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Authors: Dorothy Baker

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BOOK: Young Man With a Horn
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But the way they did Memphis was just child’s play compared to the way they did New Orleans. Here they were all in on it from start to finish. Each man went his separate and uncharted way, and first thing you know you had two and two equaling at least five. They achieved, you never could say how, a highly involved counterpoint. No accident, either, because they did it on tune after tune, and never the same way twice. Seek out the separate voices and you’d find each one doing nicely, thanks, and then let your ear out to take in the whole, and there it was. It sounds like black magic, three horns and a piano ad-libbing a fugue, and not only that but fugue after fugue, night after night, except Sunday.

The explanation is not simple; it’s as hard as a nice explanation of what a ‘sixth sense’ is. The only thing you could say is that in this case it was a matter of esprit de corps. Jeff and his band had played together so much and so long that they had developed psychic responses to each other. They were a team using signals that they followed perfectly without even knowing that they had any signals. They knew how things stood from moment to moment in the same way that a pianist’s right hand knows what the left’s doing. Proper co-ordination established, the thing just goes along.

Rick thought of himself as a pianist, though he hadn’t seen a piano close up for three months; and three months before ‘Adeste Fideles,’ played adagio, had been the pièce de résistance of his entire repertory. When he sat outside with Smoke behind the beam of light, it scarcely ever occurred to him that he couldn’t, if opportunity should stick out its forelock at him, go right in there and sit down at the piano and play exactly the way Jeff Williams played. Come to think about it, I believe Rick sort of thought he was Jeff Williams.

It was all very complicated, the way he felt about these things. First there was his absorbing interest in the music, and next there was his deep feeling for Smoke Jordan, the only person in the world he knew and loved. Or it may have been first Smoke and then the music. Whichever came first, the two had to be bracketed together. The one brought him to the other, and the last back to the first. If you poked around you’d probably hear somebody call it a vicious circle. In any event, Rick contrived to go once to the Cotton Club with Smoke, and having broken through as far as that, he contrived it again and again until their going there three or four nights a week became a matter of course. Smoke would come to Gandy’s after dinner and hang around until Rick got off, around nine, and then he and Rick would walk out and start down one of those streets in the direction of the Cotton Club. Second block down Rick would pull a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket—the only proof of maturity he had to offer—and hold it out toward Smoke. And when he had taken one himself, they’d stop and one or the other of them would hold a match for both of them. This was ritual, the reaffirmation of comradeship, and they both knew it. Rick took it the hardest. Smoke could always turn to something, but Rick had a special problem always hanging around his neck. Now that he’d forced Smoke to accept him, an unconscious reaction had set in. Nothing could have changed his feeling for Smoke, but he none the less forced himself never to think about himself and Smoke in concrete terms, but just to feel that there they were, he and his best friend, without any descriptive adjectives, just two people, that’s all. He kept himself vague about it out of humility, on the one hand, because he knew he didn’t come up to Smoke as a man, and out of a kind of vestigial pride, on the other hand, because though he himself would have preferred black to white for his own color at the moment, still he heard generations of his lily-white kind turning over in their graves to tell him he was crazy. The only way out was to do what he did; to hold onto Smoke and never think a thought.

They could have gone inside and watched Jeff and his band at work. Smoke had known Jeff all his life and he had carte blanche at the Cotton Club. Before Rick had come to take up his time he had sat right in the shell with the band a night or two a week instead of staying, as he now did, all the way outside. The thing came out pretty clearly one time when, at the end of one of Jeff’s solo choruses, Rick turned to Smoke all excited and said, ‘What’s this guy look like, anyhow?’ Natural enough question; if one of the senses gets stirred up the others have a tendency to claim a part in the excitement. I daresay that not many people ever heard Lily Pons, for instance, hit the high one on a phonograph record without wondering what a woman who sings like that would look like. It’s a way the mind has of trying to make the senses co-operate. When Rick turned shining to Smoke and asked what Jeff looked like, Smoke started to answer in the same way: ‘Oh, he’s a swell-looking guy,’ but somehow or other, that’s as far as he got. He was going on to say what he really looked like, but think it over, how can a black describe another black to a white? Too many difficult things to deal with. Smoke just said ‘Swell’ again, and left it up in the air. And Rick saw what had happened and began to talk about the music.

But he got to see Jeff with his own eyes, even so, not so long afterward. He and Smoke usually left their boxes and went home about eleven or eleven-thirty; but one night they lost track of things, and first thing they knew there was the band playing ‘Home, Sweet Home’ as a one-step with the reed man getting into clear and going absolutely wild on a clarinet. It kept them there until the very end, even longer, until the light at the window above them had flashed off and then on again and the other lights seemed to be getting themselves haphazardly put out, as if whoever was putting things away for the night didn’t know exactly which switches to pull. The light at the rear window stayed resolutely on, though, after that first flutter, and then there was the sound of hearty male voices talking and laughing with a kind of helpless happiness, somehow like the voices of track men who break the tape and then keep on running right up to a microphone to say breathily, ‘Well, folks, it certainly has been a great afternoon out here.’

Smoke and Rick started back, Smoke saying, ‘Doggone, looks like I’m stuck to sleep with Bud, getting home this late.’ Last one in, Smoke said, had in honor and in fact to sleep with Bud. And that, he gave Rick to know, was no picnic, no. In the first place he was unadaptable, he slept all pulled up like a baby, and in the second place he was only six years old and therefore woke up every morning at dawn feeling funny. No point in shushing him either. Of course, everybody in the house heard him, but the one that slept with him had it right in his ear. Henry, usually, but probably not tonight.

They were almost at the end of the boulevard stretch when a man ran up very fast from behind them, turned to look at them as he passed, and then stopped short and said, ‘Hi, boy,’ to Smoke. ‘Where you been hiding?’ He was all out of breath, and while he walked with them he wiped his face with a handkerchief. Smoke said he’d been working and didn’t get around much any more. The other fellow seemed to intend to stay with them, and so Smoke said it—Mr. Davis, meet Mr. Martin. Davis and Martin looked each other in the eye across Smoke and said ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance’ and ‘Glad to know you,’ respectively. Very nicely done. Unbelievably well done, at least on Rick’s part. Not everybody comes off looking so manly on the occasion of a first formal presentation.

The three of them kept together, Davis panting quite a lot and not getting much said, and Smoke and Rick pretty blank on their side too; and then Smoke came through with an explanation.

‘This guy,’ he said, jerking his head Rick’s way, ‘works where I do. We been talking about jazz all the time on the job. Tonight we walked by the club on the way home to see how you sound.’

And then Rick shoved his pack of cigarettes across Smoke to Davis. ‘Cigarette, Davis?’ But that didn’t do much good because Davis said he didn’t smoke, thanks. He just never had happened to get started, mostly on account of his work, he guessed. You can’t play a sax and smoke, makes too many things in your mouth.

Rick and Smoke stopped while Smoke held a match for the two of them. Davis got his breath and said straight to Rick, ‘Well, how do you think we play?’ And this time Rick didn’t come off looking so manly; he got a mouthful of cigarette smoke going all wrong and his tongue sort of turned over and he said, ‘Wonderful, gee!’ But in spite of his vocal and oral difficulties his tone carried such conviction that Davis turned to Smoke and said, ‘Why the hell didn’t you come in?’ in the friendliest way in the world. And Smoke said they just got there about the end and didn’t feel like horning in for such a little while.

And that’s what did it. Davis said: ‘Well, come on back, then. We didn’t feel like quitting, so we chipped in and called up for some gin; I’m going to meet Shorty right up here, corner of Adelaide and Boston, and pick it up. He won’t deliver to the club no more. You better come on back.’

You could tell he meant it. You could tell he meant Rick too, but just to make it sure he said, ‘What do you say, Mr. Martin?’ Before he could answer, Smoke turned to him and said, ‘You don’t want to get in bad with your folks, Rick,’ very quietly, out of the side of his mouth.

It was all good stuff, from Rick’s point of view. Here was Davis, the very man who had just done the right thing by ‘Home, Sweet Home’ on a clarinet, asking him to come back, to come right inside and listen to them play. And on top of that, Smoke calling him by his first name and not wanting him to get in bad at home. The two things together set him up so high that he got back all his poise and said in a good, clear voice, ‘Sure I’ll go.’ And then the social muse put a piece of showmanship in his mouth and out it came again as if he said that kind of thing every day: ‘But you’ve got to let me chip in on the gin.’ He didn’t have a very clear notion of what gin was; he was fast in his mind, that’s all.

Davis said fine, but not about chipping in, about coming back. No point in chipping in, he said, because he already had enough money. And then Rick couldn’t think any more about anything. He just went along with the fine feeling of having been found acceptable; drunk as a fiddler before he’d seen any gin.

They stopped at a corner three or four blocks away from the boulevard and Davis said: ‘We must have got here first. They got a big business these days. Old Shorty doesn’t even get to bed for three straight days sometimes; on the jump all the time; must be making terrible money.’

Smoke, who seemed to know a thing or two about these things himself, said: ‘Well, I wouldn’t want any of it myself. You can’t tell from one minute to the next when you’ll land up in the hoosegow. How’d it make you feel to wonder whether every guy you peddled to was a stool pigeon or not? Not me, boy; I got to sleep easy at night.’

Davis was thrown into action by Smoke’s speech. ‘So you’d be scared of a poor old stool pigeon, would you?’ he said, and he went into a round of fast shadow-boxing, there under the street lamp, and ended it up by squaring off in front of Smoke and giving him an easy one-two in the pit of the stomach.

‘Damn right,’ Smoke said, doing some elaborate weaving and slapping Davis a nice open-hand one on the ear.

‘Hey you, you big dodo,’ Davis said. ‘Cut it out slapping my ear.’

‘How about you cutting it out punching my gut?’ Smoke said.

‘How about us fighting this thing out?’ Davis said, freezing in an attitude of manly defense, crouched low, both fists up close to his face.

Smoke, with artist’s eye, froze in a complementary attitude, and then the two of them, without moving anything but their feet, walked round and round in the circle of light, moving like Apache dancers, holding each other with evil eye and about to pounce. Then they both gave it up at the same time and came back to where Rick stood leaning against the lamp-post.

‘Who won?’ Davis said, and before Rick could say anything Smoke said, ‘He says he thinks I had a little edge,’ and held his fists up again.

‘Well,’ Davis said, ‘maybe you did have a little edge. Boy, my old ear feels hot, I want to tell you.’

He fanned his ear with one hand and looked up and down the street, saying: ‘Where the hell’s that Shorty? I’m going to get you to smack him on the ear for me if he don’t get along with that liquor.’

And Shorty, as if forewarned, drove up at that moment on the other side of the street. Davis ran across to the car and Smoke and Rick stayed where they were. Smoke looked solemnly at Rick and said: ‘You sure it’s all right for you to go back to the club? Sure your folks won’t care?’

‘I don’t have any real folks,’ Rick said. ‘My aunt and uncle wouldn’t know whether I came in or not. It’s all right about me. How about you, though; won’t yours care?’

Smoke said it wasn’t quite the same with him; he’d known these guys all his life and his folks knew their folks and he’d stayed at the club fifty times after the dance and listened to them play, nights like this when they felt like playing. It was old stuff for him, he said, but he just sort of wondered about Rick was why he asked.

Rick was quiet a moment. He’d got hit in the chest with the same feeling he had the day they smoked the cigars and he asked Smoke to take him to hear Jeff play—the feeling of not belonging where you want to belong. His mouth turned way down and then he looked up into Smoke’s serious black face and said pointblank, ‘Would you druther I wouldn’t go?’ And Smoke, who wanted him to go in spite of everything, said so, and they put it away then and forgot it. Rick pushed himself away from the lamp-post and poked Smoke a stiff one in the arm, like Davis, and after that they were fine.

Davis, across the street, was standing with one foot on the running-board of the car, talking to the man inside. The motor was running all the time, racing and slowing, as if the driver wanted to be on his way. After a while of it Davis whistled low and gave Smoke and Rick a sign to come over. They did, and Davis opened the door to the back seat for them and said, ‘Shorty’s going to take us back to the boulevard on account of keeping us waiting so long.’ All Rick could tell about Shorty was that he was black. He got inside the car and Smoke and Davis got in after him, leaving Shorty alone in the front seat. Davis pulled the glass stopper out of the square bottle he had in his hand—Shorty’s fifths never came sealed; they never came fifths, for that matter, but those were uncritical times in this country—and held it out to Rick, saying, ‘Let’s have one all around for coming after it.’ Rick took the bottle firmly in both hands and tilted it up until he felt the alcohol cold against his lips; then he let some of it come into his mouth and straightened the bottle up fast to keep from getting any more. He was in a tough spot, sitting in the back seat of a bootlegger’s car, having two fellows watch him take his maiden drink. He did all right, though; he held it in his mouth, shoved the bottle to Smoke, and then swallowed his mouthful in small, manageable stints. When he finished it up, he held his mouth open to give it air, and by the time he had himself in hand the car had stopped and Smoke and Davis were outside, holding the door open for him. He heard Shorty say a dollar semny-five and then something about a blackbird and a dove that he didn’t put together right because he felt too happy to put his mind to anything complicated. His inner tract was warmed from start to finish by his first drink and the knowledge that he was doing, finally, what he wanted to do.

BOOK: Young Man With a Horn
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