Thursday, March 22, 2012
A Novel by Art Rosch
All characters in this book are either fictional or in the public domain.
Aaron Kantro followed his colleagues through the labyrinth of the nightclub's kitchen and out the back door. A waft of cool air hit his face as he stepped onto the concrete platform next to the loading dock. His sweat instantly began to dry and he could see steam misting from the other musicians' tuxedos. It was the band's third break. They would play one more set of forty five minutes. Then their work for the night was done.
There were nine or ten people gathered around the rear entrance to the club. They were either jazz fans who wanted to hang out or they were so loaded they didn't know how they'd gotten there.
A man with his shirtails dangling from his suit stumbled into Aaron. "I wan' shake your hand," he announced. He extended his unkempt digits and then pulled his hand away if to recalibrate his arm's trajectory. Aaron, when he put his hand out to respond, felt like an idiot. He put his hands in his pockets and hoped the man would go away.
"I tell you somethin'", the man said. "You play some drums for a white boy. Some fuckin' drums. I close my eyes, can't tell the diff'rence. Sound jus' like a real drummer." He tried again to extend his hand and stumbled across his own feet.
"Excuse me", a young lady said, as she passed between Aaron and the drunk. She wanted an autograph from the legendary saxophonist, Zoot Prestige. Aaron's boss transferred a cheroot from his hand to his mouth. He leaned down to inscribe his signature into the lady's little book, while trying to keep his eyes averted from the cleavage that was so conspicuously thrust into his face. Aaron noted this little drama and lost his anger. Zoot Prestige was just too funny. Aaron quietly moved behind the imposing figure of his boss. The drunk rambled away, talking to himself.
Aaron was the only white person beneath the scalloped awning. There were perhaps ten white people in the club. It bothered him more than he would like to admit that he longed to see other white faces. It had been his decision to play jazz, and his brand of jazz carried him to black clubs in black neighborhoods. Sometimes, the moment he walked into a place, he felt the air freeze with racial tension. Sometimes he was scared. The only way through it was to play the music.
As the little throng dispersed, Zoot butted his smoke in the sand of an ashtray. He stepped off the concrete pad and walked across the lot towards his car.
After waiting about thirty seconds, the group's organist, Tyrone Terry, followed the lanky figure of his boss. Aaron waited another thirty seconds and followed his colleagues to the cream-colored Continental. This precaution seemed a little silly but there were probably narcs in the club and Aaron had to admit that it was pretty obvious what was happening when three jazz musicians got into a car and didn't go anywhere.
Soon the men were engrossed in the ritual of the pipe: lighting, inhaling, holding breath, exhaling. It was cozy in the Continental’s plush interior. Air came sighing through the upholstery’s leather seams as the musicians' weight compressed the seat cushions. Zoot and his side-men were settling down, recharging their nerves for the next set, the last set. It was one o’clock in the morning.
"She wanted you to look at 'em," Tyrone said to his employer.
"I know," responded Zoot, "but it seems so...I don't know...un-chivalrous to put my nose right into a lady's cleavage. Besides, it's redundant. I seen titties before. Wan't nothin' special about hers...they's just...."
BANG! There was a huge sound, an explosion. The men's bodies reacted instinctively. They ducked, and their arms rose to cover their heads.
The car lurched as a man dove across the hood, holding a pistol in his right hand. His legs swam wildly as he fought to stop his momentum. Whatever tactic he had in mind, it wasn’t working. The car’s sheen and finish turned the hood into a sliding board.
"Jesus fucking Christ!” In the back seat Aaron cursed loudly without thinking. He had never before heard a gun shot. In spite of this fact, he recognized the sound. It was rounder, weightier, and more final than the sound of a firecracker.
The man on the car's hood waved the pistol frantically. Slithering to get his balance, he clutched at the windshield wipers and missed. Gravity and car wax slid him across the polished metal until he landed on the ground. The pistol fired as he hit the gravel. The bullet penetrated a tire with a loud hiss.
The man sprang up and disappeared among the ordered rows of vehicles in the parking lot.
Zoot Prestige held a finger to his mouth, slid from under the steering wheel and dropped quietly to the floor of the passenger seat. Zoot didn't want to get shot. Zoot didn’t want to be a witness if somebody got shot. Zoot didn’t want questions. Zoot didn’t want any dealings with the Poe-Leece!
Aaron scrunched onto the floor of the back seat until his arm rested on the hump of the drive shaft. Tyrone, on the other side, was hoping to disappear via the flawed logic of an ostrich. He was pulling his little pork-pie hat over his eyes.
A voice shouted, "I'LL KILL YOU MOTHERFUCKER!”
Two more shots were fired from the opposite corner of the lot. Two sparking ovals of muzzle flash lit up the windshields of Cadillacs and Thunderbirds. A man’s face appeared, pressed to the window of Zoot’s car. His cheek was distorted against the glass, with an eye like a panicked horse. His quick breath steamed the window only inches from Zoot's face. With a slight turn to the right, Zoot became a virtual nose-to-nose mirror image of the man with the gun.
The enraged shooter didn’t see the human being an inch from his face. He raised his snubby revolver over the top of the vehicle, fired twice without aiming, and ran to cover behind a black Eldorado. The wind had changed. The shots were barely audible.
"Sheee-it!” Zoot grumbled, “I hope nobody messes up my short. I paid three hundred bucks for this custom paint job.” The immaculately polished car was long and sleek as a submarine.
A voice shouted, "HEY LOOK HE'S OVER THERE!"
Bang bang bang! Flashes lit up the musicians’ faces. Guns were all over the place. Aaron looked at Tyrone. The keyboard player had twitched and spilled a pipe full of burning marijuana into his lap. He brushed and patted frantically to prevent embers from smoldering through the pants of his tux. Thrusting his hands into his pockets he made a basket to prevent sparks from spreading onto the seat or the carpet. Aaron produced a handkerchief and helped contain the disaster. Tyrone was feeling little stings of fire burning their way into his palms. He was tossing the embers back and forth as he jumped and wriggled all over the tiny floor space behind the driver’s seat. When the young musicians’ eyes met they realized that they had entered the realm of the completely absurd.
They began to giggle, as quietly as possible. Tyrone managed to empty his lungs without breaking into a hacking cough. The bodies of both men were convulsed with terrified hilarity.
Aaron's legs were crossed on the floor of the back seat. Zoot gestured with his fingers for the pipe. Tyrone handed it to Aaron as he muffled his cough and put out the fire in his lap. Aaron gave the pipe to Zoot through the space between the seats.
The parking lot was a bedlam of running, screaming people.
Two men, fingers snarled in each other’s sport coats, rolled across the hood of Zoot’s car. The metal on the Continental went ‘scroich! bunk!’. Zoot winced and hid his face behind his hands. The men vanished somewhere in the gravel of the lot, grunting and cursing. A grey fedora with a black band lay on the hood for a moment before a stiff breeze carried it away. Zoot elevated his head a few inches and tried to inspect his hood for damage. It was impossible. The windows were now opaque with steam.
Zoot relaxed. He sat with his face level with the knobs on the dashboard. His wrists were on his knees and his hands hung loose in the shadow beneath the glove box. He loaded the pipe and handed it to Aaron through the crack.
“Don’t strike no match!” he said. “Use that thing.” He pointed to the black knob of the cigarette lighter. Each door had an ashtray and each ashtray had its own lighter.
Zoot sniffed the air inside the car. “I smell somethin’ burning,” he said. “You cats makin’ barbecue back there?” His voice was good natured and mocking.
Observing Zoot's total poise, Aaron and Tyrone hissed through their lips with suppressed giggles. It was impossible to tell which part of the moment was funny and which part was terrifying. The giggles and spluttering had equal components of panic and the hysterical disbelief of pot heads in a bizarre situation.
Big cars roared to life and raced from the lot in clouds of gravel and fumes. Sirens dopplered past, right on their tails, red lights whizzing through the intersection. Crimson slashes of reflection lit up the Continental’s glass.
Then there was silence. People stealthily emerged from cover, crunch-crunching across the gravel. They ran for shelter inside the club. The musicians straightened their bodies with the slowness of clock hands moving. Soon they were sitting normally on the seats. Zoot loaded the pipe, lit and inhaled. He held his breath for a long time, and then exhaled an almost transparent cloud. He replaced the pipe in a leather pouch, concealed the stash under the seat, and twisted his head from left to right and back again, loosening his neck muscles. He was sixty-two, and a tenor saxophone had hung from his shoulders for more than fifty years.
"Should we go back in and play?" There was a squeak in Aaron's voice. He made a few mock rolls with invisible drumsticks.
Zoot looked at Aaron with a bare vapor of a smile, tolerant of his drummer’s naïveté. "Why would we NOT go back in and play?" The marquee lights of the street's clubs and bars glowed on half of Zoot's face, shadowing the other half. This gave his eye a demonic glitter. He wet his thumb and forefinger with his tongue and smoothed the hairs of his moustache.
"Let me point out something to you, babe,” said Zoot. “We're professional jazz musicians. We play music, and we get paid. Rather nicely, I might add, thanks to my modest fame and the fact that I placed at number eight in Downbeat’s Tenor Saxophone category." He paused for a moment and said with a trace of gloating, “AHEAD of Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz and Gene Ammons.” He laughed a ripe and disdainful laugh. The magazine polls had such appalling power to determine a musician’s pay level.
Opening the door, Zoot brushed a tiny flake of ash from his tuxedo pants with a dapper gesture, and corkscrewed his six foot three inch frame upright. The saxophonist made a quick but careful scrutiny of his vehicle. He circled it, running the flat of his hand along its sculpted façade. There were no bullet holes that he could detect, no scratches. The hood had resumed its normal shape.
Tyrone and Aaron squeezed themselves out of the car. Aaron closed the door delicately, with the barest of clicks, as if he feared the automobile would fall to pieces if he so much as breathed wrong.
The world flickered. The young musicians’ hearts raced, their nerves tingled. They were playing a jazz gig with a famous saxophone player! Zoot Prestige had apprenticed with Duke Ellington, he’d played with Charlie Parker. He was a legend.
Zoot straightened his lapels and moved his shoulders inside his jacket so the garment settled more squarely on his body.
"That's right,” he added. “We're hipsters, babe, we stay cool. We got a paying gig, we play until the club owner asks us to stop or it’s two a.m." Zoot's voice was like velvet and sand, Scotch whisky and smoke. “Long as the drummer doesn’t get shot. Gotta draw the line somewhere. Last drummer I lost was Bobby Beffords, in ’65. And before that I had a good run, only lost two drummers in six years. Course, I never had a white drummer before. Everybody upset about that.”
He aimed a gentle look at Aaron, to check that he wasn’t being taken seriously. His smile was full of irony and play. He brushed a bit of ash from Aaron’s tuxedo jacket. It was a tender, paternal gesture.
Fourteen drummers had come to audition when Zoot was putting together the band for this tour. Thirteen of them were black. Aaron was the third drummer to play. As soon as he finished the tune, Zoot sent the other drummers home.
He knew he would take a lot of heat for hiring a white drummer. Fuck ‘em. The kid was worth it.
“Ain’t nothin’ unusual happening here, babe”, said Zoot. “It’s just another gig, somebody’s old lady got too friendly with somebody else’s old man and things got ugly.” The tall man shepherded his young friends toward the door of the nightclub. “It’s human nature. Why don’t we go inside and play some music to soothe the savage breast? We’ll lay down some Recalcitrant Funk-itis."
Zoot had just coined another of his classic nonsense terms. Recalcitrant Funk-itis now joined the lexicon along with Groove-matic Ubiquity, Heliocentric Hot Sauce and other such crazy combinations from Zoot’s fertile mind.
Tyrone pulled at his cummberbund to conceal the holes in the crotch of his pants. The young men followed the urbane figure of their mentor back into the humid noise of Mickey Tucker's Jazz Corner.