Metro, Column

COLUMN: Sounds of the City

Walk down a city street and you hear three things—a mother telling her son to come back here right now, a businessman saying he will be there in five minutes, and music.

In the opening monologue of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the movie’s protagonist struggles aloud to write the opening of a book about a character in love with New York City: “To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”

One would be hard-pressed to find a line that better captures the way one can romanticize a city. It is hard to say whether one thinks of music when one thinks of a city because that is what movies condition people to expect-no movie character ever walks down a busy city street without some kind of soundtrack—or if there is something fundamentally rhythmic and melodic about city life.

In other words, does the music match the city, or does the city match the music?

It is likely that neither one is the absolute truth, that music helps define a city’s image just as a city helps inspire a certain kind of music.

Whether it be a percussionist playing music on a bucket in Faneuil Hall, a violinist playing on the platform of the Red Line, or a guitarist playing on Boylston Street, those musicians are defined by the structure of Boston. Passersby will experience music much differently while they are waiting for the T than if they are walking to a restaurant. At the same time, however, those musicians are working to influence the environment around them-they are sound architects, imposing a new layer over the physical structures around them.

Allow the point to be illuminated this way: If you walk through a crowd with your iPod playing a song that is slow and driven primarily by piano, you will read the countenances of those around you as more depressed and troubled than you would if you were to be listening to the upbeat Hall & Oates song “You Make My Dreams Come True” or Led Zeppelin’s aggressive “Immigrant Song.”

In this way, even a troubadour can affect the way one experiences a city. This principle can, of course, be applied to broader musical movements, as well. This past week, I had the privilege of interviewing Pauline Bilsky, the executive director of JazzBoston, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening Boston’s jazz community. Its mission is admirable: Maintain the important cultural force that is jazz music.

Unfortunately, many people associate jazz today with elevator music or their boring set of grandparents and forget that there is something distinctly citified about jazz. Anyone at least from the Northeast should have a hard time picturing a city without it. The powerful improvisation of jazz music is almost as tangible as any building. City lights are the backdrop of its brassy notes.

The way one understands a city would cease to exist without music, which is more fundamental to the fabrics of our being than any one might expect.

You do not necessarily need a musician on the side of the street to provide you with your soundtrack. Your ability to create music in your mind is innate-few infants will not react to a strong rhythm. If you pay attention closely, this instinct never leaves you.

Music is what you hear when you’re in the middle of the Boston Common and you see the lights of the financial district rise above the darkness of the grass. Music is that vibrating, improvised rhythm you feel when you take that step forward into a crowd of people walking down the sidewalk.

That music is called jazz.

February 5, 2014