By conventional measures, religion took a big hit during the pandemic. Houses of worship were shuttered. Major holidays like Easter, Passover, and Eid al-Fitr were observed on the calendar but without the ordinary group celebrations. And major rituals like baptisms, funerals, and weddings took place via Zoom. But the spirit blows where it will, giving form to the void, and during extraordinary times like this one, it can give new meaning, depth, and understanding to what religion is, or could be.
My own neighborhood in Brooklyn, as religiously diverse as any place in the country, and probably as non-religious as any part of New York City, taught me that lesson over the course of eighty-two days, starting in late March. That’s when my neighbor, Roy Nathanson, came out onto his second-floor porch with his alto saxophone and, at precisely five o’clock in the afternoon, performed a solo rendition of “Amazing Grace.” These were the darkest days of the pandemic. We had just gone into lockdown; the city was suddenly the global epicenter of the coronavirus; and deaths and illness were spiking by the day, especially in our own zip code, which had one of the highest infection rates in the country.
Roy wanted to do something to push back against the despair that was spreading along with the disease. Jazz is Roy’s vocation. He came up with the Lounge Lizards and co-founded the Jazz Passengers, and he’s also worked with the likes of Elvis Costello and Debbie Harry. He is a great performer. He is also a teacher by nature and was, for many years, one by profession in the New York City public schools. He is an evangelist of music who knows its power to bring people together and change their mood.
So Roy began with the national hymn of hope. No encores, no singing. Next day, same thing. Over the coming days other musicians began to join him. A kind of socially distanced sidewalk ensemble took shape. Lloyd Miller, a songwriter and performer who lives downstairs, anchored it with his upright bass. Eric Alabaster, a retired teacher and drummer who lives around the corner, brought a drum set every day. Mo Saleem played his dholak, a two-headed hand drum. Mo is from Pakistan and would normally be busy playing gigs at South Asian event halls in the area so that he could send money back to his family. But the pandemic killed the work and Mo couldn’t even get back to Pakistan. Eddy Bourjolly, a jazz guitarist from Haiti, came in every day from Canarsie with his electric guitar and a small amp. Albert Marquès, a jazz musician from Barcelona who teaches in the public schools, played the melodica while managing to keep his two young children somewhat distracted. (They played a jazz version of “Let It Go” one day to make Albert’s daughter happy.) Roy’s son Gabe joined in with his trumpet after his college suspended classes and sent him home. Banjos and flutes made an appearance now and then, and there were sometimes a few more horns. My next-door neighbor Louis sat in with his conga once in a while. Aidan Scrimgeour, a young piano teacher from up the street, brought another melodica, and Gabe Garcia, a brilliant young musician, brought his sax.