“Faith’s a compulsive reader” Agnes tells the tortured musician on a break who has come over to our table of six students; one daring guy. “…who sucks information and she won’t look up from the book because her ego assumes you don’t want to talk to the rest of us and she’s getting really, really annoyed at me now.”
I laugh that aside as ridiculous, but he follows it up with a direct question. This forces me to bookmark and close The Algae of French Polynesia* and resurface to the alternate reality people call now.
*In-page footnote: Algues de Polynésie française by Claude Payri, Antoine de N’Yeurt and Joel Orempuller, publ. 2000 by Au Vent de Iles, the seminal work on Tahitian algae. Recommended.
“Thanks but I don’t want to drink”, I explain.
“Why not? It’s a jazz club. Are you a Mormon or something?”
“No, I just can’t control it.” A moment of awkward silence from my friends and then the sound of the room floods back.
Agnes manoeuvres as far as she can in front of the guy, the prelude to getting some hooks into him. “We’re supposed to be writing up”, she says conversationally, “but kinda forced ourselves out for the vitamin D. Then someone said you only get D with daylight.”
“Writing up?”, he asks.
“Dissertations. Faith’s finished, but we’re writing up.” — Please shut up Agnes.
“I thought you meant a story.”
“If Faith turns this into a story, I promise you it’s going to be all about herself.”
He looks at me again. “Could I read your dissertation? Second pair of eyes?”
Agnes groans. “No one reads anyone else’s dissertation. Not friends, parents, not even your supervisor sometimes. The only guys who ask to read your dissertation are the ones who want to f… oh.” She’s turning puce and the guy needs a life-line.
“Apple juice then?” He’s relieved just to escape to a queue for the bar. Agnes is livid at me for some reason.
Three days later I’m visiting his two rooms in a house-share. One of these is devoted to music, although he also does some art. I admit I don’t know much about jazz, so am stuck for something to say.
“I like your equipment.”
“My equipment?” He’s turned on his cheeky smile and I’m self-conscious, one foot in the deep end.
“Okay, tell me about jazz and I’ll learn it.”
“Learn jazz? You don’t have the right background. It’s a tough school”, he counters, but my hackles are raised when someone tells me I can’t do something.
“Not to play, just research it so I can keep up… and, actually, I’m hard as nails when I want to be.”
“No, you’re not. You look like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth.”
“Bloody am!” I give him my ‘don’t mess with the rad bitch from the hood comin’ atcha’ expression. He pulls out a phone and takes a photo, then feeds that into the Disneyfi Me app., selects the dipsy princess filter and hits convert, then shows me the original photo and flips to the output picture. They’re basically identical.
“See? What do you expect when you’re glasses are a third the size of your head?”
“It’s still not true!”, I protest, trying to compensate for my squeaky voice. “Grrr, Boys!”
The gods of obsession block out the world as we listen to and discuss jazz for nine hours. He plays brief alto saxophone snapshots, introduces patterns, explains the twiddly bits and puts names to them. We listen to old records from which counterpoints and threads like separate personalities weave around each other in a garland of static. Okay, we only talked jazz for eight out of the nine hours. It’s 1am and I’m washing my glasses under a tap.
“You know what we have in common?”, he asks, flat on his back. “When you write, it’s improvisational, like an unplanned tune where you go off on this weird trail of your own and no one can guess where any of this is going. You even do this syncopated thing with contrasts and drops, where it’s about style and not the ending. Faith, the way you write is basically jazz.”
“You read my sci-fi blog?” [Note to self: delete blog]. It never occurred to me that if you put a piece of yourself online, especially an internal monologue, anyone would ever want to read it. I mean, don’t they have lives?
He’s given me a head full of names, jazz pioneers, all the people he thinks are ‘the greats’ from the early days of this most intelligent form of music; and he’s come out with this crazy mental leap that I’m somehow a fellow traveller with these impossibly high achievers in a field to which I can’t aspire. I think of running his idea about my writing style past Agnes, but maybe not because she’d hate me and vomit. Right, let’s be objective. I need to study and decide whether this hypothesis is rubbish or inspired. From pattern recognition, can you anticipate a cultural parallel and then assume a probability that my life will follow? That’s hard to calculate, with too many assumed variables (see the Drake Equation), so why not check how successful the jazz heroes all turned out to be and see if that’s inspiring? Yes, way to go. What I discover is this:
Buddy Bolden, legendary jazz trumpeter of the New Orleans early period, went dramatically mad while playing at a Labour Day street parade in 1907. He spent 24 years in East Louisiana State Hospital, where he died in 1931.
Freddie ‘Whalemouth’ Keppard, Bolden’s successor, was equally famous for his cornet playing and his whisky drinking. His consumption was a steady three quarts a day and he always took a jug onto the bandstand; before he drank himself to death in 1932.
Joe ‘King’ Oliver, another pioneer, died in 1938 in obscure poverty in Savannah, Georgia, where he was a billiard-hall odd-job man. He was planning a come-back, saving up for a new set of teeth; but when he died there was not enough money for a gravestone.
Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton, perhaps the most fabulous of all jazz figures, died in 1941 in Los Angeles City Hospital after years of oblivion. He lay in his coffin with a hole in his front tooth; the inset diamond, sole relic of his past prosperity, had been stolen.
Bix Beiderbecke, one of the few great white jazzmen, was 28 when he died in 1931 of pneumonia following a long spell of alcohol poisoning.
Leon Rappolo, a marijuana-smoking clarinettist who helped form the Chicago style of the gangster decade, went insane at the age of 23. He died in an asylum 18 years later.
Frank Teschemacher, another clarinet player of the Chicago school, was being driven home by Wild Bill Davidson after a drinking party in 1932 when he fell out of the car and was run over by a taxi.
Pinetop Smith, one of the finest boogie pianists, was killed in a gun battle in a Chicago night club in 1928.
Hersal Thomas, another ‘deep’ blues pianist of that era, was poisoned by his mistress because he lived off her tips.
Tommy Ladnier, a hard drinking New Orleans trumpeter, was found dead sitting on a sofa in a Harlem apartment. “His estate consisted of one pair of soiled socks, one torn short and a set of raggedy underwear”, said Mezz Mezzrow, and “He was one of the most prosperous of the New Orleans musicians.”
Fats Navarro, a brilliant and rising trumpeter credited as a founder of the BeBop style of jazz improvisation, died in 1950 at the age of 26 in Bellevue Hospital, as a result of heroine addiction.
Bessie Smith, greatest of the blues singers, was on tour in Mississippi in 1937 when she was involved in a car smash. She was taken first to a Jim Crow hospital — which would not admit her because she was black. By the time she found a hospital that would, she was dying.
There’s something profound I’ve realised: All the musical phrases in jazz are signatures of the dead.
That’s it, I’ve had enough of these jazz legends. I have to accept I’m not cut out for this. It is time to ring and tell him I won’t be around much as next weekend I’m on a train back to my village.
“I’ll go with you”, he says, casually inviting himself along.
“You can’t, sorry. I’m being met at the station by my boyfriend.”
“I thought you didn’t have a boyfriend!”
“That’s hilarious”, he says, as a collision of worlds ends and I never see him again.
I can’t help thinking what became of this guy when I watch Cowboy Bebop and wondering if he ever does the same when they re-run Frozen.