One evening Jim and I decided to go to a free concert of all-brass music put on by students and faculty at the University of Arizona’s School of Music. That meant, like much of life in Tucson, driving about twelve miles through the city’s sprawling grid: long traffic lights and increasingly scruffy commercial strips interspersed with residential areas on our way “downtown.” We’d decided to eat an early dinner at the Cup Cafe in the historic Congress Hotel and then drive the short distance back east to campus.
The Hotel, a small brick building on the edge of Congress and Fifth Avenues, is one of the historic gems that make trips to Tucson’s “Centro” as gratifying as finding a designer dress at TJMaxx. You step back decades as soon as you swing open the doors. The beams of the low-ceilinged lobby are painted with Native American designs. The light is low, in a small-wattage way, and the little bar in one corner emerges out of the shadows only by virtue of some neon lettering in vintage cursive script that reflects dimly off the liquor bottles. Built in 1919, the Congress Hotel’s true claim to fame dates from 1934, when a small fire in the hotel’s elevator shaft resulted in John Dillinger’s capture by the lowly Tucson police . Dillinger and some of his gang had headed to the Southwest to lie low and were holed up in the Congress. A fireman who assisted, with the help of a generous tip, in carrying their luggage out of the hotel to safety recognized them from a “True Detective” magazine. The police were then able to stake Dillinger out in a nearby house. “I’ll be damned,” said Dillinger when he was captured.
In one of those odd narrative threads that history spins, one of the federal agents assisting the local police in Dillinger’s capture eventually migrated to Hawai’i. His housekeeper was a Japanese immigrant, the mother of a good friend of ours.
The Cup Cafe is off the hotel lobby, and though its menu is eclectic, like many restaurants here it features southwest-inspired items like the sweet potato plantain tamale I ordered, with chimichanga, vegan beans and green rice. Mae, our real-life connection to the Dillinger capture, is a nutritionist, and I think she would have approved.
Hanging from the ceiling above us were chandeliers made out of old wine bottle drying racks, and behind the ancient, narrow bar were rows of exotic-looking tequila bottles. Attractive young waitstaff hustled back and forth. All in all, the Cup seemed so hip that I was a little disappointed at the age of our fellow diners – approximately our own. But maybe it was the early hour.
We found our way to the U of A’s Music School’s Crowder Hall, a large, modern if spare auditorium. (The doors to the Music School declare it a “weapons-free zone,” barring anyone from entering with a sawed-off shotgun in a violin case — unless the Arizona State Legislature succeeds in allowing weapons on campuses.) The audience made me feel as if we’d been bussed in from some retirement community: it was a sea of white heads, including Jim’s. The program consisted of four separate “studios”: the French horns, the tubas and euphoniums — how often do you get the chance to hear musical arrangements played entirely by tubas? — , trombones and trumpets. Then the four faculty members and a student played three pieces as a brass quintet. And finally the assembled musicians played selections from Moussourgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition” arranged for brass. It was an interesting program consisting of pieces by unfamiliar composers – unfamiliar to us, at least, since the composers had evidently been selected because they composed for brass. One of the pieces had been arranged and was conducted by a student whose birth date, the program informed us, was 1991, which vaguely led me to believe, before I saw him, that we would be entertained by a toddler prodigy — further proof, which apparently I keep needing, that I belonged to the white-haired.
Jim remarked how encouraging it was that so many young people are studying classical instruments. Of course, many of them play instruments that can be used in all sorts of music, and the student in the faculty brass quintet, a tall thin guy with a jazzman trumpeter’s slump, retro sideburns and Buddy Holly glasses, doubles as a drummer in a jazz group. But given the average age of the audience, the concert was at least a sign that classical music isn’t doomed to extinction — and this is Arizona, not Julliard. And there were young fellow musicians in the audience cheering and whistling, including for the two student stagehands who arranged the music stands after each portion of the concert. It was an interesting break from the formal symphony concert; it made us feel as if we were listening in on music, and musicians, in the making. For the space of the evening, we were Tusconans.