Hello Central, Give Me Doctor Jazz

by Willard Manus

“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 Teddy’s date, Sugie, to take a hit, she looked down at the joint and asked why it smelled funny.

“It’s just ordinary tobacco laced with a little honey,” I said.


“Hash-oil to you.”

“Never smoked any of that before.”

“Of hash and love, the first is best.”

Sugie sucked the smoke down into her lungs and held it there. Then: “Wow” (cough) “I don’t believe it. I’m high already,” she said, coughing again.

“It sure does hit home,” Karen said.

“That’s right,” Sidney agreed, also coughing. “Where’d you come by
it, Leo?”

“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 Sol’s 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...”

Through it all I kept checking Sugie to see how she was taking it. She looked mystified, as if she couldn’t quite fit it all together, being here with all these jangly, joking, middle-aged white folks. Teddy hadn’t 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 on it.

“Hello central, give me Doctor Jazz

He’s got what I need, I’ll 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 Segovia’s.

“Who’s that on bass?” Teddy asked.

“Schmuck, don’t you recognize Sol when you hear him?”

I had the chills. Ice water was running down my back.

“It’s been so long since I listened to Sol,” Teddy said. “I forgot just how good he was.”

“Remember 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. He’d been the first of our crew to leave the Bronx, exchanging Lydig Avenue for a pad on MacDougal Street. He’d been the first of us to discover bebop, the Royal Roost, Birdland, that whole new post-war jazz scene out there. He’d 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.

Sidney shrugged.

“When, goddammit?”

“Look” (cough), I don’t remember. Maybe a year ago.”

Teddy hadn’t been in touch with him either but believed he was still at Cloverdale.

“What’s 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, why’d you move to California?”

“That’s right,” Sidney said. “You were the one closest to him.”

“I just had to get away from New York.”

“Don’t give me that. Bottom line is, you walked, we stayed.”

“Sol hasn’t been the same since you and Rhoda broke up,” Teddy said.

He was right. Sol’s 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 Rhoda’s halfway house. And wrote a tune about it, “Rhoda’s Roost.” Good enough for Coleman Hawkins to record it; I’d heard it recently in L.A. on the KKGO jazz station. I’d suffered damnation that night thinking about Sol, worrying about him, remembering how hurt he’d been when my marriage to Rhoda failed.

“Somewhere there’s 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. Three’s 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, Semitic beak.

“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. “We’re having a concert in a little while.”

“You going to play?”

“I don’t know if I’m up to it. I’ve been on heavy doses of Thorazine lately. I think I’ve lost my chops.”

“Don’t say it. Your chops’ll come back.”

“Right now I feel as if I’ll never play the bass again. Why the hell should I, anyway? What’s the point?”

“You’re a great musician, is the point. You should just keep on doing what you do so well.”

“Even if you’re just about the only person in the world who feels that way?”

“Play for me, then. Or for yourself. Just don’t think of quitting.”

He took a drag on his cigarette, then asked suddenly, “Have you heard from Rhoda?”

“I got a Christmas card from her last December, telling me she’s found religion. She’s living in Colorado, on some kind of ashram.”

“What the hell, as long as she’s 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 my age.”

“You’ve got guts, Len, to make a late move like this. I couldn’t do it. I’m a chicken, as youknow, always taking the easy way out, getting strung out on some damn chemical or other.”

“That’s all behind you.”

“Is it? Do people really change?”

“You’re off smack, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, and on Thorazine. Or Methadone. What’s 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.

“They’re 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-girl’s thighs.

“Trouble is,” Sol went on, “we haven’t had much time to rehearse. Some of the musicians just checked in a few days ago.”

“Not to worry. Just wing it.”

“What if I’m not able to?”

“Stop with that kind of talk. It doesn’t become you.”

Sol fell 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, child’s 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. He’d 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, he’d been the best-known, most innovative jazz pianist of his generation, an original who’d 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, he’d 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.

Petronius, 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 Ellington’s “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 weren’t as sharp as they had once been: Petronius’ solos were bare and perfunctory, and Sol’s playing still sounded tight and self-conscious. But it didn’t 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, “Rhoda’s 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.