Members of the Park Foundation, from left, Jamal, Matt Vorzimer and David Speranza, playing in Washington Square Park on Monday.
Park neighbors want drummers to just beat it
By Lincoln Anderson
Bang the drum softly or better yet, not at all.
Thats the message police and some neighborhood residents recently have been sending to drummers in Washington Square Park.
An unanticipated effect of the May reopening of the park renovations phase one is that the number of drummers in the world-famous park has exploded, while the volume of their albeit unamplified music has skyrocketed, according to residents.
Meanwhile, one of the drummers says theyre being targeted by a stealth unit of cell phone-camera-wielding seniors who are literally recording their every rim shot. But he and his band mates say Washington Square is a historically important public space for musicians and must be preserved as such.
Dancing to the beat of a different drummer entirely is former Mayor Ed Koch, who says drums should be banned in parks.
Im against drumming in any local park, said Hizzoner, who lives on Fifth Ave. right off the park. I think that disturbs in an unreasonable way people who come to enjoy the park. I am for folk singing.
You cant dream when people are drumming, Koch said. Parks are supposed to be places where people can dream and smell the flowers.
Matt Vorzimer, 25, of Harlem, drums with the Park Foundation, an acoustic jazz band that plays in the still-unrenovated section of the park in a small oval on a pathway east of the fountain. The band often divides into two quintets jamming separately nearby each other, though both promoting their same $10 CD. They perform in the park up to seven days a week, up to eight hours a day, from 10 a.m. to as late as 6 p.m.
Vorzimer whose very modest-sized drum kit includes a 14-inch bass drum, two small snares and a cymbal or two said the controversy is being drummed up by a handful of disgruntled residents.
We have a few haters, he said. There are like two or three people who continually make complaints. Now we hear theres a woman with a petition with 1,000 names of people who want to kick all drummers out of the park.
Theyve got these civilian-spy-cops running around and shooting photos of us; theyre these old ladies possibly men who want to see the culture disappear.
However, Vorzimer did admit, Theres a guy who plays pots and pans whos insanely loud. And Vorzimer noted that two weekends ago, two dudes with heavy-metal drum sets were in the park, thrashing out punk rock tunes.
The Park Foundation have played in Washington Square for three years, with a hiatus during the parks renovation, during which they played in Central Park. Vorzimer said there now do, in fact, seem to be more musicians hitting the skins in the square.
A lot of drummers have come, he said. Its abnormal.
It seems that a few very loud drummers are causing a crackdown on all of them.
Were being told that we cant play the music the way we want to, Vorzimer noted. But if we have a crowd of 50 people, we want them to feel something.
Police told them they have to keep the volume below a certain decibel level, which, in turn, keeps down their profits.
We can adapt to that, its fine, Vorzimer said. But were making less money.
Police first started talking to the drummers on July 10 about keeping down the noise, Vorzimer said. Things escalated to where police were confronting them every day. Finally, he said, a police officer recently told him drumming isnt allowed in the park at all, and that hed be ticketed if he continued.
The Parks Departments park enforcement patrol, or PEP, officers arent hassling then, he said; rather, its police officers. However, the jazz group stresses they dont want to focus on the PEPs and police, but rather point out that its really just a small group of residents that seem be against them.
Meanwhile, sax players, guitarists and others havent been getting warnings, Vorzimer noted. Drums are being singled out.
In my mind, its the intrinsic American fear of the drum, that goes back to slavery, he said, of being fearful of the power of the drum.
A longtime Washington Square tumbling act are also taking heat because of their drummer.
Youve got a situation where even Tic and Tac are under attack, noted Vorzimer.
Gil Horowitz, presiding officer of the new Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park, confirmed that drummers are the parks new Public Enemy No. 1, as far as he and other residents are concerned.
Oh yes, were getting more complaints about that than anything, he said. More than the drug dealing even more than the skateboarding on the new polished-granite benches, which is what bothers me most.
Horowitz said his group doesnt want to change the culture of the park, but that the renovated park just seems to be attracting a huge number of people, and along with it, more drummers.
We never had the quantity of drums before and the volume of drums before, he noted. People near the park cant eat their dinner or play at home with their children.
Horowitz noted that at a meeting he had a week ago with Deputy Inspector Ray Caroli, the Sixth Precincts commanding officer, he told Caroli that residents want police to start cracking down on the deafening drums.
As Horowitz tells it, Caroli at first said he wasnt sure what he could do, stressing that the precincts primary focus in the park remains combating drugs.
Caroli must have done something, though, Horowitz said, because the noise has been sharply curtailed in the park since last Tuesday.
A phone call to the Sixth Precinct wasnt returned by press time.
Horowitz agreed that the noisiest of the park percussionists was the pot-and-pan guy, followed closely by Tic and Tac.
Tic and Tac are nice guys its just theyre noisy, he noted.
As for the identity of the woman doing the anti-drum petition, Horowitz said hed heard it was a Susan, but he wasnt sure if it was Susan Goren ironically, part of the group that fought and litigated against the parks renovation or Susan Furman.
The music patrol
Regarding the group who are conducting surveillance of the drummers, Horowitz said he knows one of them is named Bill and lives on W. Fourth St.
Bill has an expensive camera a good one with a telephoto lens, Horowitz said. He may be using it to collect evidence to complain.
Horowitz said the fact that even those whom he calls the anything-goes-in-the-park people are concerned about the drumming shows its a problem.
It is not me! said Goren, asked if she was the Susan gathering signatures for the anti-drum petition. The Villager couldnt reach Furman by press time.
But Goren agreed that the drummings din has been rattling the park and its surroundings.
What has gone too far is the guy with the buckets plaster buckets turned over, or whatever...Tic and Tac and the two jazz groups, she said, apparently referring to the Park Foundation.
The guys that play on the west side of the park are really good. Theyre Japanese. Theyre willing to use mutes on their instruments.
Tic and Tac has a full set of drums theyre really too loud. The guys on the east side are really too loud, Goren said. They hit their drums as hard as they can and theyre ruining it for everyone.
It used to be congas
Horowitz recalled that in the late 1950s or early 1960s, some drums were banned in Washington Square.
Bongos were permitted. Congas were prohibited because of the deep percussive sound, he said. Plus, he noted, Under Ed Koch as mayor, half the park was a quiet zone.
Koch, however, said he didnt recall any quiet zone or conga ban.
On Monday, around 1 p.m., the Park Foundation were playing in their usual spot. Vorzimer kept the rhythm along with David Speranza on standup bass, while trumpet players alternately soloed over the mellow groove. Vorzimers drumming wasnt loud, and when Speranza soloed on bass, he played even softer, mainly doing unobtrusive rim shots and tinny hi-hat claps.
A small group sat listening quietly on the benches across the path. Occasionally, a listener or passerby would drop a buck in the bands bag and offer a smile and compliments. The group makes $60 to $100 on any given day, Vorzimer said.
Jamal, one of the trumpet players, noted theres a rich history of musicians performing in New Yorks public spaces, in general, and Washington Square Park, in particular. But the people who backed the parks renovation are calling the shots, he said, and they dont like music and are making it their park.
Thousands of people come to this park specifically to hear music, Jamal pointed out. There are very few parks like this in America, in the whole country.
Sonny Rollins played in the streets. Coltrane played in the trains.
If the musicians are kicked out of the park, he said, the next Coltrane might never be discovered.
However, Bill Castro, the Parks Departments Manhattan commissioner, said the musicians dont have to worry as long as they keep their volume at acceptable levels.
Theres no difference between the Parks Department and the police on this, he said of the noise enforcement. In fact, the precinct commander and I spoke with Councilmember Alan Gerson on this last week. However, he added, The police are taking the lead on this.
Basically, the music volume cant rise to unreasonable noise, Castro stated. What constitutes unreasonable noise, he said, would be if you can hear it outside the park, or if you can hear it in the park not too far away. He didnt say exactly how far away, noting that the sound of music played on grass wouldnt carry as far as that of music played on a hard surface.
Castro said the Parks Department regulations apply to all musicians, not just drummers, but that one drummer has been the main problem at Washington Square lately. The pots-and-pans guy?
Hes the one, Castro said. I dont think there are more drummers coming its just that one drummer.
If musicians are too loud, officers will first tell them to lower the volume, then, if necessary, tell them to stop; finally, officers will issue tickets if the musicians dont comply, he said.
We have a variety of combos and groups that have played there, and will continue to be there, Castro assured of the parks musicians. But it cant be unreasonable.