Jazzmen

Jon Spayde

Jon Spayde

The jazzmen lean against the wrought-iron balconies of their mother city, their heads reaching for the dim center of their reverie. (Their mothers used to call it “pitching a dream.”)

At times like these the jazzmen dream of the true fruits they ate when they were new to the bandstand: mangoes, which tasted like the sweet mouths of women, apples roasted on cherrywood skewers, pomegranate beads red as rubies. And always, everything kindled with the white rum of Spanish Florida.

These days, it’s strictly hotel sandwiches fetched up from the Pump Room. Today, leaning on balconies is their way of counterfeiting carelessness and leisure—those sad dogs that will no longer come when they call.

 

Last night, in the lobby of the old Hotel Jefferson, they played Roue de Folie against the Owners, for money. (The jazzmen’s instruments were locked up tight in midnight-colored cases in hock in the Utility Room.) As early evening prophesied night, all was silence except for the slap, slap of cards and the huff-uff of the Owners drawing on their pipes.

The Owners kept their pale and freckled wrists covered with pink Oxford cloth and black gabardine. Silver cufflinks caught the light when the Owners presented their cards. The jazzmen, on the other hand, closed their cuffs with gold plate from the market square.

Silver, gold, silver, gold, went the call-and-response glinting all night long. Time wore down both hope and despair.

The cards succeeded one another like pagan deities at a court masque: the Young Man, the Nine of Pistols, the Four of Keys, the Ugly Duke, the Good Girl.

The jazzmen lost everything, and their pockets turned into howling mouths. As they sat pensive in overstuffed leather chairs, to their minds came pictures of their childhoods in the gardens of poverty, where they fed the yard birds and the yard dogs; and pictures of their young manhoods on the windy brick blocks of old cities newly electrified. They were tempted to abandon Hope. But Hope, in her blue surplice, hovered. Hope dressed herself differently in country and city, but in both places the jazzmen possessed her—along with many lucky charms.

(The white yard birds of the pebbled gardens squawked and called out the first riffs my jazzmen heard. The brick neighborhoods brought them love.)

The Owners summoned boys who carried, in plush cases laid open, square silver-hinged devices with serrated teeth that turned out, when snapped open in the Owners’ thick fingers, to be cigar-decapitation devices of the old style.

Then the Owners said “Music! Now you play,” as beefsteaks appeared in the red hands of waiters. The jazzmen took up forlorn positions on the stand and the Utility Man, in his dented Western Union cap, was sent for to go unlock the jazzmen’s instruments from their prison in the Utility Room.

The last thing the jazzmen desired to do was play for their conquerors in the lobby, a lobby whose only furniture was a handful of brass cuspidors, two aurelia elegantissimas in copper planters, and a great red Chinese kilim. Yet black roses blossomed between the jazzmen’s fingers even before the instruments were brought from their place of exile.

The massive midnight-colored pianoforte arrived first, on its wheel blocks, pulled by the Utility Man’s little sons. Born of the musical technology of the Baroque era, native to the better parts of town…the parts of town built of sunbeams, bee-hum, bougainvillea, Morocco leather, tomato-aspic relish, chased-silver knives and forks, ice on the temples, taffeta at the wrists.

Then the trumpets and trombones were unloaded from boxwood boxes.

My jazzmen put on their boxback coats of mourning-colored wool. The buttons, of mother-of-pearl, were small full moons and each moon passed through its buttonhole as though through an eclipse. In an instant every tie was knotted at every throat. The jazzmen looked like subterranean spirits of Fashion as the burdened electric light, humming and crackling from overload, glinted off their pinky rings and ran along the edges of their pomaded hair.

The time to play had arrived, like a visitor with a cut on his forehead. And they played, the way they always do.

 

The notes wait, breathless, inside the instruments of the jazzmen. The unborn notes in the saxophone are as silent as death. The as-yet-unstruck strokes on the snare drum wait, lined up, in Plato’s paradise of Forms.

(The jazzmen’s mothers wait for them humbly, under woolen shawls in forgotten neighborhoods. There are painted hopscotch squares on those neighborhood streets, but they are fading from loneliness.)

And then the jazzmen begin their beautiful dirge, all together yet each jazzman telling his own slow story of journey to, and return from, the Yellow Springs, the Field of Reeds, the land of the Ancestors where those giants wait brooding.

The Owners listen, and their triumph turns liquid. They are left with dry highball glasses of glittering crystal and eyes that do not close.

The jazzmen pick up the tempo, and all the fierceness of cutting sessions and of battles fought on hardwood floors for the honor of the memory of a lover or a mother fills the lobby of the Jefferson.

The jazzmen are drinking what their mothers taught them to call Moon Wine: the wine of the light of the moon when music is playing. They are high, and by high one means lifted, lofted to where they can see the city, and its muscled, many-branched tea-brown river giving the great sea its gift of earth, and by high one means transported, carried to the great Salon d’Enregistrement, the room where a needle carves the music into a circle so that it may live forever, or as long as wax and lacquer last, which is not forever, but O my jazzmen, long enough.

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