A Canadian girl in a New York world — Jessica Toplak, alumni of Cap U Jazz, tells us about her first year living in New York as a musician.
NEW NEW YORK GIRL.
It’s hard to believe I’ve lived in New York a little over a year now. It’s been an action-packed 365 days, that’s for sure. I graduated, got married, moved to a different country, made new friends in all sorts of creative fields, am still doing that, waited eight months for a work/stay visa, and am still waiting for the next step in my immigration process. Cue well needed yoga breath.
Now, I’m firmly a toddler NYC resident. Hooray! Curious and evolving in all my toddler glory. I am by no means an expert at New York, or being a working musician in New York, but I often hear that it can take up to two years to feel somewhat comfortable navigating this city, and up to another five years to feel like your getting somewhere in your career. I don’t even know how long it takes become a “local”, but that isn’t my story to write quite yet.
Looking back to that long summer of 2017, I didn’t know what to expect from New York. I think when imagining this historical city, a bedazzled pop cultural mecca blooms in the mind; a total fantasy world brought to you by Hollywood. But really, it’s nothing like that. No, people. It’s not a place where you become a maid at a fancy Manhattan hotel and fall in love with Ralph Fiennes (but omg who wouldn’t). What’s true is the achievement doesn’t come in moving to NYC — it’s in staying and thriving in NYC.
But the burn question is, “OMG, Jess! What is it like living there?!”
And to that I say, it’s a culture shock.
Over the past year I’ve met a variety of people with fascinating stories of where they came from, how they got here, and how they’re hustling to pursue their crafts while love-hating every minute of the blood, sweat and tears. Culturally, it’s different than anything I’ve experienced. There’s a kinetic energy in the air at all times; the lines on the road are a suggestion; people on top of people, on top of people trying to get where they are going; the next move is always in pursuit. Mostly, you don’t need to apologies for being yourself. In fact, you can practice your rock-n-roll prelude as loud as you want. Really! Like the opera singer I hear from time to time practicing out of her Tribeca apartment window. You become that energy. You step up to the stage when you want to play.
Which brings me to my experience being a musician in NYC. The dream, right? It’s definitely a thrill, but not as glamorous as it sounds. A labour of love, if you will.
My first time going to a jazz jam in New York, I had an aha moment. Luckily, my friend Chris was there for a good chunk of time which really helped integrate me into this lonely city. We went to Erv’s jam session one brisk October night — Erv’s is an on-point Brooklyn neighbourhood bar curiously tucked underneath a royal blue Super Laundry awning and hosts a many music events — As soon as we got there, I remember wanting to vomit. We listened to a few tunes from the house band (they sounded phenomenal), and my nerves really started to kick up. I was shaking and though I often do have stage fright, it rarely gets that bad.
After the set ended, Chris went up to the band to introduce himself and asked about playing. Shockingly, there was no list. No piece of paper that you need to scribble your name on. If you wanted to play, all you needed to do was step up to the stage and have that conversation. Simple.
Eden Bareket, a lovely bari sax player who is doing very cool things here in NYC, asked me if I was a musician and if I wanted to play. I said yes, and then continued to quietly hyperventilate in my seat.
Nervous as fuck, I mustered up the courage to play a tune. I introduced myself to the band, called a tune, and then something rad happened. I stepped past the veil of insecurity into a crisp, fresh air of realization — everyone is just here to make music. That’s it! They just want to make music with YOU! Wow. Before coming to New York, I had this idea that if I didn’t sound like Trane on voice then I probably would get kicked off stage. Not the case. I mean if you do, that’s rad, but what’s admired is if you can make MUSIC. Real, true music. No matter where you’re at, for the love of it. Just play. Now, don’t get me wrong- you better know your tune but leave your low-self esteem at the door, no one wants it. Not even you.
Eden ended up asking me play the last tune for the night and it was delightful.
Not all jams are go-up-if-you-wanna-play types, but a majority are. When you get there, sus out the situation and ASK what’s up. The host isn’t going to rude or tell you to leave. Just make conversation with people. New Yorkers are a sobering real type of folk. No bull. Plus, it’s better if you show face. If you’re a musician of any genre thinking of visiting New York or making the move to New York, you NEED to frequent jams, shows, make sessions with other players, learn who the owners of clubs are, learn who the bookers are, and learn who’s in the scene. Building your community here is key, and it can take a long time, but be persistent. Always show up and be kind.
There’s a jam in NYC every night and way more than I even know but here is a list of jams that will get you started:
Monday’s 10:30pm-1am (MHTN)
As a toddler NYC resident, I’ve learned a lot in a short span of a year. I know that living in New York comes with leaving a lot behind. Missing birthdays and family holidays, missing babies being born. Expensive rent, immigration roadblocks, and sometimes crazy people on the subway. It’s not easy getting to the grind everyday knowing that you’re missing another side of life.
Yes, the risks are high here but so are the rewards. New York is a place filled with opportunity, all you need to do is work hard towards your goal. Be the person who says yes and New York will say yes to you.
These concepts are really not foreign to the rest of the world. No matter where you are, the road of success is a long one, and when on the ground traveling it, it can look bleak; a sparse land freckled with barely any achievements. But I assure you, that road will humble you when you reach the top of the hill that follows it. Then sometimes the road takes of away from that hill and you’re like “What the hell, Road?!” and all of a sudden you’re back to that bleak, sparse desolate tundra looking for another hill.
As my guru Joni Mitchell would say, just keep traveling.
To New York: you are mysterious but obvious with a wild sense of extroversion. Shame does not burden you, nor does ego or even terror. You provide honest opinions about my innermost questions while neglecting to tell me where the exact answers are. Those are for me to find. As a thirteen-month-year old toddler, New York, I thank you — my teeth are just coming in.
Jessica is currently living in Brooklyn and performing under the stage name Nina Soro in NYC. She recently finished an EP with Power Audio, a group dedicated to creating social justice pop music. She will be releasing her first two singles November 2018.