We are musical beings, born to groove. It’s music that a bunch of clever apes used to turn themselves into human beings. But we’ve been losing those skills over the last century of recorded and broadcast music. Everyone can make music; it’s not a special skill that’s only for those who have ‘talent.’
I wrote the following piece eight years ago, just after a big anti-war demonstration in Manhattan. There was lots of spontaneous music making in the streets, most of it by ordinary ‘no-talent’ (ha!) people who just wanted to have fun while expressing their political will. Here’s how it went down.
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It was Saturday, March 22,2003, the day of the big peace demonstration. I got off the PATH train in mid-town Manhattan at about 12:30. Five minutes later I was in Harold Square, home of Macy’s, checking out the demo. I’d agreed to hook up with Charlie between 1 and 1:30, so I had a few minutes to get a feel for the flow.
People filled Broadway from side-to-side for block after block. Here and there I heard drums and bells and a horn player or two, but no organized music. Shortly after the Sparticists passed (they’re still around?) I noticed a trombonist standing on the sidewalk. Just as I was about to invite him to come with Charlie and me he headed out into the crowd. I let him go his way as I went mine.
I arrived at 36th and 6th – our meeting point a block away from the demo route – at about 1. Charlie arrived about five minutes later, with two German house guests. We were to meet with other musicians and then join the demo, providing some street music for the occasion. None of the other musicians had arrived by 1:45, so we waded into the crowd searching for the drummers we could hear so well – one of our musicians arrived about ten minutes later and managed to find us in the demo. We made our way to the drummers and starting riffing along with them, Charlie on cornet and me on trumpet. I could see one guy playing bass drum, another on snare, a djembe player or two, and various people playing bells, a small cooking pot, plastic paint cans. Then I heard some wild horn playing off to the left. I looked and saw the one-armed cornetist I’d seen playing in Union Square in the days after 9/11. Charlie and I made our way toward him and joined up. Then I noticed two trumpeters and a trombonist a few yards behind us.
So there we were, a half dozen horns, perhaps a dozen percussion, all within a 20-yard radius. We’d come to the demo in ones, twos and threes, managed to home-in on one another’s sounds, and stayed in floating proximity for the two or three mile walk down Broadway to Washington Square. Sometimes we were closer, within a 5 or 6-yard radius, and sometimes we sprawled over 50 yards. The music was like that too, sometimes close, sometimes sprawled.
When the march slowed to a stop, one of the djembe players would urge the percussionists to form a circle. The horn players executed punctuating riffs as one person after another moved into the circle’s center to dance their steps. These young women clearly had taken African dance classes. When the demo started to move, the dancers dispersed into the crowd, the circle dissolved, and we starting moving forward.
Sometimes the music made magic. The drummers would lock on a rhythm, then a horn player – we took turns doing this – would set a riff, with the four or five others joining in on harmony parts or unison with the lead. At the same time the crowd would chant “peace now” between the riffs while raising their hands in the air, in synch. All of a sudden – it only took two or three seconds for this to happen – a thirty-yard swath of people became one. Horn players traded off on solos, the others kept the riffs flowing, percussionists were locked, and the crowd embraced us all. You walked with spring and purpose. Even as the crowd chanted “peace” I was feeling “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in my mind and in my step.
The tribe was rising.
Things got jammed up as we got to Waverly Place – the street that runs just north of Washington Square, the demo’s end. One of the cornet players looked off to the side. I followed his gaze and saw the trombonist I’d passed when I’d first reconnoitered the demo in Harold Square. His horn was pointed to the sky, slide pumping away, as he worked his way toward us. He settled into “All You Need Is Love” and the other horns joined him in sweet, crude, rough harmony. I was hearing John Lenon in my mind’s ear, along with the sardonic horn riffs answering the treacly refrain.
Leaving us wanting more, that’s how it ended.