felt like Saturday morning in Hong Kong, but also unmistakably New York— this is what streets all around this city used to feel like before they were taken over by beautiful people taking photos of themselves. Wide open storefronts with vendors out front bellowing the day’s specials, shoppers running a skeptical eye over the precarious piles of fruit and veg, the jaw dropping array of flapping, wriggling seafood; clothing, electronics, restaurants, food carts; all relentlessly bustling. And hardly anyone who looked like me. It seemed like every corner was home to a vegetable or fish market; spiky stinky durian in string bags dangling from the awnings, frogs and crabs leaping to freedom from plastic buckets. 

 Somehow I was expecting the same this time as I surfaced from the subway. Had I forgotten about the virus? Despite the news, I somehow get so used to the bleak reality directly around me, I think it doesn’t exist elsewhere. Surely if I make the trek to another country, another city, even another borough it’ll all be different. And of course in Chinatown, the opposite is devastatingly true. I remember before we had any idea of the spread of the virus, it was still a Chinese problem; I heard reports that people were boycotting Chinese restaurants around the world, using the pandemic to excuse their racism. So of course, now Sunset Park is a wind blown, dusty, tumbleweed ghost town. Store fronts are shuttered, many never to return; twisted strands of tinsel hang forlorn from power lines, maybe left over from January New Year festivities. Walking past the overflowing trash cans and piles of empty boxes, some of the smells still linger– it would take decades for the smell of the fish markets to blow away; and from the small, neat homes, a waft of incense and Chinese medicinal herbs remind me of the time an old girlfriend convinced me to travel every week to Flushing (ironically for a stomach complaint) to poke out my tongue and receive a bag of twigs and desiccated spiders.

 I cross 60th street and stop. In front of me is the glorious S——- Tavern, the end point of this sentimental journey, and I want to take it in for a moment. It’s not a beautiful facade, but unpretentious if nothing else. A squat little building; a cranky tired face of exposed red brick, neon shamrocks in its eyes, its name stamped on its forehead like a drunken prank. American, Irish, and Norwegian flags hang listlessly over the closed green door; and the ubiquitous sign: “no mask, no entry.”

 I push in. Waiting at the bar is my attorney, chatting to a bartender whose mask portrays a grotesque broken-toothed leer, the rest of him not pretty enough for this to be convincingly ironic. A beer and a whiskey appear in front of me— the only reasonable order in a bar like this— and I breathe it all in: the old beer smell that even four months out of business can’t erase, the dusty Irish knick knacks, Chinese guys playing darts, Irish at the bar (Tuesday morning is for the Norwegians); muted classic rock from the ancient jukebox, elbow grooves in the dinged up old wooden bar. There’s wood everywhere, but not the artfully distressed beams and lavish polished oak you see at the Irish behemoths in the city; just old lumber, worn smooth by years of human occupation. The S——- Tavern is a joyously friendly mutt where a shared love of booze and darts leads to a harmony the world outside the green door struggles with. My attorney chats with another local about their favourite local places, now gone, like the Chino-Latino restaurant unluckily named Corona– shuttered within the first week. They saw the writing on the wall. Our masked bartender, after casually revealing that his day job is addiction counselling, brings me another round.

I complain often and lustily about the dearth of good bars in NYC, but as usual my outlook is blinkered  and I forget to look beyond Manhattan and my own little yuppified hood. Out in the real world, they still exist, and South Brooklyn has some standouts. We’ll do a tour one day soon.

 We settle our tab and tell our man we might be back later- who knows how this night will play out. We pour out onto 8th avenue and head south- we’ve got an appointment at a Yemeni restaurant a mile or so away. But at 61st street we’re almost physically yanked around the corner by the smell coming from a battered old food cart. It’s Chinese barbecue. Smoke pours from the chimney, from the service window, from cracks in the corners of the roof; it’s sweet and thick, and immediately transports us back to tours of duty playing Cantonese pop in Hong Kong. We join the line of intent, hungry locals, and eventually score a bag of good stuff to fuel the next leg of the adventure. Charred squid, whole mackerel on a stick, chicken wings— smoky, intense and delicious. They’re all sent down to meet the beer sloshing around downstairs, and we roll off into the night.


 

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A Sandwich in the Storm

There’s a reason Manhattan’s Upper East Side doesn’t get much of a mention in the guide books. It’s a pretty bleak part of town. No matter the weather, up there the sky is grey and washed out; the wind whips around corners of blindingly white buildings, and pedestrians wear a mask of grim determination as they scuttle to get anywhere else. Some days it’s just gloomy; on others, it’s downright bruising. And then there’s now.

  I walked with C, west on 70th street, crossing silent, deserted avenues, making our way uncertainly, staring around in bleary disbelief. The lockdown was in full effect, the only signs of life a few exhausted hospital workers out for a desperate cigarette or a hurried bite from one of the few remaining bagel-and-coffee carts. Mealtimes, like sleep patterns, seem to have fallen by the wayside since the quarantining began. We eat and sleep whenever we feel like it, losing track of time and date. After a few blocks we realized we were both starving. This was not good. Under the new laws, restaurants could serve takeout food, but most weren’t, choosing instead to take the hit and shutter completely. The empty overpriced coffee chains offering their sad selection of apologetic pastries were somehow even less enticing than usual.

We pushed on, torturing ourselves by stopping to read the menus still plastered outside the neighbourhood’s fancier joints, when our eyes were caught by the glowing neon sign of a corner diner. We’d walked by this place countless times, always on our way somewhere, confident that it, like everything else, would always be there. We looked through the front window into a Hopper painting: a classic American diner, empty except for the proprietor standing behind the counter, towel slung over drooping shoulder, staring glumly back at us. His welcoming smile as we came in couldn’t hide the tired worry in his eyes. He motioned to the row of shiny plastic-topped stools bolted down in front of the formica counter. We took a load off and surveyed the situation: the polished surfaces of bright primary colours, the display case offering an ambitious selection of pies of various percentages; ketchup bottles and napkin dispensers; the antique milkshake machine, the stacks of chunky, off-white crockery; doughnuts on the counter, famous faces on the wall… the whole tableau enveloped in the same familiar uneasy quiet, punctured by the occasional blast of Merengue from the kitchen.

 Our host solemnly presented the appropriately mammoth menu, a greatest-hits of American diner specialties: all-day breakfast, Belgian waffles, club sandwiches, chili, chicken soup… When you slide into a booth at an American corner restaurant, you’re not looking for individuality or innovation. You don’t even want excellence. You come here when you need something flavorful and comforting. Soothing and steadying. We immediately and wordlessly settled on a hot pastrami sandwich on rye. It was the only reasonable choice under the circumstances. And a pair of beers while we waited. We chatted with our man about the current situation (who talks about anything else these days?); he told us with good humoured resignation about the scarcity of customers, and his efforts to keep the joint running. In uncertain times, places like this– neighbourhood stalwarts– supply much more than food. They provide constancy and stability, an emotional anchor in the terrifying turbulence. But the trouble is double when the one thing people need in a crisis– human interaction– is the one thing we can’t have. He clearly felt a duty to sustain his neighbours, and was doing his darnedest, but the writing was on the wall.

 Within minutes, a paper bag slid onto the counter. We chugged the rest of our beers, shared some last optimistic pleasantries, buttoned up our coats and shoved back out into the dreary street; strolled to the corner, leaned against a pole and had a picnic. 

 I’d be lying if I said it was the best pastrami sandwich I’d ever had. New York City has countless Jewish delis that wouldn’t use this thing to wipe the tables down. But at that moment, on that corner, with the world shifting beneath our feet, it was everything we wanted. The reassuring rye; the fatty, salty, smoky meat and warming mustard; the bracing vinegar and satisfying crunch of a shared pickle. In the strangest time, when New York looks and feels completely unlike New York, we had a genuine New York moment. It couldn’t have been more New York if I’d mugged her and she’d had me whacked. And then a rat had run off with our sandwich.

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5PM. Different neighbourhood, same day.

This post was suggested by C.

Hysteria, Pandemonium, and a Cast-Iron Solution

I was doing so well. A news-free world. I was oblivious to all but what was happening right in front of me. The childish bellowing of politicians, talking heads, and celebrities which make us all dumber and angrier had been silenced. Instead of opening my news apps first thing in the afternoon, I was scrolling Instagram looking at wholesome videos of bearded men cooking steaks beside a river… And then the Coronavirus came along. 

 Like people from all walks, musicians are being greatly affected by this thing. I have a tour of Italy booked for April which, as if Schroedinger was my travel agent, is simultaneously happening and not happening. It hasn’t been canceled, but taking place mostly in Italy, it surely has. But in monitoring the hysteria almost hourly, I’ve been sucked in to it.

 I’ve noticed the marauding bug comes up in every conversation, and I make no effort to change the subject, delighting in telling people of my precarious situation (nobody cares). I greet acquaintances with an elaborate curtsy instead of a handshake; I’m mentally designing a face-mask with a mouthpiece hole cut into it; agonizing over whether to order hazmat suits in pinstripe or windowpane; I’m stockpiling black truffles and Barolo in case supply lines are cut… In short, I’ve given in to the madness. 

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As of yesterday, all bars in NYC have been ordered to shut down, which means my other job of herding cats in and out of Smalls Jazz Club is on extended hiatus. A very sad turn of events, but considering basement bars in our fair city are generally humid, poorly-ventilated incubators, it’s hardly surprising- it’s a swirling mass of world-traveling, close-talking, drinking, smoking, coughing, rarely-washed humanity down there. A petri dish. It’s brilliant.

I wonder, as a horn player, if I could be considered a “super-spreader.” When we get fired up (and sorry if this is a tad graphic), it’s not just notes we’re spraying around up there. Those front few rows should be provided with some type of weatherproof poncho- it’s not a pretty business. But maybe infection of this kind depends on the fertility of the music being played- listen to a musician play with enough heart and soul, and don’t be surprised if you get a bit of lung in there. In times of pandemic pandemonium, it might be safer to seek out a more hygienic musician: a more aseptic, anemic style of player. I can suggest several…

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The band cops it too

 Gnawing uneasiness caused by hysteria and fear-mongering drove me to the kitchen. Harrowing times like these demand the steadfast solidity of cast iron and beans and ham hocks. If I had access to an open fire and a beard I would have utilized those too. Hempton’s pot of beans gets its enveloping earthy warmth from a variety of Mexican chilies- some hot, some not- found huddling up the back of my increasingly bland and expensive supermarket. They’re keeping their heads down, working hard to feed us despite the creeping gentrification. Guajillo, Ancho, Pasillo: go find them. Drink-wise, one silver lining to the Coronavirus cumulonimbus is that it has apparently stemmed our desire for Corona beer- amazing that it took a simple misunderstanding for people to stop buying that awful yellow muck. Anyway, forget beer- smoky, porky bean stew deserves red wine and so do you. And Gene Ammons on the Hi-Fi. More soon…

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Hempton’s Pot o’ Beans

Soften chunks of carrot, onion, whole garlic cloves in olive oil in a cast iron crock pot. Add a whole smoked ham hock (a big chunk of salt pork or bacon would do), soaked dried beans (probably any kind will do- I buy a mix), chicken stock (water in a pinch), fresh thyme, bay leaves, a mix of dried chillies, and simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are the way you like them, and the pork is falling off the bone. Add a couple of handfuls of kale for the last 5 minutes or so. Season and fish out the chillies, bay leaves, and thyme stalks if you can find them. Take the hock out, strip the meat off and slide the meat back in. Serve with bread or cornbread and a muscular vino.  

Throw Your Dentures in the Air and Pass the Meds– it’s the Roaring 20s!!

 It’s the first blog post of a new decade- I can only imagine you’re as excited about this momentous event as I am! If you’ve been paying attention, it’s clear the world is crumbling in a fiery heap around us, so I think the only remedy is to let our remaining hair down and party! After all, it’s the roaring 20s!

 I rang in the New Year in a swanky hotel in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by attractive young folk, and free-flowing champagne. The lights were low, the weather was warm, a night of repercussion-free debauchery seemed in order. Of course, being part of the band, or hired-help-with-benefits, I was “in” the party, but not “of” the party. But I was in my best suit, I’d put away a few sneaky white wines while the boss wasn’t looking, and I was ready to boogie! We watched a live telecast from Times Square on a giant screen, and charged our glasses as we counted down along with the maniacal plastic-faced celebrities. The big moment came, the strangely half-hearted cheers went up, and we launched into Auld Lang Syne… to the apparent mystification of all present. Instead of getting the party started, these good looking, financially secure, socially mobile young people just stood there awkwardly, checked their phones, rolled their eyes, then put their coats on and drifted off. If a three-piece jazz combo with no drums playing obscure boogaloos from the 1960s doesn’t keep these people on the dance floor, what will??

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At 12:30AM, we released the remaining patrons from the grip of our groove, packed up, and shoved off. I strolled down 7th Avenue towards the village, the night still young, and my eyes still focussing; my mind abuzz with anticipation of a night of delightfully terrible decisions. And all the way, the same event repeated itself: haughty, detached youngsters (the girls in glamorous gowns, the boys in jeans and sneakers) dribbling out of bars and clubs, silently and resignedly inserting themselves into Ubers. Maybe they were all going to wild parties where they snort stimulants off each other’s exquisitely toned body parts, before stuffing themselves obscenely with foie gras and Krug to build up the energy for the ensuing week-long orgy. But honestly, these kids had the air of going home. Now fair enough- New Year’s Eve is amateur night– maybe they do their partying the other 364 nights of the year. But I don’t think so. 

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 In the actual Roaring 20s, young people partied to celebrate newfound freedoms, while protesting against the puritanical prejudices of their prudish parents. World War 1 was done and dusted; for the first time the kids had their own culture, slang, music, and fashion and they were celebrating a bright future. With our collective shithouse going up in flames, today’s youth realize they’ll be lucky to have a future at all, and they’re responding with early nights and sound investments, leaving the grind of reckless revelry to those of us who know how to do it properly. Older and wiser, it’s my generation that needs to light the way: we have years of experience behaving disgracefully, but we don’t yet need help getting up the stairs. This decade, I vote for more tuxedos and cocktails, late nights, off-centre party hats, and general abandon. Who’s with me?!

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An Impermanent Residency

I may have just finished one of the shortest residencies in jazz history. I mean real short. I’m not complaining- it was fun- but even our current president’s managed to keep his job longer than this, and his racism is WAY less veiled than mine. VERY BAD!

Anyway, it started with my annual trip to Brooklyn (it’s far and the people look at me funny), where I was to meet up with my mate Dan. Dan lives in Sunset Park, in what I believe is the most recently adopted China Town in NYC (we have several), and where a stroll feels like walking the side streets of Hong Kong. There’s very little English spoken, there’s a hawker on every corner, and the live frogs are to die for. I was early so I ducked into a recently-opened restaurant for some cold chicken gizzards and a beer. The owner, presumably seeing the resignation etched into my pallid countenance (or the horn on my back), came running up and excitedly asked if I was a musician. I hesitated, assuming he’d want me to pay in advance, but it turned out musicians were just what he wanted!

It’s not often that a gig falls in your lap like this. Usually my strategy is to wear down the landlord with a months-long regimen of phone calls and drop-ins, until they finally succumb to my demands or seek legal advice. But here was a restaurateur who actually wanted me to play. I was most uncomfortable with this situation, but as he’d agreed to my first offer, what could I do? I called my mate Avi to play some guitar with me, and confirmed the date.

I’ve been to China a few times, and if there’s one thing the people there are largely indifferent to, it’s jazz music, so it seemed an odd choice. The room went silent as Avi and I slunk over to our assigned position: a minuscule stage- actually more of a shelf- in front of the biggest TV screen you’ve ever seen. Times Square billboards would have been green-screened with envy. And playing constantly on this behemoth was what looked like Guangzhou’s Got Talent- the IMAX Experience: giant teary-eyed Chinese teenagers emotionally belting out the kind of schlocky smooth-pop ear candy at which, as a cultured and refined artist, I look down my pince-nez; however as an underfed dive-bar honker, I happily play for the right price. We slogged through three sets of jazz standards which were received with general indifference punctuated by occasional bemusement. The boss loved it. But along with our band meal of shrimp heads and noodles came the first warning sign: “can you guys play some music like off the radio?” My first response was, “I’m Nick Hempton! Nobody could be further off the radio than me!” But it was clear our cloth-eared friend wanted current pop songs. I tried explaining that Maroon 5’s carefully constructed compositions lose some of their impact when translated to saxophone/guitar duo, but the word “timbre” had barely passed my lips when his eyes started to glaze over. I realised a return gig was in jeopardy, so I shouted, “you got it, chief!” and high-fived a passing busboy. He asked us back the following night.

This time we were prepared. While the music of *google another current pop act* is clearly beyond my purview, I can bluster my way through some Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, and the like. It’s not current, but at least it’s not jazz. We busted out some of that good stuff, but astonishingly, the reaction of the young Chinese crowd was exactly the same! It was like they couldn’t tell the difference! Our man, however, was still convinced he was on to a good thing. But this time our prawn tails were served with a request for Chinese pop music. This couldn’t have been more portentous if he’d actually written it on a wall.

We were back a few nights later and, having never intended to learn any Chinese music, we served up more of the same. For some reason the crowd got right behind us this time, rewarding our efforts with an occasional glance, and even some uncertain applause. This was clearly not the desired effect, as we were left to eat our prawn shells in peace, and when we said goodnight, the boss wouldn’t meet our eyes. I knew it was over.

I called him the other day, just to say I was watching Chinese Idol and eating “our” special dish, but emotion overtook me and I choked up. I also had a wad of shrimp antennae stuck in my throat. He said he’ll keep us in mind, but I know he just doesn’t want us. I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

 

 

A Stroll Through the Belly of the Beast

Recently in lower Manhattan, an astonishing new attraction/eyesore was unveiled. A massive white marble mausoleum, it’s what officials quoted in newspapers like to call a “transport hub”, which makes slightly more sense, but has vastly less terrifying supernatural impact than, its official title: THE OCULUS. Built in the hole left by the twin towers, a respectful 15 years later, it connects my beloved/behated PATH train (which sometimes runs under the Hudson river to Jersey City), with the NYC subway. Check this thing out:

oculus-pic
Excellent photo by Champian Fulton

Apparently designed to resemble a just-released dove, it feels much more like wandering around inside a bleached whale, which is surely a boon to lovers of biblical re-enactments, and hopefully doesn’t attract the attention of too many psychotic Ahabs. At 5PM daily, a wave of humans gushes though its gaping doors, from which New Jerseyans are filtered, like loud pushy plankton, and swallowed up by the PATH station. They are then discharged from the back of the whale and deposited in New Jersey where New Yorkers don’t have to think about them.

I’m sure the Oculus is meant to represent freedom, or liberty, or justice, or one of the other American-owned abstract concepts that make my adopted homies well up with national pride. But predictably, it’s really there to showcase that one overarching western idea: consumerism. When I first wandered through the space, none of the shops was occupied, and I very naively imagined an array of friendly welcoming independent purveyors of goods and services aimed at the commuter. I envisioned a bakery, a bookshop, maybe a fishmonger, meatmonger, Flowermonger Dude!- places useful to a working person on their way to or from work. Instead the’ve installed Hugo Boss, Kate Spade, John Varvatos, and various other high-end boutiques with people names. And of course, they’re always empty. Who’s buying a thousand-dollar suit at a train station? But I suspect the shops aren’t there to be patronised. It might be worth Hugo losing that presumably astronomical rent to have his storefront seen in such a high-profile building. At least he’ll show up in the background of a million Instagram photos each day.

It also occurred to me that putting such recognisable brands in a new and slightly intimidating building might be to reassure the populace; to soothe our panic at the sight of something weird and foreign. It’s like when I cook my family something exotic for dinner, I always include something recognisable so they don’t run and hide in my skirts. Like my celebrated Croatian Goulash with Hot Dog, or Vietnamese Pho with Oreos. This strategy has proven successful in many areas, like when Beethoven put that da-da-da-dummm thing that we all know so well into his 5th Symphony; and instead of painting just anyone, da Vinci chose Mona Lisa because he knew we’d all recognise her. Those guys had Seamless Familiarity Integration sewn up before breakfast!

I’m hoping that if this Oculus is deemed a success, it will spawn a chain of Worldwide Oculi, each more terrifying and, erm, megapterine than the last. The Oculus Down Under: It’s Humpback for More! And so on. But until then, it’s another vulgar, overblown, outsized New York speciality, and I have no choice but to tiptoe timorously through its turgid intestines every day. It’s a colossally ostentatious waste of public money, and I think it’s way cool.

 Don’t Knock the Knob Jockey

The other day I spent several hours in a tiny windowless closet. Don’t judge me- sometimes we all need a quiet place to contemplate life while lying in a shivering ball, wide-eyed and whimpering. But in this case, I was in an engineer’s studio in Midtown Manhattan, remastering the Catch and Release tracks for the upcoming CD release. And it occurred to me that we’ve never really talked about the post-recording process. Not that that’s any reason to start now. But someone’s got to cater to your insatiable appetite for sizzling new content. Begin.

 The first step after recording a tune is picking a take. Usually when recording an album, we’ll play each tune two or three times, then move on. But because we had all afternoon for each tune, we usually did five or six. Then I had to pick the best one. Now I don’t have children, but I imagine this process is akin to picking which one of your offspring you dislike the least. Actually, I find the whole listening-back process to be pretty unpleasant- it’s kind of like rubbing your dog’s nose in its own poo. But it’s got to be done, and eventually you settle on your favourite pooey child.   

 Then comes mixing. This is fairly mystifying to me, but it seems to involve manipulating the sound of each instrument within the recording, to try to recreate a real live performance. A saxophone played directly into a microphone doesn’t really sound anything like a saxophone aimed at your head from the stage of a jazz club. So we have to fiddle with it. Different frequencies are toyed with, and effects are added to mimic the sound bouncing off walls and people. Then we fix the levels: bass softer here, drums a bit lower here, saxophone louder here. And here. And in this bit. And I think that’s mixing: getting the instrument sounds, the “room” sounds, and making sure the saxophone is loud enough. 

  

 The mastering process is even more mysterious to me, and I have to confess I’ve dropped off in more than one mastering session. But basically, this is the last step in the process before the album goes to print. Some jiggling is done with overall sound, beginnings and ends of the tracks are tidied up, appropriate spaces are wedged between tunes, and the whole mess is sent to the printers. 

 I have great respect for the folks who devote themselves to this discipline. They sit for hours on end in an airless box, with an intensity of focus which I can’t maintain for more than a few minutes. I try. Really I do. I talk in really abstract terms involving colours and depths and weights. I watch for when the engineer twiddles a knob, and I say Hm or Yeah. I even invested in a pair of those glasses with the open eyes painted on the lenses so they can’t tell I’ve drifted off. That’s how much I care. And when people ask me who did the mixing, I tell them, and then add that I was there. I was involved. I was putting in. A lot of people snore when they’re concentrating.

 Anyway, next time you’re listening to an album, take a second to notice the “sound”. Somebody made that. 

 Righto, more soon. Cheers, Nick

Afternoon Has Broken, Also Brain: The Price of the Jazz Life

Firstly let me apologise if this post descends into indecipherable drivel. But that’s my writing style, and it’s got me where I am today. Aside from that, I just read a disturbing article informing me that my late-night lifestyle is making me sick and stupid; my ability to form coherent sentences is diminishing, and my days of comprehending simple arithmetic may be numbered. I don’t even understand that last bit!

I spend most of my nights in jazz clubs, and have done so since I was in my late teens. Back in Australia, this wasn’t so bad, as the action would generally wind up by midnight or 1AM (we all had to be up early to feed the wombats). Then I came to New York. On my first trip here in 1996, Smalls Jazz Club was open until 8AM, and often later. I’d get my arse handed to me at the jam session, go to a diner to berate myself over breakfast, and be in bed by noon. These days, I’m older and wiser, and am tucked up by 6AM.

Inaccurate band T-shirt from my youth

Conventional wisdom says that we eventually adapt to a change in sleep patterns; that if we keep our hours regular, and turn in at the same time every day, the sleep will be just as beneficial. I even dimly recall reading articles that claimed our most creative work is done after midnight. But recent studies refute all this, and moreover, suggest that staying up all night and sleeping all day, while undeniably awesome, has some pretty serious downsides, namely type-two diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a “significantly shorter lifespan”. Additionally, these studies show that, “the brains of workers who’d done 10 years of night shifts had aged by an extra 6 1/2 years- they couldn’t remember as much or think so quickly.” And at 4AM, apparently my ability to think is the same as if I was drunk. Of course, I wouldn’t know what that’s like, but it sounds serious and fun.

Anyway, I thought I’d prove all these so-called experts wrong by doing a bit of investigative googling and coming up with some brainy achievers who share my habits. Unfortunately, many people known as “night owls” (Freud, Churchill, Tolstoy, Mozart, Nabokov, Obama, etc) are nodding off at a relatively respectable 1AM. For real day-sleepers, here’s what I came up with: pianist and hypochondriac fusspot Glenn Gould; gloomy ponderers Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust; literary lunatic Hunter S Thompson (check out his insane daily routine), and maniacal dingbats Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. The only glimmer of hope is Rolling Stones madman Keith Richards, and it’s looking more and more like he’s not actually human. I’m not in healthy, well-adjusted company.

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The most frustrating part of these reports is that they offer no solution other than doing what every minuscule fibre of my body is desperately pleading with me to do. I want to hear that I can reverse the negative effects of my boogie-loving lifestyle by, I don’t know, eating carrots? Finishing the occasional cryptic crossword? Curbing my consumption of the blood of comely young virgins? But no. It seems I’ll have to resign myself to incremental idiocy and an early demise.

Are you an all-nighter? Someone you know? Want to cheer me up with tales of healthy, alert, intelligent, productive, long-living nocturnalists? Use the comments box below, but not too many big words please. Anyway, got to go- it’s nearly midnight and lunch isn’t going to make itself.

Righto, more soon. Cheers, Nick