As I think back on it, I realize that it all started during the weekly jazz sessions at The Empty Hand, an out of the way coffee house in Greenwich Village whose proprietor, a heavy-set Dutchman with cobalt-blue eyes and a blond moustache, had bought after retiring from the dairy business in eastern Pennsylvania. His life-long passion for jazz had culminated with the acquisition of the club, which under his benevolent management had soon become a haven for unemployed musicians, starving actors and would-be writers. Besides the occasional bowl of soup, he freely dispensed words of encouragement to the ever-growing number of disheartened artists that ended up at his club with no place else to go.
Hans, that was his name, had the rare ability to make people see the bright side of even the most hopeless situation.
“Just common sense,” he would say softly while shrugging his shoulders–all the while puffing on his pipe–and dismissing the whole thing whenever anyone
brought it up, “Anyone could have said the same thing.”
Of course, it was not quite that simple, having the right words all the time. It showed an insight into human nature acquired over fifty years of hard living, a lot of traveling and being completely wiped out by a war. I think it embarrassed him whenever people tried to thank him; what he did was just as natural as breathing, so he always found it a little surprising. Ultimately, of course, he also benefited from the blanket of hospitality that he extended to the artists who crossed the threshold of The Empty Hand. Sooner or later, when they began to achieve some degree of recognition, they invariably returned to pay their respects to the man who had been, perhaps, the only one to urge them to stick it out. The walls of The Empty Hand were covered with their pictures, always with the highest words of praise inscribed at the bottom.
The first time I walked into the club and saw those pictures I was truly amazed at the number of well-known jazz musicians, now giants in the field, who had had their start there. As they returned to The Empty Hand they brought with them the crowds of followers, the word-of-mouth publicity that is so necessary for the success of any commercial enterprise.
Hans, like the locale itself, did not change with the ever-growing attention that he received from perfect strangers. His character had the Old-World solidity of a gothic cathedral, destined to outlive the current influx of worshippers.
The interior of the club, despite its popularity, was rather spartan in character: the walls were lined with a series of planks reminiscent of the weathered barns so common throughout the Mid-Atlantic states. On these walls hung, besides the pictures of the musicians, a veritable array of medieval swords, shields, spears, halberds and other weapons whose purpose and origin I could only guess. As one came into the club and down the two steps from the level of the street, the small stage, flanked by two full suits of armor, came into view. In fact, the stage dominated the entire floor. The bar was to the right, behind a black wrought-iron railing that separated it from the small tables and chairs placed around the stage.
Hanging from the ceiling, pointing away from the customers and toward the small stage, spotlights–like
fingers of an open hand–shone with different degrees of intensity, depending upon which performer they wanted to emphasize, during the nightly performances.
Closing time for The Empty Hand was three A.M. At least, that was the official closing time. After the last customers had left, Hans would lock the front door and turn off the outside lights. He would then go into the kitchen, humming a song probably learned during his childhood in Holland, to make himself a pot of tea and sometimes a cheese sandwich on rye bread if he had forgotten to eat dinner earlier that evening. Holding an imported cup with a light- blue windmill set against an antique-white background he would sit down with that day’s newspaper and the teapot.
About an hour later there would be a soft knock on the back door.
“Come; it’s open,” Hans would say without bothering to look up from the newspaper or the steaming cup of tea. One by one the musicians, now leaving their gigs at other clubs, would stroll in–instrument cases in hand–with the familiarity of someone who has just come home from a hard day’s work. They would help themselves to the tea, chat amiably for a while, laugh at a friend’s joke or simply sit at the kitchen table, across from Hans, to study a crumpled sheet of music they had taken out of a hard-to-reach pocket. They were home.
Eventually they would move over to the more spacious room of the club and over to the stage while Hans turned on the lights. The instruments would leave their leathery cases again that evening, but this time without the burden of a contract or the demands of the public. They were now playing just for themselves, so their improvisations became more spontaneous, their flights freer.
Hans was in heaven.
Every Friday night he had, assembled in his club, the most prominent group of musicians in the city; they were the future legends of jazz.
The soft, milky-white light coming through the giant skylight over the bar was the unofficial signal that the jam session for that night was over.
Some of the musicians, after returning their instruments to their cases, would leave right away. Others, in less of a hurry, or with nowhere in particular to go, would stick around for a hearty breakfast of pancakes and sausages, served with steaming cups of Colombian coffee that Hans took special delight in preparing at that hour of the morning. The coffee was, as he himself put it, “A key that opened the door to a new day.”
Everyone knew that it was truly an honor to be asked to join the impromptu after-hours jam sessions at The Empty Hand. But everyone also knew that it was a long and lonely road that led to the magic of the last hours of the night, when most of the world was oblivious to reality and sounds had a more diaphanous, ethereal quality to them, as if played by the hands of long-forgotten gods.