Thoughts on The Ahmad Jamal Trio’s 1958 performance of “Poinciana” in the lounge of Chicago’s Pershing Hotel.
January 16, 1958. Chicago. Cold. Cutting. Winters knife digging deep into the back of every hunched and harried citizen. Scurrying from street to street, swathed in black wool. Chicago in winter looks like a funeral. Black coats dragging through white streets. An unspoken dirge frozen at the edge of cracked lips. Black and white.
Piano notes float like flakes between towers of steel, brick, and marble. Some swirl about on invisible eddies down alleys and side streets. Others lift on varying currents above empty park benches, skirting docks, blowing out over this lake that lies; a sea that isn’t. Wind brushes over the cymbals, sometimes tempest, others temptress. Tom-toms spark a flame, cast a warm glow like tea candles flickering in the middle of cafe tables. Two minutes in and the sharp POP! of the snare let’s you know that this isn’t some simple lullaby. Don’t nod off into the oblivion of winter just yet. Wait. Wait for the distinct sound of fingers sliding up and down, plucking the long tendons of a stand-up double bass, the deep thrumming to resonate through the cavity of your chest.
Flag down a waiter. Order another whiskey. Is this thrumming coming from within or without. Behind you, glasses clink. Some old acquaintances reunited, celebrate the lack of absence between them now. Your attentions back on the band now. The pianist tickles those keys in a way that reminds you of laughter. You could use a laugh tonight. It’s been a long day. You’re still red in the face with anger from that bastard on the El who stole your hat as he exited at Belmont. Despite your yelling and jostling to try and charge through the masses there were just too many damn people for you to catch him.
Where the hell is the waiter with my drink?! The hat wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the fact that it was given to you as a gift by your father, a man who gifts nothing to no one, upon your graduation from med school.
How did you end up in this dive listening to two blacks and a white guy playing jazz while the snow piles up outside? You don’t even like jazz. But this is different. Maybe it’s just the whiskey but this, this is nice. Speaking of whiskey, there’s your drink. Finally! One, two, three sips. All gone. You wish the folks next to you would quite down. People have no respect for musicians in the middle of a performance. Three whiskeys in and suddenly you’re some kind of music aficionado. It doesn’t help that the doors to the lobby doors are propped open so that when guests walk by they can choose to come in for a drink and listen to the music or simply keep walking out into the blizzard.
The choice is jazz, stiff drinks or old man winter. You have another drink as you wonder where the nearest hat store is.
The lounge slowly fills. Weary travelers shake the cold out of their bones. Hands clap after each piece.Drinks are ordered as waiters twirl from table to table, faces alight as the players play on. It’s 1958 in Chicago. Blacks play with whites, to whites, for whites. Snow falls as the sun sets on the Heart of America. A man stumbles drunkenly into the frigid air, his head adorned with nothing but winter for a hat.