Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

My Jazz Fantasies Realized. Sort Of

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

My Jazz Fantasies Realized. Sort Of

Article excerpt

A retro setting, $16 cocktails and a possible encounter with musical history.

A night that involved two Manhattan fantasies began with my wife and me and time to kill in the West Village. Last December we stopped into a bar to get a drink before meeting friends for dinner. The place was one of those meticulously set-designed mirages meant to evoke a speakeasy, lighted by softly glowing Art Deco fixtures. The drinks had names like Mata Hari and required muddled juniper berries.

So there we were, having Mata Haris, when a mystery walked in: "007's in the house," one bartender said. "James Bond's here," said another. A busboy with a curly mustache explained to a presumably newer colleague that the guest in question was "undercover."

The secret agent was an older black man wearing a long trench coat, a flat-brim cowboy hat, a purple turtleneck and glasses. He took a seat at the bar beside my wife. I'd guess he was 65 or 70. He was smiling and laughing and hitting on every woman who walked by in an admirably unsleazy manner: "You got Elizabeth Taylor hair," he said. "You got Jackie Onassis eyes." Listening to him was like being transported to another, more innocently rakish era. The Mata Haris were working their magic.

I heard the man tell the bartender that he'd recently been playing checkers with the saxophone genius Ornette Coleman.

I couldn't help myself. "Did you say you played checkers with Ornette Coleman?" I asked.

"That's not all I played with him," the man said.

He explained that he was a jazz pianist and that he'd backed Miles, Coltrane, Mingus, Duke. "Bird," he said -- referring to the best ever, Charlie Parker -- "I played with him too."

My wife and I ordered more drinks. Dinner could wait.

The man said his name was John. "John what?" I asked.

"John Lewis."

It's a boring name but an important one. John Lewis led the Modern Jazz Quartet for more than 40 years. The band never broke out much beyond jazz buffs, but to fans, the M.J.Q. remains a key outfit for pioneering a particularly graceful form of ensemble interplay. Bottom line: I was excited to meet the guy.

He sprinkled his anecdotes with glamorous nostalgia. …

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