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Big jazz in the Big Apple

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on November 02, 2004

After 25 years of running The Travel Bookshop in west London, Sarah Anderson sold up and has taken off around the world with books for company. In her third exclusive dispatch for Times Online, Sarah writes an e-mail from New York.

Despite election fever, there is time for other things and two remarkable new enterprises have just opened in New York. The Rubin Museum of Art has six floors of Himalayan art in what was the old Barney’s department store – it is one of the most beautiful and certainly the most peaceful museum I have ever seen – the walls on each floor are painted different colours complimenting the paintings, textiles and sculptures and the whole feeling is one of deep tranquility and meditation. A must.

At the other end of the spectrum was the opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center, three concert halls dedicated to jazz. I heard Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder with Wycliffe Gordon on the trombone and Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio. All wonderful musicians but I wondered whether a hall seating 1,000 people was quite the right venue for jazz.

In ‘O Russet Witch’ in the collection Six Tales of the Jazz Age (Scribner, 2003) F. Scott Fitzgerald described the happenings in a club: “A girl with russet, purple-shadowed hair mounted to her table-top and began to dance thereon” – that kind of club with its “low, smoky ceilings” seems to me more appropriate for jazz and for the music described in The Blues I’m Playing, a short story in The Ways of White Folks (1933 Vintage 1990) by Langston Hughes.

Oceola plays the blues… “and her fingers began to wander slowly up and down the keyboard, flowing into the soft and lazy syncopation of a Negro blues, a blues that deepened and grew into rollicking jazz, then into an earth-throbbing rhythm”.

In Paul Auster‘s New York Trilogy (Faber 1992) the hero plays the blues, becoming so obsessed that he has no time for anything else in New York other than following Peter Stillman. He spends his days obsessively walking the city streets and, by his chosen route, manages to create each day a letter of the alphabet that goes towards forming the name of his obsession – the Tower of Babel.

My walking was both more focused and yet more random. In Washington Square, Greenwich Village, I looked through the arch designed by Stanford White, situated at the beginning of Fifth Avenue; Washington Square has experienced many ups and downs – on 9/11 it became a gathering place for people escaping from the Twin Towers; today it is a place for students from nearby NYU and chess players sitting at outdoor tables – but after the Beat generation it became a place where drop outs and drug addicts gathered.

In nearby MacDougal Street where the Beat generation  – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso often met, I was served by a waiter at the venerable Caffe Reggio who could have been one of the Beat generation with his long hair and laid back attitude, rocking back and forth as he took orders from the earnestly talking student clientele.

It was an educational day. An Imax film of Lewis and Clark at the Natural History Museum was followed by a slew of exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that have all opened in the past few weeks – Princely Splendor: The Dresden Court 1580-1620; The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork 1530-1830 and, best of all, China: Dawn of a Golden Age 200-750AD. 

No less international but totally unintentionally, every restaurant I went to in New York was of a different ethnic origin: the Russian Uncle Vanya (00 1 212 262 0542), a haunt of many actors; Indian Sapphire; Turkish Pasha (579 8751) and the German/Austrian Café Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie (288 0665) with its elderly clientele seemingly straight from a Viennese teashop.

 The best of the bunch was Pasha, where I had lamb surrounded by aubergine – a handsome reward for my hours of culture, even though many of the thangkas I had seen in the Rubin museum had promoted asceticsm and denial. And still I had not tired: “I sleep 3 hours less than in England … There is some electric influence in the air and sun here which we don’t experience on our side of the globe” wrote Thackeray to Mrs Carmichael-Smyth in 1855.

I have so little time here, but maybe James Cameron was right: “I love short trips to New York; to me it is the finest three-day town on earth” (Witness 1966).