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After Work: One Surprise After Another In NYC

…I’ve lived in, or just outside New York City, for over forty years and practically every week, if not every day, I discover something new…

After such an inviting opening sentence how can you keep yourself from reading on to discover the latest surprises Dona Gibbs has found in the Big Apple?

For more of Dona’s unforeseen words please click on After Work in the menu on this page.

I’ve lived in, or just outside New York City, for over forty years and practically every week, if not every day, I discover something new.

Through the cab window on a trip downtown, I spot a strange addition perched on the top of a brick tenement building. Someone has built a grey and white New England style clapboard house, perfect for the seaside. Yet here it is, many stories above sea level and several blocks from any waterfront. Yes, it has a story and I’d like to discover what it is. Maybe one day soon, I’ll ring the buzzer.

Then I only have to look at the cab’s hood for another New York surprise. The hood is covered with an enormous, brightly painted flower decal. I find it’s part of a privately funded project called “Gardens in Transit”, part of a public art project, “Portraits of Hope”. Over 20,000 decals were painted by New York City children and adults, many in hospitals and other community programs. The cabs will be blooming until the end of the year.

I knock on the door of a museum on East 60th Street that I’ve passed many times. It’s called the Mt. Vernon Hotel and it’s run by Colonial Dames of America, heritage society. The guide, an enthusiastic Parisian volunteer, explains that the structure, built in 1799, had started out life as a carriage house and was once part of a large estate. It had been operated as a “day” hotel in 1826 and continued into the 1830’s when that part of New York City was considered the bucolic countryside.

Doctors, lawyers, businessmen and their families who couldn’t afford large estates on the Hudson could escape the city’s squalor for the day, gaze at the Easy River, have a meal and while away the day with chit-chat and whist.

What a meal they must have had. The dining table is set with oysters, oyster stew, turkey roast and turtle soup. The latter was a specialty of such venues since private homes wouldn’t have been able to prepare a proper turtle soup. A lot of turtles are now on the endangered list. And turtle soup is out of fashion even for fine dining. That explains why I’ve never had to sample that supposed culinary treat.

The Mt. Vernon Hotel was located about four miles north of 14th Street where New York City used to end back then. It’s now three block east of the New York department store Bloomingdales’.

The guide urged me to come back during the holiday season for a candlelight tour. And I’ll pass that suggestion along to you.

“ Please join me for lunch,” I said to the out-of-town friend of a friend. “There’s going to be jazz too.”

I had imagined a trio politely tinkling, thumping and thrumming away, background music to a conversation, something to fill in the awkward silences that a conversation with a friend of a friend might bring.

What we got was a full-fledged jazz experience, heavy on the brass and complete with a vocalist. I hadn’t read the event’s description carefully. This was a performance of “Jazz at Noon.” It’s one of those New York institutions that’s been going strong for forty-three years, every Friday 12 until 2 from November right through May.

Over the years they’ve played at several different venues around town. Now they’ve settled into the National Arts Club, a venerable New York private club on leafy Gramercy Park. Jazz at Noon welcomes all and a limited lunch menu is available. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to sneak a peek inside this old mansion, a Victorian splendor.

The leader and originator of this free treat is Les Lieber who admits to being in his mid-nineties. He plays alto sax and penny whistle. He’s gathered a faithful crew of regulars. Among them are a former ad guy, a construction engineer, CEOs, and a senior cardiothoracic surgeon. Oh yes, there is a wonderful delicate young woman pianist. She brings the average age of the group way down to maybe seventy-nine.

They take their charts from what’s now known as the Great American Songbook. That’s the old standards that you and I and probably every other reader grew up listening to –more “Lady be Good” than “Johnny B. Good.”

Professionals often join them. Let me put that another way. The Jazz at Noon group is certainly good enough to have gone pro. So let me say that musicians who make their living by making music sit in occasionally. Among them have been such notables as Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley and Billy Strayhorn.

The audience has a lot of fun and even more fun is had by the group.

“It brings your level of playing up,” commented one of group.

“Like playing tennis with a better player,” the friend of a friend rejoined.

“Exactly,” he said and headed out the door with a smile

Poking around the Internet, I found that Les Lieber isn’t famous for just his jazz. He is the author of over 500 articles that he produced for This Week Magazine between 1946-1970 until he as he puts it “succumbed to television.”

Between numbers, he keeps things moving with snappy patter. And he has the last word, as it were.

He always takes the last solo. After all, it is his band. So that isn’t a surprise.


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