Never Mind the Notes



Neighborhood: Gramercy Park, Murray Hill

“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
– Louis Armstrong

At the time I fancied myself a budding talent, though I’d have been hard pressed to say at what. Singer-songwriter was my latest label, only I sang mostly in the shower and once toweled dry  could never quite manage to make the plucked strings accord with the words. My lessons with a lovely, dark-eyed guitarist of Hungarian extraction were going nowhere. Every week she chided me with a fiery Magyar-accented intensity for not practicing enough. Every week I promised to apply myself, but if truth be told, I was far more interested in playing her heartstrings than the catgut of my guitar, and was making no headway in either endeavor.

The lessons let out at twilight, when the setting sun spreads mystery or menace, depending on the neighborhood and your state of mind. 

Bordering what had once been Tin Pan Alley, the popular music mecca where aspiring songwriters like Irving Berlin made their mark, the enclave of town houses and apartment buildings comprising Murray Hill, on the western rim of Manhattan’s East Side, has more recently been dubbed “Curry Hill” on account of the profusion of South Asian restaurants that fill up at dinnertime with hungry young professionals. But in the late seventies, when the encounter I am about to relate took place, the neighborhood was in sad decline, frequented largely, come nightfall, by pimps, prostitutes, and their prospective clientele.   

Unattached at the time, and in no great hurry to get home, I dragged my feet, letting my battered guitar case knock against my knees, taking timid sidelong looks at the scantily clad ladies as I rounded the corner of Lexington and 25th, past the faded façade of the 69th Regiment Armory, the site of the legendary Armory Art Show of 1913, where Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” caused a stir. But like the neighborhood, the Armory, too, had seen better days, its shadowy external alcoves now were haunted by hookers and pushers. Tin Pan Alley, the Armory Art Show, Irving Berlin, and Marcel Duchamp all belonged to the long ago. Why, I wondered, did nothing of note ever happen in my time? 

So when a tall, thin man leaning in one such nook, muttered something, a come-on I presumed, I didn’t give it another thought. But when he stepped toward me out of the shadow, I froze in fear, my feet facing forward and head twisted back, squeezing the handle of the guitar case in a futile attempt to get a grip on myself or, if need be, to wield as a weapon. It was his words, repeated a second time and enunciated clearly, that really took me by surprise. “Never mind the notes,” he said, “just worry ’bout the chords ’n intervals!”

Struck dumb, I stared back.

“Relax, I ain’t going to mug you!” He tittered through the gaps between two broken top teeth. “You ain’t never going to make music all twisted up like some damn circus monkey!” 

I did indeed feel at that moment like a cymbal-striking mechanical monkey with a broken coil, a malfunctioning wind-up toy from my childhood. But how did he know? 

“You are where you are,” he shrugged, “ain’t no place, no time, but here ’n now!”

I continued to stare back, bewildered.

“Listen,” he said, launching into a story. “Back in the fifties, when the only place white and black ever crossed paths was on the keyboard, the chessboard, or at the morgue, this white chick stuck around for my last set, always the best, at the club I was playin’ at in The Village.” He lowered his gaze, turning the derision inwards. “Fool that I am, a proper gentleman, like my mama raised me, I was walkin’ this white chick I wasn’t even into, down Mulberry Street in Li’l Italy, which ain’t no place for no black man to be walkin’ no white chick, never mind the time of day, when this big gorilla comes charging out of a doorway, holding a hatchet like he was meanin’ to subdivide my real estate split level-wise.  ‘Hold it, Sal!’ she shrieks, ‘it ain’t like that!’ – Then he snorts, like I seen this bull do one time back, when me ’n the band toured Spain, ’fore he gored a matador in the groin. Wingtips primed for take-off, my shoes was stuck to the ce-ment.  All I could do ’s look ’im in the eye ‘n whisper what, I swear to God, I believed was gonna be my last words: ‘Honest, Mister, I’m just walkin’ the lady home!’ Then the gorilla grunts something and lowers the axe. Maybe he’s still mad, maybe he’s glad, beats me. Breathless, I haul ass back to my pad uptown, belt down a fifth of Johnny Walker Black, bang on the keyboard to stop my fingers from trembling, ’n riff out my first hit tune.” He hummed a few bars, before bursting into a raspy smoker’s cough, and gave up… “And that, son, is the secret of improvisation! Don’t never be afraid to fumble, ’cause that’s where the music is!”

I sensed that I was in the presence of a master. He might even have been famous, for all I knew. His gaunt cheeks were covered with a several days growth of gray stubble, long before it was fashionable. His life, he let slip, was out of whack.  “I tickle them keys, but they don’t sing to me no more.” 

Neither of us felt a pressing need to do anything or be anyplace else, so we bought a couple of beers and squatted on the uncomfortable narrow stoop surrounding the rim of Gramercy Park, the last gated enclave in the city, watching a solitary old man in a wheelchair, with a sour-faced nurse seated on the bench beside him, both staring into the void.

“Like some fancy-ass prison for millionaires!” he squelched a chuckle. 

I held back a laugh.

“What you up to, son?” he asked.

“Kind of in between things at the moment,” I allowed.

He looked me in the eye.  “You alone. I can smell it!”

Again, I was taken aback. How did he know?!

“Ain’t no shame in bein’ alone!” He smiled like he knew the score. “It’s a time to retune your instrument!”

“Will do!” I said, tapping my guitar case.

“It ain’t up to you!” he gave me another laser look. “Man likes to think he’s callin’ the shots, but it’s always the lady that leads. You been lookin’ too hard! Let her find you!” 

(It would be another couple of years until I happened to chat up a petite brunette at a party. She called me up a week later, and we’ve been married ever since. But that’s another story.)

Just then a passing policeman rapped his nightstick against a “No Loitering” sign. We had already drained our beers and tossed the cans in the trash, or else we would certainly have had trouble. 

The pianist and the policeman exchanged wary looks, even as the latter continued on his beat. 

My man fell silent. “So long!” he said as soon as the cop was out of sight. Before I could respond he disappeared and we returned to our separate destinies.


Skip a decade. It’s late. I’m dashing uptown to Babies’ Hospital at Columbia-Presbyterian, where my daughter has just been born. The A-train, that winged subterranean Pegasus that leaps in a single bound from 59th Street and Columbus Circle all the way up to 125th Street in Harlem, is whisking me up to Washington Heights in a heartbeat. Oblivious to time and place, I am whistling to myself the jazz standard “Take the A Train,” when the well-dressed, middle-aged man seated directly opposite me breaks into a smile. 

“Ellington taps the sound of the City!” I smile back. 

“Ellington didn’t write it,” he protests, “the score’s by Billy Strayhorn, and I damn well ought to know, ’cause he was my uncle.”


Post Script. I’ve been married for three decades and counting. We give each other room to dream. I still sing in the shower when nobody’s listening. But as it turned out, I didn’t have the chops to be a musician and passed my instrument on to my son, born five years later, who really knows how to make the strings sing. Stringing words together is my thing. Don’t get me wrong. Music still matters. I keep listening for life’s resounding chords and intervals.


Peter Wortsman is the author, most recently, of Stimme und Atem / Out of Breath, Out of Mind, a bilingual book of stories (Palm Art Press Berlin, 20919; the second edition of his first book of short fiction, A Modern Way to Die, (Pelkinesis, Claremont, Cal., 2020); a book of doctors’ profiles, The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard (Columbia University Press, New York, 2019); and English translations of Intimate Ties, by Robert Musil (Archipelago Books, New York, 2019) and Hinkemann, a tragedy, by Ernst Toller (Berlinica Books, Berlin and New York, 2019).


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§ One Response to “Never Mind the Notes”

  • Werner Rauch says:

    Ich habe es gelesen, und einigermaßen auch verstanden.

    “Music still matters. I keep listening for life’s resounding chords and intervals.”

    Ich mag Deine Pointen am Schluss, wie ich sie auch schon in anderen Deiner Texte fand!

§ Leave a Reply

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