Copie Martin was dead. No more would that goose-necked little black man
touch people in the night with the cry of his clarinet. The long journey
he had made from the Come Clean Dance Hall in New Orleans (where he had
tootled If Youre the Lemon Let Me Be the Squeezer) to
the black and tan joints in Detroit and the dance halls in K.C. and the
sailor traps in Newport News was ended. He was boss, real boss, on the
clarinet, but he died covered with roaches in a lonely boarding-house
in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. And now his shrunken body lay before us, refrigerated
and shelved, in the Jim Crow section of the city morgue.
Lets get the hell out of here, Herman Mathews said,
his expression twisted and pained.
So we turned away and went outside into the summer night, the sickly-sweet
smell of embalmment still in our nostrils. Swarms of tiny green bugs flew
at us, their brittle wings whirring. Herman let out a panicked cry and
flailed away at them. Jesus, get them off of me!
The bugs were everywhere, drawn by the glare of the neon lights along
Mulberry Street. It was only ten p.m. but the shops were closed and the
sidewalks were deserted. From a side street came the roar of a hot-rod,
a snub-nosed Ford that shattered the silence with twin exhausts and back-seat
laughter. Then the street was ours again and we moved on, still warding
off the bugs, passing a pool hall where a fat boy practiced billiard shots
and four men sat drinking beer and playing dominoes. They regarded us
with suspicion: we were heading toward the black section of town. Two
white strangers going in the wrong direction.
Here, beyond the railroad station, darkness cloaked rickety houses and
shacks. The night sky was wildly beautiful but
down here things smelled of raw sewage. We could see people sitting on
their porches, talking and smoking and laughing. It made me feel lonely
and bereft. As we passed and were noticed, voices went silent, then resumed
with caution and wariness. Dogs growled menacingly from behind low fences.
We welcomed the lights of The Bluff Café; inside was the sound
of jukebox jazz and the comforting smells of life. Sweat-drenched men
came here to drink beer after a days work in the cotton fields or
in the nearby furniture plant; perfumed women came on weekends to gossip
and dance and get high. Only two nights ago, Copie had sat on the band-stand,
a black knot of a man, his shoulders hunched, his chin squeezed tight
against his chest, his cheeks puffed out like an adders as he played
the blues: honky-tonk blues, B-flat blues, old-time blues.
Did you see him? asked Faz Carter, the owner of The Bluff,
a big, beer-heavy man. He came out from behind the bar to greet us.
I nodded and asked, What will happen to him? How long will they
keep him in the morgue?
Maybe another day or two.
If nobody claims him, theyll dump him in the ground out behind
the city jail.
Thats just great, Herman said. A goddamn paupers
passed without leavin a thin dime, Faz said. Hes
got a cousin in New Orleans, but if she doesnt send money we wont
be able to give him a proper burial.
Money, I said. Why does everything come down to money?
Good question, Faz said, adding, Why dont you
boys go sit down? Ill send over some beers.
The back room was empty and dimly lit. An ancient over-head fan turned
creakily, barely stirring the hot, fetid air. Herman sat down in the booth
muttering, I wish I hadnt gone to the morgue. I hate looking
at dead people.
The beers arrived. We drank thirstily, needily.
Seeing Copie made me think of my aunt when she died, Herman
said. So shriveled-up and wasted. She was always nice to me. Bought
me my first oboe when I was ten years old. He gave a rueful sigh.
Wonder what shed do if she knew I became a jazz musician.
Probably take back the oboe.
Herman managed a laugh, then tossed down some more beer. Doesnt
it make you sick the way Copie went? He blew his heart out for forty years
and died in a bug-filled town halfway to nowhere.
know how I could possibly console him. Herman was a troubled young guy,
a conflicted soul. At twenty-five, he had come late to jazz, completely
unprepared for its hard knocks. His family had sent him to the Curtis
School of Music, where he had done well and been offered a job at graduation:
second chair in the wind section of the St. Paul Symphony Orchestra. But
after three years of full-time employment, he had quit St. Paul to join
our group, the Gotham Jazz Quintette.
Herman was a gifted musician and a key member of the Quintette; he could
play three instruments, had perfect pitch, and had a natural feeling for
jazz. But a part of him still belonged to the classical world, a world
of regular pay-checks, public respect, euphonious music. It was a long
way from the Quintettes world: hard travel, badly paying gigs, unruly
audiences. Hed gone from being an insider to an outsider and it
didnt sit well with him, especially when his family kept telling
him what a mistake hed made, kept putting down the low-class music
he was playing.
Herman sipped some more beer and asked, How long are we going to
hang around here?
Until we find out whats going to happen with Copie.
What do you think will happen?
I wish I knew.
What if nothing happens?
Then well help bury him here in Pine Bluff.
I finished my beer and started on another. Hey, hadnt you
better take it easy? Herman asked. With your ulcer, youre
not supposed to drink alcohol.
This is a special night.
drinking bottle after bottle of Falstaff beer. My ulcer began to ache
but I didnt want to quit drinking. I wanted to get bombed, blot
out the image of Copie lying dead in that dreary morgue. The beer didnt
work, though. It did nothing for me. The night went on; every once in
a while we heard men shouting and laughing next door, saying things like
Sheeitt, boy! She thinks you hung the moon! Outside
the bugs whirred and scratched at the screened window. Herman muttered,
Goddamn bugs! Then, finally, Lets split, lets
get the hell out of this dump.
Herman, lighten up, man.
We fell silent. We heard the sound of a Southern Pacific freight train
rumbling through town. Then silence and thoughts of Copie again: a memory
of that winter in New York about ten years ago, sharing a Broome Street
loft with Copie, whod just come up from the south to try and find
some work. Taking him uptown to 52nd Streetit must have been 1947to
dig Bird and Diz and Miles. It was a shock for him to hear what those
cats were putting down, it was all so new and different and raw, but to
his credit he listened and learned; Copie couldnt play like them
but he appreciated and respected what they were doing, swing was still
his thing, but he later incorporated some of their licks into his solos
as a way of paying tribute to those Young Turks.
didnt really work out for him; he got a few jobs of course, but
the bop revolution had cast him aside, made him redundant, and he soon
announced that he was going back home, back to the south, where his name
still meant something, his music as well.
Why keep fighting it? I asked him. Why not retire, kick
back and take it easy for the first time in your life?
Cant quit, Copie said. I dont have no savings
and social security wont cut it. Ill just have to keep on
keepin on, same as always.
Has it been worth it? I asked him. Tell me the truth.
Would you do it over again if you had the choice?
He smiled his wise little smile and said, I surely would do it again-providin
I could marry rich.
When dawn came our table was littered with beer bottles and Herman was
quite drunk. When we get back to New York Im packing it in,
he mumbled. Im gonna give up jazz and find another symphony
job. Play Mozarts flute and harp concerto. My aunt always loved
He got to his feet and wobbled to the mens room. I sat fighting
the pain in my stomach and watching as sunlight filtered into the room.
Suddenly the door banged open and a tall, gangling black guy swept in
and announced himself with a loud cry. Oh yeahhh! Whats happening,
my man? Whats shaking, brother Irving?
I gave a
cry of joy. For this hipster in a three-button Brooks Brother olive-green
suit and white frilly shirt with a roll collar and a pencil-thin red tie,
was Willie Peters, an ex-band-mate whom I hadnt seen in maybe five
Give me five! Willie cried, extending a rigid palm. I slapped
it loud and hard.
What are you doing here? I asked.
Dont you remember? This is my turf. Stopped by yesterday to
visit my mama and, you know, get me some good home cookin again.
He smiled broadly and asked, Howve you been, Irv? Hows
your old lady?
Norma? We got divorced about a year ago.
Too bad. I always thought highly of her.
What about your wife?
Which one? Theyre numbered one through five, you know.
Laughter followed and another slapping of palms. Then I asked him if he
was still playing piano in Johnny Otis r & b band.
I put in nearly five years with Otis, but then I went off on my
own. Found me a young cat whos a mother-fucker on the tenor and
sings like Ray Charles. Hes still got boll weevils stickin
to him, but I believe hes going to make me rich and famous one day.
chuckled and said, I heard the album your band just put out. Some
very tasty stuff there. Dug what you did on that trumpet of yours.
Thats high praise, coming from you.
Willie beamed. Hey, remember that time in Tulsa, when we played
together with Copie in some big band or other
I think it was Jack Teagardens
Oh, yeah, right. Well, there we were, playing for the folks in this
miserable little club
I remember, all right. That club was low, it was foul
And then this gunfight started. All these cut-throats started blasting
away at each other. Pow, pow! I wanted to run and hide, but Copie said,
No need to worry. This kind of thing happens all the time. Just
Just play loud, Willie repeated, with a laugh. Just
Then he put a hand on my shoulder and said, I heard about Copie.
Who told you?
Heard the news on the local jazz station. They played some of his
music, talked about his life. It was a real nice tribute.
Im glad to hear that.
Id like to do something for him.
into his pocket, came up with three wrinkled twenty-dollar bills and dropped
them on the table. Put this toward his funeral, would you? It aint
much but its something.
Thats real nice of you, Willie.
Its no big deal. The money aint made me rich and it
aint gonna make me poor.
He laughed again, then said, Ive got to head home, Irv. But
if theres anything more I can do for Copie, just pick up the phone.
Ill do that, I said, adding as he started out, good
luck with your group.
Thanks. Same to you as well. Willie paused and looked back
grinning from the doorway. Just remember what old Copie said. When
the goin gets tough, just play loud, man! And then he was
When Herman returned we sat staring at the small pile of money on the
table. Then Faz poked his head in and said, Theres a phone
call for you.
The voice that came through the receiver was thin and far off. That
Yeah. Whos this?
Rudy Goldfarb. Im glad I caught you.
Howd you know I was here?
grapevine, man. Im in Joplin getting ready to play a wedding with
my dance band. We just heard the news about Copie. It shook us up, man.
So we all chipped in and put together thirty-four bucks. I already wired
it to you, care of The Bluff.
I said thanks and hung the phone up. Feeling light and hungry now, I went
to the kitchen and ordered a breakfast of spareribs, grits, hot rolls,
and coffee. While Herman and I fed our faces, a Western Union boy delivered
the thirty-four dollars and the phone kept ringing. Some of those who
called promised to send money for Copie, others just wanted to talk about
By mid-morning we realized that we had raised enough money to buy Copie
a coffin, ship it to New Orleans, and bury him there.
Herman and I went outside to sit on The Bluffs porch. A fat, blood-red
sun was blazing in the overhead sky. A strong breeze swept in from the
north bearing the headiness of black upturned earth.
I think Ill go to New Orleans with Copies body. I might
even stay there for a week or two, play some gigs before returning to
Ill go with you.
Wait a minute. I thought you said you were done with jazz.
was last night, he replied. Todays a new day, isnt
Yeah, I suppose it is, I said.
I went inside and checked out the jukebox. Listed was a tune that Copie
had recorded some twenty years ago, Burgundy Street Blues.
I put a quarter in and watched as the disc dropped into place. The disc
was warped and scratched, but Copies sound came through nonetheless.
As I listened to him play that slow, sweet, mournful tune I conjured up
an image of him on the bandstand, a black knot of a man, his shoulders
hunched, his eyes closed as he fought with everything in him to touch
people with the sound of his clarinet.
I kept that image in my head for as long as I could, then went back to
the morgue to deal with death again.