Standing in witness to the music
Dusk is falling early in the garden as the sun slides behind the skyscrapers. As the light dims, the sound grows fuller, a deep-bellied rumble that echoes against the pale green Aspen leaves, the cast iron and brushed metal sculptures, the granite garden walls, the slate-laid platforms, the plate glass windows, the clattering traffic noises: rich, passionate bending tones, clarion calls, shattering the air with a sudden honking urgency.
Sonny Rollins is playing his horn. Alone: one man against the untamed passion of a city passing from the heat of the day to the heat of the night.
We’re witnesses, gathered in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, present for the ritual of a modern master who paints with sound, in the moment, all presence and consciousness washed away in the unfettered whirl of creation.
He plays Green Dolphin Street. I move my fingers. I play this on my horn in clubs and am invited into the truth the song holds, the easy freedom of a bright smile, a rolling surrender.
We are still in the cavern of the church as the final wash of sound drizzles down from the darkness. The musicians shamble off the stage. It is midnight. The New Year has come, the concert is over. We gather our things quietly: there was disquietude in the ending, an incompleteness, that hangs in the air like a faint fog.
In the stillness a click-clack sounds. A click-clack again, a quick rap, a bang, then bang, then bang, swick, bang, swick in rhythm, and the beat builds, picks up the in-and-out, the sway, the silence in the great eaves of St. John the Divine, and between each beat there is an invitation. It stops us.
The beats continue and we peer through the darkness. One musician is still on the stage. Max Roach, his face down to the face of the Tom-Tom in a mirrored communion, his hands flashing against the weathered leather, the greasy tapering sides, boom, bang, quiet, boom, boom, bang, still.
Then the heavens open: the tribal signal of a booming horn as Julius Hemphill walks from the dark, honking and screaming in response. Roach picks up the rhythm, a firmer beat, louder, rolling barrels of sound through the air, and then the musicians stream on to the stage, the percussionists of m’boom, the horn players of the World Saxophone Quartet,and we all stand, throats opened full, cheers, cries and hoots and hollers, looking at each other and laughing in dismay as the clamor gathers in full force, a celebration of inspiration and collaboration, driven by the quiet thin man with the piercing eyes who won’t give up the rhythm.
Max Roach and Sonny Rollins were white hot cool. The volcano poured lava each moment that they played.
And they’ve played and played and played. They never take refuge in reputation, never hide from the music. They stand in witness to what they hear, bear testament to the music they are meant to make.