Jazz Spangled Banner
December 6, 2001
Washington, DC. is one of my favorite cities. Walking through it
you feel like someone dropped a circus freak show right into the
middle of a conference of business executives. Lots of suits. Lots
of street performers, some intentional, others just crazy. Either
way there is a great deal of entertainment. I listened to a guy
who could create a deep whistling sound by blowing into his cupped
hands playing a medley of 1970s era TV theme songs. I looked
around for the telltale change bucket or basket set out in front
of him on the sidewalk. He didnt have one. This is what he
does to pass time.
There are a frightful number of women between the ages of 25-45
who wear power suits with noticeably short skirts. They are all
tan and beautiful and have long, big hair. The hair toss is an Olympic
sport here. They look like flight attendants playing dress up.
Not that theres anything wrong with that.
Serious men wearing serious suits with serious ties and serious
briefcases display serious monograms on their shirt cuffs and breast
pockets. They look seriously pale and desperately unhealthy but
such are the halls of power.
Older, well-coiffed men walk elegantly down hallways and sidewalks,
cufflinks and tie clips flashing in the sunlight while sweaty, wrinkled,
and slightly haggard younger assistants scurry along side practicing
the fine art of bag carrying.
And even the homeless have cell phones.
In our nations capitol you go places in a hurry. Everyone
pounds up and down the sidewalks, through crosswalks, weaves in
and out of traffic, with the funny stiff-gaited, hip-popping gate
of the athletes who compete for medals in walking. Here in DC they
manage to do this in dress shoes and high heels. Talk about your
I strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue past the massive concrete barricades
that block off street traffic, past the cops stationed about every
100 feet, and went on down to the White House. Tourists were repeatedly
bowled over by policy wonks screaming down the sidewalks.
Across the street from the White House, the freaks are out in force.
Conception has been maintaining a 24 hour a day vigil for peace
on the sidewalk
since 1981. She has a partner she tag-teams
with. She speaks in a high shrill screech that could potentially
cause sterilization. Encounter her warily. She seems to be really
jacked up about support for Israel and the power of the military
industrial complex. She is also pretty pissed off about how the
various administrations treat the squirrels that run rampant all
The squirrels dont seem to mind. They are fearless, insistent.
They are little furry thugs that run right up to you and indignantly
demand handouts. Welfare run amok.
A few feet away, another guy is maintaining a mostly 24 hour vigil
to stop nuclear proliferation. A few feet from him a Buddhist monk
slowly pounds a prayer drum and chants
a one monk protest against
its hard to say. Between his signs and what he said, lets
just say if its bad hes protesting it. While he chants
peacefully a young woman with an impressive mane of jet black hair
barks directions to some subordinate via her cell phone.
Did I mention I love this place.
I make my way through the crowded sidewalks down toward the Smithsonian
Mall. At every federal building I pass
and down here they are
all federal buildings
every vehicle is stopped and inspected,
the security guards walking slowly around each one with a mirror
device at the end of a curved metal pole. This affords them a view
of the under-carriage of each car and truck seeking to gain admittance
to a parking area.
In this, one of the most enjoyable cities in the world, the finest
place is the Smithsonian Mall. It is long, open, with large rectangular
sections of grass surrounded by dirt and gravel walkways. I sit
down in the middle of the Mall
dead center. From here, as I
sit facing the National History Museum I can turn to my left and
see at the end of the Mall the Washington Monument. I turn to my
right, and at the other end of the Mall stands the Capitol Building.
I lie back on the grass and enjoy the early December sunlight and
surprisingly warm temperatures. It is 72 degrees.
While I lie on the grass a father leads his three children across
the grass. The kids are somewhere between 10 to 15 years old. They
stop and take a picture. They are on their way to the History Museum.
The father is excited to see the American President exhibit. His
enthusiasm is contagious. The kids are hopping up and down with
excitement and want him to hurry up and take the picture so they
can get to the exhibit.
As they walk off he asks them which President is their favorite.
One says Washington. Another says Lincoln. The last one says Polk
be the middle kid. You know how they are.
I sit looking at the Capitol Building, in the hallowed halls of
which is carried out the Peoples business. Echoing off the
concrete walls of all the various Smithsonian buildings that line
the Mall I hear a flute playing Yankee Doodle.
I get up and try to locate the source of the music. The player
segues into When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Wheres
the drum, I wonder. In the distance I see a lonely figure dancing
and swaying. I can make out no details of the figure so far away
but it is as good a guess as any.
As I draw near the flute becomes clearer and I can see the flautist
dancing while he plays.
J.D. is out on the Mall at least five days a week playing his flute.
He likes this time of year because he gets to play Christmas Carols.
Since the attacks he has played very little other that patriotic
songs. That seems to get the best response. He tells me people look
determined when they drop money into his box during a patriotic
song. They look happy when they do so while he plays a Christmas
Carol. It is a nice mix.
The biggest change since the attacks, he says, is that there are
a whole lot fewer people out on the Mall and the ones that are there
are mostly local. He does better with tourists, he says, because
the locals have gotten used to him.
I ask him what it was like there immediately following the attacks.
It was hard, he says, because for a few days everything
was clamped down. He couldnt get out to play anywhere.
Finally, he got back to the Mall
Always good for a few
dollars out here, man.
He tells me that on that first day back it was pretty unproductive
from a money standpoint. Everyone was walking around
were like zombies, man. The others were mad or scared or maybe both.
After a couple of hours, a short day for him, he packed up.
Man, I was thinking
I dont know
got to wake up, you know? I thought I got to play something for
them. Scared and sleepwalking and angry. Man, there wasnt
no pride. You know? Everyone was all messed up. So you know what
The last was a statement, not a question.
I told him I had no idea.
Come one, man. You know. Think. You know what I had to play.
J.D. does not usually play the National Anthem. He says its
out of respect. You are supposed to play it at big events and stuff.
That day, with his box put away and him ready to leave, he took
his flute out of its case and began to play.
I was burnin, man, he tells me, I laid
into it hard and played it as loud as I could. Put as much feeling
into it as I could, you know?
I ask him how people reacted.
He laughs and smiles and practically shouts, Man, they were
burnin, too. I mean, as far as I could see people stopped.
Just stopped cold and all looked at me and some were singing and
others joined in and people up close to me got their hands on their
hearts and their eyes are tearing up and mine were too. It was cool,
I ask him if anything like that had ever happened before. Not
hardly. And not since.
I tell him that doesnt surprise me. I tell him that it seems
to be wearing off
that we were all concerned and involved and
now were not so scared and it seems to be fading. He doesnt
agree with me. He thinks that its just not as prominent but
that those feelings, that pride as he calls it, is still there.
I think of all the inspired and inspiring folks Ive met along
the road and want to believe that. Then I think of the larger number
that Ive met that are so self-involved that I just cant
buy it. I tell J.D. that.
He shakes his head and says, Man, it aint happened
since cause I aint played it since. Watch this.
The traffic on the Mall is relatively sparse, but there are still
plenty of people milling about. One hundred feet away a large group
jostles about trying to get on a tour shuttle. Joggers plod past.
Small groups of two or three people, some tourists, some locals
stroll along the Mall looking at the museums.
J.D. holds his flute to his lips and lays into it hard. Out comes
sad and sweet but strong and clear
just one note that he holds for an extraordinarily long time.
And then he slides down and around to the second note of the Star
Spangled Banner. He peppers it with little riffs, but only in choice
spots, neither over playing nor under playing. Its the Star
Spangled Banner with a little jazz, a little groove, a little soul
It is stunning. It is moving. It is unlike any version of it I
have ever heard. I stand and listen, totally transfixed by the sound
of his flute. I am aware of a group of skate punk looking kids to
my left that were slouching down the Mall when JD started, all dyed
hair and piercings and jeans that dont fit. They have stopped.
One of them has put his hand over his heart. He looks over at his
two friends and urges them to do the same. They do.
Down at the tour bus the crowd has stopped dead and turned to face
JD. People have taken off their baseball caps and hold them to their
chests. The shuttle driver is hanging out of her doorway watching.
A young power suit clad woman holding a phone to her head and the
younger disheveled woman carrying her briefcase slow down. The younger
one stops and puts the bags down. Behind JD the flags of the Museum
flap in the breeze. She puts her hand over her heart. The alpha
female holds her phone down at her side for a moment. She is mouthing
And the rockets red glare
The skate punk kids are also softly mouthing the words, barely
audible even though they are only five feet away from me. But they
are singing, nonetheless. The young bag carrying woman joins in,
flat as can be and with a tonal quality that is grating but she
sings out, braver than the rest of us.
Gave proof through the night
She sounds beautiful.
JD plays for all hes worth. Others start singing a bit louder.
Folks crowd in closer. He smiles while he plays and bends himself
with the music.
We are all singing and above it, around it, and through it, the
lonely, penetrating sound of the flute. Everyone sings out loud
on Land of the free while JD holds the last note of
the line. He takes a deep breath and we all jump in for Home
of the brave.
Except he doesnt play that line. He holds his flute down
and sings it out with the rest of us. After the last note dies out
none of us know what to do. Its like we just woke up next
to a one night stand and cant figure out how were supposed
to act. A few people clap. The crowd at the bus slowly turns back
as folks begin pushing their way on to the shuttle. The skate punks
look embarrassed, as do the rest of us.
JD is looking at me, smiling.
It aint gone, man.