Several months ago, I was thinking of jazz musicians back in the day who would lay down tracks in a studio or play in a club and the chemistry that they created. If you could just cut out small pieces of time to preserve those moments, you could preserve the feeling the musicians generated, the ambiance, the emotions of the moment. Recordings do this to an extent but you don’t always get the full picture, it’s like looking at individual paragraphs bereft of the whole story. I got a burst of inspiration and came up with the story that follows.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The old man walked slowly down the wooden stairs, his hand sliding along the worn railing in cadence with his cautious steps. He was alone in the old theater and it was late, several hours had passed since the curtain fell on the last performance. And it was, truly, the last performance. Grants were hard to come by these days and contributions had dried up over the last few years.
He sighed deeply and dropped into the faded upholstery of a chair at the end of a row near the stage. He had done everything he knew trying to keep the place open. Sinking most of his money into the place, trying to get promising local talent onstage, nothing seemed to fill the auditorium seats anymore. The university had its own playhouse now, it no longer needed to lease the old theater and its money was sorely missed.
He adjusted his ample girth and the seat squeaked as his eyes played over the empty stage, its curtain still up from the stagehands busting the set earlier this evening. This show hadn’t been the way he wanted it to end, really. It was an average, nondescript little comedy that wasn’t worthy of mention by what passed for the arts section in the local paper but it hadn’t been horrible enough to be panned, either. The actors were community volunteers, some of them quite talented, but the seats were never more than half full. It seemed life had moved on and left the old theater behind, a ghost of its former self.
It hadn’t always been like this. The elderly gentleman’s fingers interlocked over the pale fabric of his shirt as his hands rested on his belly. He stared intently, clear blue eyes focused somewhere past center stage. The theater was well-established when he first walked through its door more than 50 years ago. It focused more on musical acts then. The local orchestra, jazz musicians, country, some rock n’ roll, there was a little of everything at the theater.
His favorites had always been the jazz players. Classical was fine, rock had the raw energy, country and folk music were the languages of the common man, but jazz, that was a language he understood. A good jazz man could tell a story in his solos, make you feel what he felt. The best of them could make it personal. Any kid out of North Texas could play a bunch of licks, follow the changes, and show off his chops. It took talent to turn their melodies into stories, make you relate to them, let you see into their soul a little so you could feel what they felt and how it tied into your own life.
And the players that had come through that little place over the years! Skip Nelson, Jackie Kemp, Les Hampton, Sid Morrell, there were so many great players he had been privileged to see on that stage. His eyes flicked stage left where a small riser had been long ago. How many great musicians had performed on that riser, pouring out their hearts to anyone willing to listen? The riser was gone now, a victim of “renovating” the stage some decades past.
He had managed to keep up with some of those guys over the years but had lost track of others. Some, like Skip and Les had stayed around town for a few years, working their regular gig at the theater and playing with some of the big names out of the city. But times changed and gigs that paid more than pocket change moved on and the musicians had to follow. Skip left for New York first, then Les followed almost a year later. He knew Skip on a casual basis, he used to grab a beer with him after a show from time to time, talking about music, talking about life.
That was the way of a professional musician, the old man thought, wearily pushing to his feet. You have to follow the work wherever it goes or find yourself a day job, one of the two. Some lucky guys landed studio gigs. But it took a special temperament to deal with producers and you never knew if this particular recording artist would live up to his genius billing or be just one more mediocre talent in the record company’s machine. A few landed teaching gigs at a university or college. The teacher’s life appealed to some. Others found that, once they stood up in front of a classroom, they couldn’t explain what it was they did on stage. The dry mechanics of scales and chords were necessary to learn the language but those who know the idiom best aren’t always those who can best explain it.
Wrinkled hand sliding along the rail, the old man completed his journey down the stairs and walked the narrow aisle in front of the stage. The life of a musician is lonely, he thought. Sure, you meet some guys like yourself, sometimes even guys that you really connect with, who see where you’re going on stage and stay right there with you. You form a group with guys like those, if you’re lucky enough to meet them, and get paid to do what you love, if the theater and club owners think you can bring them some business.
The problem was the loneliness of having to pick up and move on, of always being on the road with only periodic pit stops, little islands of stability and normalcy in lives of constant motion. There might be time enough for a girlfriend, maybe even a wife, but musicians can’t offer their loved ones normal lives, just time spent at home waiting for them to come back from the gig, whether it was in town, out of town, or six months out of state.
The old man sighed again as he ran his hand through snowy hair, his footfalls echoing a little through the empty hallway. No, what the musicians had to do was keep moving, despite the times, despite the relationships, sometimes despite themselves, in order to survive. Their music took the joy and pain of life and gave it back to the audience, gave the people a way to express things that they might not be able to say otherwise.
One weathered hand was on the door and the other was stuffed in his pocket fumbling for keys when he heard it: a single piano note, high and clear, hanging in the air. He froze. The movers had taken the baby grand to its new owner’s home last week. There was no other piano inside the building.
His heart sped up a little as he slowly made his way back down the wooden floor of the hallway, bushy brows furrowed behind his trifocals, hesitant but drawn by his need to know. The piano continued in a moody minor key, soft chords fading in and becoming clearer now as he drew closer. He stopped as he neared the end of the hallway approaching the stage, his jaw dropped a little as his eyes widened.
Jackie Kemp sat behind the piano, his head bowed over the keys in somber meditation. There were others with him on the bandstand but the old man was riveted by Jackie. He looked just as he had the last time he had seen him, almost 25 years ago. The man hadn’t aged a day.
With a few passing chords, the tune started in earnest, bass and drums kicking in behind Jackie. Then the old man took time to look at the others there on stage, on that bandstand that had been torn out so long ago. Jake Smith and Jared Lane were on bass and drums. They were the theater’s regular rhythm section for a while back in they day. Jackie loved playing with them when he was in town. It seemed like they were always on, always feeling the music, and sensing where the pianist wanted to go.
The head was past and Jackie started his solo. Elegant, sparse phrasing wound through the changes as he told his story. Jake had been playing long notes through the head but opened things up a little, prodding Jackie and answering him here and there as he told his story. Jared’s brushes filled things out while he hinted at the rhythm and tempo. He added periodic accents as the brushes stirred, stretching the time in places and catching a lick with Jake here and there.
Jackie’s solo was done and the saxophonist began to play, blowing lilting, gently articulated phrases. The old man adjusted his glasses to focus on the man’s face. It was Les as he had looked the last time he saw him, 15 years ago. Les never had the chance to play with Jackie at the theater and the old man had sometimes wondered what the two of them would sound like together. His imagination paled to what he heard now as Jackie gently layered chords underneath Les, supporting him, sensing where he was headed before he got there to arrive at the perfect accompaniment to frame Les’s thought.
As Les’s solo wound down, the trumpet player began to lift his horn to his mouth, fingers working the valves as he thought about what to play before the mouthpiece reached his lips. The old man, who had been staring slackjawed up to now, visibly got a little paler as his eyes rested on the trumpeter. “Dear Lord, it’s Skip,” he murmured. “But you’re dead.” Skip Nelson had been in a car wreck a few years after leaving town. He had heard about it second hand from a saxophone player passing through. Skip had just finished a New Year’s Eve gig when he was hit by a drunk driver. He died instantly.
Skip blew softly as he wove through the changes, his lyricism just as sweet and aching as the old man remembered. Skip always seemed to be searching for a song’s heart when he played. If it was a fast burner, he ripped through cascades of notes, trying to find the meaning of the song. On slow numbers, he took his time exploring substitutions, alterations, all of the hidden meanings of a tune that were buried somewhere deep inside the changes.
After Skip’s solo, they began the head again with the horns taking the melody this time. The slow, gentle music filled up the auditorium and the hall where the old man stood. This quintet, which to the old man’s knowledge had never played together before, wound the song down like they had been sharing the stage for years. The phrasing, the thoughts of the musicians melded together and filled him with their joy and pain, raising him up higher and higher with their energy and that of the song, then, suddenly, it was over.
The horn players turned to Jackie for a few quick comments and a glance at the set list on top of the piano. Jake leaned over to Jared, laughing, and the old man heard him say something about the tempo. As Jackie started to count off the next tune, Skip looked over to where the old man stood, rooted to his spot in the hallway. Skip looked him in the eye and smiled as he raised the trumpet to his lips. Then they were gone.
The old man stood there for a good half hour leaning heavily on the hallway rail. Finally, taking a deep breath, he walked out the door into the warm midnight air of a late August. Jingling the keys in his hand, he locked the door, turned slowly in the light of a street lamp, and strode away.
Encore by Matt Manos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.