At the end of Part One, the audience screams. Grown men and women, teenagers, kids, none of us can help it when we see those words appear on the black screen hanging on the stage: to be continued…
It’s not the first time we’ve reacted to the same thing with a collective roar. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is more than a show; it’s an experience. Yes, we’re watching it, but we are also a part of it. Laughter rolls around the room as bright as a Patronus, and applause shoots into the air as if from a hundred wands. Everyone is really into it.
This is what I love about live theater in general. I think people were especially exuberant about Cursed Child because we already know and love these characters, but this kind of thing happens at every show.
I love sitting in the theater and looking around at all the faces, people I will most likely never see again but who are here with me to share this one moment in time. Going to the movies is communal, and I love it too, but it’s the same movie every time. With live theater, every production is unique. The bond between the other theatergoers and me feels—if I can use this word—sacred.
A week later, I’m walking with friends to Washington Square Park where this arch for George Washington stands illuminated in the night. It is white and glowing like a full moon. The fountain is hibernating, and in its place are smooth-slouching skateboarders and a guy twirling neon-colored lights around his head. Someone is filming him.
I love the city at night. I love parks for the same reason I love live theater—they bring people together who otherwise would never cross paths.
But this park is especially meaningful. I turn slowly to see the buildings flanking it. One of them has tall, thin columns of windows. I entered that building three and a half years ago and stared up at floors and floors of books. I remember the excitement, the crazy thought that maybe this would be my library. Maybe I could study here, in this shiny building in this bustling city.
I had just fallen in love with New York, and my cousin was showing me NYU’s campus. It was summer then, so the fountain was awake and gushing. We stood in it and let a stranger take our pictures and laughed under the sun. A year later, I was so much closer to studying in that library, and so much farther away.
Jazz. I always felt like I should like it, but whenever I heard it, I didn’t. But as my friend told me while we waited for the performance to begin, you can’t just hear it. You have to see it.
The jazz club isn’t far from Washington Square Park, and we get there early so we can sit right up front. In fact, the pianist’s back is maybe two feet away from my face. The place is cozy, and it feels like such a New York-y thing to do, so even if I don’t like the music, it’ll be a fun experience.
Remember, my friend says, quoting from La La Land, jazz songs aren’t like other songs that are stories, a set narrative you follow. They are conversations. Each of the instruments is talking to the others.
The leader of the band is the pianist. She’s probably in her fifties and has long brown hair that is slightly ripply. That’s all I really see of her, her long hair under a funky dark blue velvet hat. Behind the piano is a tall man with a double bass. Behind him is a guy at the drums I can’t really see. There is a saxophonist, of course, and a trumpeter.
They start playing. I’m trying to keep my friend’s words in mind, trying to hear the conversation. Like the audience at Cursed Child, these musicians are really into it. The pianist tosses back a long strand of hair when it falls over her face during an intense part of the song. She makes that hair fly the way her hands are flying over the keys.
At first, I’m focused on her. At first, it’s just her playing. Then, the other instruments join in. I start to figure out some of the pattern, the way each song has a solo for each instrument, the way it starts out with a set pattern and then it starts to unravel.
It’s a beautiful unraveling.
I try to notice when one of the instruments introduces a change. I try to figure out which musician sets off the avalanche. I can’t usually tell. But what I do notice is:
- The snare drums in the background sound like rain.
- The double bass is like another person, the way the musician moves with it. It seems to have its own will, and he is always either reigning it in or letting it take him.
- The man with the trumpet has a black beanie. He’s large, like a linebacker. When he isn’t playing, he rests an arm on the piano. He watches the pianist, or maybe he’s just focusing on her music, and he has a slight smile on his face.
- The saxophone—the sound of its trill is thrilling, of course, but watching it is its own kind of magic, the way the man’s finger quivers over the button.
I notice how the drummer spurs the rest on. When I do catch a glimpse of him, he is always smiling, and I can hear that smile in the increasing tempo, in the laughter of the loud beat.
I notice how the bass sometimes seems to be the lightest, most playful sound in the band. It’s like a puppy under the table: out of plain sight but definitely causing commotion.
Once, I think someone is whistling in applause but it’s actually the trumpet starting to play this long high note that takes my breath away.
Another time, the saxophonist turns to the drummer and they’re looking at each other and nodding at each other and playing their hearts out. It’s a quintessential jazz moment. I get it now, why the lines for this place stretch up the block even on a cold night.
Of course, I look at the audience too. Unlike theater or opera, you can do what you want here. You don’t have to sit rigidly and smile politely. One lady has her eyes closed and face a little uplifted. Lots of people are tapping their feet.
Across the room from me a young man sits and stares at nothing in front of him. He’s focused, really listening. I can see this need on his face. When the music lifts us all up and the drummer and the saxophonist are exploring together, I see him smile as he looks at them and I’m smiling too.
There is a middle-aged Asian lady who keeps nodding and pushing her bleached white hair out of her face. I wonder how many jazz concert she’s been to. Next to her is an older man. Throughout the whole performance, his eyes are closed and he is nodding. His whole body moves to the music.
Sometimes, I forget about the piano even though it is right in front of me and even though it starts each song. But when I listen for it, there it is, keeping the whole song together.
The musicians are not distant in the way a professional pianist or violinist is. They are not across the chasm of an orchestra pit, alone upon a vast stage before the sea of our faces. They are right there in front of us, and maybe it is their visceral presence that makes the music feel tangible too. But they are also in another world, lost in the song.
I love that combination.
At one point, when the trumpet is particularly thrilling, I watch the man putting his whole heart into it and touching our hearts in the process, and I think, this is so glorifying to God.
Toward the end, trying to put words to what I’m experiencing, I think:
Jazz is about losing yourself to find yourself.
Jazz is about surrender. Jazz highlights the individual but only within the context of a bigger whole, a beautiful collaboration. It is about our place within community.
Three and a half years ago I came to this fountain and decided I wanted to stay. The years in between mostly conspired to make me doubt that would ever happen.
But now I’m back again. I’m back at the fountain and the library and the city. The library isn’t mine, no; that part doesn’t look like I thought. But that’s okay, because it’s better. And the city I fell in love with—that is mine, now.
I had to lose some dreams to find the ones I really wanted.
I look up to see my old friend Orion’s belt. Light pollution has made me lose some stars but I have found new ones, too, in the thousand lights of skyscraper windows.
Losing to find.
I smile at the NYU flags on the buildings nearby, pinning them into the scrapbook of my story, and move back to join my friends. We have some jazz to listen to.