Post- Magazine

seeking warmth in jazz [A&C]

lost in the underground

It was February of freshman year and the novelty of New England winter was starting to wear off. My fantasies of a winter wonderland were met with bare trees and blotches of yellow snow, bleak reminders of my tendency to over-romanticize. The snowflakes that once gently graced my face now fell repeatedly like drops from a leaky faucet you can’t bring yourself to fix. The cable knit sweaters and turtlenecks and cardigans and scarves and fuzzy socks that I bought with great enthusiasm—despite there being no bank statement to support these purchases—were itchy, each layer more suffocating than the last. Perhaps the most disheartening transition lay in the walks around campus. My once-purposeful strides turned into frostbitten scurries from one classroom’s refuge to another; that is, if I could muster up the willpower to leave my dorm in the first place.

On one instance where I did manage to leave the comfort of the riot-proof New Pem halls I’d grown to love, I found myself wandering aimlessly southward. It must’ve been less than 30 degrees that day, for the usual bustle of passersby down Thayer was replaced by a few brave souls trudging through the snow and slush. I had, by no means, accomplished anything on my to-do list, but I decided I was done for the day. Done with classes, myself, all of it. Surely a change of scenery would result in a more positive train of thought.  

Despite my uncharacteristic burst of spontaneity, this adventure started with my usual, soul-crushing routine: Put on a thermal layer. Then jeans. Those don’t fit you like they used to. Now a sweater. Not baggy enough. Oh look, I’m crying again. Here goes sweater #2 followed by my worn-out black puffer jacket and boots. I hope I don’t see anyone I know. Lastly, the headphones. Will these keep me distracted for long? I hope so. Like clockwork, I layered my insecurities between my winter clothes, subduing the insulation with the iciness of my internal monologue.

Somehow I wound up at The Underground. It was long past the usual lunchtime rush hour, so I managed to secure a seat on a high top in the back corner. Like a fly on the wall, I was among the shadows without the paranoia usually caused by others’ lingering eyes. Apart from the few half-hearted pleasantries I exchanged with the barista, I sat in silence. With both hands wrapped around my latte in the hopes of regaining sensation in my fingers, I filtered out scattered conversations about weekend plans and friend group gossip, allowing myself to bask in the warm glow of the dim string lights hanging from the pipes around the room. That’s when I heard it: a single piano note followed by a smooth, melancholic voice that enveloped me entirely. 


For the next three minutes, I submitted myself to Chet Baker’s anguished rendition of Sinatra’s “My Funny Valentine.” I desperately held on to every last word, relishing every syllable, every breath. His warmth was all-consuming, like my mother’s teary-eyed embrace as I board the plane that puts us over one-thousand miles apart. He bore his heart with a dulcet nonchalance that slyly taunted me, for my moments of emotional release are far more turbulent; if only I could mimic his stability, I thought, even just briefly.  

In this moment, Baker was a harbinger of change. I was no stranger to the notion of using music to drown out my thoughts—I have curated 130+ playlists for overly specific scenarios (e.g. lying in the fetal position on my dorm room floor, soft songs for migraines, driving with the windows down, etc.) to back this—but this time was different. Listening to his voice did not encourage me to stuff my thoughts into the overflowing mental cabinets I’d long refused to open. For the first time, my mind wasn’t racing with questions of whether or not I was doing enough, caring enough, being enough. Rather, the tenderness emanating from his voice and the soft piano melody allowed me to sit comfortably with the very same thoughts that persistently plagued me. He held my hand and squeezed it tight, reassuring me that introspection does not have to be self-destructive; this is a feeling I was not willing to relinquish.

I’ve registered this memory with such detail because it marks the beginning of my search for warmth in music. It’s preserved in my mental archives, glowing with soft sepia tints and covered in delicate lace trimmings like the relics stored in my grandmother’s weather-beaten armoire. In my mind, warmth transcends comfort. It is a sense of familiarity, nostalgia, relief. Within music, I’ve found that more often than not, jazz is the ultimate hearth. It’s Julie London’s sultry voice drifting around the lake house kitchen as my friends and I delegate tasks to prepare a cozy, candlelit dinner during spring break. It’s Billie Holiday’s soulful reconciliation with love unrequited that infuses my mind with ease as I fold fleece quarter-zips during my shifts at the bookstore. Or maybe it’s Nat King Cole’s silky smooth description of the autumn leaves crunching under my feet on my morning walks down Hope Street. Lately, it’s been Laufey’s modern yet tender touch on the genre as she paints a picture reminiscent of the cobblestone streets I see when I visit my best friend in Boston.

Before coming to Providence, I never had to seek warmth; I was constantly surrounded with more heat than I was willing to bear. I lived in an eternal summer, perpetually drenched in sweat and acne-ridden from the relentless Miami humidity. All I had ever known were the palm trees towering over the gridded streets, stubbornly withstanding the Floridian extremes. I was sunburnt and dehydrated from the sweltering heat, or I was confined to my tiny bedroom from the latest hurricane’s torrential downpour. But at least I was home. At least I could cozy up with my cat when I was feeling down, or make my parents laugh with my musings during dinner. At home, heat and warmth were inextricably intertwined, and I was never at a loss for either.

When I’m away from home, I’ve resorted to gathering songs like quarters for a jukebox that will imbue me with the warmth I need to make it through the day. With jazz, each song evokes a curious sense of nostalgia for a time I’ve never known. There’s something so comforting about leaving behind the woes of my day-to-day life to immerse myself in a world wherein I, as well as my fears, do not belong. I am untethered to my responsibilities, relieved of the burden of my anxieties, a blissful foreigner transiently wandering. I simply am, and frankly, I’d seldom describe myself as simply anything. 

Nowadays, I find myself at that very same table at The Underground, fingers interlaced around my coffee cup and listening to jazz just as I was not too many months ago. Except this time, I planned to go there. And the music is not coming from a speaker. The room is dimly lit but lively, with people squeezing together on couches and coffee tables under the glow of the string lights that continue to adorn the exposed brick. This sight has become familiar to me, for every few Wednesday nights, members of the Brown community come together to share their genuine love for jazz. Whether they be instrumentalists jamming together as they play “Caravan,” or supportive friends snapping along in the crowd, the warmth radiated by the speakeasy-like atmosphere of Jazz Jams is what makes people, like myself, come back every time. 

As winter looms near, I think back to the first time my close friend invited me to these sessions—his sheer excitement to share the piece he’d spent hours practicing made his offer impossible to decline. I’ll just make an appearance and leave. I’ll be okay. One session turned into two, three, now all. It became tradition, with each performance stringing along more familiar faces to fill up that cramped leather couch. Ultimately, I am but an observer, yet I relish in these moments. I hold them closely to my chest as I walk along the same paths that once overwhelmed me. I allow the melodies to seep in, warming my heart even when my thoughts induce their iciest chills.

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