A potentially gifted musician neglects his art and pays more than the required price.
A Brush With Reality
In The Key Of B-Flat Minor
A sane person would ask why he was drowning in a puddle of beer, but the man staring at his reflection already knew. He also vaguely understood why his face was trying to run away, silently trying to fall off the edge of the bar where he sat, and the Salvation Army Quintet hadn’t aged a day or bothered to change their winter uniforms.
And all of this was reflected in the Miller High Life beer puddle because twenty-two years before he had stopped to play ‘ComeTo Jesus, In Whole Notes with a Salvation Army Band on February 22nd his sixteen birthday.
He and George Washington might be honored but the Salvation Army brass quintet wasn’t having a good day. They were positioned midway along "The Block," which was the world famous strip of East Baltimore Street. Its fame was based largely upon its willing, though often infected ladies, performing a variety of peep shows strip joints and burlesque houses where nudity was the ordinary dress.
Because the weather was so cold it was almost impossible to keep ones lips on a metal mouthpiece the five musicians stumbled over passages they knew by heart. There were two trumpeters, a trombonist, baritone horn player and the tuba player. In retrospect he remembered how each player’s physiques seemed a perfect match with each other as well as the limitations of each instrument.
Of the five the woman, playing the baritone horn fit that the best. She was a short, pudgy person, at least sixty, who did not even try to keep any semblance of tempo. She simply forged ahead like some winded horse running for its stable. Her obvious intention was completing the last hymn and getting out of the terrible February cold
Just as she raced into the final verse, two full beats in front of the other four, and threatening to drag them all with her, like it or not, he and his silvered plated trumpet had stepped among them. He joined the second trumpet part and in less than five notes, the splintered effort transposed itself into crystal clear perfection. His contribution seemed slight for he made no effort to overpower the others. Nor did he perform any miracles of virtuosity, but he did become the anchor to which all the others immediately fixed because his vitality and ability inspired an instant respect and discipline for the music..
He was at least four inches over six feet, but standing among the short, stubby performers, he soared to what seemed an impossible height. His silver horn shone in the pale afternoon sun. His back was slightly bent rear ward, his head lifted so his instrument was pointed towards the grime smeared facades of a row of town houses, long since converted into store fronts or furnished rooms. He attacked each note with the precision and the love all music demands in order for art to rise above the normal dim. Almost immediately passers- by commenced dropping money into the covered pot suspended from a slightly rusty iron tripod. Rapidly the paper collection mounted the sides of the small container until it threatened to flow on to the sidewalk. Not only did most passers-by contribute, but many stopped began swaying and listening in spite of the deadly cold and wind. Slowly they bunched together as a soft humming began followed by a few brave souls beginning to sing, even if they did not know all the words. All in all they did five full choruses with the stranger soloing on the last.
As soon as the last notes were completed, the thin trombonist took the mouthpiece from his lips and began complimenting the young man. AThat was a wonderfully uplifting experience," he stated, peering steadfastly into the young musician's face. The brown liquid eyes returned the
leader's gaze with a directness which brought warmth in the man's chilled limbs. AYou have a great talent there. The Lord has given you a wonderful way to sing His praises and serve Him."
Smiling the young man nodded and pointed to the collection pot. ALooks like you made expenses Rev."
"We certainly were nearly empty until you came along," the baritone player interjected, reaching out to take the young man's free hand." What's your name?"
"You play so well we picked right up! It's got to be the work of the Lord in weather like this," she finished without releasing his hand. Allowing her to hold it as long as she cared did not appear to make him ill at ease, because he patted her hand, and gave her a broad smile which revealed a chipped front tooth.
"You're so good. Are you from here?"
"Yeah I play down here all the time. Just picked up my week's pay from The Gaiety “he said, and motioned toward the infamously famous strip palace almost directly across from where they stood. He spoke as though it was a concert hall, and it did not bother him when every member of the quintet winced.
"They got the highest pay scale in town if you're playing on stage. With the war and everybody getting drafted, or joining up, they may have women playing in there before this is over. I'm working six nights a week and they want me to do the day shows. ‘Can't do that.’casue I' m in school. He paused and smiled but it did not erase the grim expression on the older man's face. So with that, Street Norris decided it was time to exit gracefully, but he lacked a good excuse. The leader solved that problem.
"It was very nice playing with you, Street. Hope we see you often. You have a great voice for singing the Lord's praises. It just could be in better ..."
"Whoa, man. I got no reasons for being ashamed. I'm making sixty-five bucks a week."
"I just think the Lord meant you to use the talents He gave you to better advantages."
"Dad always tells me the Lord moves in strange and silent ways. He says not to question the will of the Lord. That everything works itself out the way He wants. My Dad=s got to be right. He made it through four years of the last war on the wrong side, and he still got all his limbs."
AAmen to your father's faith!"
The tall trombonist nodded vigorously as Norris pulled off his mouthpiece, slipped it in his Pea coat, then slid his silver trumpet into its felt bag and pulled the draw string tightly closed. As the other four members waved from the warmth of the hot dog stand, a dilapidated street car came by, and he hopped aboard.
The Salvation Army never knew the real reason for him stepping up and joining in. That would have been really difficult to explain.Right now it was almost as difficult for Norris to accept. Back then music was undergoing drastic changes and the most radical one, >Be Bop=, had captured him completely. The music was so new no one was recording it. It was so unique those playing it instantly understood they were inventing and opening utterly new doors where flatted fifths, fiery chord changes, and breath taking chromatic velocities ruled. Musicians played with an intensity which announced they all knew that one day it would hang right alongside of Picasso and Matisse in every modern art museum in the western world. Like all new art forms they all knew it was merely a matter of time for the general public’s ear to accept what was going down.
The times and the new style gave opportunities to the young and talented .As soon as some of the better players heard what they were doing, Street, Jimmie Winters , the pianist and Gus Constantine, the drummer were invited to the >Valhalla of Bop=, The Campus Club, to perform and absorb. It was a large night club which featured after hours and Sunday Jam Sessions. In a few months all of the musicians who extended them the invitations were either drafted or drifted up to New York for better paying jobs.
The Campus Club never paid for its talent but young players clamored to get on its tiny stage after a week end playing sixty-five cent arrangements which did not challenge them. In almost no time Jimmy, Gus and Street became the judges and jury as to who was going to play when, what tunes and with whom.
A few nights before he began full time at the Gaiety, a trombone player who worked the local bands, came in and asked to sit in for a set. Norris gave Jim and Gus a wink for they all had done gigs with him and he played every note verbatim in those nothing sixty-five cent arrangements for the standard seven dollars a night, took his pay and was always uninspiring. He was so totally unhip! It was hilarious just imagining him playing anything with them.
"It's all full speed ahead, man," Jimmy grinned. "No sheet music up here, man." The man nodded, and unpacked his horn. After slipping the slide up and down, he came in right in the middle of a racing unison chorus of 'Bernie's Tune, and managed to drive everyone of the nine performers right off their feet with the first break he blew.
And that was only the beginning. His first full chorus of Laura mandated that everyone but Jimmie and Gus lower their instruments and cock their collective heads. He played things they had never heard, never imagined, and each new chorus brought on greater and greater jewels. By the time the last tune, Georgia On My Mind, ended, he had managed to blow everyone in the house through the doors.
"Where you’ve been hiding, man?" Jimmie asked, grinning as if this was his own personal discovery. "You been gigging with us off and on for six months .How can you stand to play the crap we do at dances?"
"Yeah," Street inserted, not wanting Jimmie to hog every minute of glory." How come you are so damned methodical with that junk?"
The expression the man returned was genuine shock and disbelief. It was the expression a priest would assume while hearing the confession of a mass murderer. Then in a very low and quite voice he said, "You gotta play everything exactly as it's written. That's what you’re getting paid to do. Play it the best you can, but play what's there in front of you. If you don't want to play crap man, then don't take the money” He paused, frowned and added, “And don't ruin the dreams of the dudes who paid you."
Hal Franks became a nightly contributor at The Campus. Women loved his soft solitude. They asked him if he kissed as good as he played. He laughed a lot, but seldom took the bait. It was only after the music, usually in some all night greasy spoon his wisdom came forth. One night Jimmie was pouring some gin on a Formica table top so he could light it because he was furious Hal was focused exclusively on Street.
"You gotta find out just how good you are, Street. Otherwise art’ll eat you alive and skin you while it does. It=s really important you find out if you only got enough talent to entertain yourself and maybe a few close friends. If that's it, you can get off the hook early, and go back to being a normal person. You know, to sleeping nights, working days and having someone other than mad, insane people for friends.” Hal paused as the flaming gin began pouring off the table. After he helped stamp out the almost invisible blue flames, he went on.
AYou're already past that. You got to find out if you can entertain more than local folks. Can you captivate strangers? Can you make people stop eating, drinking and talking to listen to you? You gotta take your talent right to the end of the line. Got to find what your limits are, or if you don't have any. Some don't."
"He's very limited," Jimmie interrupted."
"Could be but he's out in front of you all." When Jimmie turned his back, Hal drove in the nails.
"I hate telling someone they got talent, Street. ‘Cause talent isn't all you need in this racket. Everywhere I go there's kids like you. They can play ink flung up on the wall." He shook his head as if he had already said too much.
AGive me the rest of it, man."
"Someone draws five lines through it and they can lay it down flawlessly. But they don=t have any control over the luck they need. Maybe you got something. If you do, you gotta ride it right to the end of the line. If you don=t it’ll turn on you a very bitter man.. He drank his orange juice.
"You could be cursed, kid. You sure play better than you should for your age. But you really don't read that well, do you?"
Street confessed he could hardly read anything. “But if I hear it just once, it’s mine forever.
"No. Not forever," Hal muttered softly. "Only as long as you have to play it kid Tunes run away and hide fast enough when you aren't using them. They’re the same as bar broads.” That got a smile from Jimmie.
“So, you may be fully cursed. You better listen to the rest of this real carefully. Are you listening, kid? Promise me you’re listening."
"I=m all ears,. and then Norris felt badly about being so snide. AI=m really listening, man."
"If you got talent enough to entertain strangers, who’ll pay to hear you, then you got to let it take you right to the brink of the falls. You got to see exactly how far you can go. Put it all on the line and really find out if you have it or don't. Test yourself to the fullest. It ain't simple and it sure as hell ain't easy, because most of us don=t want to face our limitations. You gotta let your art and talent beat you every day of your life. Just as much as it wants, kid. Screw it over drop it and one day it will come back on you like all your worst nightmares."
Hardly anyone spoke, as Street prayed for all of this to end. But Hal had to add the Ace Duce Buster.AScrew with your art and one day you're going to wake up … Not tomorrow, but one day ...might even be years … But just when you think you got it really made, or you got your life defined, right then and there you=re gonna to start hating what you became. Hate what you did, are doing and going to do...All the tenses any language can construct. You are going to find out that nothing will do except going back to your art. Then you get the good old >Ace- Duce- Buster= right in your face, because art will not take you back, and so for the rest of your life you’re only a bridesmaid. Right then, your art starts beating hell out of you...Day after day...World without end."Then Hal laughed as hard as Street had ever heard a person laugh.
In the ensuing twenty-two years, before he was sitting on the bar stool, Street Norris had owned nine cars. The only thing they all had in common was none of them, till now had a radio. This brand new Buick sedan boasted one of the most powerful ones available. He was driving the Buick for the first time when the radio suddenly invaded his thoughts. Instantly, the long melodious trumpet solo only a young Miles Davis could have composed and played, acted like a nail driven right into the center of his brain. He stared at the dash board as memories sloshed over it like old musty water.
The Salvation Army Quintet shimmered and blinked like an old silent black and white movie as he waited for Peter Adams who as usual was five minutes late. As he listened, he thought about definition and potential. He despised waiting. Norris had many faults, but making others wait for him was not one of them. Slowly he counted to one hundred, then disobeying the silent protests screaming at him for deserting his best legal researcher, he drove off.
He stopped only long enough to call his office, then his wife and told Nancy Potter he was getting sick and on his way to see a doctor and would call in later. He told his wife he was going to be in court all day and would not be available. His secretary showed proper concern, since this was the first day he had missed in over fifteen years. Her concern almost made him feel guilty about lying to her. His wife pouted that she would not be able to reach him in an emergency.
Five hours later he was so drunk he had failed to pick up a teen age Go-Go dancer. He was so drunk he bribed the trumpet player in the house quartet to let him sit in. And, he was certainly drunk enough to think that the ten or so bars of bleats and missed notes before the owner reclaimed his instrument, were good enough to allow him the right of re-entry into his art.
He did not hear the drummer's comments. "Jesus. Sly, you'll do anything to get off the stage."
After he returned to his stool Street peered into his beer puddle, trying to identify who was in it peering back, but there wasn't enough light. He spoke to the shimmering figure in the puddle anyway. AThink what the hell you could have done if you hadn't gotten married when you were twenty-two." Clarity returned where his abilities to play had not. "You had it. Everybody said that … Said it all the time. But you had to get Ga Ga over a pair of nice boobs and really stunning legs and marry them. At the very least you should’ve deserted them when you had your one chance to go to California. Should‘ve just walked out on it all. Kids ...job...family, house ...thirty year GI mortgage. Just gotup and went, man. What would you be right now? You didn't listen to the fates yelling all those sleepless nights? Whispering to you while you were making...."
"Hey, bartender … Did anyone ever tell you art was the most demanding mistress? AHe whispered to the whole bar top since the puddle seemed to have lost interest. “Did I mention that neglected, art eventually takes you right into the only room where you‘ll be totally unhappy? The damned room you've worked all your life hiding from? Bet no one ever told you, did they?"
The bartender did not hear what Street was saying because he was at the far end of the room, getting concerned if he had to cut the old drunk off before something stupid happened.
ABet you heard about guys driving by old girl friend's houses trying to see whose she=s in bed with. Who she=s in bed with ain=t the question! Who gives a damn? That ain't the question. The question is now that he ain=t in her bed, who the hell is in his bed?
Art's in the bed, man. Art s always been in my bed. She can support herself and she's the meanest broad in town. I ignored her. Now I=m on the edge of the world, and she’s gladly pulling our entire history together after me." As Norris decided he could never cry enough tears to make a puddle that large again, he laid his head down on the cold oak, but he did not sleep."