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Five Years Beyond: Musicians Reflect on 9/11

Jazz musicians remember the tragic day

Sonny Rollins (photo by John Abbott)
Vijay Iyer
Nestor Torres
Nestor Torres
Fred Hersch

Disasters can be wake-up calls on multiple levels, including the cultural. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, attention has been focused on the musical and cultural legacies of New Orleans, in the form of tributes, special projects, crescent city music featured at festivals and other public forums. There was also a strong musical aspect, if less pronounced or explored, to the day known universally as 9/11, the tragedy that destroyed the World Trade Center and steered America-and the world-on a new course five years ago this month.

A few truths come into play. New York City is the generally acknowledged center of the jazz universe. It is a mecca for this musical genre, more than for any other. A “local” event of 9/11’s magnitude inevitably had an impact on jazz, even if not with the direct circumstances of the lost houses, livelihoods and infrastructure in New Orleans.

Everyone, in the jazz community or in humanity at large, has a 9/11 story, whatever their proximity to Ground Zero. We’re all living with the long-range ripple effects and trying to process ineffable factors connected to the attacks. Jazz musicians, attuned to the idea of tapping into the zeitgeist of historical and political atmospheres, have channeled their feelings into music-and sometimes without really trying.

Sonny Rollins was several blocks away and was among the stunned throngs near the scene when the towers fell. Bob Belden was in a limo, passing perilously close by on his way to a session in Brooklyn, and was a witness with a digicam in hand. Rollins and Belden are among many who have dealt with the experience on recording projects. Other New Yorkers were out of town (“out of town” meaning anywhere but NYC) and watched from afar in awe and horror, wondering about the state of their hometown.

A Californian, I happened to be in NYC then, in the relative comfort of midtown Manhattan, but with indelible memories of being in the city on that blue-skied and pristine and surreally awful day. A vaguely sulfuric smell wafted over the island and the ominous dark cloud at the bottom of the city served as a reminder that nothing at all was right there, except the heroic efforts of police and fire departments and the air of compassionate solidarity on the streets. I remember standing, zombie-like, in Columbus Circle, as the sun went down on the day of infamy. There would be no music that night.

Our memories of that day remain crisp and dogged. What remains more ambiguous is the matter of wringing any meaning or lessons from that anarchic moment in history. We asked several jazz musicians, with different perspectives, about their take on the day and its long-range shadows, five years post-9/11.

Sonny Rollins

Rollins maintained an apartment in NYC, six blocks from the WTC, for nearly 30 years, in addition to his house in upstate New York. Rollins was in his apartment the morning of 9/11. Later that week, his group performed a concert at Berklee in Boston, and a live recording was released last year -Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert.

I was there in my apartment up on the 40th floor and I heard this plane flying low. I was thinking, `Gee, this plane is flying sort of low.’ The next thing I heard was ‘Pow!’ I soon found out what had happened. I went downstairs and saw the tower on fire. The other tower came down first, and a lot of people-myself included-panicked and started running up the street.

My building was not structurally damaged. However, there was a lot of toxic dust and this kind of thing, in the air conditioning ducts and things like that. We were evacuated the next day and I came upstate, where we had a house. But the other people in the building who didn’t have a secondary home, those are my neighbors, and I felt very guilty about it. I was there the next day and I stupidly tried to practice my horn for a while, until my stomach felt funny. I stopped and later on, I thought, `Gee, what was I doing, gulping in all of that toxic contamination?’ It didn’t occur to me at the time it was happening.

Finally, I gave it up. I gave up a lot of stuff. I had been living there for probably 30 years. I had accumulated a lot of records and music and I had a lot of clothes there, I had my piano there. I had musical instruments there. I had books there. I would say that 98 percent of the stuff I had there I had to get rid of. I thought about trying to get things, but I always felt they were contaminated.

This concert in Boston had been recorded. I hadn’t really heard it, but I knew that it was a significant event and that one day I would probably listen to it or do something with it. I went back and revisited the concert. 9/11 was heavily in the air at the time. Listening to the music, there was an added dimension to that concert due to what had happened. It’s always hard to codify it, but there was something extra there.

I later was thinking back on 9/11 itself, since I was right there, and then on the concert and thinking how everybody was in a different place at that time. I was concerned that I was right in the middle of it, and am grateful to have survived it, and was trying to contemplate lessons about it and everything else. The remarkable thing to me was that, after 9/11, there was a discernible good-naturedness about people. They were respectful to each other and there was a certain gentility that was pronounced. It was like we were all on a plan of working together. I wasn’t imagining this. It was really there. Unfortunately, that feeling faded. So I don’t know if there are any lasting lessons from 9/11. The shitty state of humanity returned.

I’ve come to understand that it’s just like yin and yang. This world is made up of two elements. Where there are peaceful people, there are going to be warlike people. This is just the stage of humanity at this point in time, and so far as we can look back, in this age of human beings. The way I’ve rationalized it all for myself is that it’s about Sonny Rollins being the best person I can be, and for me to deal with all of the shortcomings and the inconsistencies in my own life and personality and work on those. I try to make that better, because that’s the only way you can really affect the macrocosm. I don’t think you can do it any other way.

That’s sort of what I’ve taken out of my whole life experience, actually, capped off by 9/11. That, if anything, just illuminated a lot of things in my own life.

Bob Belden

That morning I was in a limo on my way to produce Jim Snidero’s Strings date. Since the studio was in Brooklyn, the driver suggested we take the West Side Highway downtown and go through the Battery Tunnel. As we pulled onto the highway at around 8:40 a.m. the driver noticed smoke coming from the top of the WTC. As we got closer I pulled out my video camera and started to film what we thought was a restaurant fire. But as I zoomed in with my camera I saw a huge slice etched into the side of the North Tower, smoke billowing out. The smoke got more intense and the fire alarms were heard throughout the city. As fire trucks passed us-many heading toward death-we were clueless as to what had caused the fire.

Suddenly, halfway between the West Side highway and Duane Street, there was a series of loud sounds, explosions followed by a concussion in rapid succession, each one intensifying until the last concussion lifted our two-ton limo three feet off the ground. My driver freaked out. Looking up at the building, I saw a flaming chunk of metal heading right toward our car. It was the smoldering cockpit remnants. Within minutes, the smell in the air was that of poison. People were screaming as pieces of the plane hit cars and bystanders. Bodies were flung from the tower and were landing on the plaza. We got to Brooklyn, but the session was cancelled. We walked 15 miles to the Brooklyn Bridge, where thousands were streaming across from Manhattan. Strangely, there was subway service leading to the city-the ‘A’ train. I got home to my girlfriend, and we just sat, staring into the TV watching the day’s events be recounted over and over.

I can only put my feeling into music and art and thus was able to create a video. I call it “Animetropolis,” which is the music of our band Animation, using the backdrop of Manhattan as a visual matte. I’ve incorporated much of the footage I shot into a viable form of visual and musical expression, which explains from a New Yorker’s perspective what kind of city we live in now, a “docu-collage” of sorts.

Vijay Iyer

My wife and I watched incredulously as the towers fell and laid waste to the area we knew so well, and as debris, rumors, missing posters and fumes slowly blanketed the island. I didn’t feel a desire for revenge. Such warmongering sentiments were actually very rare in New York in the aftermath-except out of the mouths of people like Joan Rivers, who spewed horribly racist and intolerant bile on her radio show at the time. For the most part, New Yorkers displayed a now-legendary sense of camaraderie and compassion. But I knew that this would not be the prevailing view across the nation.

Greg Tate said to me, “welcome to racial profiling,” in response to our community’s many interesting airport experiences of the time. Some of my brown-skinned colleagues took to carrying their American passports every time they left the house, just in case. And, of course, our many immigrant cab drivers defensively festooned their cars with American flags. These were just symptoms of a larger truth, which is that the frontiers of American identity were in question, more than at any other time in recent years that I can recall. Those of us who exist on the conceptual border of American identity-immigrants and their progeny, people of color, people of Muslim faith-perhaps felt these ripples more than anyone else.

The influence is in nearly everything I’ve done. The music on Blood Sutra was composed and created in early 2002, in the aftermath of those events. It tried to process that thicket of emotions that we all, as New Yorkers, were dealing with-you could regard it as an emotional portrait of post-9/11 New York. It also had a thematic thread, which was a contemplation of the multivalent notion of “blood,” how it can suggest this chain of associations: desire, love, family, kinship, race, ethnicity, nation, violence. That seemed to encapsulate the contradictions filling our lives around that time. Then there was my large collaboration with poet-performer Mike Ladd, titled In What Language? The genesis of the project was pre-9/11, as we contemplated this one instance of intolerance that befell the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi in the spring of 2001.

People have processed the initial trauma enough that you see depictions of the events themselves, or of these themes, now appearing in the arts world, as in John Updike’s new book, or the movie United 93. The best piece I saw was a Martin Amis short story in the New Yorker, imagining the last days of Mohammed Atta’s life. It wasn’t at all trying to validate what he did, but simply to put a human face on him, as wretched as he was. My point is that now we are finally in a moment where offerings like these are not met with howls of protest-and it took us a while to get to that place.

As for the music world, I see a general business-as-usual frivolity. I’m not struck by any profound moral shift in the entertainment industry-in jazz or any other area. I’m not saying this to condemn everyone, simply as an observation. We do have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert capturing the world’s attention and accomplishing occasionally astonishing things, but how soon will that translate into actual change for actual people? That’s the question we should be asking ourselves.

Nestor Torres

Flutist Torres was in Los Angeles on 9/11, awaiting that evening’s Latin Grammy Awards ceremony, where he was a nominee. That morning, he learned of the events, in which three of his friends had perished. Last year, he released the 9/11-related album Dances, Prayers & Meditations for Peace, which grew out of improvisations in NYC houses of worship in the tragedy’s aftermath.

I ended up receiving the Latin Grammy a month after or so, but the award and everything that that entailed was cloaked around this day. This accolade had been the center of my attention, but it became absolutely irrelevant in the face of the absolute horror of that day. It was a reminder that people are capable of such atrocities. I began to wonder, “How can I make a contribution to keep that from happening?” That question nagged at me, and led me to take certain kinds of actions. Five years later, it’s reflected on my album Dances, Prayers & Meditations for Peace.

The best action I could take at that moment, which came from a total visceral reaction, came from the impulse of “Let me go to New York. I must go and connect and somehow be present and see if I can somehow be a conduit for whatever energy was going on there, though music.” We went to St. Peter’s Church near Ground Zero. We went to a small synagogue in the West Village. We went to the New York City Community Church, an inter-denominational church on Park Avenue. We also went to the SGI Buddhist Center in New York, the sect of Buddhism I practice. I wanted to go to a mosque, but to play or make music [in the temple] is not permitted in Islam. We brought along with us portable recording equipment and got an engineer. I would just start playing, partly inspired by Paul Horn’s performances live at the Taj Mahal and other projects. I had already been experimenting with composing through improvisations. Whatever melodies came from those, I would transcribe, edit and turn them into compositions.

Five years after 9/11, we better be aware and we better take a stand. Personally, at this point in my life, it’s important for me to use my music and work for the sake of the people. If I don’t do that, it makes it irrelevant, particularly against the backdrop of 9/11, which practically tells us that at any given moment, anything can happen. What are we doing right here, right now? Entertaining illusions of John Wayne or thinking everything will be OK if we just close our eyes? How many young people must be killed or maimed or totally destroyed, and for the sake of what?

My charge is to make music that also will touch peoples’ lives in a way that gets them to rekindle their connection with their own humanity and their own limitless potentiality. Little by little, there shall be a shift. I believe that myself, and that’s not so naïve, because there’s nothing more powerful than the human spirit and the human condition.

Joanne Brackeen

Pianist Brackeen’s apartment is about two blocks from Ground Zero. On that day, she was in Boston, teaching at Berklee.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t here. I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to the big booms and people screaming and running. What I found out from people who were here was that a huge black cloud came and you couldn’t see anything. That would have taken me out.

I have a house out at the beach, and that’s where I stayed. This apartment was not livable for at least seven months, because the air quality was horrible. I had a performance not even one week later, in Boston. I was lucky I had that concert, because I couldn’t get money out of my bank, and that money carried me through until I could get back (to NYC). The music, we just kept playing. Nobody seemed to feel that we shouldn’t play. I don’t recall anyone feeling, “Oh, I don’t want to play now that that happened.” No, it was the opposite, if anything.

What happened here was horrible, but it was the first time it happened in this country. It isn’t like that is something that hasn’t happened before, that we didn’t hear about and know about and see, if we were musicians traveling the world. I went to Cuba and they promised to blow up the boat that we were on. I went to Tel Aviv in 2001, where bombings were happening all over. In Tel Aviv, they were making fun, saying that the U.S. was as dangerous as their country, but obviously it’s not.

I think our music, as a whole, incorporates a lot of those feelings, regardless of the country that we’re in. It just made me feel less safe, and I was used to feeling safer here. I live differently. I carry a passport and prepare for whatever might happen, not because of being afraid but just not being stupid.

Fred Hersch

I have lived on Broadway in Soho, NYC, for 27 years, about one mile from the World Trade Center, but on September 11th, I was in residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada. I woke up and went down for breakfast about 9 a.m. and another resident said that the World Trade Center had been destroyed. I saw the footage of the attacks and was in complete shock and disbelief.

I was grounded out there for a week. The day after 9/11, the residents and staff put together an impromptu and very heartfelt ceremony in the garden as a memorial to those who died, and to pray for peace in the world. It felt odd being in a bucolic setting, surrounded by elks and bunnies, when my home was under attack, but I was helpless. I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved to have missed it or that I wanted to have been there.

When I returned one week after the attack, it was surreal. No cars, a terrible smell everywhere and everything felt “off.” I took the subway and everyone on the train was subdued yet oddly friendly. Union Square was where everyone, at first, was cut off from going further downtown toward the WTC. There were piles of flowers everywhere, and hundreds of missing-person flyers. It was truly sad, and it connected me directly with the real individuals who had died or were searching for loved ones, in a way I had not seen in looking at it all on television.

I went to the market and passed by the firehouse at Lafayette and Spring. You couldn’t even see the entrance for all the flowers. It hit me that it was the closest firehouse to the Trade Center and that they had lost more than half of their men. I just stood there and cried as it was all brought home to me.

Matthew Shipp

I was in the shower and my wife was watching the news when the first plane hit and she called me out of shower. I had just got off tour two days before and, in fact, on the morning before, I met up with a friend in front of the WTC. As soon as it happened I knew immediately that it would change how a lot of Americans see the world or how they perceive they have to act on the world stage. With the type of cold-blooded capitalism that is practiced in western uncivilization, terrorism is an inescapable consequence. This country cannot be involved in wholesale corporate imperialism like it is and not expect some type of blowback.

In the area I explore in music, I am trying to discover a realm away from all the craziness, whether it’s the insanity of terrorists crashing planes into buildings or if it is the insanity of the terrorist in the White House starting a phony war against a country that never attacked us. All I see is chaos and insanity out here, and my music is an attempt to rest my mind and spirit somewhere else so it is not impacted by the terrorist brotherhood of the bin Ladens and Bushes of the world.

Katrina hit home more to me, despite the fact that I live in NYC, because everyone could see with their naked eyes on TV how underprivileged blacks do not count in this society.

Paquito D’Rivera

I was in Miami and I was doing an early morning TV show in Miami called Despierta America, with a very fine Venezuelan pianist called Silvano Monasterios. Going into a commercial break, this horrible image of a fire on the upper floors of the World Trade Center pop up on the monitors. “Here we go again”–I commented–“another one of those stupid movies that puts ideas on the troubled heads of certain lunatics.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a movie, but the sad reality that was happening in that very moment in New York City. A few minutes later, totally horrified, we watched the second plane hitting the tower. The 9/11 tragedy marked a sharp turn in America and left an indelible scar here, as well as all around the entire planet. It is a very clear division between before and after 9/11, culturally, spiritually and in every single aspect of our lives.

That same week, I had a gig in Mexico City as a guest artist with the Arturo O’Farrill’s big band, on a tribute to his illustrious father “Chico,” who lived in that city for an extended period of time. Everyone was terrified of flying, and the first thing I find on the streets of the Mexican capital is a huge anti-American demonstration “celebrating” our tragedy. I bet that later on, many of them took part in the May 1, 2006, parade for the legalization of the illegal immigrants on this “wrong side” of the river. That’s life, you know.

The dimensions of the tragedy hit me so hard that all I had on my mind was grieving, confusion and rage, not melodies. But around those sad days, at one of our musical gatherings at home, we premiered a beautiful piece written by the Italian violinist Michele Ramo, dedicated to the victims of the barbaric attack. Michele is a thankful immigrant, and his noble gesture made me feel that I wasn’t alone in my immense love for this marvelous country and its jazz community, that welcomed so many of us with open arms.

In our musical community, I see a very pronounced, fashionable and snobbish tendency to put down everything that is American, overlooking the many positive qualities of our society. Everyone knows that this system is not perfect, and we are all aware of the many mistakes committed by the different American administrations of all times.

I personally have seen so many of my colleagues running like crazy behind immigration lawyers, marrying American citizens or doing anything to stay in the U.S. territory; and as soon as they got their papers in order, they become the best vehicles to propagandize the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, or even justify or celebrate the actions of Islamic terrorism. I don’t understand living in a place that you hate so much, being free to establish themselves someplace else; Cuba, for example!

D.D. Jackson

I was living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, at the time. The irony is that one of the reasons I originally moved to that neighborhood is for the vantage point nearby Fort Greene Park afforded me of the World Trade Center. It was actually there, in fact, at the top of some grand stairs, that I first peered out over the lower Manhattan skyline and wrote the music that became the basis for my CD Suite for New York, as a meditation on the events of 9/11 and also a celebration of this great city.

On the day of the tragedy, I remember being called by my father, who told me about the planes crashing into the buildings. The next day, I went into a seemingly deserted city with a friend of mine to survey the damage. Red Cross sites were set up to give blood, but the sad tragedy was that no more blood was needed, as presumably people either got out alive or perished. It was an experience that will forever be burned in my memory.

My artistic response was to release Suite for New York (2003), which served as a sort of catharsis. I remember, for example, being particularly moved by the temporary “Towers of Light” memorial, such that I ended up writing the piece that concludes my Suite. The CD also features additional “Invocations,” each played by different members of the ensemble, which serve as each person’s personal commentary on the events of that day.

It’s hard to fully put things into perspective, since the tragedy has became so much a part of our shared history as a nation and as a city. There were, I remember, initially talks of this being the “end of irony” on television; that a more serious, somber age would prevail. But despite there generally being perhaps a greater paranoia lingering under the surface toward possible future similar threats on American soil, for the most part I would have to say that Americans are a resilient bunch, and so the nation appears to be plowing ahead. Originally Published