Crime Jazz Themes for Running from the Law
[based on true events – details have been altered to protect the innocent]
It’s six in the morning, New Year’s Day, still dark, as the man in the long black coat looks across the park and sets a vector. He moves briskly, purposefully, but not quite in a straight line. Having walked this far after the previous night’s festivities finally broke up, the long way around the perimeter is not an option, even though the grounds are still legally closed til sunrise.
He never would have done this as a child. Even now, in this supposedly safe, yuppified, whitewashed city, if there’s one place to get mugged after a New Year’s Eve party, this is it. The man makes a fast, deliberate if less than steady path through grass and stands of maple. If there’s anyone else in the park at this hour, they aren’t making their presence known.
Right where the trees end and the lawn begins, about a hundred feet from the exit, the man sees the police in the 4X4 almost at the second that they see him. If he had been sober, he would have maintained a steady pace. But he flinches, and as he recovers from that split-second hesitation, the lights atop the 4X4 begin to flash and it slowly begins to advance. Without looking back, the man breaks into a sprint as the light ricochets off the remaining trees and the wall just past the park. There most likely won’t be any trains at this hour, but it he can make it out and down into the adjacent subway station, at the very least he can elude capture.
With a leap, he makes it over a low wire fence and keeps going. In the predawn silence, the muted engine and crackle of tires over soft, rocky ground are audible. When he reaches a second fence, barely twenty feet from the street, he’s watching the refraction of the lights closing in behind him. Weighed down just enough from the four-pack of Polish beer in his backpack – something he won’t discover until later – his foot catches the top of the fence and he goes down, twisting his knee as he lands, awkwardly.
The impact keeps him going, skidding across the grass. Scrambling to his feet, pushing himself upright with his hands and his other knee, he accelerates just as the jeep does, slows for a second, wincing and then resuming his pace as the subway stairs beckon. He descends rapidly, watching his feet this time, just as the cop car and its two occupants reach the exit and then pull to a stop.
Down in the subway, the token booth is closed. The man hesitates for a second, then reaches in his pocket for his subway card, quickly swipes it and pushes through the turnstile, wincing again. Briskly, but with a noticeable limp, he moves down the platform and pulls in close behind a pillar near the other exit. In a worst-case scenario, he can leave the station almost as fast as he came in. He wraps his coat tightly around his legs and leans against the pillar, motionless.
Upstairs, the officer behind the wheel of the 4X4 glances out, then gives a quizzical look to his partner in the adjacent seat. The other officer shrugs, takes a deep breath. “Nah,” he laughs. The driver smiles, pushes the gearshift up into reverse, and backs the car slowly into the park. The man in the long black coat isn’t the only person in the area who’s been partying.
About fourteen hours later, the man in the long black coat walks gingerly down Ninth Street as the sidewalk slopes south from Seventh Avenue. Cautiously, he uses his good knee to make the pivot as he reaches Barbes, pushes the door open and then slowly moves through the crowd, past the front bar.
The tall blonde bartendress in the back room greets him with a smile. She brings him a seltzer. They assess each others’ consumption the previous evening. Him: three bottles of wine, then beer when the wine ran out. Her: a whole bottle of vodka. They gaze at each other in muted appreciation, a mutual sense of pride in being back on their feet, more or less, so soon. “I’m not drinking tonight, either,” she confides.
It’s a Friday night, and for a New Year’s Day, the crowd is lively and all the seats are filled. In the front of the room, Big Lazy – guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion – make their final adjustments. The man in the long black coat slumps back against the room’s rear window ledge. A striking, statuesque brunette turns toward the back of the room; they see each other and embrace, his head against the waves of hair on her lustrous porcelain skin. She’s taller than he is. “What’d you do to yourself?”she asks,
“Running from the cops,” he says dryly, shifting his weight to the healthy knee. “Don’t worry, I didn’t hurt anybody.”
The brunette rolls her eyes. A man walks into the room and extends a glass of Maker’s Mark, neat. The man in the long black coat eyes it warily, then takes the glass, a tentative sip and then a slug. He leans back against the ledge, more relaxed now. This could be another long night.
Big Lazy begin their set building lingering, creepy chromatics around a spare blues riff. The man in the long black coat whispers something in the brunette’s ear. She cups her hand to his and whispers back, her dark eyes sparkling. She’s one of the world’s great blues players, and it resonates with her, as it does with the man in the long black coat – who is not, although he has some experience in that department.
The band makes echoey, uneasy, slowly swaying surf rock out of a bossa tune.They strut with an especially tongue-in-cheek energy through a big-sky theme that may or may not relate to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Lion is hitting harder than usual in this room; Hall, for his part, is dancing and slinking, then plays deep-space bowed lines against Ulrich’s switchblade staccato on an Astor Piazzolla song. Later they do a murky take on the early Beatles, with a nod to the Ventures.
Ulrich has his reverb turned way up, as usual. As a rule, he doesn’t play a lot of notes, and this set is especially terse. He tells some funny stories: the night’s most breathless sprint turns out to be an imaginary soundtrack for a 1920s surrealist short film; the creepiest number, Skinless Boneless, was inspired by the message board outside a 1990s Bronx Burger King.
One of the last numbers they play is a surprisingly lighthearted 60s go-go theme: Ulrich tells the crowd that it’s a new one titled Sizzle and Pops, named after an imaginary husband-and-wife bar and grill. It’s a funny way to end a night of crime jazz themes after a run from the law.
Big Lazy return to Barbes at 10 PM on Friday, February 5. You never know who will be there. If you see a NYPD 4X4, don’t flinch and just keep walking.