My earliest childhood memories are musical, like playing worn-out John Coltrane records with my mother and Alan on a delicate wooden turntable;
listening to Alan practice his saxophone for several hours each day, ingraining in my head melodies that would later become songs of his; and banging on pots and pans incessantly until Alan bought me a beat-up but real orange-and-silver-splotched Ludwig drum set when I was 2 1/2 years old.
In 1973, Gene Ashton, my godfather — a pianist and multi-instrumentalist who still performs as Cooper-Moore — found a rundown four-story building at 501 Canal St., far west of the abundant junk stores and discount electronics shops.
He persuaded some fellow Berklee College of Music colleagues to move from Boston to New York City. Alan lived on the second floor with one roommate, David S. Ware, the acclaimed saxophonist who went on to play with pianist Cecil Taylor and make many celebrated records of his own.
In 1974, 501 Canal’s storefront became a performance space known for its Friday night concerts. While the venue didn’t have a name, it became a seminal part of New York’s downtown loft jazz scene.
The Village Voice ran a piece titled “Taking Chances at 501 Canal” in its June 13, 1974, issue.
The Voice jazz columnist Gary Giddins, an ardent supporter of the scene, wrote: “The fact is, these are the musicians who are taking the chances today and their gifts and commitment ought to be attended.”
“We had about 30 of these really cheap chairs that buckled if anyone overweight sat on them,” my uncle recalled, laughing at the ragtag operation. “It was really casual — people sat on the floor, too. I think we charged $3 to get in.”
Little Italy, Chinatown and Greenwich Village were a 15-minute walk away, but they felt like different cities entirely. SoHo wasn’t far, but was still in its artistic infancy. Three blocks west, the Hudson River separated New York from New Jersey and signified the edge of the earth.
My mother and I never lived at 501 Canal. We moved around: Amherst, Massachusetts, or Boston or Greenwich Village. But I spent at least a few months of each of my first 10 years there. Alan and I often played music together in the performance space, which was made to feel small by thick curtains that covered its glass door and windows. A psychedelic purple, green and black cloth print obscured wood paneling and served as the backdrop to a small, 6-inch-high stage. Recordings of us from those days reveal a bossy-but-not-rhythmless child drummer and an unbelievably patient saxophonist who considered our sessions part of his several-hours-per-day practice regimen.
The total rent for 501 Canal was $550 per month, which allowed its four occupants to work very little and focus on playing music. But life in the building shouldn’t be romanticized. It wasn’t a high-ceilinged fortress or an industrial-chic, metal-and-cement compound. 501 Canal was an off-the-grid, dilapidated, prickly splinter of a building that should have been condemned years before these musicians discovered it.
Opening the door was like entering a haunted house. Even at night, it took time to adjust to the extreme darkness of the space, which was lit by a single fatigued, yellowing bulb that hung high above the stairs. A pay phone stood immediately inside the door, tucked into a wooden alcove. Sometimes it rang and rang, but nobody answered. Outgoing calls were somehow free — every dime that went in came back out like a slot machine spitting out a tiny jackpot.
The air felt cold and smelled of dust, as if the building had been unoccupied for 20 years, which it had. A steep wooden staircase visibly slouched to the left, almost floating, barely attached to the wall that somehow supported it. Every step whined and complained under human feet. Even as a child, I had contemplated if I would have been better off running up or down when the stairs finally collapsed under me. As I grew older, I became more conscious of the building’s eccentricities and the fact that nobody else I knew lived in conditions like these. Though my mother and I were on welfare, our rent-subsidized apartment in Amherst felt luxurious compared to Uncle Alan’s.
Con Edison neglected to send a bill to 501 Canal, so the tenants, aware that their services were free, feared any attention from the utility company, but also had no recourse against the building’s many issues, the biggest of which was that there was no heat.
During the winter, Alan sealed his windows with large sheets of foggy plastic that puffed inward like dirty balloons. On the coldest nights, liquids froze solid if we forgot to put them in the fridge, which was warmer than any room.
During the summer, Canal Street smelled of pungent, sweating garbage. I sometimes sat in the open window — there was no air-conditioner — as a fan blew hot air past me. Herds of cars sat at a dead stop, trying to enter the Holland Tunnel. Why do so many people need to drive to Holland? I sometimes wondered. Only later did I learn that the two-lane tunnel under the Hudson River led commuters home to New Jersey. Drivers slammed on their horns and banged on steering wheels. The visible heat waves and gray puffs of smoke slowly lifting toward me from the street were sometimes so thick that they rendered taxi markings illegible.
New York in the ‘70s was a dangerous, desperate city on the brink of bankruptcy. Even in nice neighborhoods, there were specific blocks to avoid because of muggers, drug dealers and gangs. But as dingy and desolate as it was, the area around 501 Canal never felt unsafe. It was a quiet, underdeveloped zone of the city that went unnoticed until it boomed two decades later under its new name, Tribeca. Many of the buildings had been printing houses that lay dormant awaiting their eventual renovations into luxury lofts. Until then, artists and musicians continued to occupy the neighborhood in search of the same inexpensive, creative solitude offered at 501 Canal.
Other than a gas station across the street, the only nearby business was the Ear Inn, a dimly lit tinderbox of a bar that recently celebrated its 200th birthday.
So 501 Canal existed in quiet isolation in the midst of one of the biggest, most vital cities in the world. This was, and will always be, my New York. And in fall 1974, this is where Alan Braufman recorded his debut album, “Valley of Search,” a free jazz offering that embodies the city during this time.
Although the music was rather complex, the recording itself was fairly simple. Bob Cummins, who owned the India Navigation record label, brought his gear down to 501 Canal and recorded the band. “It was just Bob and the five of us in the room,” Alan recalled. “We just played it.”
I wasn’t present for the recording, nor did I understand what it meant to document the music I heard every day. But I was often able to participate. There’s even a track in my honor, “Little Nabil’s March.” It’s a song that Alan and I played together regularly. Four decades later, my participation resumed this year, when I helped Alan reissue his album.
Listening to the music now brings me back to an exciting, often intimidating city overflowing with creative energy. But while the feelings I associate with “Valley of Search” are uniquely New York, the sounds are distinctly 501 Canal: At once dissonant and beautiful, spare yet cacophonous, the recording inhales and exhales the chaos of a gigantic populace.
After “Valley of Search,” Alan went on to release two more albums as Alan Michael and tour the world, playing saxophone with a very diverse group of musicians, including composer and pianist Carla Bley and the Psychedelic Furs, a post-punk English band. But 501 Canal’s future was short-lived. In 1983, after 10 years, Alan, the last of the original residents, left the building. It was torn down in the 1990s, and the lot remained vacant until recently. These days, 501 Canal St. has heat, air-conditioning and a nicely lit lobby — because it’s now part of a luxury hotel.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Nabil Ayers © 2018 The New York Times