On Sunday I went to Silvana in Harlem to see my friends’ band Life Size. I appreciated the calmer, more relaxed vibe of the early evening compared to the frantic late night session I attended months ago. A Bruce Lee film played silently on the television behind the shawarma/falafel bar and dangling lamps with colanders as shades lit the room. It made sense that the ceiling was covered with colorful rugs since the venue is run by the same guy who runs the Shrine, where the ceiling is similarly covered in vinyl covers.
I headed straight to the unisex restroom and photographed their many signs. There was one that told of someone who flooded the basement by flushing a wig down the toilet as well as the more standard no smoking sign. A sign on the door said that there was another restroom upstairs on the street level so I went up to grab a cup of tea and check out the cafe restroom. While the upstairs also had a fair number of signs, it could have used another “PUSH LOCK ALL THE WAY IN TO LOCK” sign on the door like the downstairs. Without the warning, I didn’t think to double check that I had locked the door until a man flung the door open on me.
Life Size used to be a sextet but since the tenor player Frederick Menzies moved back to Denmark, it has become a quintet. Frederick’s playing had a way of catching me off guard and I’ll miss hearing him play and running into him. The group now includes alto saxophonist Brian Krock, pianist Dan Rufolo, guitarist/The Little Prince look-alike Olli Hirvonen and the bass player with a big heart from Alaska, Marty Kenney. Drummer Philippe Lemm, who has been featured on this blog more than anyone else, completes the quintet. Though he doesn’t qualify to be America’s Sweetheart as a Dutch male, I’d say Philippe has won the title of JAZZ TOILET’s sweetheart.
I had a great time especially because I sat across from Kaisa, a bassist in New York City for the year from Finland. I was eager to tell her about the few things I recently learned about Finland: the fascinating concept of Finlandization, the unbelievable-to-an-American Finnish Youth Guarantee and the origin of the hippo-like character on my muumuu, Moomin. She reciprocated by showing me the Moomin-branded xylitol gum that she brought to the States in bulk. I was elated. I hope that my asking about Moomin in introductory conversations with Finnish people will not be met as the kind of ignorance peers would show in asking if I was from North or South Korea in grade school. It’s just that I am really fond of cartoon hippos.
My friend/classical violinist Lavinia sat to my left and asked me about tip jar etiquette in jazz clubs. Is there such a thing? Another friend/jazz vocalist Astrid asks us a much more contemplated, perhaps the most contemplated question, in her native language Croatian. She told me that “Excuse me, where’s the restroom?” is nearly identical in Serbian, dropping just the letter j in the word gdje.
The Delicioso Coco Helado carts have returned; summer is here once again. I grabbed a cup of coconut from a cart on 125th Street before turning up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard to hear Anne Boccato sing with Gianni Gagliardi (saxophone), Quentin Angus (guitar), Bam Bam Rodriguez (bass), and Jay Sawyer (drums) yesterday. Fitting for a place called Shrine World Music Venue, each band member hailed from a different country, with the repertoire consisting of jazz and Brazilian music.
Arriving in between sets, I got to work right away documenting the two restrooms. Go down the stairs under the restroom sign that emits red light and you will see a door marked ladies on your left and a door marked men on your right. The light switch for the ladies room works the opposite of the standard way; press down to turn on the light and up to turn off. The light switch is conveniently illuminated when off so that you can find it without fumbling in the dark.
A metal basket visibly filled with toilet paper hangs in the corner, putting any concerns about running out of paper to rest. And if you had to sit for a while, though I wouldn’t sit on those toilets without seat covers, you could pass the time looking up at the vinyl record sleeves on the ceiling. They also cover other areas of the venue, leaving gaps where the sleeves were poorly aligned and empty 12”x12” spots where albums might have been before falling off.
Anne’s dad and percussionist, Rogerio, clapped along rhythms from the audience, while his daughter sang and played caxixi at times. The father-daughter connection was pretty cute and reminded me of how I miss my dad. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a pilot just like my dad. When I became a teenager, I wanted to become a psychologist so that I could argue using jargon against my dad, who was then pursuing graduate studies in counseling. Now that I am old enough to be classified as an adult, I realized that I have become a writer, just like my dad.
I checked out Anne’s brother’s senior show at Cooper Union a couple weeks prior and have heard Rogerio play many times in the past. Now I just have to go to Anne’s mom’s art show and I will be an official Boccato family groupie. Either because I have nearly achieved groupie-status or because they are a wonderful family, the Boccatos gave me a ride back home from the Shrine.
Upon returning home, I hung out with a few friends including Adeyemi from Lagos in Nigeria, a soon-to-be data scientist who loves to sing Frank Sinatra. Ade gave me the translation of “Where’s the restroom?” in Yoruba and explained that literally translated, the phrase means, “Where is the defecation room?” I think I want to start saying that in English.
Swinging standards resonate through the walls, providing the best acoustics of any jazz spot restroom I’ve visited. On the bluish green walls hang a couple miscellaneous pieces of art that look like they might have been found at a garage sale, but the music playing as you take care of business has class. Though the trash can’s rusting exterior is uninviting, the toilet handle’s weighted action and sink faucet’s retro charm are agreeable. Reach higher than usual to turn the doorknob, and step out of the restroom to come face to face with the band.
Harlem’s newest jazz venue, Shell’s Bistro felt like an old neighborhood hang even though the demographics inside the place looked more racially diverse than outside. Several blocks North of the main street, it didn’t seem like the venue would turn up as I walked by a deli and a school. And yet, there it was protruding from the bottom level of a residential building, next to a possibly shuttered thrift shop.
I learned that tourists visit each Thursday, as they did the past Thursday, occupying the front half of the small restaurant. If I were coordinating the tour, I would recommend the Village Vanguard or Smalls for the compulsory jazz component of the New York experience. But Shell’s Bistro also checks off the Harlem category and welcomes guests with its cluttered but cozy atmosphere, reminiscent of Wally’s in Boston. The tour group left around half past eleven, whisked away by the guide who said to the bartender as she left, “excuse me, you need some towels for the bathroom.”
The bartender was kept busy through the night, with tasks ranging from a take-out order for pie to a request to put some jazz on when the band went on break. Instead, he put on a live recording of Sade on the television in the back corner. I only recognized the singer with certainty because I’ve been watching her music video “When Am I Going to Make a Living? on replay last week. The song’s message seems relevant as I continue to contemplate this paradoxical life of unemployment, reading leisure articles on my new macbook air and making plans to go eat delicious goods with friends on my iPhone 5. Then I think about my dad growing up in developing South Korea, with nothing but tree bark to eat for sustenance. He used to mention this when I would refuse meat, recalling wistfully the difficulties the tree bark caused for his bowel movements.
I’d be willing to check out this place again; I’m curious about their red velvet waffle and it’s only a thirty minute walk East from where I live. The musicians seemed friendly though leader/bassist Curtis Lundy hardly said anything during the sets except to yell out instructions to drummer Chris Beck while pianist Paul Odeh soloed.
Sunsila from Nepal tells us how to say our usual phrase in Nepali —
The air thick from too many people packed into the tight space, I slowly nudged my way toward the front until I could see bandleader Christian Scott. My brain’s immediate response: “He is brave; he is wearing polka dots. He is a trumpet player.” His music was as remarkable as his outfit and fitting of the rare man who can pull off polka dots. Joined by Matt Stevens (guitar), Lawrence Fields (piano), Kris Funn (bass) and Joe Dyson (drums), the band celebrated the release of a new album the Thursday before last at Ginny’s Supper Club.
Christian Scott quickly cleared up my confusion as to whether the venue was supposed to be a listening room or a lounge with background music when he told the audience in the back to shut up. True to his outspoken personality, he continued with his piece K.K.P.D. (Ku Klux Police Department), providing the backstory and commenting on the fact that these things are still happening today. I can believe that.
While I personally only know what it’s like to be an Asian woman in metropolitan areas, I’m certain that racism toward each of the many groups on the periphery of mainstream America is real. It seems like just yesterday that kids at school were pulling their eyes back, sputtering nonsensical syllables. Oh wait. That was the other day in Harlem when a grown woman called me “ching-ching.”
Hypersensitive? You tell me.
Ginny’s Supper Club has a rather high ratio of people needing to relieve themselves to number of toilets available and shares the two bathrooms with its parent restaurant, Red Rooster, upstairs on the ground level. I hastily investigated the bathroom on the left, remembering to press down gently on the soap pump as to not squirt my shirt like last time, and noted the sparkly chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
I only glanced briefly at the framed pictures covering the walls but I assume they were supposed to be a throwback to the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem seems to be undergoing a different kind of development now, one of gentrification, as the socioeconomic makeup of the neighborhood gradually changes. The restaurant fits the face of this new Harlem, with a menu that claims to reflect “the roots of Harlem’s diverse population,” but with prices affordable to a select population.
I can’t help but feel a strange sense of irony.
Still, the recently opened venue is noteworthy in that it is under black ownership. How many jazz clubs can you think of that can say that? Or jazz anything that’s under the management of black people, who created the very genre? My sister also reminded me that a key premise to this blog, the toilet as a shared experience for everyone regardless of race or other segregating factors, wasn’t always the case. I have to thank her for providing nuanced insight into this issue’s toilet. It’s no wonder that as kids, she brought home the African-American History Bee trophy while the only shiny thing I brought home was glitter glue.
Stanley from Haiti, who works at the bar, tells us how to say, “Where’s the restroom?” in Creole –
[EDIT] Please see the comments section for a correction to an error in the last paragraph.