Thelonious Monkfish’s special makimono roll “Harlem Nocturne” is named after a song written by Earle Hagen as a tribute to the African-American saxophonist Johnny Hodges.
Described as sultry, this song has gone through many incarnations, more recently used as the theme song for the Mike Hammer TV Show. I chose to name a sushi roll after it because I love this composition and the feelings it stirs in me. I wanted, too, to honor the northern roots of jazz in Harlem.
I would give anything to have been a fly on the wall when young Ella performed The Object of My Affection at the Apollo for the first time! Or when Duke Ellington began broadcasting from the Cotton Club! And to see Billie Holiday sing live Strange Fruit! You can see it on YouTube and it is chilling. I can’t even imagine seeing her perform it live.
Maybe in the future we’ll travel through time, but for now we’re stuck in the gloom of the twenty-first century where jazz and the golden age of song is but a small paragraph in the long essay of contemporary pop music where Gaga and Eminem reign supreme. I am not lamenting the passage of time or longing for bygone days; instead, I espouse a renewed embrace of this creative, innovative, joyful medium of expression!
Thelonious Monkfish’s Harlem Nocturne Roll
As part of the description of the sushi roll, I composed a haiku to help create an image of what a night in Harlem might’ve been like. The poem is:
His sweltering flat / woman sobbing through the wall / in his head he blows his horn
I imagined a black teenaged boy sitting in his room one hot summer night, hearing a woman cry through the wall; maybe his mother or someone from the next apartment. He escapes this dismal ambiance, though, by playing his instrument in his mind. Often, this is the truth of how many jazz musicians found passion for playing. Music was a shinier, happier world where they could express their feelings of sorrow and joy.
I have been a passionate reader since childhood, so my mind thinks in metaphor and allegory. Of course, the pink of the smoked salmon and the white of the cream cheese that top this sushi roll must represent something, right?
Here is how I made the Harlem Nocturne roll:
Avocado, asparagus, cucumber, tempura crunch wrapped in seaweed & rice and topped with smoked salmon & cream cheese, black flying fish roe and spring onion confetti.
Smoked salmon and cream cheese are famously used as the defining ingredients of The Philadelphia Roll, and Philadelphia was a major destination for African-Americans in The Great Migration in the first half of the twentieth century.
The pink of the smoked salmon symbolized for me the skin of the Europeans who founded this country. The white of the cream cheese represented the cotton picked by the Africans who were tragically kidnapped and brought here to work without compensation.
Crowning the smoked salmon and cream cheese is black flying fish roe. These black eggs symbolized for me the creation of new opportunity and hope for Black Americans who have most famously found success in the fields of sports and music. (This observation is not meant to denigrate the success they’ve found in other areas, e.g. scientists, government officials, business owners.) Harlem was a center of northern Black American achievement in both the arts and sports, for example, the Harlem Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters weren’t really from New York City at all but from Chicago. Their founder Abe Saperstein named them after Harlem because it was the blossom of African-American cultural achievement in the twenties when they were formed. Some might consider the Globetrotters a joke, but in the seventies when I was growing up, they were cool! And they even had their own Saturday morning cartoon which my older brother Rick & I watched every week! Rick even fought with our Dad over it when Dad insisted on watching the Watergate Hearings which were scheduled at the same time!
All the green vegetables within but especially the spring onion confetti represents a celebration of the coming of a new season of opportunity and prosperity for African-Americans.
In summary, I’ve tried to follow Earle Hagen’s example by dedicating the Harlem Nocturne Roll to African-American achievement. There’ve been many spectacular white jazz musicians through the years. A few I love particularly are Bing Crosby, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, Bill Evans, Jerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck and George Shearing. Yet I’ve always found myself very inspired by the joy and passion and creativity of African-American artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie–whose pufferfish cheeks I saw when I was twelve–Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Thelonious Monk and too many others to name. Honestly, I don’t think skin color matters, but instead it is the sensitivity of the soul that makes the difference between a good musician and a stellar one. Often suffering early on in life is what forges this difference.