In the early 1980s, Michael Cooke, Subud actor and jazz pianist, attended this momentous event, which vividly lives to this day in his memory, “It was truly a God-send!”
There’s a piece of music considered to be one of the major standards of the Great American Songbook of popular and jazz music. The composition is by Vernon Duke, who wrote the words and music: Autumn In New York.
One mid-fall afternoon in the early ‘80’s’ in the open-aired courtyard deeply interred within the bowels of a structure approximately two stories below street level of an enormous building owned by an equally enormous banking conglomerate, the acclaimed jazz pianist, George Shearing, and his trio played some music. Mr. Shearing sat at the piano with his two sidemen accompanying him on bass and drums. The occasion was a “Free Concert” sponsored by said bank. The edifice of this structure is situated on the northeast corner of “53rd, and Lex”, in Manhattan’s New York City.
The concert was about to begin with more and more people entering the courtyard, filling the outdoor space to capacity. And if an audience member happened to find their eyes drifting skyward, as in gazing or lifting their eyes above, they’d be struck with the impact (being so deeply rooted within the hollow of the building’s foundation) of the daunting and seemingly illusory skyline. Spearheaded aloft skyscrapers giving the appearance of being all the more daunting, dazzling, overwhelming! Like clumps of white billows moving between summits of so many skyscraper Everests. Brilliant thick white cumulus clouds, prominent against a perfect backdrop of blue sky all playing a peek-a-boo catch me if you can dance in the troposphere as they continuously obstruct and eclipse themselves behind immovable towering building tops.
The inhabitants, settled in the open-aired courtyard were fixed elements, anchored, as it were, in contrast to the above clusters loping along their path. When one looked aloft the effect was something akin to a sort of vertigo in reverse – breathing could become short, and one’s balance upset as if taking in rarefied air. The difference being that one’s disorientation was an experience rooted firmly down on the ground as opposed to the boundless detachment one might feel high above and beyond.
When the trio got started the musicians’ sounds wafted throughout the well-amplified courtyard spilling out and over onto the neighboring streets of the mid-Manhattan intersection. Mr. Shearing began his set by performing some two or three renditions of tunes in medium and up-tempo rhythms.
And then something happened. There was a break between the next number.
In this lull the drummer sat idly before his drums, waiting, while the bassist dealt with a problem he was having with his equipment. He, the bassist, draped his left arm over the top of the chest-like belly sounding-board of his upright contrabass as if hugging it, while he leaned in with his right hand to adjust the wire cable attached to his bass. That done, the bassist then fiddled with the knobs of his amplifier, to ‘finer’ tune the sound production of his instrument. During this interlude there was an overall respectful silence from those present (except for the requisite all-intrusive New York City street traffic sounds, which incorporated the random and ever-recurring vehicular trumpet-honk to blare – predictably of course, annoyingly at any given “wrong” moment).
Mr. Shearing, who, as it happens, is blind, sat quietly composed before the keyboard, his hands resting on his lap. Sporting dark sunglasses, he gave every appearance of looking over and beyond the piano, as if SEEING, zeroing in on a particular object of his own choosing, his head slightly cocked to one side, demonstrating that typical, patient countenance of-between-two-worlds vulnerability that blind people (and musicians) generally and universally display when “they” are at the mercy of a suspended inactivity before they again play.
Then magic took place, as if sublimely contrived. The bassist, having put to a halt the fussing of his equipment leaned over and whispered an “OK” to Mr. Shearing and then readied himself – standing in repose, his arm casually embracing his bass, in preparation for the next number. And then without warning, Mr. Shearing, as if there’d been no gap in the performance prior to this moment glided into a slowly tempered, powerfully delicate, ‘block-chorded’ rich rendition of Autumn In New York. And the breath, as they say, somehow evaporated as in almost ceased to exist from one’s system – suspended in the moment.
The strains of the song’s melody and power permeated one’s consciousness as the gradual ‘hearing’ of the tune in this backdrop generated something close to a near-mystical union of title, melody, harmony and setting.
The listeners, standing, sitting, walking, or unknowingly catching a phrase or two while driving by in an open-windowed truck, cab, car, or bus – all of us – with our collective ears – received, by virtue of our simply being there, a solidarity of union within a new found trinity. A trinity of the title itself, its theme and inherent setting implicit in its name, in concert with the mutual sharing of the tune collectively, along with the of-the-moment-reality of the ballad’s title being realized by its setting (and that of its music itself) all synchronously combined, as if, and yes – first-hand creation and birth were of the same wellhead, not separate – simultaneous. The fact of this tangible moment actually and viscerally turning in, on, through and within the core of its own essence – precisely depicted within the very lyrics from the song itself : “… Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel… They’re making me feel, I’m home… Autumn In New York… It’s good to live it again.”