Dauphine Street Blues on the record-player, the savor of won-ton
and fried rice on the tongue, and a stick of joy making the rounds.
When it came time for Teddys date, Sugie, to take a hit, she looked
down at the joint and asked why it smelled funny.
Its just ordinary tobacco laced with a little honey,
Hash-oil to you.
Never smoked any of that before.
hash and love, the first is best.
Sugie sucked the smoke down into her lungs and held it there. Then: Wow
(cough) I dont believe it. Im high already, she
said, coughing again.
It sure does hit home, Karen said.
Thats right, Sidney agreed, also coughing. Whered
you come by
My wife gave it to me as a splitting-up present, I explained.
Glad you finally got something good out of the marriage, man.
More laughter, coughing, and ingesting of honey-laced smoke.
Another stick went round and so did the music, Sidney playing one side
after another, a track or two at a time, taking us on a trip back through
time. He had kept all his brother Sols old race records
from the 20s and 30s, labels such as Regal and Savoy, musicians
such as Curley Weaver and Dg N Whistle Red playing the blues, the Down
Home Blues and Good Morning Blues and How Long Blues...
Some yellow dog gal done stole
my man from me
Some yellow dog gal done...
all I kept checking Sugie to see how she was taking it. She looked mystified,
as if she couldnt quite fit it all together, being here with all
these jangly, joking, middle-aged white folks. Teddy hadnt prepared
her for anything like this and was content to just kick back and get high
and grin at Sidney as he brought out his kazoo and started tootling away
Hello central, give me Doctor Jazz
Hes got what I need, Ill say he has...
What a record collection Sidney had: Forest City Joe and Sleepy John Estes,
blues masters, jazz masters, the forgotten and the famous, the Lady Day
and Memphis Minnies, and he took us down the river with them, right back
to Buddy Bolden and King Oliver, with long loving stops along the way
with such moderns as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and that Jackie
McLean record with Donald Byrd on trumpet and somebody doing some startling
things on the acoustic bass, using the bow up high in the harmonic position,
like a Bartok sonata, and then suddenly producing a pizzicato sound like
Whos that on bass? Teddy asked.
Schmuck, dont you recognize Sol when you hear him?
I had the chills. Ice water was running down my back.
Its been so long since I listened to Sol, Teddy said.
I forgot just how good he was.
that night when we went downtown with him to the Café Bohemia?
Teddy asked. Oscar Pettiford was there and the Adderly brothers.
Sol walked up on stage and blew every one of those mother-fuckers to bits.
It was a revelation, Sidney said. There was my brother,
cutting all those black dudes, proving that a jewboy from the Bronx had
as much soul as they did.
It was all coming back, all those bitter-sweet memories of Sol. Hed
been the first of our crew to leave the Bronx, exchanging Lydig Avenue
for a pad on MacDougal Street. Hed been the first of us to discover
bebop, the Royal Roost, Birdland, that whole new post-war jazz scene out
there. Hed also given us our first hits of marijuana in those heady
days of excitement and experiment, life changing before our eyes, going
from C-minor to D-flat. A few years later Sol copped the Downbeat Magazine
award for Best New Musician of the Year and I got married to Rhoda Sutphin,
an activist high up in the ranks of the Progressive Party (Win with
Wallace), who convinced me that brotherhood and socialism were right
around the corner.
When was the last time you saw Sol? I asked.
Look (cough), I dont remember. Maybe a year ago.
Teddy hadnt been in touch with him either but believed he was still
the matter with you guys? How could you forget about him like that?
Where do you get off putting us down? Teddy asked heatedly.
If you cared so much about Sol, whyd you move to California?
Thats right, Sidney said. You were the one closest
I just had to get away from New York.
Dont give me that. Bottom line is, you walked, we stayed.
Sol hasnt been the same since you and Rhoda broke up,
He was right. Sols best years had been when he lived with Rhoda
and me, before and after his stretches in the Federal penitentiary at
Lexington, Kentucky. He called our pad Rhodas halfway house. And
wrote a tune about it, Rhodas Roost. Good enough for
Coleman Hawkins to record it; Id heard it recently in L.A. on the
KKGO jazz station. Id suffered damnation that night thinking about
Sol, worrying about him, remembering how hurt hed been when my marriage
to Rhoda failed.
Somewhere theres music
How high the moon...
By the time
two a.m. came, Teddy and Sugie had retired to the next-door bedroom, leaving
the party in the hands of Sidney, Karen and myself. Threes company,
I realized as they began cuddling and smooching, so down the stairs I
went and out into the Manhattan night. Once in the car and heading uptown,
an urge to keep driving took hold of me. I kept going north, straight
toward Cloverdale and Sol.
I drove through the darkness, reaching Cloverdale just after dawn. I found
Sol sitting in the shade of an oak tree on a hilltop overlooking a small
amphitheater. All the flesh on his body had been hammered down to a thin
transparency. The veins in his hands showed like the filaments in a leaf.
He seemed weightless and immaterial. I was afraid the wind might pick
him up and blow him away.
All those years on drugs, the stretches in prisons and clinics, had taken
their toll. The skin on his face was dry and scarred, showing jagged slashes
for eyes and mouth. Only his nose was intact, that magnificent, curved,
You picked the right Sunday to visit, he said, lighting up
a Sweet Caporal, the dark, fragrant cigarette that he claimed was the
closest thing to a legal high. Were having a concert in a
You going to play?
I dont know if Im up to it. Ive been on heavy
doses of Thorazine lately. I think Ive lost my chops.
Dont say it. Your chopsll come back.
Right now I feel as if Ill never play the bass again. Why
the hell should I, anyway? Whats the point?
a great musician, is the point. You should just keep on doing what you
do so well.
Even if youre just about the only person in the world who
feels that way?
Play for me, then. Or for yourself. Just dont think of quitting.
He took a drag on his cigarette, then asked suddenly, Have you heard
I got a Christmas card from her last December, telling me shes
found religion. Shes living in Colorado, on some kind of ashram.
What the hell, as long as shes happy.
The other patients in Cloverdale had come out of their quarters and were
beginning to walk toward the amphitheater, crossing a wide, bright-green
lawn studded with bushes. Their voices floated lightly on the warm breeze.
So you broke up with wife number two and came back to New York.
Is it for good? Sol asked.
It will be, if I can find a job. Which is not easy, considering
Youve got guts, Len, to make a late move like this. I couldnt
do it. Im a chicken, as youknow, always taking the easy way out,
getting strung out on some damn chemical or other.
Thats all behind you.
it? Do people really change?
Youre off smack, arent you?
Yeah, and on Thorazine. Or Methadone. Whats the difference?
Sol sank into a silence. He sat staring down at the scene below us, the
Sweet Caporal burning down to a nub between his nicotine-stained fingers.
The line of inmates swelled, became a crowd. Most of them were alcoholics,
Sol explained. Moving on woozy legs, supported by attendants and nurses,
they were followed in turn by the dope-fiends, who oozed along in slow,
somber procession. Next came the schizos, all bright smiles and banter,
followed by the paranoids and psychotics, the child-rapists and fetishists,
God knows what. Cloverdale had them all, it would appear, enough psychiatric
case histories to fill a medical encyclopedia.
Theyre what every jazz musician dreams of, Sol added
with a smile. A captive audience.
It was an ideal day for a concert. The upstate air smelled warm and sweet,
like a farm-girls thighs.
Trouble is, Sol went on, we havent had much time
to rehearse. Some of the musicians just checked in a few days ago.
Not to worry. Just wing it.
What if Im not able to?
Stop with that kind of talk. It doesnt become you.
silent again, sat smoking and thinking. Then he gave a sigh, ground his
cigarette into the earth, and pulled himself up and started down the hill,
moving slowly, stiffly. When he reached the stage, he picked up his bass
and began warming up with some flamenco-like runs, alternating plucked
notes with side-pitches. His fingering was tentative, lax. He looked small
and frail up there, childs body draped round the upright instrument,
clinging to it as if for support.
His band-mates gathered round him. I recognized the trumpet player, a
tall, studious-looking black gent with thick eye-glasses and close-cropped
grey hair. Hed been a sideman with various big bands of the 50s
and 60s, until a series of mental breakdowns killed his career. Another
familiar face was that of the pianist, Petronius Priest. Fifteen years
ago, hed been the best-known, most innovative jazz pianist of his
generation, an original whod won international acclaim for his artistry.
A singular figure in derby and goatee, playing his crabbed single-line
notes and off-beat chords with wicked humor, hed slowly slipped
into a pattern of infrequent playing and increasing dependency on alcohol.
He spent most of his days up here in Cloverdale, battling his addiction.
acting as leader, spoke to the band, gave them some instructions, played
a brief passage on the piano. The musicians listened, nodded, readied
their instruments, blew a few tentative riffs. Petronius nodded, spoke
again, then gestured for silence. A moment later he gave them a downbeat
and they began the concert, playing a tune that I recognized as Ellingtons
Across the Track Blues.
They played it awkwardly, at the wrong tempo, with Petronius and Sol bungling
some of the breaks. Their next effort, an up-tempo version of Gingerbread
Boy, started poorly as well, but then the trumpet and saxophone
began to cook, playing intricate ensembles that were as important as the
solos. This turned things around for the other musicians, who began playing
breathless, darting music and moving into improvised counterpoint. I felt
my spirits begin to lift.
These pros werent as sharp as they had once been: Petronius
solos were bare and perfunctory, and Sols playing still sounded
tight and self-conscious. But it didnt matter. They were playing
with drive, passion and power. They were playing jazz.
Sol began to relax. Instead of clinging desperately to the bass, he now
enfolded it within his arms, embracing it like a loving woman. He played
with closed eyes, in communion with the instrument, picking out ripe,
dark, full-bodied chords that hung shimmering in the sunlight like bunches
of grapes. Then he went into a long, lyrical solo, leading the way for
the others. It had a lilting, descending melody, brief but complex tempo
changes. I knew the tune inside out, having been there when he had composed
it, Rhodas Roost.
When Sol finished his solo, he deferred to the trumpet, who took every
phrase and deflected it from where it appeared to be going, embarking
on an inspired flight which Sol soon joined, in intimate, organic fashion.
It was jazz improvisation at its best and all of a sudden I found myself
up on my feet, shouting at Sol and his band-mates, Do it, people,
do it for us! as the tears stung my eyes and streamed down my cheeks.