I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise

“This green-gold city will embrace you/
Take you out of time and erase you/
And for one brief moment you will let her/
For one night only you’ll be hers”
—Bess Morris, “For One Night Only,” 1924

The Ambassador Billiard Parlor, the Aeolian Hall, Our Metropolitan Madness

Just before midnight on January 3, 1924, Ira Gershwin sat on a barstool at the Ambassador Billiard Parlor, reading the New York Tribune’s amusements section while his brother George shot pool with Buddy DeSylva.

Ira called his brother’s attention to an article entitled “What Is American Music?” In the piece, Paul Whiteman, the popular “King of Jazz,” announced a February 12th concert featuring a George Gershwin jazz concerto and an Irving Berlin tone poem, neither of which yet existed.

We now take liberties with the script.

“Fuck,” said George. “I told him I wasn’t doing that show. He thinks I’m writing what, now?” He already had a musical comedy opening in three weeks’ time. To compose and practice a new piece within five weeks would be impossible.

Imagine the phone call the next morning. Whiteman’s desperation, having heard Vincent Lopez was planning a similar concert, and might do it first. The King of Jazz deposed. Gershwin on the other end of the line, puffing a black cigar, bristling at the short turnaround for an event he’d already declined.

Whiteman somehow persuaded him it was a deadline worth meeting; George started writing two days later. “I had already done some work on the rhapsody. It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety bang that is often so stimulating to a composer… I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise. And there I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end… I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.”

He finished the piece in time for five days’ rehearsal. An Experiment in Modern Music went off as announced, at the Aeolian Hall on West 43rd Street, built for the piano manufacturer of the same name. The building stood on the site occupied by the Latting Observatory during the 1853 World’s Fair. At 315 feet, the Observatory was the tallest structure in the city for the three years before it went up in flames, and helped inspire the Eiffel Tower. From its three viewing platforms, from its address midway between the Hudson and the East River, fifteen hundred fairgoers at a time saw all the way to Queens, Staten Island, and the New Jersey cliffs.

Picture all those visitors streaming upwards, looking outward across the expanding city grid. Condense them, distill them, seed their amazement through the same space seventy years later, as the audience heard Gershwin’s ode to collective metropolitan madness for the first time.

Before the concert, he changed the title from “American Rhapsody” to “Rhapsody in Blue.” It was a tribute to the painting popularly known as Whistler’s Mother, which is actually titled Arrangement in Gray and Black, and to another Whistler painting, Nocturne in Green and Gold. Everything in conversation.

The Plaza Hotel, Green and Gold

Sometime in the early twenties, a sober Scott Fitzgerald is said to have danced fully clothed through the Pulitzer Fountain at the Plaza Hotel. Another version of the apocryphal story says it was Scott and Zelda, both drunk. A 1922 show called The Greenwich Village Follies included a painted curtain depicting everyone who was anyone in the New York intellectual scene of the time, Zelda rising from a fountain at the center of the crowd.

Green and gold, gold and green, everywhere in Gatsby, a few years later. Daisy the golden girl, Gatsby’s gold tie, old money versus new, the green light of the orgastic future. According to Plumb’s The Streets Where They Lived, Fitzgerald, seeing the city as it was, “all blazing with green and gold lights, and the taxis and limousines streaming up and down Fifth Avenue, jumped in the Pulitzer Fountain just out of sheer joy.”

Hilbert’s Hotel

We step away from New York for a moment, to demonstrate a particularly New York thought experiment. In 1924, German mathematician David Hilbert gave a lecture hypothesizing that a fully occupied hotel with an infinite number of rooms might still accommodate additional guests. If you move the person in Room 1 to Room 2 and the person in Room 2 to Room 4 and every subsequent guest from room N to room 2N, you empty all the odd numbered rooms, making room for an infinite number of new guests.

Not Exactly Hilbert’s Hotel

Scott Fitzgerald said of New York in 1919 that it “had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world.”

If you move the hotel at #1 to #2, and the hotel at #2 to #4, and every subsequent hotel from its plot as in a variation on the problem above, the result is a lot of wobbly, unpinned hotels. Logic will only take you so far. Instead, create a hotel in between the others, right where people expect a hotel. Take all the time you need, and all the space. It’s New York; you’ll fill the rooms.

Give it all the things that make a hotel special. Make it very old, or very new. Give it secret passages and long corridors and dead ends. It must have a ballroom, and a welcoming lobby, and a bar, preferably a dim one, preferably with a secret trapdoor, and a restaurant that is just out of style, and a plaque or photograph that proves so-and-so dined here. Fill it with art, some of which may appear to move from time to time, and wasn’t the figure in that portrait facing the other way? It may have a cat, sometimes, and a further idiosyncrasy or two about it: lobby acoustics that let someone on one end hear the conversation on the other, a mysterious button on the wall, a dead-end corridor, a ghost, a faulty elevator.

The Passenger Elevator

The same 1853 New York World’s Fair that saw the construction of the Latting Observatory was also where Elisha Otis first debuted the safety elevator, in the Crystal Palace next door. His invention slowed the compartment’s descent if a cable snapped, which had been the big concern about elevators until his dramatic demonstration. Prior to this invention, building heights were limited to a few stories, the wealthier living on the lowest floors.

The Hotel Ekphrastic

Composer Bess Morris had not ridden in an elevator prior to moving into the 12th floor suite at the Ekphrastic, her previous apartments having been walkups. The Ekphrastic’s northeast elevator had a habit of stopping between floors. Most of the residents took pains to avoid that elevator, but she often waited for it specifically.

“All these stories, and we’re nowhere,” she remarked one night to the other people in the stuck elevator, her companion Judy Selig and the painter Charles Demuth. Demuth’s painting We Are Nowhere, destroyed in a gallery fire three years later, was dedicated to Bess Morris, and Selig maintained that brief moment stuck in the elevator inspired two great works.

Selig said later, “We were headed out to see the Marx Brothers in I’ll Say She Is at the Casino Theater, since I was between plays myself and eager to see what everyone had been talking about. Bess and Charles Demuth and I were halfway down to the lobby when the elevator stuck between floors, and Bess changed her mind about going out. Deem and I went on without her. That was the night she came up with ‘For One Night Only.’”

The Hotel Shelton

Georgia O’Keeffe painted Blue and Green Music in her first years in New York City. She had “the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye,” but she caught the city’s hidden face as well: the angles and planes, the cacophony and the pockets of quiet, trees and buildings and shards of sky. They’re in there if you look, even if she preferred Toscanini to jazz.

O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz married in 1924 and moved to Suite 3003 on the Hotel Shelton’s top floor. O’Keeffe had watched the skyscraper go up, the first in the neighborhood. It was cheaper than the first-class residential hotels, but still allowed them to live without the wasted time of a kitchen; they took their meals in the 16th floor cafeteria.

They had two small, low-ceilinged rooms, but the living room, which O’Keeffe used as her studio, had windows facing north and east. “I know it’s unusual for an artist to want to work way up near the roof of a big hotel, in the heart of a roaring city, but I think that’s just what the artist of today needs for stimulus,” she said in an interview once. And in another interview: “I began talking about trying to paint New York. Of course, I was told that it was an impossible idea—even the men hadn’t done too well with it.”

She sometimes painted the city from her elevated perspective—Stieglitz took photos there too—but most of her skyscrapers are painted from a ground-level vantage. Look at The Shelton with Sunspots, NY (1926), the upper floors swallowed by sun. Or Radiator Building—Night, New York (1927), its forms precise as flowers, light beckoning from a hundred windows. New York Night is warm, lived in, even without human figures. It embodies O’Keeffe’s theory that “one can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.”

“As it is felt”—O’Keeffe was neither the first nor the last to try to tap that feeling in her medium of choice. See also prose and punk and poetry and jazz and photography. William Carlos Williams, who once wished he was a painter, wrote his poem “The Great Figure” after seeing—feeling—a fire engine clang and rumble through Manhattan on a rainy night. Charles Demuth’s painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold translated that poem into oil, graphite, ink, and gold. Demuth translated his friend O’Keeffe into paint as well.

Two Square Blocks, Expanded

West 43rd and 44th Streets, between 5th and 7th Avenues, housed at various points in the twentieth century: the Algonquin Hotel, the shabby Hanover House, the Royalton Hotel, the Iroquois (where James Dean lived because it was cheaper than the Algonquin), the Metropole, the Americana, the Coolidge, the Lambs Club, the Hotel Claridge, the Ekphrastic, the Astor, and the 44th Street Hotel, as well as the Belasco Theater and the Aeolian Hall, where Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” debuted.

Expand another few blocks north and south and you can bring in the offices of the New Yorker and the Smart Set, the Hotel Knickerbocker, the New Amsterdam, the Lyric, any number of Broadway theaters, and Irving Berlin’s place on 46th Street, where he wrote “Always,” “Blue Skies,” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Duke Ellington’s band played down the nights at the seedy Hollywood Club, a few blocks up Broadway, and Bix Beiderbecke’s Wolverines held court at the Cinderella Ballroom a few blocks down. When Hoagy Carmichael saw Beiderbecke play his cornet, he’s reported to have said, “Just four notes… but he didn’t blow them; he hit ‘em like a mallet hits a chime.” Beiderbecke lived in those same square blocks, Room 605 of the 44th Street hotel, for a year in 1930.

The original Roseland Ballroom, on the second floor of 1658 Broadway, was where New York heard Louis Armstrong for the first time, in 1924, during his yearlong stint with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

He started out nervous, nervous enough that his bandmate Howard Scott turned and told him, “Listen, just close your eyes and play what you feel in your body, in your heart, in your mind. Be yourself, that’s all.”

Later, Scott recounted that “they could hear him out in the street, and we were told that there were people passing by that stopped, listening to him.” By the next night, word had spread, and the place was so packed they had to turn people away.

Ellington and his band went to hear Armstrong whenever they were able. Despite the proliferation of African American bands, most downtown venues were otherwise all white. The Roseland made a small exception: black musicians were welcome to watch their peers play, if they stood in a specific area, out of the white patrons’ view. Ellington wrote of hearing Armstrong play, “The guys had never heard anything just like it…there weren’t the words coined for describing that kick.” Howard Scott said that during that year, if you ran into a trumpet player with a bandage on his lip, it was likely because he’d split it trying to squeeze out Armstrong’s high notes.

Run up and down the timeline, up and down that handful of blocks, and you’ll overlay George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny (who was dating Gracie’s roommate), Lenny Bruce and Toscanini, Jimmy Durante, Carmen Miranda, Maya Angelou, Charlie Chaplin, Spencer Tracy, Bert Lahr, Eugene O’ Neill, the Astaires, the Marx Brothers (“Room Service? Send up a larger room.”), Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Audrey Hepburn, Billy Wilder, Tallulah Bankhead, Bess Morris and Judy Selig, James Dean, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and H.L. Mencken and the whole Algonquin crowd, Thurber and Guthrie and Gershwin. You’ll overlay all the actors treading the boards of the Broadway theaters and the jazz musicians on their ballroom bandstands. Lucky Luciano will set up operations at the Claridge. Mobsters will shoot down gambler Herman Rosenthal on the sidewalk in front of the Metropole and escape in a gray Packard, the first known use of a getaway car, leading to a sensational trial and the execution of five men, as Fitzgerald described in Gatsby.

Expand outward in time and space. An infinite number of hotel rooms, holding an infinite number of hungry musicians and actors and writers. If we establish an infinite number of hotel rooms, perhaps we can also posit an infinite number of theaters and ballrooms, with an infinite number of guests, all aching for something about to begin. Enough to wake a city.

If a city wanted, it could dream a hotel into existence, and that hotel could dream a ballroom, and with that ballroom, a composer at a piano, as if she had always been, and with that composer a song, and with that song a band to play her work, and with that band, an audience. If a city wanted.

André Breton (Not A Hotel)

In 1924, the poet André Breton wrote in the first Surrealist manifesto that he believed “in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.”

The Hotel Ekphrastic

Among the many early twentieth century Manhattan hotels, the Ekphrastic stands out partly for its design, yes, Beaux-Arts grandeur mixed with classical elements, but also for the magnificent ballroom on the second floor. Partly, too, for the guests who called it home during the times when calling a hotel home was fashionable. Scott and Zelda stayed a single night there during their marriage’s first year. They were kicked out for riding a bellman’s cart through the plate glass front door.

The concert pianist Myra Hess stayed there in preparation for her American debut in 1922. She asked for a piano to be put in her rooms. The hotel purchased a Steinway Model L for her, the manufacturer’s brand new concert grand on a small scale. When Hess left, the piano was moved to the ballroom, since it was better than the one that had been in there.

Stage actress Judy Selig moved into the same suite two years later, along with her “companion,” Bess Morris, by then working on Broadway as a rehearsal pianist; the two had met living in the new Webster Apartments the year before, and then found themselves working on the same show. Selig’s star had risen quickly, but Morris had yet to sell any of her songs.

Morris discovered that the ballroom was left unlocked during the day, and began stealing hours there to compose. She loved that particular instrument so much she wrote to a college friend, “I will never be able to move out of this hotel, or if I do, I shall have to hide this piano among my bags. I’m writing a piece here that feels like everything I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Morris may have believed she was sneaking into the ballroom, but most contemporary accounts suggest she was a known presence. H.L. Mencken wrote, “One of the secret highlights of the Ekphrastic’s luncheon can only be discovered if one manages to get the table at the southeast corner of the dining room. There, an airshaft carries the exuberant melodies of a piano player in the shuttered ballroom above. Play on, mystery man. Make me forget the briny lobster.”

The Old Hotel Knickerbocker, Hanover House, The Hotel Knickerbocker

Enrico Caruso lived in the original Hotel Knickerbocker on West 42nd Street, in a fourteen-room apartment on the ninth floor. On the day of the false armistice in 1918, as the incorrect story spread, as church bells and sirens clamored, as an anti-aircraft gun on the Equitable Building’s roof fired blanks into the air, as stores and courts jammed with celebrants, Caruso stepped out on his corner balcony with an American flag and sang “The Star Spangled Banner” to the Times Square throngs.

Bess Morris was in the crowd that day, and wrote to a friend, “Picture that voice, from that balcony, cutting through the cheers. When we heard a little while later that the newspapers had been wrong, people started burning the papers. I got out of there quick, but I couldn’t shake that beautiful tenor and the way it settled over us like a benediction, and a melody came to me that was entirely separate from the one he sang.” Though it wasn’t published until after her death, the melody she referred to was her song “Joy Rains Down.”

Exactly one block north of the Knickerbocker, twenty-two years later, Woody Guthrie took a room in a fleabag residential hotel called Hanover House. Sick of hearing Kate Smith’s popular version of “God Bless America,” Guthrie lifted a Carter Family tune called “When the World’s on Fire” and turned it into his response, “This Land Is Your Land.”

Rewind the Knickerbocker again: after his first novel was published, Fitzgerald briefly took up residence there. On the day he left the hotel, he left the bathtub faucets running and flooded the room.

The Fitzgeralds moved into the Biltmore Hotel the same month, and were booted not long after. They relocated from there to the Commodore, where they reportedly once spent half an hour spinning the revolving door. Amidst all that they got married, and perhaps also splashed through the Pulitzer Fountain. The order doesn’t really matter. The when of it doesn’t matter to a waking city.

Tin Pan Alley, Seventh Street, Whitehall Hotel: I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.

Picture a New York summer day in 1916, windows open on West 28th to catch whatever breeze could be caught. Picture the song pluggers in the top-floor rooms, young George Gershwin among them, demonstrating other peoples’ songs on out-of-tune uprights to potential purchasers; as sweat rolled down their backs and their tunes joined others’ tunes in disharmony, a dozen pianos like clanging pans to passersby.

Bess Morris, walking under those Tin Pan Alley windows on her first day at work in the office of Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. music publishing company, took inspiration from those clashing, crashing chords to compose her first known piece, “Overhead, The City Sings.” She wrote it for four pianos, which immediately limited its utility as a performance piece. The song is all the more remarkable for the fact she was still living in a rooming house with no piano at the time. She wrote it in her head, and picked it out in stolen moments at work when the players had gone home, but she can’t possibly have ever heard all the parts together.

Gershwin was only fifteen when he got that job, high school dropout, youngest piano pounder in the street’s employ, making fifteen dollars a week. It had been less than four years since his mother had bought a piano, hoisted through the window to their second story apartment on 2nd Avenue. He’d been the Seventh Street rollerskating champion, a bit of a brawler, and on that first day he beat his older brother Ira to the keys.

In the twenties, the whole family moved to a five-story house on the Upper West Side: parents Rose and Morris, daughter Judy, sons Arthur, George, and Ira. When Ira married, he and his bride took over the fourth floor. The fifth floor was George’s, but he also rented space at the Whitehall Hotel, three blocks away, when the family home got too hectic even for him. I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.

After that, he took a penthouse overlooking the Hudson from Riverside Drive; Ira lived in the apartment next door. Friends and business partners came and went constantly. There were parties until the early morning, George at the piano, a Don Sebastian clamped between his teeth, highball on the sidebar.

Later still, George moved to the East Side, his last New York home, a fourteen-room apartment with the largest private bar in New York. Ira moved into the building across the street. The brothers had a direct telephone line installed between their apartments so they could write songs even across the enormous gulf of 72nd Street.

The Hotel Ekphrastic, the Hollywood Club, the Roseland Ballroom

Paul Whiteman dined at the Ekphrastic, as did Sam Lanin. Lanin’s orchestra, one of the best white dance bands in the city, played the opposite bandstand from the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra at the Roseland, alternating sets. Lanin’s band played waltzes and foxtrots, as Henderson’s was supposed to, though the latter couldn’t resist slipping in jazz, to the taxi dancers’ confusion and the consternation of management.

Jazz scholars are generally confused on how the Bess Morris song “For One Night Only” slipped into their repertoires. It’s unclear where any meeting might have taken place. Morris had shopped the song up and down Tin Pan Alley, with no interest from any of the publishing companies, even the one where she had worked a few years before. Did Lanin or Whiteman hear it through the Ekphrastic’s airshaft? Whiteman frequented the Hollywood Club to hear Ellington’s new band. Ellington admired Henderson’s skills as a bandleader, so he might have been at the Roseland to hear Henderson and Lanin.

However it was transmitted, every band in town seemed to pick the song up within a single night in 1924. Lanin’s version was sentimental, Whiteman’s precise, Ellington’s expansive, Henderson’s grand. The version recorded by the Wolverines was short and staid; by all accounts it lacked energy, and Bix Beiderbecke had not yet managed to make his cornet sing on wax the way it did in person.

His live solos didn’t have that problem. Fletcher Henderson wrote of Bix’s “For One Night Only” solo, “He sat behind the beat at the start, lulling you into calm. Then he threw in a phrase right on the beat, tipped into the high register, and you were on your knees without knowing how you’d gotten there.”

Edward Hopper painted his New York Pavements that year, his perspective tilted downward, in opposition to O’Keeffe’s, which always craned for sky. Though he didn’t paint New York Ballroom for another thirteen years, the seated dancer’s expression of sated exhaustion captures precisely what Morris was going for when she wrote the lines, “My feet are done / but my heart is still dancing.”

Further Studies in Overlap: The House of Genius

#61 Washington Square South at the turn of the century was a rooming house for artists, writers, and musicians. The third and fourth floor walls were decorated with murals and poetry by the residents, the landlady’s second floor apartment full of art by past residents, some who became famous and some who didn’t. At various times it hosted Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Alan Seeger, Frank Norris, Adelina Patti (who once rehearsed her entire opera company in the parlor), O. Henry, and Eugene O’ Neill, among others.

Further Studies in Overlap: The Barbizon Hotel

A women’s residence from 1928-1981, the Barbizon at various times housed Grace Kelly, Candace Bergen, Liza Minnelli, Phylicia Rashad, Eudora Welty, and Sylvia Plath, who wrote The Bell Jar there.

Further Studies in Overlap: The Hotel Elysee

The Elysee was built in the 20s and became “a swank version of a theatrical boardinghouse,” per Life Magazine, housing Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams (who died there), Sidney Poitier, Vladimir Horowitz, Harold Robbins, Helen Hayes, Joe DiMaggio, Vaclav Havel, Maria Callas, the Gish sisters, and Ava Gardner. Tallulah Bankhead lived at the Elysee for eighteen years, with a menagerie that included a mynah bird, a monkey, and a lion cub named Winston Churchill. After Truman defeated Dewey, she hosted a party there that lasted five days and five nights.

Further Studies in Overlap: The Hotel Chelsea

Let’s not even get started.

Assorted Quotes To Exemplify a Phenomenon

“I don’t see any boundaries between any of the art forms. I think they all interrelate completely. —David Bowie.

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” —Martha Graham

“The signature of the city changes shape and is fleshed out as more and more people commit to the street. A magical transfer of power from the architectural to the human.” —David Bowie.

Bowie and Iman purchased their first Manhattan home, an apartment at the Essex House Hotel, in 1992. He lived the rest of his life in the city, telling the Times he was a New Yorker and “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

“Would you mind calling up a little later after the light goes?”—Georgia O’Keeffe

“At night it looks as though [the Shelton] reached to the stars, and searchlights that cut across the sky back of it do appear to carry messages to other worlds.” —Henry McBride, visiting O’Keeffe’s apartment.

“What does it mean to be a person in this city, if not that you’re a part of the creation of something larger than yourself? That’s what I keep trying to put into song, but it keeps eluding me.” —Bess Morris, 1923

“…You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loud-speaker. You see your neighbor’s laundry. You hear the janitor’s dogs. The man upstairs’ aerial falls down and breaks your window. You smell coffee…One guy is cooking dried fish with rice and another guy’s got a great big turkey…You hear people praying, fighting, snoring… I tried to put all that in ‘Harlem Air Shaft.’”—Duke Ellington’s Notes on Harlem Air Shaft (1940), from the New Yorker, July 1, 1944

“New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.” —Dorothy Parker

The Hotel Ekphrastic

On this date in 1924, a crowd lined up beneath the Ekphrastic’s arched entrance, eager to get into the ballroom. The New Amsterdam’s stage was still known as the best ever built for dancing—the Astaires had said so—but the Ekphrastic had the better dance floor.

If you want, you can pick a different place where this happened. The New Amsterdam’s roof garden nightclub, say, where the Follies’ more risqué Midnight Frolic show took place, and where the ghost of Olive Thomas danced every night. Or the Belasco, with its state-of-the-art lighting and special effects and elevator stage, and a ghost of its own. The Roseland Ballroom, the sordid Hollywood Club. Take us uptown to the still-new Cotton Club, all rules relaxed, or Connie’s Inn or Minton’s Playhouse or the Lafayette. Hell, if you want to throw this party at Studio 54 or CBGB, that works too. Pick someplace glamorous or dangerous or both.

The band, that fucking band. Armstrong on trumpet and vocals, Beiderbecke on cornet, Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins on sax, Jelly Roll Morton and Eubie Blake fighting Gershwin for the piano, Duke Ellington leading the band. Moe Tucker glancing over her drums at Lou Reed every once in a while like she wasn’t entirely sure how they got there, but she’d ride it out. Billie Holliday and Ma Rainey and Paul Robeson and Debbie Harry trading off at the mic.

The band played all their own stuff, the songs they’d written and the ones they had yet to write. A dozen styles and sub-styles flamed into existence, stoked by the energy of possibility.

It doesn’t matter who arrived when. The fact was, the moment Bess Morris first played “For One Night Only” to her empty ballroom, the only night she ever really played it, the entire world shifted sideways and gave you a seat in the room, or—if you had the chops—a spot in the band. The numbers don’t approach infinity; shove over and there’s room for another person on the stage, and time enough for them to play.

Everybody was there that night. The Fitzgeralds arrived with Zelda sitting on the taxi’s roof and Scott ornamenting the hood. They invented a new dance, and convinced everyone to try it; the Astaires improved on it. Martha Graham did her own thing entirely. Ira sat on a barstool, watching. Eddie and Jo Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz, Charles Demuth and William Carlos Williams, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Bankhead and Brando, Williams and Capote.

Dorothy Parker and her vicious circle commandeered a prominent booth. Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly smuggled in their own stash of rye whiskey, even though nobody was paying at the bar. Countee Cullen, still an undergrad, swapped notes with Zora Neale Hurston, the sole black student at Barnard. All the Ramones leaned against the back wall, waiting for their set. Shirley Jackson and Stanley Hyman and Ralph Ellison hunched over drinks at a table in the back, each celebrating the release of their first books, none of which they’d write for a few years yet. David Bowie, the oldest person in the room, leaned on his elbows in the darkest corner, absorbed in the music and happy to be ignored. Leonard Cohen, simultaneously on the bandstand and whispering poetry into the ear of a woman in the corner, because he was just that smooth. Bess Morris bent closer to her piano, never looking up.

We don’t need to list everyone. They were all in the room. Whoever it is you think is missing, fill in the name and they’ll have been there. You were there too, even if you don’t remember it. The room was hot but not too hot, the music loud but not too loud.

What people remembered afterward, if they remembered, was the tempo, the pulse, the band’s white-hot urgency, the lights of the city at night, gold and green, blue and green, whirling bodies, the glint of a necklace catching light and sending it spinning. They wrote it, sang it, painted it, dreamed it, drank it, and invented it anew, talking across time for that one night only, before returning to their fleabags and luxury hotels and apartments to dream it off.

(Editors’ Note: “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” is read by Stephanie Malia Morris and Sarah Pinsker is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 21A.)


Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker is the Hugo and Nebula winning author of A Song For A New Day, We Are Satellites, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, and over fifty works of short fiction. Her new collection, Lost Places, will be published by Small Beer Press in spring 2023. She is also a singer/songwriter and toured nationally behind three albums on various independent labels. A fourth, Something to Hold, came out in 2021. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her wife and two weird dogs.

One Response to “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise”

  1. SidselPedersen

    I found it captivating and wanted to listen to all the music, especially the fictional numbers. I kind of want to do an annotated version with links to everything that is real in the story.

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