This Fall marks the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Below, musicians share their memories of that unforgettable time…
My memories of 9/11 are as surreal as a painting by Salvador Dali. I was stationed at the West Point Band at the United States Military Academy as a trombonist. We were in the middle of rehearsal when one of the band members came into the rehearsal hall and whispered something in the colonel’s ear. We took a break and went to the lounge area and turned the TV on. As the entire world watched, we were in shock as another plane hit the second tower.
We did not return to rehearsal but waited to hear what our next order of the day would be. Eventually the word came down to us to return home to our quarters and wait for further information. We were told the academy was locking down at 12 noon. No one was coming on or off after that time.
I went home and eventually heard from my future husband, who also worked at West Point. He came over that evening. At about 11 p.m. the phone rang. It was the non-commissioned officer in charge of scheduling a security team that would be used to help guard West Point for the following weeks. I was told to report to the weapons armory at 5:30 a.m. We were met by other members of the Army where we checked out M16 rifles with live ammo. I have to admit, there were some woodwind members of the band who I felt should not have a weapon, but that is another story.
It was a very nervous time for all of us. I personally was assigned to guard part of the Hudson River by the boat marina. At one moment I had to challenge a man who was walking up the railroad tracks. I didn’t know who he was, if he was carrying a weapon, or if he was going to try and blow something up. It turned out he was the harbor master himself. He actually appreciated how I wouldn’t let him proceed any further!
All of our lives changed that day. We played many memorial services for the victims of 9/11. It was an honor, but it never got any easier as time went on. We also played at the Veteran’s Day parade in New York City that year. I’ll never forget the streets lined with family members still holding up pictures of their family members with signs asking if we’d seen them anywhere. The looks on their faces and the tears flowing were heart wrenching. Sadly, I’m sure many of them were never found.
I continued to play an occasional Broadway show while still stationed at the West Point Band. I was always looking up at the sky on my way to a show.
I retired from the West Point Band in 2005 and now live upstate. I think our great nation was so innocent before we were attacked at home. I pray it never happens again, but if it does, I’ll gladly report to the Armory again.
The thing that I remember most clearly about returning to my piano bar gig after 9/11 was wondering what the hell I was going to play. The bar was very busy; people wanted to be surrounded by friends, but everyone was very nervous, emotional, and pretty much still in shock. It seemed highly inappropriate to play light, happy music, but I certainly didn’t want to play anything overly sad or dark. I thought the “peace and love” anthems from the 60’s and 70’s would work best – songs about coming together and caring for one another – and I was right. As it turned out, customers wanted to have their spirits lifted, and playing and singing those songs was therapeutic for me too. I was very moved by the healing power that music had, and felt a new sense of purpose as a musician.
I was playing the Blue Note in Tokyo and after the second show, someone ran backstage to show us a photo of the first tower that was hit. On our way back to the hotel, the van we were riding in had a TV so we were able to watch the news feed of what was going on. We were devastated to say the least! We were stuck in Japan for five days. I remember that when we did finally leave, the airplane was all but empty. Arriving at JFK, I realized immediately that America was very different from the one I left two weeks before.
I was in Spain. I went to the cathedral in Barcelona and they were conducting a mass for the victims of 9/11. They saw me and recognized I was American. I have never gotten over the love and warmth I felt from them. I have also never seen more candles in my life.
My most indelible musical memory of 9/11 involves the late Michael Brecker, the great saxophonist who was due to open a one-week engagement at Iridium on that Tuesday, 9/11. That opening night and the next were canceled, but Mike insisted on fulfilling the rest of the gig, playing Thursday through Sunday, and giving all of the proceeds to the Red Cross.
I was there on one of those nights, along with Mike’s wife Susan, some of his management team, and about a dozen others. It was eerie; before the show, I stood in front of the club, out in the middle of Broadway, which was completely silent except for police motorcades roaring through Times Square every few minutes. The burning smell from downtown was heavy in the air – jet fuel and God knows what else. Mike and his Quartet played an absolutely amazing set. He started by announcing the Red Cross donation, and saying, “The people that did this want us to shut down. But this is New York. We play jazz here. We have to do this, to show them and ourselves that we can go on.” As is well known by those that were knew and still know Mike Brecker, his musicianship was exceeded only by his humanity. I walked away that night knowing that we’d come out of this, thanks to his words and music.
As a musician, I mostly remember the two days after 9/11. I played in a couple of local clubs in New Jersey on those nights, and they were overflowing with people. People needed to be with one another. They needed music. They needed reasurrance that life would go on. People were grieving and loving and affirming life. There was anger, there was defiance, but there was no fear. On one of the nights, I played with the Dalton Gang at Trumpets in Montclair (filling in for my pal Conrad Zulaf). The great alto player Mark Friedman played a beuatiful version of “New York State of Mind” with the band. Some of the guys in the band were crying while we played. It was incredibly moving. I knew people who died and one who had a miraculous escape. It was all so horrible, but they way the people of the city and suburbs reacted to it all made me very proud to call myself a New Yorker.
I got up early to practice a big Percussion setup for an upcoming Scott Johnson premiere with New Millennium Ensemble. When I went upstairs around 10 a.m. to brew some coffee, my housemate, trombonist Randy Hestand, was glued to CNN and told me the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. Dumbfounded, I looked at the TV and exclaimed, “Holy sh$!, there’s so much smoke you can’t even see the south tower!” Randy, very deadpan said, “That already collapsed about an hour ago, man.” A few minutes later the north tower fell before our eyes. It was truly shocking to imagine how many lives were lost at that moment. Outside the house in Englewood, all the back roads were clogged all day with diverted traffic from the George Washington Bridge, folks just sitting outside their cars listening to the radio in shock. For the next several days, even in Englewood, we could smell the fires. Driving in that Friday morning to accompany dance classes at Marymount College was surreal indeed. The dance students were still in shock as was I of course, and the energy in the class was very low. The teacher leading class just said, “If you’re here today, you’re here to work people. Let’s go!” I just drummed my heart out that morning.
On the morning of 9/11, I was supposed to fly to San Francisco. I had been invited to take an audition out there for the New Century Chamber Orchestra. I had an eerie feeling, and a voice actually told me in my head that “Sept. 11 is not going to be a good day to fly.” I didn’t heed that voice.
I had originally planned to fly on the plane that was going through Newark. Nevertheless, my friend wanted to fly with me on that date, and I changed my airlines to a JetBlue flight. On that morning, I had (for some strange reason) not packed my bags. I seemed unwilling to do so. I woke up suddenly, feeling the reverberations all the way up to my Bronx apartment. I turned on WNYC, heard something, and then nothing…white noise. I turned on the news and watched the horror of the plane hitting the second tower. I had grown up in the Village, with views of the Twin Towers out my bedroom window. My mother had worked there once and had witnessed the 1993 bombing. Thankfully, she no longer worked there.
The next morning, I went to three hospitals with my mother, trying to donate blood. (We both have O-positive blood, which is universal donor.) We were turned away as there were too many people offering to donate. This taught me that although there is great evil, there is also great good. People in New York and elsewhere came forward in droves to assist and comfort.
Two days later, my friend and I went down to Ground Zero and played as close to the fence as possible, to give the workers some form of solace through music. Many of them thanked us, leaving with downcast hearts after 36 hour shifts of searching.
Musicians came together all over the globe to perform many benefit concerts. Music was then probably the most unifying force for healing.
Cut to a number of years later. I ended up working as a hospice musician for nearly four years. I found that the music comforted not only the patients, but their families, friends, and the staff of the hospitals. Music is a great healer.
I was working as a drummer in the show band at Kuthers Hotel in the Catskills. I developed a bad case of psoriasis and was going to Rockefeller Research Hospital once a week to test a new drug for my condition. I would usually drive in, but on 9/11, I took the train from Middletown to Hoboken, where you changed to the PATH train to get into Manhattan. We passed the World Trade Center stop and the conductor yelled, “Look! The World Trade Center is on fire.” That was right after the first plane had hit. I had to get a subway up to 70th Street and York Avenue to go to the hospital. I was late and could not find a working pay phone or get a cab. When I got there, I watched the T.V. when the second plane hit. It was unreal. Of course, I could not get out of the city that night. I slept in the hospital. When I went in the street, people were lined up all over the street by the hospitals to give blood. Unfortunately, the blood was not needed since all of the victims in the World Trade Center had died. I got the train back upstate the next day. I will never forget that day.
I witnessed the 9/11 attacks from my living room window at Waterside Plaza, on 25th Street. My three- year-old daughter was stacking Lego blocks as the towers fell. When I went out onto the street, legions of ashen-faced workers silently marched up First Avenue. In the next days, I found myself singing with my guitar at Union Square at candlelight vigils, leading people who had convened to give comfort, seek support and share in the words and music of John Lennon, Carole King, George David Weiss, as posters with pictures of those missing surrounded us.
This story originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For reprint requests, send an e-mail to editor Mikael Elsila at Allegro@Local802afm.org.