Even I don't always agree with my opinion


Barber Shop Jazz

Posted September 16, 2009 by jim young in Media

– Kory French

Otis cut my hair today.

Let me tell you about Otis. He is a quarter-Asian, quarter-Islamic, quarter-Jew, quarter-African immigrant from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He has been living in Brooklyn for 30 years now. I would say he is around 60 years old.

He asked me where I was from and what I was doing in New York. We then got talking about Jazz, the black experience in this country, and what it takes to make the African-American culture progress. We both agreed, the the missing element and most important factor is the absence of the father figure in many African American families and communities.

“Let me tell you somthin’. Let me SHOUT atch-oo. You hear’n me now my brotha? It tates a man to raise a man. Da’s wud I be sayin. Da’s wud I be talkin’ about.”

Otis told me about THE jazz scene in Harlem to check out. What clubs to see, “where the walls sweat and where horns cry”.

“Foh-get dem Whi- folks joints. You don’t need nonna dem poh-lite clappin debutantes. You want the real Harlem sound. Des, des, des dis place on Lennox. Ah, shit. Lennox and um, and um… and um….  Hey Walter! WALTER! Where’s dat Lennox Lounge at? Lennox Lounge? Wha’s it at ahg-ehn? Um, Hunjed and, uhh, Hunjed and uhhh…”

“Ahh shit, you mean Lennox Lounge. Iz at there, you know. Is right dere, you know. At umm, add-um — between One-Two-Foh’ and One-Two-Figh.”

“Yeah. Das de one. One-twenny-five. Lennonx and one-twenny-figh. Check dem out. Dat be authen-TICK!”

Walter was now in on the conversation, “yeah. Go visit dem there Kats. And uh, you wanna be checkin out Ess-Oh-Bees on Howston St. Is at Varrick. Two-Oh-Fo’r Varrick. Get outta de one-train at Howston and is right dere. Right dere on the corner. They got some a’ dat Cuban Jazz, and Afro-Carib beat, and some of dat Brazil sound. Dey some real good kats in dere. Friday nights. You Like dat. You fee’ me?”

Otis took his time cutting my hair, talking about his son in Jersey and their close relationship. And about the relationship he has with his grandson, who is now 12 and wants to attend boarding school, get into Law and Business, and be the next “Buh-Rock”.

There is something so much more authentic to a city when you get to here its vernacular in the most pure and raw form — to taste the pulp of language before it has been pressed through the juicer. The Barber Shop I visited was a subterranean dive on 40th Street at 7th Avenue. An immigrant-male only pop-shop where the Yankees, the Giants, and Pussy were what was talked about. Otis and Walter spoke in lyrics; they sang the blues when they mentioned train lines, street corners, jazz clubs and horn players, as if Langston Hughes himself had scripted their discourse.

Otis and the barber shop are a thousand miles away from the discussion I was involved in during my American Studies Graduate Seminar last night, which comprised of a dozen or so Ivy League Grad Students debating on “What it means to be American? Is there a transnational psyche? What is the American Culture paradigm? Can one have an equal love and hatred for their country, and if so, how is that defined and articulated through academia and scholasticism?” The irony of it all is that everything we were collectively discussing and trying to achieve in the classroom in Morningside Heights was rooted, and arguably defined, in an underground Barber Shop in Hell’s Kitchen. And it could be said that I learned just as much from Otis and Walter than I did from Leo Marx, Gene Wise, Linda Kerber and Amy Kaplan (all “American Studies Association” Presidents and Professors Emerita whose essays on the American Studies Academic Paradigm provided the literature basis of our seminar).

I am not stating that I necessarily learned more in the Barber Shop than I did in the seminar. Nor do I believe that Otis and Walter have more to offer me educationally, than Professor Boggs and Columbia University. For without the classroom, I would not have been tuned in to my morning experience from the angle and perception I was. They are co-existant with one another.

But ‘let me tell you somthin’. Let me SHOUT atch-oo. You hear’n me now my brotha?’ — don’t miss the notes in the sax solo because you are too busy trying to read the sheet music.

One Comment



    Seems like this elusive transnational pschye is down at the barber shop, alright.
    Great work capturing this moment. I’ve decided to grow my hair out, but maybe I should re-think that one.

    Do you think this “transnational pscyhe” was also at a rainy gas station in Georgia four hours from the Canadian border?

    Was it waiting just out ahead of the dashboard Cassidy pounded-while spurred on by interstate jazz riffs?

    I’m betting it’s just as much right in there at the Ivy League classroom, too…

    Seems to me you’re on a discovery quest as old America itself. Set up from the moment its great muck first spread under the Scotish boots of yer anscestors, maybe down on Mulberry St.

    I’m going to be playing “Dylan’s 115th Dream” tomorrow in class. Seems to fit into all of this somehow.

    “I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land…”

    Keep it coming,

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