I tucked in my chair in the dimly lit dining room. Glorious chandeliers hung above our heads as the three musicians shuffled about, ready to go back out onto the small corner stage. “Before you all go back out there, what do you guys think about the trajectory of music today?” I asked, sliding my bookbag on my back. Mark laughed and said, “Thank god for jazz.”
Hours before that conversation, I was bustling from my car to the dazzling O’Henry Hotel. I say it was dazzling now, but in the moment, I did not expect the beauty I encountered. In fact, from afar, the O’Henry Hotel looked like its neighbor building, the SunTrust bank, just with a different color. But, luckily, my first impression was incorrect.
Walking in front of the restaurant, I passed rows and rows of Lincolns, Mercedes and other luxury vehicles.
I was approximately five feet away from the revolving doors when they began to revolve by themselves. I slid into one of the openings, and I came out in the other side. Three gentlemen, all mid-20’s, stood a couple yards from the entrance, filling the air with laughter and conversation.
“Hi. I am here for the Thursday Night Jazz and Cocktails?” I said to the maître d’ with a smile, pulling out my phone. “Ah, yes! You are here. Over there is the table with drinks, over there is the jazz band and there are chairs everywhere for you to sit.”
I smiled back and looked around, the awe still setting in. “It’s pretty full at the moment, but there will be an intermission and most people leave during that, so it will clear up a little,” said the maître d’. There was a silence between us. “Would you like me to check your coat?” he asked me; this question is critical. What ensued was a moment of pure obliviousness. It must be noted that I had never been asked that question before, except at an airport. And trust me; it was not with the kindness these people were asking.
“Here is your ticket. You’ll give this back to us later, don’t lose it.” One of the young men said nicely as he came back from the front desk. And still, at the time, I did not understand. It just got comical from there. “Thank you.” I said with a smile. I removed my bookbag off my shoulder, took off my jacket, put my bookbag back on and walked away…with my jacket in my arms.
My initial observations and interaction with the coat check attendant was more telling, it seemed, than of the hotel or event. It’s simply a fact; I had never been exposed to something like this on a regular basis. That is not to say that I have not been to expensive restaurants, fancy dinner parties or luxurious events. On the contrary, I’ve been to all of those things, but I had never really remembered the proper etiquette required at these events, simply because I did not attend them on a regular basis. This sort of experience, of course, was just not familiar to me, and depending on where one stands in the socioeconomic ladder, it is the sort of experience that may never become familiar.
Anyhow, I walked away after checking my coat and tried to find a place to sit. Behold; there was none. Waiters and waitresses moved like ninjas through a thick forest of standing and sitting people. I had to replicate such movements if I was to make it to the other side alive. So with my bookbag, I charged. I made it to the other side of the ballroom. I leaned against a huge entrance that led to an empty hall.
“Thank you, thank you. We’re going to have a small intermission, and we’ll be back. Thank you for listening.” The vocalist spoke onto the microphone. The musicians laid their instruments near them and got off the stage.
Many people flocked to them, saying things such as, “You guys were so good, my goodness, it reminded me of the 70s’ when my wife and I just met in college, and we would dance and dance…” Most of the people at the hotel were older than me, and some may have grown up listening to jazz in their living rooms. Such was the case with Neill Clegg, the saxophone, clarinet and flute player of the band. They had to walk past me, through the hall and to the dining room, where I had stood to get to their resting place. I also was able to speak with Matt Kendrick, the double bass player for the jazz band, and he invited me to the dining place with them.
We sat down at one of the tables. I waited as they poured some glasses of water for themselves. Silence overtook the air. Silence was pertinent to the entire experience it seemed. The laughter and conversations that had filled their ears was now distant. “Do you have any questions for us?” Clegg said, as Dave Fox, the pianist, entered the room. The truth was, no, I did not. I was not there to interview them, but as a musician myself, I had many questions.
After they told me their musical histories, I tried establishing my own credentials, going off on a seemingly unnecessary rant about my country of origin, Chile, and the birth of a new genre of music during the times of dictatorships across Latin America in the 60s’, 70s’ and 80s’. Before they went back out there, I asked them about the “trajectory of music” to which Kendrick responded, “Thank god for jazz.”
After entering the main hotel area, I could not view anything in the same way. There was an air of reality in that dining room, an air of truth that is not conveyed in the ballroom. In the ballroom, everyone drank and smiled and cheered and conversed, blissfully unaware of the expression these performers were putting on. I am sure, many performing artists understood the feeling that I was observing from the outside. Of course, these guys were not performing in Madison Square Garden with millions to their name; they were in Greensboro, North Carolina, getting paid for playing, splitting the money from the tip jar and continuing on with their lives. The intricacy of being a musician and being paid for such a gig is hard. Almost impossible. But to Clegg, the performance was about more than money or the obliviousness of the audience; it was about the fantastic world that music gave to him.
“What music has done,” Clegg said, “is lead me to a much deeper understanding, philosophically and spiritually, of who I am.” Music, he said, had led him to meet people who viewed music in a deeper, much more intimate way; “Music and the arts,” Clegg said, “are a profound expression of the non-expressional.”
After departing from the musicians, the world seemed different. Here I was; going back and forth as an observer who is both shut off from the outside world and enjoying the music and the atmosphere around me, all the while, getting to know and understand the background of those creating this wonderful atmosphere. I could describe it as a swing and sway of an odd meter between the joy of external experience and the joy of fulfilling the drive of the soul through the arts.
The experience reminded me of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” one of the songs the band played, particularly the lyrics: “These little town blues are melting away, I’m gonna make a brand new start of it.”