“If it didn’t come through the Jazz Car, it didn’t happen,” Spencer tells me.
He laughs from the driver’s seat of his black Ford Edge. We’re parked in LaGuardia’s cell phone lot, where Spencer’s uniform — jeans and a baseball cap — makes him stand out among the suited chauffeurs. Minutes later, a text on his iPhone lets him know his next pick-up has arrived.
Herbie Hancock once called him for a ride. So did Ravi Coltrane. At 71, Spencer is proud to be the go-to airport driver for Brooklyn’s jazz royalty, which today includes bassist Esperanza Spalding, singer Madeleine Peyroux, and guitarist Lionel Loueke. Spencer, who prefers to go only by that name, now considers these artists more “friends than clients,” yet eleven years ago their paths would never have crossed.
In 2001, he’d recently retired from the trucking company where he’d spent his entire career. It was around that time that Brooklyn’s Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, his home of nearly four decades, began attracting a new wave of transplants.Young jazz musicians from around the globe started moving down the block, in part because of a local landlord who offered cheap studios and didn’t ask for proof of steady work. One of the “jazz hood’s” first musician residents was saxophonist John Ellis, and it was Ellis who gave Spencer a window into the world of traveling artists.
“There was this young guy who used to hang out on the corner,” recalls Spencer, who still looks strong enough to lift a tuba or two. “I could tell by the way he talked that he was a country boy.” He and Ellis discovered that they had grown up within miles of one another in North Carolina, and quickly struck up a friendship.
The two men tell different versions of how the Jazz Car was born. Spencer says he once gave Ellis a ride to the airport when the saxophonist was in a bind. After that, Ellis came to him with “a proposition.” Ellis claims he called Spencer after seeing his flyer for a local car service at the Laundromat. Either way, what happened next changed Spencer’s life. Ellis offered to spread the word to his musician friends and acquaintances. Soon afterward, the phone started ringing.
“Virtually everyone I told started using him as a driver,” Ellis says. Ellis’s contacts told their friends, and through word of mouth, Spencer’s name circulated among the jazz community. Today, he receives so many calls he has to turn work down. As of mid-October, he already had more than a hundred rides booked for the month.
For many of the Jazz Car’s passengers, Spencer’s gift for conversation (“running his mouth,” as he calls it) has transformed their travels. His latest pick-up, a man and a woman, climb in the back seat. As we head back to Brooklyn, they ask about the famous die-cast truck collection Spencer started back in the 60s. He tells them all 4,000 pieces are now for sale, but the deal is “all or nothing.” Then he pulls up a photo of another prized antique—a 1972 Schwinn bike in mint condition. The man stares at the picture on Spencer’s phone. “Wow! Is that a banana seat?” he asks, grinning. It’s the kind of quirky moment Jazz Car riders count on. “He’s made going to the airport, something all of us used to dread, something we look forward to,” Ellis says.
Spencer’s also the guy they can count on to remember birthdays and other small details—and even, in the case of one singer, to come over and kill a mouse. He’ll come to their shows, too, but not without giving them the business. He once told Ellis after a performance, “People say you’re good, but I almost didn’t believe it.”
To Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, her driver possesses a “rare combination of downhome-y-ness and hipness.” She credits him with helping Brooklyn’s jazz artists stay connected to one another despite frenetic touring schedules. “What’s funny is that we pass correspondence through him,” Spalding explains. “He’ll tell me, ‘I saw Madeleine Peyroux and she says hi.’”
Spencer, who keeps a magazine with Spalding’s autograph in the front seat, chuckles when I tell him the bassist dubbed him, “the village news.” “Everything comes through the Jazz Car,” he says. He points to the glove compartment. “I want to put a chalk bulletin right here where the musicians can write messages to each other. That will be my newest invention.”
For his part, Spencer views the Jazz Car as a connection to the places he never got to see. Key chains from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Canada dangle from the rearview mirror, all souvenirs from his passengers. He loves getting emails from Europe, where many of his clients tour. He enjoys the fact that most of the young jazz musicians he knows are from overseas.
Life did not give Spencer the opportunity to travel far. In 1960, he moved to New York, having fled the Jim Crow South. Former classmates and a family member had become active in the Civil Rights Movement, and white employers considered Spencer guilty by association. No one would hire him.
In Brooklyn, he eventually settled on Ocean Avenue, in a brick apartment building across the street from Prospect Park. He met his wife of 50 years out dancing, and three children soon followed. He made a decent living driving an 18-wheeler, but the job required long, solitary hours on the road. Hard work and family devotion are part of his constitution, but he admits, “If I could do it again, I would see the world more.”
For now, he lives vicariously through his artist and “civilian” friends, collecting their stories in lieu of his own passport stamps. Although his schedule varies from day to day, he often wakes up at three in the morning to drive clients to their flights. He would like to take it easy someday, noting, “If I don’t take some time, I won’t get to see no time.”
The Jazz Car shows no signs of slowing down. When we return to his neighborhood, Spencer checks his phone again. Nine rides appear on his schedule for the following day. Sometimes, he asks himself why he needs the stress, but in the end, he likes the monster he’s created. As he drops me off at the Prospect Park subway station, he says, “It’s a good little hustle.”
Kate Schmier hails from Birmingham, Michigan and now lives in New York City. She is a recent MFA graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant for emerging writers.