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Authors: Dorothy Baker

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BOOK: Young Man With a Horn
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Rick got out when the Jordans did and thanked the Rausons very much, in those words. Mrs. Jordan, standing on the curb and holding Bluebelle by the hand, said, ‘Tell Mr. and Mizz Rauson thank you for the nice auto ride, honey.’ And Bluebelle, grown suddenly diffident again, hung her head and said in her littlest voice, ‘Thank you for the nice auto.’

The Cadillac drove off, and Rick was en famille with the Jordans.

‘Would you care to come in, Mr. Martin?’ the mother asked. And Rick, who had put two or three hurdles behind him that day, elected to slow down. ‘Thank you, but I have to go home right away, thank you,’ he said.

‘Well,’ said Mrs. Jordan, ‘I have to go in and start dinner before Mr. Jordan gets home, if he ain’t already. Good-bye, and I’m glad to have met you.’ She started, Bluebelle in hand, up the walk toward the small, worn bungalow.

Rick remembered his hat. He snatched it off and said, ‘I’m very glad to have met you, Mrs. Jordan.’

He and Smoke were alone. Without talking it over they began to walk toward the Cotton Club. It was only five o’clock, plenty of time to get in a crack or two at the baby grand before dark, in spite of what he’d said about going right home.

‘How’d you get along last night?’ Rick said, and Smoke, who could always be trusted to tell you exactly how things were, without any dodges or coloring, said that it went fine, that somehow or other, when he got the sticks in his hand and heard the music there to measure off, there wasn’t anything to it; he got interested in playing and couldn’t seem to keep on thinking about how George was dead and he had his job. Only one time any of them felt as if anything much had happened, and that was when a couple of the customers came up to the stand and the woman, one that’s around there a lot, said to Jeff: ‘What’s become of Georgie these last few nights? Did he run out on you, or did you fire him?’ And Jeff said, ‘He hasn’t been feeling so good.’ ‘That’s tough,’ this girl said; ‘give him my love when you see him,’ and she went back to the table. It was a kind of a funny thing for Jeff to say, but after she left he said there’s no use in making the customers get sad; the orchestra business is something like the show business; you keep a smile on your pan no matter how you feel, just like waiters always wear tuxedos, and cooks keep their hair out of the way and their hands clean. It’s just part of the job.

‘I never would have thought of that,’ Rick said in a voice bound up with awe. ‘What do you suppose Jeff’s got that makes him so brainy, anyhow?’

Smoke wouldn’t venture to guess what causes brains. Some do, some don’t, was about all there was to say about it. ‘Holy Cow!’ he said, leaving the sphere of contemplation. ‘Here comes my other sister, Josephine, coming down the street.’

She was a half-block away, coming toward them on the same side of the street. Rick recognized her, but not by name. He had seen her in the halls at Lowell and she was in the same study-hall he was in. She had played the ukulele and sung ‘Wabash Blues’ at a Student Body program once, and they encored her four times, which is pretty good for a black girl in a mixed high school.

She was wearing a blue middy and a blue box-pleated skirt that reached her ankles, and she was walking in a full, free stride that gave her the look of going to town rather than home from school.

When they came together Josephine said, ‘Hi, Danny,’ and Smoke said, ‘This is Rick Martin.’ Rick took his hat off and Josephine said she’d seen him around school. ‘Yes, me too,’ said Rick, and it was all over; he’d met his third Jordan in one day.

‘Why wasn’t you at the funeral?’ Smoke wanted to know.

Josephine made a fine face, a kind of paradoxical pout with a great measure of satisfaction in it. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘that girls’ counselor, Miss Ellery, got to thinking it over and decided she couldn’t do me no favors right at this time. Not only she wouldn’t let me out of English last period, but on top of not doing that she picks this day to make me stay two extra periods after school. Imagine! Two!’

‘What did you do wrong?’ Smoke asked.

‘That’s what I’ve been trying to think, too,’ said Josephine, guileless as a dove. ‘As far as I can remember I didn’t do a single thing. The only thing I can figure out is she’s got a grudge on me. She gets the worst grudges.’

Even while she said it, her face took on an expression that was very close to Bluebelle’s. Bluebelle was in the first grade, and Josephine hadn’t done anything wrong, not a single thing, and that, apparently, was the Jordan girls for you.

Josephine looked at Rick and said in a voice of camaraderie, ‘You know Miss Ellery, don’t you? She’s the tall one that wears glasses, not Miss Ellis.’

‘No,’ said Rick, ‘I don’t think I do, but I know the boys’ counselor pretty well—Mr. Chapman. I’ve talked to him a lot of times.’

Josephine laughed long and merrily. ‘I know them talks, all right,’ she said. And then Rick laughed as if he’d meant the thing to be funny all the time. It had never before occurred to him that a talk with Mr. Chapman was anything other than a nerve-wracking business to be sat through half afraid, half ashamed. And here was Josephine Jordan, Smoke’s sister, who sat through the same kind of thing all the time and thought nothing of it, even seemed to enjoy it. A great weight fell off his chest; lots of fellows must have Chapman talk to them every day. He’d never got a long view of it before. Chapman became on the spot a generality, and as such he could be looked at and thought about with no awe at all. It changed things. Rick flipped his cigarette into the street, put his hat on the side of his head, and gave Smoke a light tap on the arm and said to Josephine, ‘Yah, that old Chapman; I have to laugh every time I think about him.’

They took leave of Josephine and talked about her all the rest of the way to the Cotton Club. She had stuff, Smoke said; her voice wasn’t pretty, one way you heard it, but there was something about it. It ripped out sort of like a horn, and she could sing as high or as low as she wanted to; what she lacked in tone she made up for in range and volume. ‘Boy,’ Smoke said, ‘can she sing loud when she busts loose! When she does the dishes at night we always sort of expect the cops.’

‘She was good at school that time all right,’ Rick said. ‘She was the best one in the whole show. The kids clapped their heads off for her. They clapped so hard that they had to stop the next act while she came back and sang again. Everybody liked her. They had a green spotlight on her.’

They turned the corner and went around to the rear of the Cotton Club. The kitchen door was unlocked and inside, Yoshio, the Japanese second cook, was peeling potatoes like a machine, running a yard of peelings a minute out of the groove of the scraper. ‘How you getting along with your work, Joe?’ Smoke asked him. The name Yoshio had broken down, as words will, first to Yosho, then to Jojo and finally to Joe.

The second cook did not look up, but he answered in a high sweet voice, ‘Working swiftly for making up lost time.’ He kept on turning out peelings.

‘Where you been?’

‘Attending moratorium on George,’ Joe answered.

Smoke worked it out and said, ‘Funny I didn’t see you there.’

‘I have not been waiting for opportunity for saying herro after,’ Joe said. He was working really hard on the potatoes.

‘How far behind are you?’ Smoke said.

‘Pretty severely behind on time,’ said Joe.

Smoke took off his coat. ‘Nothing special on my mind,’ he said. ‘I’ll peel you up some till you get caught up.’

Joe looked pleased but doubtful. ‘Impossible to do so,’ he said, ‘lacking knowledge of method.’

‘I don’t lack knowledge of method,’ Smoke said; ‘I’m a potato-peeling fool. I used to have a job working at the White House Café. Gimme a thing.’

Rick stood by looking glum. He wasn’t a potato-peeling fool himself, and he always resented anything that was out of line with his own plan of action. Smoke saw it. ‘Go on in and get to work,’ he said. ‘Only work loud so me and Joe can tell how you’re getting along.’

Rick didn’t wait; he couldn’t quite figure Smoke helping the Jap, but everyone to his taste. He folded the keyboard cover up from the keys, sat down on the bench, and thought things over for a moment, wondering what to work on, what he needed most, what would sound best in the kitchen, when could he quit horsing around going to that damn-fool kids’ high school and get a job in a band. When are you good enough; how do you know when you’re right? He went into one of his fictions: some big-time band leader, Paul Whiteman, like as not, was sitting right out there in the dim hall at one of the tables. Somebody had told him Rick was good and he’d better look him up. So he had, and now Rick was going to play a little something for him, and if he liked it he’d take him on. All Rick had to do was to play, and it had better be good, because old Paul Whiteman didn’t come here just because he didn’t have anything else to do. His pianist had just died of appendicitis, see, and he was stuck without anybody good enough to take his place. Play, boy, play.

All right, Mr. Whiteman, how does this strike you? Rick pushed his hat to the back of his head, sat up very straight, like Jeff, and hit into a piece called ‘The Sheik,’ which was so new that even the Cotton Club band hadn’t got around to working it up yet. Scoop. Rick had heard it twice on a record at Woolworth’s and looked carefully at the sheet music on display at Silverman’s Music Store. He went straight through it, no trouble at all; the second time it went even better, and the third time around he really made something of it. This was the first time he had ever done any impromptu work, and it went so well that he forgot Mr. Whiteman completely and yelled out to Smoke in the kitchen, ‘What do you think of that?’

Smoke came into the hall drying his hands on a flour sack. ‘What’s the name of that?’ he said. ‘Seems like I’ve heard it before. It feels like I’ve sort of been hearing it around the corner like, for a week or so, but I don’t ever seem to catch right up with it.’

‘“The Sheik,”’ said Rick, only he called it the ‘Shike,’ never having heard it said, and not even knowing what one was.

‘You’re getting to be damn near as smart as Jeff,’ said Smoke, wide open with admiration, ‘getting onto new stuff before anybody hardly knows about it; just springing it out of a clear sky.’

‘Aw, hell,’ Rick said, pleased stiff and blushing.

‘Play some more of that,’ Smoke said, and Rick obliged him with all the good will in the world. He obliged him again and again and again. He no longer had any reason for the hanging back that passes for modesty. The afternoons of practice after school and the Sunday meetings with Jeff were finally bearing the kind of fruit that is the natural consequence of constant cultivation. Two years now since the afternoon he’d stopped in at All Souls’ Mission and started wondering about how to play the piano. And now he didn’t need to wonder any longer. He knew. Out of so much cause had come an effect. His head and his hands were working together. He could play now, well enough to become the kind of pianist he wanted to be. The ground was laid, and he was free to devote himself to the details that make the difference between one thing and another.

‘You’re getting good,’ Smoke said. ‘I mean good enough to get you a job somewheres playing.’

Rick took his hands off the keys and rolled his eyes around, bewildered. ‘If I quit school now,’ he said, ‘they’d throw me in the reform school or jail or something. I’ve still got to go to court the first Saturday of every month and let them bawl me out for not doing good in my studies. I don’t know
what
they want. I go to school every damn day of the week and still they aren’t satisfied. Once you get in wrong they hound you to death.’

‘Whyn’t you try to get a job playing nights and go to school days? Old Jeff did that. You only got two more years?’

‘Oh, hell no,’ Rick said. ‘I’m only a freshman, and I probably will be another freshman next year too, if they take it in their head not to pass me. I don’t know what I’d better do; I’ve only been late just once all this month, and today for the funeral was the only time I’ve quit early since before Christmas. It’s just like your sister said; they take it in their head to have a grudge on you, you might as well give up.’

‘Tough,’ said Smoke.

‘And there’s another thing, too,’ Rick said. ‘I sort of want to get so I can play the trumpet better before I try to get a job. I’d rather play a trumpet than a piano—I don’t know, seems like it’s closer up to your head somehow. You play a piano you play it way down here, but with a trumpet you put it right up beside you on your mouth and it feels like you got more to do with it. I don’t know—it’s just sort of the way I feel, I guess.’

‘I never thought of that,’ Smoke said. ‘Sounds like they might be something to it, the way you say it.’

BOOK THREE
1

THE SUMMER
Rick Martin was twenty he was playing first trumpet for Jack Stuart and His Collegians at the Rendez-Vous Ballroom in Balboa, thirty miles down the coast from Los Angeles. ‘Collegians’ was no idle boast: Jack Stuart himself was a collegian from way back; he had attended the University of Oregon on three separate occasions. The second trumpet was a bona fide third-year music student at Berkeley, and the drummer had gone to U.S.C. for one semester. These three made up the college contingent of the Collegians; the other seven were college age, and that was as far as it went.

They had a good band, and from the first week on, Rick was the power behind it. In any band worth talking about, some single musician gives spark to the crowd, keeps them from resting easy, gives them something to shoot at. Even in a band like Jeff’s where you’d be hard put to it to pick the best musician, the same thing happens. Straight musicianship being at a parity, the men look to the one of them who has the vision, the real sense of things—Jeff, in that case. And in this case, Rick.

Jack Stuart got Rick from the Hawaiian Gardens in Ocean Park, where he’d been stuck for almost a year in an outfit that featured an Hawaiian trio. A misplaced sense of pity and loyalty kept him there doing his best to whip the broken-down trombone man into shape to team with him in Hazard-Snowden style. It was no good. The trombone man was too far gone to be any longer willing to get into shape, and Rick stayed on mostly because he didn’t know how to quit. Then somebody in the union put Stuart on his trail and the problem solved itself.

BOOK: Young Man With a Horn
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