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Looking for ID in midst of New York music scene


By Liza Mulholland


Wherever I am on holiday, I always try to seek out local music. Not just because I’m a musician and interested in hearing lots of different music but because I’m keen to enjoy an enhanced flavour of that place. The music of a country offers a window onto its culture – its history, languages, social conditions, its stories – offering a deeper sense of that land and its folk.

And so it was when I visited New York for the first time last week. It can undoubtedly be argued that modern American culture is no stranger to us, but I still wanted to experience the real thing on its own turf.

In a country the size of the USA, the ‘real thing’ can of course mean many things. A melting pot of peoples, cultures, including our Scottish forebears – my own Lewis emigrant grandparents met in Detroit and my mother was born there – its music reflects that. With just a week in the Big Apple, we were content to simply scratch the surface.

On a grey, wet first day, my friends and I found a beautiful cosy bar in the grand, art-deco surroundings of Times Square’s Edison Hotel and settled in for an afternoon of jazz. The four-piece band of vocals/trumpet, piano (yes, a real one), double bass and drums, were superb. Playing ‘old-style’ jazz, these sharply-dressed, stylish young men – none looked more than 25 – transported us back to the days of prohibition, the Cotton Club, swing and big-band, to Gershwin and Sinatra.

With two other Dorec-a-belle band members, who play saxophone and double bass, in our little cohort, we were in music heaven. In the lamp-lit, dark wood ambience of the bar, we could almost imagine we were back in 1930s New York. It was wonderful!

'Old-style' jazz took us back in time in New York.
'Old-style' jazz took us back in time in New York.

We spent the following evening in Harlem’s Shrine music venue, enjoying a succession of excellent artistes performing blues, folk, hip-hop, R&B, soul and funk. Harlem is famed for its music heritage and while we were unable to do one of the official music tours, we certainly got a stunning taster that night.

Next day’s visit to a recommended music bar was thwarted by my not having ID (it’s a long time since I was asked for that!). You must be over 21 to get into most bars so, without my passport to hand, we were refused entry. Much laughter and amusement at this unexpected obstacle more than made up for our disappointment.

In other premises, whose doorman clearly had sharper eyesight, a young group played incredibly intricate modern jazz (superb playing but a tad meandering and relentlessly one-paced for my taste). Add to this, gloomy Subway rides brightened by a smiling Mariachi band going from carriage to carriage, and other buskers, and we felt we had savoured at least a little of New York’s famed music scene.

My only regret was that the famous Steinway factory – legendary makers of concert grand pianos – was closed to tours that week. The rest of the year is booked solid, so that bucket-list item will need to wait.

What struck me, along with musicianship, was the confidence of the musicians, their energetic performances and bold, unabashed appeals for tips. All had buckets or large jars and made repeated direct requests to the audience for cash. The buckets were invariably stuffed with dollars.

On returning home, it got me thinking – about how well we share our music with visitors, about how we present our culture, and how we might do better. I’m not suggesting we emulate the American approach – we are not them – but with the tourist season well under way, and thousands streaming weekly into the Highland capital from cruise ships alone, might we give it some consideration?

In my hometown of Inverness, things have much improved in recent years. Every other pub now offers live music, with Scottish folk and traditional performers in many, but could shops, cafés, hotels and restaurants do more to share our music and arts? How about showcasing local musicians with a selection of CDs playing and on display in hotel lobbies? A bookshelf of local writers?

Could restaurants offer wall space to visual artists to hang their work? How about singer-songwriter spots in café corners? With recent weather preventing busking, could visitor centres reach out to the many talented youngsters who often play our streets, with offers of gigs?

I think our natural Scottish modesty precludes haranguing audiences for tips but perhaps we should be a little less reticent, at least reminding listeners we have CDs for sale. In Dorec-a-belle we often worry we’re being too pushy if we so much as mention our merchandise more than once! Why does promoting what we do feel so unseemly?

Highland Council’s exemplary cultural lead, in replacing old street signs with bi-lingual Gaelic ones, lets tourists know immediately that we have something culturally different and unique here, and initiatives such as this weekend’s sold-out inaugural Gathering festival reflect new confidence and joined-up thinking, suggesting many good things to come.

As long as we don’t start asking middle-aged visitors for ID, I’m confident it will be onwards and upwards!



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