When I First Came to New York

NYC subway system 1959

The phrase, “When I first came to New York,” means something special in the jazz world. It’s difficult to read an autobiography, watch a documentary, or find an interview, that doesn’t contain these words. It’s a subtle divider amongst jazz musicians; either you’ve done your time in the city, or you haven’t. It feels like a loaded statement, one that is treated as matter of fact by the musicians who utter it. Why is this string of words such an intimidating phrase to those jazz musicians who haven’t lived there?

FEAR. It’s the fear of failure. This fear grows as you get older; the young are supposed to fail, learn from the experience, try again and move on. As we age, our culture imposes responsibility upon us, whether it’s real or imagined, and the specter of failure seems to become stronger in our lives.
Fortunately, jazz musicians deal with fear every day. We improvise for a living (not just in music). There is a certain sense of acceptance inherent in our actions; we acknowledge the possibility of failure, yet we continue to move forward.

From a personal standpoint, having spent most of my life in a scholastic environment (about 30 years as a student and 15 years as a teacher), I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll always be a student of music. That being said, I can frame my move to New York as an educational experience that will profoundly affect my outlook on the world of music and jazz in particular.
There are three basic goals I hope to reach while in NYC:
1) Immerse myself in a jazz environment through listening and meeting people.

When I first came to New York, yes, I happened to have met him accidentally on the street. I ran into Gil Evans on the street and I said, ‘Mr. Evans, let me introduce myself. I’m Billy Harper. I play tenor saxophone. I hope, if there is ever a chance that you need somebody for a rehearsal, give me a call.’ – Billy Harper
When I first came to New York, the first person I called when I got off the bus was Cannon. – Nancy Wilson
When I first came to New York in 1991, one of my favorite groups to see live was John Scofield’s storming band with Joe Lovano, Marc Johnson, and the exceptionally young Bill Stewart. – Ethan Iverson
When I first came to New York, I was like Dizzy’s little brother. – Miles Davis

2) Practice and compose while participating in the jazz tradition.
When I first came to New York everybody on the scene would treat me like I could play, but I couldn’t. – Wynton Marsalis
And looking back, I was so naive when I first came to New York. My only goals were to learn the language, go to the Village Vanguard because I knew Coltrane and Miles and Bill Evans had played there and to try to be in jam sessions. – Claudia Acuna
When I first came to New York I always tried to impress people, play long solos as fast as I could, lightning fast, and all of a sudden Billie Holiday said, ‘When you play, you’re talking to people. So learn how to edit your thing, you know?’ – Curtis Fuller
That’s one thing I learned when I first came to New York and worked with Jackie Paris and Anne Marie Moss, getting the set to work, having pacing in the set and no fooling around. – Dennis Irwin

3) Focus on performing music through a variety of experiences.

The more you freelance, the more you are involved with the big ‘M’ of music, not just a jazz band. Broadway shows, concerts with orchestras, chamber groups, folk music—When I first came to New York, I was down there playing with the folk singers. It might be a duo where it’s just a bass and drums, or a quartet where there’s no piano. All of these environments help you make musical decisions. – Ron Carter

Yeah, well, I used to play for strippers in Chicago and when I first came to New York. – Jack DeJohnette

The phrase, “When I first came to New York,” is intimidating, but no more so than stepping onto a stage in front of hundreds of people not really knowing what you’re about to play. Time to accept the fear of failure and to move on.

Quote sources:
Billy Harper, JazzWeekly
Nancy Wilson, The Cannonball Adderley Rendez-vous
Ethan Iverson, Do The Math
Miles Davis, JazzHouse
Wynton Marsalis, Steve LeVeille
Claudia Acuna, All About Jazz
Curtis Fuller, NEA Jazz Masters
Dennis Irwin, All About Jazz
Ron Carter, Bass Player online
Jack DeJohnette, Track By Track

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