I've been a New Yorker for almost 15 years, and I spent a decade of that time on West 14th Street in Manhattan, the blurry dividing line between the West Village, Chelsea and the gentrificultural laboratory experiment known as the Meatpacking District. The picture above is the view from my old fire escape, looking westward toward the Hudson River and the great expanse beyond. Seeing it again is enough to engulf me in nostalgia, though the neighborhood had begun to slip away from me well before I left a year and a half ago for various reasons, most of them practical and none of them regrettable.
As a jazz critic on active duty, the old perch was pretty much ideal: a six-minute walk to the Village Vanguard or Smalls (four if I was really pressed for time), and about 10 or 12 minutes on foot to Cornelia Street Café, the Blue Note and the 55 Bar. I lived practically on top of a major subway hub, and cabs were abundant at all hours, thanks to those stiletto-tottering Meatpacking revelers.
Funny thing, though: West 14th Street wasn't much of a scene for the jazz community, as it actually exists by day. I never learned of any players living in my hood; when I saw one on the street, he or she was always en route somewhere, hurrying to a gig. I mention all this because the Jazz Journalists Association has asked me (and everyone else who has a stake in our online ecosystem) to write about jazz in my community, as part of a first annual Jazz Day Blogathon™ — learn more about that right here. And while my old neighborhood couldn't have been more of a jazz center, it was a center of commerce, not habitation.
By contrast, I've been garrisoned in Washington Heights for the last year, in another fifth-floor walkup with sporadic boiler-room issues. And I'm fascinated by how much it seems to be the inverse: no clubs to speak of, but a great many musicians who call the neighborhood home. And not just musicians — the Heights is home to Laurence Donohue-Greene, of the New York City Jazz Record, and Jana La Sorte, of Janlyn PR, and Yulun Wang, of Pi Recordings. Ben Ratliff too.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
The arrival of an early spring this year has meant a lot of walks with my daughter in Fort Tryon Park, in view of the George Washington Bridge, and often around the Cloisters; I suppose if I were still downtown it would be the Highline. And a part of me can't help but wonder what effect these airy environs might have on a jazz musician.
Just last week I had a conversation along these lines with drummer-composer-bandleader Dafnis Prieto, for the NYT's Sunday Routine series: he has lived in Washington Heights since arriving in New York a dozen years ago. He recently moved into his third apartment in the hood, and hardly seems likely to leave anytime soon. This will sound fanciful, but could it be that by spending some time up here for a while, I've gained new insights on his music? I have no idea, really, but I wouldn't rule it out.