Music Therapy in a Parlor in Harlem

Surrounded by the faint, copper-green glow of a single lightbulb at the end of the hallway, she is dancing to the mad piano solo. She turns, and claps, and throws her arms up and spins and stomps. The light illuminates  the halo of  hair around her head, then a muscular bronze arm. A turn of her kitten heel and you can see her back in a black and white sleeveless sheath dress. How old is she? Twenty, if you look at the well-defined arms. Twenty-five, if you watch her hips thrust with abandon. But look at that halo of hair, an ashy, wispy dandelion. Is she sixty? And look at the weight in her shoulders, the curve of the spine, could she be seventy?

On the other side of the wall, in the parlor room a man is hitting the keys. Perfect, harmonious wilderness erupts from the piano. Only jazz can make an organized chaos sound so beautiful. I watch him from the hallway through the doorless archway. The light there is red and blue and moody and not much brighter than out here. How old can he be? Forty? Fifty? Somewhere in between? My only clue to his age is that he is her son.

   Sax hallway

She is Marjorie and every Sunday dozens of people– strangers, friends, tourists and neighbors make their way to her apartment in Upper Manhattan. If you arrive early enough, you’ll snatch a seat in the parlor, come late and you’ll have to take a seat on one of the foldout chairs in the hall or stand in the kitchen doorway. And then just listen. Listen to Marjorie as she plays Duke Ellington, a tribute to her late husband, “Al always brought this one out.” Listen to the young bass player wearing a fedora, the guy on the clarinet, a trumpet and what sounds to me like two saxophones, though I can’t be sure, because my seat in the hallway has a limited view. And then listen to the young girl who is shy and shaky and nervous, but always on key. Her vulnerability reaches  parts of the crowd’s hearts that a polished voice could not. Could she be Marjorie’s granddaughter?

Musician silhuette

In between the singing and the playing, listen to Marjorie talk about what these Sundays mean to her. She is gracious and warm and has been receiving crowds like these in her apartment for twenty-two years.  As she speaks, I can hear her gasp for air in between words and  again, I look to her tired lungs for a clue to her age. Throughout the afternoon, she lights up pieces of her biography– she had three sons, but two are gone. Her husband was also a pianist who played with some of Harlem’s greats. One of her dear friends, a bass player named Bob Cunningham who always came on Sundays is very ill. “He can no longer do what he does, load that bass up on his back and then pluck it, and run the bow on it. So we are going to do it for him and hopefully that love, that will be enough,” she says as the band gets ready to play one of Bob’s favorite tunes and then adds “you know we are connected, we are all one.”  She says beautiful, earnest things about her gratitude, her joy at seeing all of us, her love for her sons, her love for the musicians, for their talent. Every time a song finishes, she claps fervently as though she was hearing it for the first time. Everything, seen through her eyes is new and wonderous and worthy of being praised out loud.

I look around the room for more clues about Marjorie’s life, faded posters and yellowed newspaper clippings are taped to the wall, too far away to read. The piano, which is about all I can see from my seat in the hall is covered in photographs. The largest is a portrait of a smiling black man, wearing a graduation cap. Next to the photograph is a folded American flag, the kind that widows and mothers get from the military. Is that her son in the picture? Was he the one killed in a war? There seems to be a layer of dust on the flag. How long has it been since she lost him?

Piano full view

By the end of the second set the audience and the band are ecstatic. We clap, and tap our feet and sing harmony to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the last number.  The apartment explodes with applause and smiles and you can feel the joy vibrate in the walls. For a moment we are as happy as we always knew we were meant to be. All day I had been chasing details that would help me name this experience, and size it up– people’s age, the history of this apartment and the family that made it a home, the names of the musicians, the instruments and faces of the band. But in that final moment I realized that we are perfect when we tear ourselves away from our histories and our identity. You are not the shivering, grumpy silhouette in the rain on Monday morning.  You are not that pang of jealousy or that careless word that escaped your lips. You are not your past failures or even your successes. What you are, is what’s left when you take away your grief, your vanity, your insecurity and your fear. And Marjorie, for all of her enormous personal losses, seems to know that better than most of us.

Before we started putting on our coats, I heard Marjorie say one last thing from the other side of the wall, “If you take away only one thing tonight, let it be that I care about you and that I am grateful for you and I carry you with me, right here in my heart.”

I could have come home after the show and tried to find out more about this woman and her life. But I didn’t, and I don’t want to. She is ageless and magical and luminous when she dances. And that’s all anyone needs to know.

 

If you want to see Marjorie, come by on any Sunday just shy of 4PM to 555 Edgecombe Avenue
(at 160th Street), and ring the bell for apartment 3F.

2 Responses to Music Therapy in a Parlor in Harlem

  1. Shannon says:

    This is so wonderful. I just discovered your blog today and am looking forward to following along with your pilgrimages (which you so beautifully define).

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