30 years… My oh my. Where has it gone? On July 16, 1986, – 30 years ago today – the 19 year old version of me, from nowhere-special North Carolina stepped off a Piedmont Airlines jet, with a duffel bag, a saxophone, $300 in my pocket and an acceptance letter to The New School Jazz and Contemporary Music program, and stepped right into an amazing adventure that continues to this day.
The decision to move to New York had been made a couple of years earlier, though I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. There’s a peculiar thing where youth and ignorance intersect – you really have no idea what you’re in for, and you’re young enough that you’re fearless. Or stupid. Or both. I had come to NY for the very first time only a couple of years before. I was a student then at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and had spent many an hour listening to stories of NY and its denizens, told to me by my very dear friend, mentor and teacher, Neill Clegg Jr., who had lived in NYC for several years prior to taking the teaching position at UNCG. Neill would constantly say to me, “If you want to find out if you have what it takes to do this for real, then NY is where you need to go.” A daunting idea for a small town kid struggling to find his place in the world…
Anyway, in the late fall or mid spring of 1984/85 or so, I find myself standing on the corner right by the old TKTS booth in Times Square. Scared completely, utterly shitless. Literally quaking in my shoes. Yet never feeling more alive or more certain that I belonged anywhere in the world more than I belonged there, in that moment. For me, that was revelatory! I knew in that moment what had been missing for the entirety of my life – I had never felt like I “belonged” when I was growing up. For reasons too intense to chronicle here, I never felt accepted or that I really belonged or fit in. I was definitely a displaced soul. But NY was it! I had finally found my home.
Now you have to remember, this is before the sanitation and Disney-flying of Times Square. There were crack addicts and prostitutes everywhere, trash all over the place, and every ten feet or so, there was a peep show, porn palace, or massage parlor. Man, NY had style back then… and character. In spades. It was NOTHING like the Banana Republic, J Crew, Applebee’s wanna-be it pretends to now. I sure miss those days… Anyway, I was this kid from a tiny town in the South. I had NEVER experienced anything like it and it was absolutely terrifying. But I have never felt so ALIVE as I did in those few days I spent in this city that I grew to love and have called home for all these years.
I went back home to NC with the certainty that I would live here. I had no idea how, no idea when, or even if I could possibly figure out a way to make it so, but I just knew this was where I truly belonged. I spent the next several months touring the southeast with a chitlin’-circuit, lounge band, doing one nighters up and down the east coast. One day I spotted an ad for the New School, looking for students for its new jazz program. I had found my method to get to the madness.
From the New School, I would go on to marry my then girlfriend, who turned into my now ex-wife, having two beautiful daughters along the way. I would also have opportunities that my younger self could have only dreamed of in retrospect. I finished my masters degree at Queens College (part of CUNY). I have stood on stage with some of the finest musicians the world has to offer; I started off playing in the subway for tips, then I got my first real gigs playing in Meringue and Latin bands; I’ve played a thousand (or two) clubdates (private events for the laymen among you), several Broadway shows, performed with a host of legendary artists, have written music for film and television as well as having a few recordings of my own, I have been to every state and have driven the entirety of the continental US, coast to coast, and have been blessed to tour all over the world thanks to a saxophone, a lot of hard work, even more luck, and the opportunities living in this amazing place has given me. All while having a dream that I wouldn’t let anyone or anything crush. Not bad for a hayseed from the middle-of-nowhere, no?
I have met some wonderful people in my years here. My closest friends have been forged in the insanity that is making a life and making a living in this city – two very distinct sides to a very complex coin. Most of them are of course musicians. But I also met a few truly exceptional souls while I taught technology for Apple. One of the darkest, yet one of the brightest periods of my life. Through my touring work and thanks to working on Broadway, I met my wife Lisa, who has joined me on this journey. We’ve been married for three fun, beautiful years. The adventure continues.
While life in NY is a challenge for sure, I have no regrets whatsoever for making this my home. I have experienced triumph and defeat, utter joy and heart wrenching despair, all the while finding my place in the scheme of things here. These 30 years have been a continual lesson in the art of resilience and the craft of self determination. New York will teach you those and so many other things. It is a place of great wonder and great challenge. But then again, nothing worth having ever comes cheaply or without great effort.
To this day, every time I fly back into NY from some far away place, drive across the GW Bridge, or get that one in a million view of the skyline glimpsed through the trees from the Jersey Turnpike or on the helix into the Lincoln Tunnel, my heart always catches in my throat and does a little skip. Every single damn time. It always dawns on me with some amazement that I have not only survived, but I have thrived here. I’ve earned it, yes, for sure. But NY rewards the brave, the intrepid and yeah, the ignorant farm boy from NC without a clue. Fortune favors the bold, indeed. I certainly wouldn’t be who I am without New York’s imprint on my soul. I am indeed home.
Thanks for reading my sentimental ramblings. Here’s to 30 more…