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New York City Director's Blog

By Chris Wallace, Director
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Saturday 0955 ...

Supposed to meet up with Don Byron, touted as one of the greatest jazz clarinetists ever, at 1000 at St. Mark's Church in the Lower East Side. Problem is I'm now heading East over the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn thanks to a construction project on Canal Street. Got stuck in the right lane, herded into the Event Horizon (point of no return) of the Manhattan Bridge. Now I'm heading into Brooklyn and who knows how hard it will be to get turned around, and then inevitably stuck in Manhattan bound traffic. At this point I'm figuring Byron will just ditch this thing. Oh, and I forgot his cell phone number on my desk at work. Interesting side point: the Manhattan Bridge was designed by Leon Moisseiff, who also designed the infamous Tacoma Narrows Bridge that twisted to pieces in a stiff breeze 65 years ago (this was filmed and can be seen on the internet... very cool). The Manhattan Bridge is now undergoing a multi-billion dollar rehab because Moisseiff put the subway tracks on the outside of the bridge, which puts considerable strain on either wing of the bridge every time one of the trains rolls across. Anyway, I'm sitting there in my car, thinking about all this and wondering how I'm going to get back in time to find Byron.

1115 ...

Ran to St. Mark's Church, found Byron quite easily... he was the only one practicing clarinet on the side of the church next to the 185-year-old bell set on the stones next to the historic church. My shooter Tom Miuccio was getting set up and we were ready to roll. Byron was cool about my lateness, didn't seem to realize I was late. He was prepping for a hurricane benefit at the church run by the NY Poets Society.

1230 ...

Byron's done with the gig and now he wants some lunch... We follow him over to the 2nd Avenue Deli, a classic Jewish delicatessen. The Bronx-raised Byron does not like it, but he attracts a lot of attention because he plays Klezmer, a traditional Jewish music that originated in the Eastern European ghettos. He's also influenced by classic jazz, calypso, Latin music and plenty of other genres, which explains why he's a bit short with my questioning of his Klezmer playing. By the way, he got tuna fish for lunch.

1330 ...

We head over to one of Byron's old hangouts in the Village. It's now a trendy restaurant, with mood lighting, modern art and young attractive couples -- the place is practically devoid of all NY attitude ... looks more suited to South Beach or something. Byron is careful with his words, though something clearly ticks him off. He sees a poster for a group called "Transcendence" -- five white guys with a slogan "Nothing is Cohesive." Byron shakes his head and says something about how pretentious they seem, how he feels that "white rock" has lost its way. He says that James Brown or Ray Charles never sang about how miserable it was to be black in America... they just got up and performed. I think of James Brown on his knees on stage, looking like he's having a seizure, feeling his music to the core.

1500 ...

We're sitting in the Village Vanguard, basically Ground Zero for the New York jazz scene. Like a lot of kids I grew up with piano lessons and I still play a bit, and I've noticed that playing music is unlike any other feeling. It taps into a part of the brain that people like me don't use that often; perhaps it's a side that mathematicians "feel" when they're involved in their calculations. It's not really like the zone one feels when playing soccer or something... it's just different. So I ask him what he thinks music is, and I'm surprised by his answer. He says it's science, exploration and calculation. I ask him if his music comes from his head or his heart, and he says both... Though I begin to understand the importance of his classical training. Jazz is fluid, basically a rhythmic idea that you play with and improvise, but to be able to do that like Byron does, you have to be able to comprehend the language almost the way a mathematician understands the interplay of numbers.

2000 ...

We've been hanging around for quite awhile, seen a few more things with Byron, now we're at Sweet Rhythm, watching him perform with a band of other modern jazz greats. Byron's music seems to reach inside the audience, slowly, imperceptibly, the sound builds and grows, though at any moment the rhythm may seem improvised and even chaotic, it's seeking the audience, and I can see them feeling the music almost the way Byron and the others are... even the most inhibited people in the crowd feel little choice but to start moving and bumping, it's like a virus, and it spreads. I've got what I need though, and the crew and I depart. I've got outbound Manhattan traffic to deal with...



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