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I Started Playing My Sax Outdoors. Then the Fans Came.

It was Year 2 of the pandemic, in the spring, that I hit on the idea of having my high school saxophone refurbished. My 48-year-old horn came back from the repair shop in Midtown Manhattan a week later. I put it together in my Upper West Side apartment and … for the love of God, it was loud. A couple of days later, I saw my downstairs neighbor in the lobby, and he asked, “Is that a sax I hear?” He professed to be OK with my rudimentary jazz stylings, but I was uncomfortable.

My building is directly adjacent to Riverside Park. The day after that encounter, I walked 10 minutes down to the bank of the Hudson, found an arrangement of boulders where I could put my case and started to improvise to some 1960s soul jazz playing through my headphones. I was loud. Gloriously, triumphantly loud. Within minutes, bike riders and strolling couples stopped to listen. Some took photos. After that, I took my sax to the park almost every day. Over the next few weeks and on through this summer, paddleboarders, canoers and motorboats on the river hove to the shore to listen for a few minutes. When the traffic on the nearby West Side Highway ground to a halt, I got a round of applause. I had at least two cameos on Instagram.

I find it hard to practice inside now, even in my building, where the jazz pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn once lived. It’s inhibiting. I miss the expansiveness of playing outside. And I’ve found nature surprisingly attentive, despite the noise. Robins and sparrows — and only one word is possible here — flock to me as if I’m St. Francis of C Minor. Squirrels stand on their hind legs and fix me with hard stares, like miniature critics. My most cherished fan, though, was Zippy, a goose with whom I had a prior relationship. (My wife is known as the Goose Lady of Riverside Park, but that’s a subject for another essay.) One summer day, Zippy and his extended family were paddling south down the Hudson but then circled back and flew up to the riverbank next to me. Zippy sat there quietly for the next 45 minutes until I packed up to head home. There is nothing more satisfying than entertaining a goose you’re fond of.

But, of course, it’s the interactions with people that mean the most. Little kids in matching T-shirts on day-camp outings are delighted. They clap for the noisy man. The guy with the wild hair, eating a sandwich on a nearby bench, loved it too. “Do you know Hall and Oates?” he asked. “You should learn ‘Maneater.’ You could make a lot of dough playing that. Hey, if you need some grub, that church on 99th is pretty good.” I wasn’t sure if I looked like I could use a square meal or just sounded like it.

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