He played real good for free: live music in New York City

20190322_185111This is a travelogue of my recent trip to the Big Apple. I promise it’ll be more interesting than your Aunt Edna’s slide show of her trip to Boca. I discovered lots of great music, much of it for free in the subway stations (but of course I tipped them). I also heard a phenomenal jazz band, visited a cool funky music store and saw two top notch musicals.

There are great musicians on every street corner in this city and as it turns out, underground, too. I heard this guy one night while waiting for my train. In addition to what I caught here, he played a medley of “Here Comes the Sun” and “Blackbird”:

Another night I heard a musician do a soulful version of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and later, a young singer-songwriter playing an upbeat original on guitar, her foot keeping time on a tambourine. There was a singer and electric guitar player on a subway car, too, although they aren’t supposed to do that. One station had a raucous drum group but it wasn’t my stop so I only heard them briefly when the doors opened. I would’ve dashed off the train to get more than a few seconds but at that point, it would’ve been a slow stumble since it was the end of a very long day.

20190323_132716If you like to walk, this is the city for you. Wear a sturdy pair of shoes and get a metro pass that’ll get you on any train, buses too. I paid $32 for a one week pass at the first station and I’m sure they lost money on me. Taxis are a good way to get around, too, but they’re much more expensive and I’d rather spend my money on music and theater. It’s easy to drop two or three hundred for a popular theater show but don’t do that. Go to TKTS and get discount tickets. There are three ticket booths in Manhattan. They list available shows for that night or matinees the next day. At the Lincoln Center booth I arrived in mid-afternoon on a Friday, a couple of hours after they opened, and there was no line. I got Beautiful matinee tickets for a 20 or 30% discount a few rows from the front. I’m a huge Carole King fan so I knew I’d love it. I was expecting a revue of her songs and instead, got the story of her early career with lots of great live music. The dialogue was interesting – even though I already knew a lot about her – and surprisingly funny. The music was divine and I’m pretty sure the piano played by Chilina Kennedy (in the role of Carole King) was live. The rest of the band was off stage somewhere. More about that later.


Another selfie with another theater sign. I am such a tourist.

That had me hankerin’ for more so I visited the TKTS booth again. While I was hoping for tickets to Come from Away (I’m half-Canadian ya know. Eh.) however, I was happy with The Band’s Visit. Again, the music was phenomenal and it was live. I’m so glad Broadway hasn’t succumbed to the everything-is-better-with-recorded-tracks mindset. I loved the delightful mix of Egyptian and Israeli folk influenced music in this show. I recognized a couple of Egyptian standards that I used to dance to in my bellydance days. I wanted to jump up and shake what my mama gave me but in a Broadway Theatuh that’s frowned upon.


While waiting for that show I turned to talk to the people behind me in line and found out it was the band’s musical director, escorting his parents to the show. I peppered him with questions. He said the band was actually in another room and relied on a video screen for their cues. I asked if this was hard. He patiently smiled and said, “By now, we know the show well.” After two-plus years, duh. Did I mention he was patient? I knew that most Broadway musicians are formally trained and read music but I wondered about the doumbek (hand drum) and oud (Middle-Eastern stringed instrument) since they’re folk instruments. He said the doumbek player didn’t read so he learned his part by ear. The same for the violin player. Someone played him his part note-for-note and he memorized it, for a 90 minute show. The oud player doubled on guitar and could read for both. All the music on stage was live and when not on stage, musicians joined the pit band. Because the audience couldn’t see them there, they could get a little goofy, like throwing a toy stuffed banana at musicians who made a mistake. I wondered what kind of degree one needs to do the director job and he answered that he has a degree in conducting for musical theater. Can’t get any more specific than that.

I relied heavily on Google Maps to get me around the city. My Canadian cell phone didn’t always play nicely with the cell towers in NYC so there were times it would say I was at 42nd and Broadway for 15 minutes even though I’d been hoofing it uptown that whole time. No worries. New Yorkers are used to tourists asking “Is this where I get the A train downtown?” Speaking of the trains, there are several apps that get you around on the subways. I’ve ridden subways in several cities and none are as mind boggling as NYC. It’s like someone reached into a bowl of spaghetti, pulled it out, plopped it on a piece of paper and outlined it. Add to that a confusing system of express trains and construction detours and it’s like a giant Ikea on a Saturday afternoon, only you can’t follow the smell of meatballs. I used an app simply called NYC Subway and it got me around okay although what I really needed was a Siri I could ask, “Where is the nearest station to catch the F train?” and then sob while she rubbed my back.

Early in my visit I met two friends visiting from the Midwest who were there to hear the Diva Jazz Orchestra at Dizzy’s, a premier jazz club. Diva is a 15-piece all-women big band and holy crap, they were good. They’ve played all over the world, including Carnegie Hall, and they have several albums. I sat with my friends in the first row! Here’s horn player Jami Dauber tearing it up. I got to meet her before the show and kid her about how she spells her name wrong.

They’ll be at the National Women’s Music Festival in July 2019 as well as other venues so don’t think you have to catch them in NYC.

I had an afternoon free one day so I googled “music stores.” Let’s see, I could go to Guitar Center. Uh … no. What’s this? A music store specializing in instruments from around the world? And it’s in the Village? I hopped on the subway and found the Music Inn. What a cool place! Jeff Slatnick is an old hippie who’s owned the place for years and collects everything from sitars to harp guitars. After playing a variety of instruments I settled in with a lap dulcimer. I jammed on that with a guy from Buffalo who played the charango. Afterwards, I went to the Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of the LGBTQ movement in the US. It was right around the corner, hard to miss with the blanket of rainbow flags. I was honored to visit a place that’s so important to our history.


I went to four TV shows. They’re free, but you have to plan to see them. I got tickets to two shows at 1Iota by keeping an eye on the site and asking for tickets as soon as they listed them. Some shows don’t post their taping dates until a month before. I wish I could’ve snagged tickets to Saturday Night Live or Late Night with Seth Meyers because they have live music. There’s a lottery for SNL once a year and I didn’t get in, despite my charming and witty email. For the Today Show, I simply showed up outside the studio at Oh-dark-thirty and folks, it was so cold that after awhile I swear I didn’t have feet, only frozen stumps. I don’t watch the show so I have no idea who the hosts are but I got to shake their hands and see up close how much foundation those people actually slather on. There were also some interesting conversations with the people waiting around me including two who were decked out in maga wear and bragging about how they met the Cheeto-in-Chief. They didn’t stay until the Today Show hosts came out. Either it was too cold or I worked their last nerve. Wimps.

I think you have to trade in your first born to get tickets to Late Night. Instead, I consoled myself with The View, Live With Kelly and Ryan, and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The first two were fun because it was cool to see how a TV show is done. I almost got on Kelly and Ryan because they have an audience member dance for one segment. The producer, Gelman, chose five people to audition and the audience voted. It got down to two of us. I lost out to a woman half my age who twerked. That’s me on the right.


I got the Samantha Bee tickets here. They didn’t let me know until the day before the taping. I adore Bee. She should’ve replaced Jon Stewart on The Daily Show but hey, no one asked me. The warm-up comic for the show, Allana Harkin, decided she liked me, nicknaming me “Canada” after I answered a question about what I was going to do now that the Mueller Report was out. “Go back to Canada” I breezily answered. She kept coming back to me. At one point, I promised to marry Samantha Bee’s dad who was in the audience. I admitted to them I was a lesbian. “You don’t have to consummate the marriage” quipped Allana. (She often does segments on the show so you can see how funny she is.) What I really wanted was a job on the show. I settled for entertaining the audience and scoring some cool swag.

20190327_230010Oh, how could I forget! I talked with Samantha Bee. Before taping she asked for questions. I asked, “As a fellow Canadian, I want to know when you’re coming back to us.” She laughed and said she gets back to Canada fairly often although her husband and kids are in the states. When she found out I was from Ottawa, she said she’d gone to Ottawa University. Then she told the audience the taping was cancelled, that the two of us were just going to talk. She changed her mind, probably because mob rule could make for a pretty ugly scene. The show was great, as always, although I wish she had the budget for a live band. Next time I’ll bring my ukulele.

So, several things to remember if you go to NYC: bring small bills to tip the buskers, never pay full price for a Broadway show, catch some great jazz at Dizzy’s, buy a metro card, and if you audition to dance on Kelly and Ryan, remember to twerk.


“He played real good for free” is from one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs, “For Free”:


About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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