For 1,275 Sundays in a row, Marjorie Eliot has flung open the doors to her cosy Washington Heights apartment and hosted a free jazz concert in tribute to her sons. Beginning mid-afternoon, musicians from around the world strum, croon and drift fingers over piano keys, bathed by the glow of a naked red light bulb.
While the first show drew an audience of six, word of mouth has helped swell the number of weekly attendees to at least 60. Marjorie’s home - white-walled, wooden-floored and decorated with newspaper cuttings - is a squeeze. Latecomers too slow to snag a front row seat cram into the kitchen or spill into the corridor. They crane for a glimpse of the spectacle, but while many barely catch that, it doesn’t seem to matter. The music seeps through the floorboards, trickles down the stairs, leaks out the windows onto the street below.
Marjorie stands in a corner, unable to see the living room stage. Wearing purple lipstick, multicoloured zebra-print sunglasses and a stripy bandana, the mother-of-five taps her feet. Later in the set, she graces the piano herself. “It brings me so much joy,” she grins afterwards. “I look forward to Sundays all week.”
Helga Athineos, meanwhile, is on orange juice duty. She has been for the last 15 years. Sliding between bodies with a tray of plastic cups, she ensures everyone is catered to. She also doles out honey oat cereal bars before making the rounds with a donation tin, embracing those who spare a dollar or two. But contributions are optional, and Marjorie is quick to stress that this isn’t a money spinner. They all do it for the love.
Japanese trumpeter Koichi Yoshihara started out as a spectator. “Little by little”, he hit it off with Marjorie, telling her it was his “dream” to play in New York. So she picked him, and he has been part of the line-up since 2003. “It is such a good experience,” he says.
The host, who sheepishly reveals her 81 years, agrees. Her life “revolves” around the sessions. She threw her first concert in June 1994 to honour her son Philip, who died on a Sunday two years earlier aged 32. It spiralled from there. Now when Marjorie plays, she’s also remembering two other sons she’s lost along the way: Michael, who died in 2006 aged 47 and Alfie, 51, who died in 2015.
Marjorie is grateful to her guests for letting her cry. “I don’t have to hide it,” she says. “The people who come here wear their hearts on their sleeves. They’re not peeping in the door treating it like a curiosity. The thing I love about them is they come in and say, ‘This is the way it should be.’ They all know my story. I just get into the music and it’s one way of dealing with the hardship.” “I know you can go to Madison Square Garden,” she adds, “But the intimacy here allows for growth. It allows us to really play the music.”
The two-hour concert is a medley of the sorrowful and uplifting and usually concludes with a jubilant rendition of ‘When The Saints Come Marching In.’ Marjorie, a life-long musician, jigs as she plays the piano. The crowd joins in the chorus. While stemming from a place of heartache, the goal is not only to grieve, but to celebrate. It succeeds. The atmosphere is electric.
When the show ends, Marjorie hangs about. There are no security guards shepherding everybody away. The official concert has ended, but the music doesn’t stop. Another of Marjorie’s five sons, saxophonist Rudy Drears, 52, commands the crowd. Meanwhile, his mother mills around in the kitchen, hugging her guests goodbye.
Read my news article about Marjorie’s Sunday series on Metro UK, here.