On the first of February, William Kennedy sported his white “summer tux” for the first-ever Salmagundi Salon. He wasn’t committing an off-season fashion faux pas but dressing the part for a night at “La Floridita North,” a club conjured out of the crush of mint for mojitos, hot jazz, and two-tone shoes.
The weather cooperated (a practically tropical 52 degrees in the dead of an Upstate New York winter), making the conceit of a night in Old Havana c. 1958 feel like more than a species of wishful thinking. Dressed to kill, we gathered for a night of music, theatrical business at the bar, and top-shelf literature courtesy of William Kennedy’s most recent novel, Changó’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes with its compelling frame of revolution and racial tension.
Whether writing in a major or minor key, Mr. Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ironweed and the growing and evergreen “Albany Cycle” of novels, has always possessed a masterful ear for music, and the songs that fill his new book provided the pretext for the party.
Howard Fishman, up from Brooklyn with his trio, sang a not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house version of “I’m Tying the Leaves So They Won’t Fall Down,” Railbird’s sublime chanteuse Sarah Pedinotti’s approach to the microphone induced pin-drop quiet for her delivery of “Pennies from Heaven” (is it possible to do Lady Day one better?), and then there was the rousing fourteen-voices-strong a cappella tour de force “Chain of Fools” from the Sonneteers.
The music was right in the pocket all night. Jeanne O’Connor keened the opening line of “Lagrimas Negras”— an uncanny treatment, plenty of duende—just as Peg Boyers finished reading about those black tears and a deadly Cuban coup attempt from Changó. Soul king Garland Nelson’s Stevie Wonder / James Brown groove brought the house down and then William Kennedy himself offered up a bravura passage from his novel describing a powerhouse piano performance by Cody Mason (based on the real-life musician Jody Bolden aka Bobby Henderson) as jazzman Nat Phipps riffed behind him on the Steinway grand, putting the music to his words.
Even Hemingway stepped up to the bar, dispensing advice to Daniel Quinn, aspiring Albany-born novelist, and baiting a hapless boor from Baltimore—Joe “Gooney” Cooney—before knocking him out with a solid right cross—courtesy of the New York City-based National Theater Company of the United States of America and two terrific student actors from Skidmore. When they’d dragged Cooney away, the swing dancers moved into the open space, jiving and spinning as the band started up again—and so it went until the end of the night when Mr. Kennedy warned that writers shouldn’t get used to this kind of treatment. It had been, our honored guest enthused, a book party unparalleled in the history of publishing. We’d sign on to that if it didn’t seem so self-congratulatory.
Salmagundi, an international quarterly publishing our best writers since 1965, and edited at Skidmore College.
All photos by Sophie Brill