My younger brother Mark is notorious for giving thoughtful and ingeniously nonreturnable gifts, like, say, Irish citizenship or tickets to an 8-hour production of a play based on the Charles Dickens novel Nicholas Nickelby. (Fortunately, my mother’s gift to me that year was a home-cooked dinner we consumed during the two-hour intermission.) To help me celebrate Mother’s Day one year, he took me to hear a traditional Celtic music group called Cherish the Ladies, a charming band of females, each of whom had learned to play her respective instruments from her father.
But no gift will probably ever top my birthday present twenty-some years ago when he invited me to a concert by Christopher Hogwood and his Academy of Ancient Music. In addition to being extremely generous, Mark is also disposed to being well-intended. Thus, I tried to suppress my feelings of disappointment when he divulged a couple of weeks before my birthday that he had actually neglected to purchase the tickets and the concert was now sold out. He mentioned that his name was first on the waiting list and he was certain some tickets would free up before the night of the concert. I wasn’t nearly so optimistic; the date crept closer and nothing came open.
He called me, ecstatic, the day before the concert to report that, indeed, he obtained the tickets, and, even better, they were in the second row! It was on a week night and I was in graduate school, teaching and attending classes at a university 45 minutes away. I made sure I made it back to the city that night with time to spare since we planned to catch dinner first at a downtown hotel across the street from the theater.
We arrived at the restaurant, pleased that we had chosen an establishment so strategically located. We were only slightly concerned that the place was packed and we had to wait a few minutes to get a table. Once seated, we ordered wine and glanced at the menu. It took a bit to get our order placed due to the unexpected crowd. We realized as we chatted that a number of other events were going on downtown that night as well, not the least of which was a major basketball tournament, the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics), which was always a huge regional draw featuring Division I schools and held the week before the better known NCAA tournament.
We enjoyed our wine with bread and dinner salads and started watching the time closely. Eventually we noticed that other diners were waving their checks frantically, attempting to gain the attention of the wait staff, and some bounding toward the doors. It was clear that there were not nearly enough servers for the amount of guests; apparently the restaurant had not anticipated multiple events on a weeknight.
I admit I started to panic, in part because I am prone to, and not because I hadn’t eaten the entree but because I feared we might be made late. You simply can’t walk into a theater and expect to sit in the second row after a concert has begun. I told Mark we should just leave and get dinner afterwards. He relunctantly agreed, having wanted to treat me to dinner as part of my gift. As he settled our check, he painstakingly tried to explain to our non-English speaking server why we were leaving prematurely.
We dashed over to the theater and arrived minutes before the lights went down. The first few notes played by the ensemble were breathtaking. Christopher Hogwood is a world renowned British conductor and musicologist and founder of the group he was conducting that evening, the Academy of Ancient Music. This group plays classical music on period instruments to create the kind of sound that would have been produced in the time the music was composed. They attend particularly to the music as written without embellishing it or indulging in lush arrangements, both popular trends during the 1980s. I had been a devotee of their music for years and it was a dream come true to get to hear them perform live.
The musicianship was incredible and it was exquisite to watch such accomplished instrumentalists perform. The musical sound achieved with the period instruments was distinctively muted and rich. Mark noted at intermission how fascinating it was to sit so close and observe the interplay between the musicians. It wouldn’t have been visible even ten rows back, but in row two you could spy every facial expression, head nod, and exchange among the players.
We were among the last to leave when the concert ended since we’d been seated at the front. We walked out into the frigid night air and decided to head over to another hotel a block away to find some food. Mark knew that our favorite local jazz band, the City Light Orchestra, was performing in the hotel’s rotating rooftop restaurant, making it seem a perfect way to cap off the evening.
As we crossed the street, we noticed the musicians from our concert hurrying past us, instruments in tow. We laughed when we saw them enter the hotel ahead of us and figured that’s probably where they were staying. When we stepped into the nearly full elevator to ride to the roof, we immediately felt conspicuously short, which was unusual because by most standards we would both be considered tall. By the chatter of the others, Mark discerned we were riding with NAIA basketball players and a few cheerleaders.
We all spilled out of the elevator when it hit the top floor. Mark and I entered the nightclub and grabbed a small table near the dance floor where the City Light Orchestra was already in full swing. We ordered drinks and appetizers as they were no longer serving dinner and sat back to enjoy the music. The floor to ceiling windows offered a starlit view of the city skyline and the barely perceptible rotation of the restaurant allowed different points of view throughout the night.
We had been following this band for some years; they had a regular gig at a new restaurant in the neighborhood where we’d grown up. Traditional jazz was the mainstay of this six-member band and the men were an interesting mix of ages and backgrounds: three older African American jazz veterans and three thirty-something white guys who had been mentored by them.
They had a great repertoire of standards as well as some lesser known jazz works. They always played their signature piece and audience favorite, “Watermelon Man,” at some point during their performance. During that song, the audience was encouraged to create the sign of the letter “L” with their fingers or arms to acknowledge the band’s saxophone player, LaVerne Barker, when the words “watermelon man” were sung.
The band was in perfect sync with the snapping fingers of the singer and drummer, a swarthy baritone in a zoot suit and fedora. His voice was perfectly suited for jazz by its mellow undertones and his liquid phrasing. As the lead singer held court with his understated but dramatic countenance, Mark nudged me when he spotted out of the corner of his eye a smiling Christopher Hogwood standing at the bar. Other concert musicians started drifting into the club area shortly thereafter.
Another familiar face dropped by that night: Speedy Huggins, a locally famous figure from the heyday of the jazz scene in this city, which had once been home to and launching pad for many famous jazz artists. Speedy was one of the last living jazz legends of his era, part of a famous group of jazz musicians known as the Blue Devils, whose music and lives were recounted in a documentary called Last of the Blue Devils. Speedy was a stylish fixture in jazz clubs around town, a stocky man with oversized black rimmed glasses, his thick snow white hair all but glowing against his dark black skin. This night, Speedy sported a burgundy smoking jacket and sat in with the band for a few numbers, crooning some of his favored jazz ballads and playing drums.
The night quickly faded into what later seemed like a dream. As we enjoyed the jazz and the nightclub steadily filled to capacity, Mark and I watched an unusual sequence of events unfold on the dance floor from our front row vantage point. City Light Orchestra is to be credited for sensing the energy of their audience and encouraging dancing. They definitely got some results on the ample parquet floor, though Mark and I wisely refrained.
Before we knew it, the dance floor was full of concert musicians and basketball players and cheerleaders among others. The classically-trained British musicians were letting loose by demonstrating their version of slam dancing, which had just become popular in the U.S. thanks to the punk rock movement recently imported from England, but was rarely seen in jazz venues. The young American basketball players rose to the occasion and displayed their fine athletic prowess in their dance steps as they deftly lifted and flung the cheerleaders in rhythm with the swing tunes the band played. Even Christopher Hogwood himself could be seen dancing the night away.
The evening reached a crescendo when the strains of “Watermelon Man” began. The crowd was cheering and clapping and completely captured by the mood of swing. The lead singer knew he had the audience in the palm of his hand when he gave the instructions for making the “little L, “ the “medium L,” and for those who dared, the “Big L,” which involved extending both of your arms entirely to form a right angle. The dancers got it and played along as each instrument took its turn in the improvisation.
The joint was literally jumpin’ as the saxophones dutifully wailed and the piano keys pounded right before each acappella utterance of “watermelon man.” As the song powered on and the band connected with the raw enthusiasm of the crowd, the basketball players hoisted cheerleaders onto their shoulders and lifted some in the air, creating with human bodies what was undoubtedly the largest “L” the band had ever seen.
Mark and I looked at each other, both slack-jawed at the improbability of this scene. No one in that room save the two of us knew who all of these people were and how unlikely it was that their paths would cross in quite this way.
The evening came to a unique end as well. Around midnight, Mark and I got on the elevator and found ourselves alone with Speedy who appeared lost in his thoughts with his eyes cast downward. Mark gently asked, “So, I guess that was a little different than the nights back on 12th Street?” Speedy looked up at him, realizing he was with somebody who knew about the old days, and nodding slowly, he replied, “Just a bit, just a little bit.”
We watched him turn left as he exited the front door of the hotel and shuffle down the pavement to his car as we turned right to head to the parking lot, neither of us saying anything and both of us not at all sure of what we had been witness to this night other than pure magic.