Artwork by Brittany Davies
All those ships that never sailed
The ones with their seacocks open
That were scuttled in their stalls…
Today I bring them back
Huge and transitory
And let them sail
(American Beat Poet, 1925-1986)
Sometimes you need some tough love to help you get on in life. Usually it’s your parents who give it to you, or your teachers, or the woman you love. But when all of them have failed, it usually falls on your friends. And I suppose I would have thought of them as my friends: Bob, Eddie, and Stan, the Jazzmen of 8th Position record store, Camberwell, South London. And I like to think that they’d consider me the same. They were each over seventy, though none of them would let on quite how far over they were. Me, well I was only just gone forty. Still young in their eyes. Young enough for them to insist on calling me boy. It felt a little inappropriate at times, but it was the price that I paid for their company, and it was worth it.
What had started out as an occasional trip to my local record store on a Saturday morning had turned into a regular slot. I’d given up on women after a ten-year relationship had spectacularly failed. My parents were dead, and my girlfriend had succeeded in killing off the few friends that I’d had when we met. So I fell backwards, into jazz, as you can. Of course, there are many ways of finding yourself in jazz. You might hop, skip, and jump into it. You might back flip off a skyscraper and land feet first on top of it, or crawl across the curb and underneath it. You might get it all over your shoe walking in the park, the stink of it following you home like your ex-girlfriend’s perfume. Me, I fell, backwards through the air, into its soft and welcoming arms.
So, at just (and I mean only just) forty, if you’d wanted me on a Saturday between the hours of eleven and five, I’d be in the 8th Position with the Jazzmen. I’d bring with me a tin of biscuits and sometimes sandwiches, enough for all. As the day waned, I’d find myself wandering home with a single record under my arm, to play to myself on Sunday morning.
Following the departure of my girlfriend, my flat felt fully bachelor again. A giant TV had taken pride of place in the living room. There were no air fresheners or pink pillows in sight. And I’d added something else to the mix: my old saxophone, or Alice, as I called her. She now perched on her stand beside the TV, covered in a veil that I’d cut out of an old net curtain. I’d not played her yet. I hadn’t even bought new reeds. Each weekend I’d take her apart and clean her, careful to remove any specks of dust from the keys.
I’d named her Alice after Alice Coltrane and, of course, there’s a story behind the name. As a young player at university, I’d headed to New Orleans one summer to discover what jazz really could mean. I spent three weeks drunk, stoned, and high on music. And on the last day, as I’d walked somewhere around Royal St, filled with melancholy, bourbon, and marijuana, I’d stumbled upon a quartet playing on a street corner. There I stayed for two hours, during which time they stopped only to light their cigarettes. The saxophone player shrilled the air like an angel happy with sin. It was pure and sublime. Gospel voodoo. I approached him as they packed up to leave, my saxophone case in one hand and the last twenty dollars I had to my name in the other. I asked him: “How?”
He looked at me and smiled, like the sweetest devil I’d ever seen, taking the money from my outstretched hand and tucking it into the breast pocket of his shirt. Then he leaned in close. “You just gotta play her like she’s somebody else’s wife.” He held up his saxophone between us and looked down at her disapprovingly. “‘Ain’t nobody sings better than a woman who strays.”
So, of all the wives in the world I’d chosen Alice. It was a bold move and perhaps one that I never truly pulled off. But for a few years at least, Alice and I were very much in love.
* * *
It was late on a Saturday morning in winter when Jazzman first walked in. We were sat round in the corner of the shop, just as we usually were on most Saturday mornings. Bob had made tea for everybody. He was an odd old man. He had a round toothless head like a tortoise, and beneath it he was always immaculately dressed in a neat, brown woollen suit with a matching brown tie and waistcoat. He was Eastend by dialect, refined gentleman by manner.
We had on Jelly Roll Morton that morning, and he was working hard to transport us from frozen Camberwell to Frenchmen St, New Orleans. Eddie stamped his feet slow, in time. I’d never seen an old man with bigger feet than Eddie’s. And the tapping was a habit we’d learned to live with. That’s not to say he didn’t keep time. As bandleader and percussionist in the Croydon Jazz Ensemble from 1969 to 1984, the man could hold a beat. And we didn’t hold it against him. Sometimes his fingers would come in on the act, rattling against the old second-hand armchair he slouched in. Today, the steady roll of Morton’s Fishtail Blues didn’t require it and so the feet just thudded a slow, constant beat as we sipped our tea.
Bob smiled behind the counter, his head in his hands and his elbows on the desk. “Boy.” He winked at me and nodded in the direction of Stan who had started mumbling, ignoring Eddie’s repeated prompts to “just shut up.”
We realised, after straining to hear, that Stan was talking about Jamaica again, mumbling on about the taste of Blue Mountain Coffee and how much better it was than tea. He was hard to follow at the best of times, even when he spoke straight at you. But when he set off on a ramble half to himself, there was little point trying to keep up or stop him. He came to an end halfway through a sentence. “See wat I mean?” He whipped the words with greater clarity and smiled over the lip of his mug. He winked at me casually, his navy blue beanie crimping down across his eyelids, scattered sprigs of grey hair oscillating as he pursed his lips and sipped his drink with exaggerated disdain. It was at just that point that the bell jingled and Jazzman entered the store. He wore a pale beige jacket over an explosive red-and-orange Hawaiian shirt. On his head, a brightly embroidered Taqiyah cap hemmed in his wiry, white hair, which jutted out from underneath it like the legs of a spider caught in a cup. He was older than me but younger than them. None of us could place him.
“Welcome. Welcome, good sir,” Bob greeted him.
“This place looks exciting.” Jazzman gazed around him, bulging his eyes.
“Depends what you define as exciting,” Eddie grumbled below his breath.
Bob set into the usual spiel he gave to anyone he didn’t recognise: “Jazz and classical my friend. Jazz and classic. We’ve got CDs upstairs. LP’s downstairs. Make yourself at home, settle in. If you want to play something just let us know and we’ll put it on for everybody. Toilet’s in the back and there’s a kitchen if you fancy a cup of tea, on the house.”
“That’s mighty kind of you, fella, mighty kind.” Jazzman set down his overstuffed haversack on the floor beside us. “I’d say that’s about the finest welcome I’ve ever had walking into a record store, and I’ve been in a few in my time.” I couldn’t quite follow his accent. It was Eastend Yankee. American and yet very definitely British at the same time.
“He only wants your money,” Eddie scoffed, his feet still keeping time. Stan laughed, but Jazzman wasn’t fazed. He smiled and nodded, acknowledging the comment.
“Well I’ll see if I can’t oblige.” He held out his hand to Bob, who shook it. “Name’s John, but some people call me Jazzman. It’s my stage name you see. Either will do. You?”
“Well, nice to meet you fellas. I’m gonna head on down to that basement of yours and check out the records you got. You got any Donaldson? I’ve been lookin’ for a bit of Donaldson for a while now. Can’t seem to find him anywhere.”
“Lou, I assume you mean. Well, yes, we may well do,” Bob nodded. “We may well do.”
“Now,” Jazzman paused for effect, a long line of bangles hanging from his wrist where he held up his arm like a voodoo priest conducting ceremony. “Now, Bob, you got me excited.” And with that he turned and headed down the stairs to the basement.
“Careful down there. Health and safety risk. Place is a death trap,” Eddie shouted after him.
“OK,” Jazzman shouted back.
We returned to the music, a smile twitching the corner of Eddie’s mouth. Morton’s LP came to an end and I stood up to replace it.
“What’ll it be?” I asked.
“Trombone,” Eddie replied. “It must be my turn by now and I say trombone. Put Teagarden on, he’ll teach you a thing or two he will. Never a man that could make a trombone sing like Teagarden.”
“Good,” Stan shouted in response. “Teagarden’s good.” Bob had nothing to add.
The deliveries of old second-hand records came in piecemeal. You could visit one week and the shelves would be stacked to the top, come back another and they’d be half empty. Bob had received a new delivery that morning. The convention was that each record had to be played at least once before it could be put on the shelves downstairs in the basement, even if that meant only playing a song. At first I had thought that this was a form of quality control, Bob being paranoid about ever selling someone a dud record. But I had been put right. He explained that it was a matter of respect. To sell a record without listening to it first was not only unprofessional, it was rude.
Jack Teagarden and his trombone entered the room, with Eddie Condon and his Windy City Seven in support. Our Eddie’s feet started going, followed soon after by the fingers of his left hand. He sat back and closed his eyes.
“Listen,” he shouted over the music. “Nuff said.”
* * *
“He-he-he’s a strange one,” Stan shouted, sitting up in his chair and pointing down to the basement.
Bob put his finger across his lips.
“Nuts, completely nuts,” Eddie responded.
The bell jingled again and a man in his mid-forties came in wearing a long coat, jeans, and a shirt. He nodded to us and wandered across to the CDs. “Welcome, welcome,” Bob called across.
“Thank you,” the man replied nervously and looked away. After browsing the CDs for a few minutes, he selected one and came over to us.
“I’d like to buy this CD please,” he handed it to Bob. I watched Eddie eyeing the CD suspiciously. The battle of his head against his mouth was quickly lost. “Miles Davis? Pah! Everybody buys Miles Davis and that’s it. It’s as if jazz never existed before or after that one man.” Bob looked down despairingly at Eddie.
“Well, um, I’ll admit I don’t know that much about jazz,” the man responded. “The CD’s a gift actually, for my nephew. He’s a trumpet player – jazz trumpet actually. Someone recommended Miles Davis to me as good idea for a present.”
“Overrated if you ask me,” Eddie continued.
“I-I-I I think you find he-he-he he didn’t ask you,” Stan shouted, sitting up in his chair and spilling his tea.
“Well, OK,” the man turned to Eddie. “What would you suggest?”
Eddie sat back and closed his eyes, tapping his fingers loudly to the beat. The man sighed and turned back to Bob with his CD. “I guess I’ll get this then.”
“Wait,” Eddie commanded, his head back against the chair and his eyes still closed. “I’m thinking.”
We all looked on as Teagarden played us “Pitchin’ a Bit Short.”
“Boy,” Eddie said.
“That’s me,” I explained to the customer.
“Boy, get him the King.”
By the King he meant Joe “King” Oliver of course, one of the finest jazz cornet players of all time. He was the man who made Hot Jazz hot.
“You’ve got King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band,” I called across from one of the CD shelves near the entrance.
“Perfect.” Eddie pulled himself up in his chair, gripping the arm with both hands. Once up, he held out a hand for the CD, which I brought over to him. Sitting back in his chair he took out his spectacles from the inside pocket of his jacket and scrolled the list of tracks on the back of the case.
“Yes,” he nodded to himself. “Your nephew plays jazz trumpet you say?”
“Yes,” the customer replied. “He’s studying it at Trinity College.”
“Then he must be good,” Eddie said in a matter-of-fact tone. “And if he is good he won’t need Miles Davis. I’d bet that he has it already anyway. This on the other hand,” he flicked the CD in his hand. “This is the real King. Not Elvis, Oliver. And guess who else you’ll find on here, as his apprentice, as understudy to the King – the Prince, if you will?”
The man looked on confused and sucked in his breath, thinking it through. “Miles Davis?”
“No!” Eddie shouted and closed his eyes in despair.
Stan chuckled beside him. “He really don’t-don’t like Miles Davis,” he said.
Eddie composed himself and leant forwards, handing the CD over to the customer. “The Prince, on this particular recording, is none other than Louis Armstrong himself.”
The man took the CD from Eddie and smiled. “Oh, I’ve heard of him.”
“Pah!” Eddie sat back in his seat, closed his eyes, and resumed his tapping.
“Well, thanks for your advice.” The man turned to Bob, who was sat looking pensive and disapproving behind the counter. “And I will get this one, the King. And I’ll tell my nephew to come by sometime.”
“You’re welcome,” Eddie responded without opening his eyes.
“That’s a fiver.” Bob took the CD from the man and bagged it.
“Rip-off,” Eddie mumbled. Stan and I laughed.
“Ignore him.” Bob smiled and walked the man to the door, wishing him well.
“Eddie,” I said and he opened his eyes. “How come whenever I ask you if an LP’s any good or if you could recommend something new for me to listen to, you always just tell me that jazz means different things to different people?”
Eddie closed his eyes and continued to tap. “Respect,” he said. “Respect enough to let you take your own journey. That man, on the other hand, didn’t know his elbow from his bebop.” He chuckled quietly to himself.
Jazzman returned with a smile on his face and a record in his hands. “W-what you got there?” Stan asked.
“None other than the great Lou Donaldson,” Jazzman replied. “Lush Life’s the album and, man, I’m telling you, life gets lush when Lou gets up and starts to play.”
“That’s a slower one.” Eddie had sat forward and observed Jazzman with newfound interest.
“Yes, yes, I believe it is. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of romance in a tune now and again.”
“No, no.” Eddie nodded, sitting back in agreement. The rest of us were dumbfounded. Eddie wasn’t prone to agreeing with people. In fact, we’d have sworn that he had a chronic affliction for being contrary. Then, without prompt, Jazzman pulled out a stool from under a table of CDs and sat down beside us.
“I’m guessing this place has been here for a long time?” he said.
“Since 1967,” Bob replied. “We’re a bastion of times gone by.”
“Sure are. I can see that.”
“Shall we put it on?” Bob asked, and Jazzman looked up confused. “The record.” Bob pointed to it in his hand.
“Well,” Jazzman looked at his watch, “I ain’t gotta be anywhere for a couple of hours yet, so why not?”
I reached out to take the record from him and place it on the turntable, Teagarden had made his speech. I heard Bob offering Jazzman tea behind me.
Lou Donaldson entered with a low foghorn saxophone blast to the chest as a slow sliding tune slipped in behind and took over the ballad. Eddie’s foot began to tap and he closed his eyes blissfully. The band took the song by the scruff of its neck, broke it down, and then put it back together again with the gentlest groove to keep your mind bopping along with them. The piano solo seemed to float over our heads, tiny flashes of light exploding at each key, and the saxophone cried love. A lonely but defiant note was left hanging as the first song came to an end.
“These are all old ballads, from way back,” Eddie explained. “Back when even my father would have only been a boy at most. They used to sing them down the pub on a Saturday night: “Sweet slumber till dawn, till the last star is gone, I will hold you in my arms again tonight,” Eddie sung in a low baritone. “Who was it, Stan, the black fella that used to sing this song?”
“Trevor Bacon,” Stan said confidently. “But it’s a Lucky Millinder tune.”
“You’re not wrong. Old Pete in the pub used to sing it. Was one of his standards. Easier song to sing as the range isn’t too great and it’s slow.” Eddie laughed at the memory. “Old Pete used to talk like a worn out vacuum cleaner that had hoovered up too many Harry Wraggs. Then when he sung he sounded sweet as honey and soft as velvet. I couldn’t fathom it. Still can’t.”
“Wow,” Jazzman was sat back against the wall, also with his eyes closed. “Jazz takes you places. Places you can’t say where. But it takes you just, there.” He cut a karate chop against his chest. “Tell me,” he said without opening his eyes. “When’s the last time you guys saw anyone play?”
We looked at each other. “I went to the Jazz Cafe only the other week,” I said.
“Who did you see?”
“Toufic Faroukh, he’s Lebanese. Saxophone player.”
“Don’t know him but sounds groovy.” Jazzman opened his eyes. “What about you gentlemen?”
“Nine or ten years.” Bob chuckled to himself.
“Couple of years,” Stan added.
“Forever,” Eddie finished solemnly.
The kettle whistled in the kitchen behind and Bob disappeared to make Jazzman tea.
“Ever hear of Bob Kaufman?” Jazzman asked.
“Of course,” Stan replied. “D’you think we’re ignorant or somethin’?”
“No, no, not at all. Only, you never know who’s heard of him.”
Eddie was silent. He looked pensive, smaller, as though he had shrunk deeper into his armchair and into his memories.
“A decade then, Bob, or thereabouts?” Jazzman said as Bob passed him his tea.
“Yes, I’d say so, I’d say so,” Bob nodded and sat down on his chair with a huff.
“I tell you what you need. You need to hear some live music. Some real live jazz. You need to feel it in the gut. To hear it from the horse’s mouth. To smell some sweat on your Bebop, some crush, some cool, some front line shriekin’ in your faces.” He stood up and we all watched him as he hopped around the room like some jazz junkie, lost on the cosmic road between fatalism and existentialism. He was knocking on the door of impulse; we were somewhere on the other side.
“You need to have the jazz wrapped up around you, sucked inside you and blown the hell out of you. Yeah,” he nodded to himself as he continued to move around the room. “You guys need it live. Hell, you deserve it live. Whadda you say? There’s a club not far from here plays sweet serenity and crazy madness most nights of the week. It ain’t far, it ain’t hard, and the jazz, I gotta tell you guys, the jazz is coming back. And it’s strong and dirty and smelly, for adults only.” He stood in front of us.
“I’m up for it,” I said, knowing it wasn’t really me he was after.
“You’re a complete nutter.” Eddie smiled at him. “Bonkers, that’s what you are. And no, I’ve got nothing to gain from carting my sorry old arthritic joints up to some Soho dive to watch a bunch of would be believers try to recreate what they just don’t know.”
Jazzman looked disappointed.
“I-I-I think Eddie’s right, sort of,” Stan added. “We-we-we are pretty old now, and I’m not sure it’s such an easy thing. I get picked up here each day and taken home by-by-by my daughter and from here,” he pointed down at himself with a limp wrist, “to over there,” he flicked it towards the door, “is ’bout as far as I can manage. Thank you,” he added as an afterthought.
Jazzman looked at Bob, who was the most lively and robust of the three. “Well, thanks for that, John, but, um, I’m with Eddie and Stan. I’ve seen plenty of jazz in my time, and I think I’ll get about as much enjoyment these days from being here and having the music played and meeting people like you as I would in a jazz bar in the city. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea, but I’m not going to get too overwhelmed by the thought of watching live music these days. I’d be more worried about going to the toilet every fifteen minutes than actually enjoying the music.”
“Well, I’m not gonna try and convince you any more than I already have.” Jazzman sat back down, deflated. “Jazz for me is just all about that moment in and among all of the other moments. It’s about the now. It’s about creating and being and improv and in all that, it’s live. That’s what it is. It’s a live art form. It’s a beating heart, not a photograph.”
“Jazz means different things to different people,” Eddie summarised from his armchair, eyes closed and foot tapping to Donaldson and his saxophone.
Jazzman hung round with us until the record had played out, both sides. As he left, he turned back and waved. “It’s safe to say, fellas, that I will be back again. And I will be back soon.”
* * *
Later that evening I got home and walked around my flat in darkness. The moonlight shone through the window of my bathroom like fog as I took a piss. I looked up at my face in the mirror: obscured in darkness, it was the same shape I’d looked upon since I was a teenager, a shape filled in with memories. I stood back and pulled on the chord that hung down from the ceiling. The brightness of the light was bare and my face looked old. I saw in it a father’s face, but I had no children. I saw in it the face of a man with experience, yet I had no position in life of merit or responsibility. I turned the light off again. Things were much better. I saw only what I felt I could be. I could ignore all of what I wasn’t.
I sat on the sofa and looked across at Alice. She seemed to soak up the moonlight, accentuate the whiteness of the night like a ghostly bride in a low-budget Hollywood horror movie. “Music from her breast,” I recited to myself. “Soudseared into burnished velvet. Silent hips deceiving fools. Rivulets of trickling ecstasy from the alabaster pools of Jazz where music cools hot souls. Eyes more articulately silent than Medusa’s thousand tongues.”
Alice stared back at me, vacant. Her bell stuck up through the veil like a ghastly chin or the kick of a Latin woman’s rumba. For all of the wanting to be inspired, I couldn’t find it in my soul to play. The world had lost its speakeasy. I was not an agent of change. These walls that surrounded me would hear no magic, unless it came from my record player. I set my hand at my side to find the remote and turned on the TV in an attempt to disappear.
* * *
Jazzman returned the following weekend. Duke Ellington was playing as he entered and he paused for a moment as he came in, firing an informal salute in the direction of the record player. He greeted us each like long lost friends, shaking our hands and addressing us directly before again heading off downstairs to the record collection. He’d been down there for a good while when he called up to us and asked if someone could give him a hand. I obliged.
“Ah, good, I hoped it would be you that came down,” he said in a subdued tone of voice. “Listen.” He drew me by the arm to a corner of the room, away from the stairwell. “I’ve got an idea but I want to run it by you first.”
“OK.” I nodded.
“These guys upstairs, they’re really somethin’ aren’t they? I mean, there’s somethin’ special about them – that’s why you come down here, right?”
“Yes, they’re like a jazz family. Living history.”
“Right.” He whipped the air with his finger, bangles jangling on his wrist. “Now when I know something, I know something, right? I know it down here.” He prodded his gut. “And I know these boys would enjoy some real live jazz, and I know just the right band who they’d doubly love. I’m tellin’ you, man. These guys are hot, these guys are groovy and these guys know how to blow out a tune, right?”
“OK.” I nodded.
“Now, the young fellas upstairs say they don’t want to head off into some bar somewhere, even when it’s just up the road. But what if we bring the jazz here? What if I speak to my friends and they come and perform right here.” He jumped on the spot, pointing down at the ground beneath his feet. “One evening just before the shop’s due to close. They could just play a few tunes for them. Man, I know they’d be up for it.”
“You’d have to ask them I think,” I said, wondering whether or not Eddie might become indignant at the intrusion.
“Out of the question. I don’t know why, but it’s got to be a surprise. We ask them and they might say no.”
I sat back against the table and looked up at the wall. Louis Armstrong winked back at me from an old record sleeve that had been pinned up with tacks. “Go for it,” I said. “Why not?”
“No,” Jazzman jumped forwards. “Not why not. There’s no why not about it. It’s just do it, that’s what it is. Next week, Saturday, before their gig in town. You’ll be here, they’ll be here.” He pointed upstairs. “Right?”
“Why not,” I repeated stubbornly.
“Now let’s go put this on.” He held up a an old battered Art Tatum LP.
* * *
I was nervous when the following Saturday came round. I arrived later than usual at the store, for fear that I might inadvertently give away the secret of John’s plan. Eddie seemed grumpier than ever and Stan was having one of his off days, meaning he chatted a lot to himself and shook so badly he struggled to drink his tea. A new batch of records had come in mid-week and Eddie was flicking through them beside the record player when I came in.
“What time d’you call this?” he asked as I opened the door.
“Afternoon, Eddie,” I replied.
“Afternoon, it’s after midnight I’d reckon. Here, boy.” He walked back towards his chair carrying a record and sat down. You should put a record on. This one.” He held up a Charlie Mingus album The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady.
“That’s a bit modern for you, isn’t it?” I commented as I took it from him.
“How would you know?” he replied.
I set the record on the turntable. A quiet broken drum roll came in followed by Charlie’s double bass and flare of a tuba like the tentative first steps of a giant beast rising from slumber. The alto sax began to flit around its head like a bird and then the drum skipped behind as the beast awoke. Suddenly it all fell away and the trumpet rang though.
The rest of the afternoon passed by gently. The music was good and the store was busy, so Bob cheered up, even if Eddie and Stan continued to flake. At around 6 p.m., with the night outside feeling particularly dark and only us and the music left inside the store, Jazzman arrived.
“Evening, fellas,” he boomed as he came in, the door swinging shut behind him. “Evening, gentlemen, should I say.” Eddie and Stan both sat up in their chairs, startled by the loudness of his greeting. “I have brought some friends with me this evening, to show them your little gem of a shop,” and with that the door behind him opened. “Let me introduce to you to The Mel Jones Quartet and Mr Mel Jones.” Jazzman stood to one side with a sweep of his arm. Behind him a line of four men stood awkwardly, each with at least one instrument case in their hands or hanging over their shoulders.
“Hi.” A short, broad man in his mid-forties held up his hand and waved. I looked back at Bob, Eddie, and Stan. Bob was smiling as though he knew exactly what was going on. Stan looked gobsmacked, sat bolt upright in his chair.
Eddie had sat back down. “Here we go,” he grumbled with his eyes closed.
“Over here, fellas. Come and say hello.” Jazzman introduced them one by one and they each shook our hands.
“You gonna play for us, Mel?” Stan asked, holding onto Mel’s hand with both of his own.
“That’s the plan, Stan. That’s what John’s suggesting.”
“How are you, Eddie?” Mel asked knowingly.
“I’ve been better,” he replied, a smile tweaking the corner of his mouth.
Mel laughed a low, rolling rumble of a laugh as he shook his hand. “You really want me to play for you?”
“No, not really. But I suppose I don’t have much of a choice.”
“Probably won’t be able to hear it anyway.”
“Watch your mouth, boy.” As usual, Eddie always had to have the last word.
John ushered the musicians to a space in the middle of the store. “Bob, you got a plug around here?” he asked, as one of them set up a small electric keyboard. They were a quartet, with Mel on trumpet, a keyboard player, double bass, and a drummer with just a bass drum, snare drum, high hat, and cymbal to set up. They didn’t wait. As soon as the drummer was ready, Mel turned around, counted in, and the four of them came in together, bang on, to the sound of “Mack the Knife” by Louis Armstrong. Sure enough, Eddie’s feet and fingers began to run in time with the tune as Mel leant in and sung: “Ya know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe; Scarlet billows start to spread; Fancy gloves, oh, wears old MacHeath, babe; So there’s not a trace of red.” A blissful peace assaulted our world.
“Now, gentlemen.” Mel halted proceedings and turned to the band. “We are in the presence of greatness. We are playing for London jazz royalty, don’t you know.” Bob and Stan looked on excitedly. Eddie sat with his eyes closed and not moving. “Yes,” Mel turned back to face us. “Mr Steadman,” he addressed Eddie. “Will you not relieve young Robbie of his sticks and show us a thing or two on rhythm.” Bob and Stan gasped in unison.
“Not bloody likely,” Eddie replied.
“Go on, Eddie,” I encouraged him. I was too excited to hold back. “Do it for us,” I said.
Eddie opened his eyes and looked at me sternly. “Boy, that’s called blackmail.”
“He’s not the only one wants to hear you play, Mr Steadman,” Stan perked up behind him. “Now go on and get up there and play for us.”
“This is your fault,” Eddie said to Jazzman as he lifted himself out of his chair. The young Robbie, with hair flopped over in his eyes and red cheeks, came over and handed Eddie his sticks with a smile. Eddie refused them. “Thanks, son, that’s most kind of you. But I have my own.” Eddie walked over to his bag and unzipped it, pulling out a battered pair of sticks. He then sauntered over to the drums and settled in.
“What’ll it be?” Mel asked.
“Salt Peanuts,” Eddie shouted and set off into a thunderous drum roll, eyeing Mel, who waited until there was a brief pause in Eddie’s playing and then the band came in along with him, playing a jumpy jazz roll that sounded like something out of a sleuth movie. The trumpet sparked in and out and around the frantic drums, with Mel keeping both eyes on Eddie as he played. We watched in amazement as the years fell away from him. At first he played as though he was leaning into the wind, one shoulder forward and down as he executed roll after roll before suddenly sitting back on his stool and entering into the most thunderous solo, eyes closed and face covered in sweat. We all felt the groove and began to nod our heads. Jazzman stood up and started to dance.
A long, slow roll had the musicians on edge as Eddie opened his eyes and toyed with them, feigning the breakdown to the song before setting off on another long solo. Eventually he brought it all back round, and in a sweeping arc of percussion he nodded his head and the rest of the band jumped back onto the beat. A few brief shrieks of the trumpet and some neat piano work were all that remained as the quartet jumped back into the intro rhythm and came to a sudden halt in silence.
Jazzman began to whoop whilst Bob and Stan laughed, clapping hard and giving a standing ovation. I watched the other musicians, Mel included, who each looked at Eddie with thankful eyes, the type musicians wear when indebted to another’s skill. It was a pleased yet sorrowful look; they longed to return to where they had just been, floating on the great wave of music like Icarus above the world. Even I knew that feeling. The great shifts in your soul, like the movements of love: they leave you tired, empty, wanting more. Eddie stood up slowly, holding his sticks in his left hand. He looked down at the drum kit with a dismissive frown and sniffed.
“That was pure spiritual magic,” Jazzman said. But something wasn’t right. Eddie stood still, looking down at the ground and sweating. He reached out and took hold of the high hat between his finger and thumb, sliding them down across its ridges until they met. Then he sat back down again and took up his sticks. He began to thud a low worked roll like distant thunder. He overlaid a series of accents and then broke into a Latin call and response type beat. He was working it with his eyes closed and his head shaking from side to side. The rest of the band took up their instruments and waited. “Sing,” Eddie shouted with his eyes closed as though issuing a command. “Sing, Sing, Sing,” he shouted and flipped his beat into a frantic breakdown, at the end of which Mel began to swagger around with a trumpet solo that was pure groove and flare. The rest of the band arrived just behind him, crashing in and then jumping back out again to leave just Eddie and Mel attacking each other across the drum kit. The song worked its way through a series of crescendos and extended solos. Eddie’s control, his poise, and precision, everything suggested a man on top of his game. The quartet worked themselves up into fever pitch, Mel’s trumpet screeching like an alarm. He fell to his knees as Eddie stood up to crash the high hat so hard it fell over.
In the silence that followed, immediately after I looked up to the window of the shop to see a row of faces peering in through it. A small audience had also gathered just inside the door. They joined us in celebrating the performance. Eddie stooped to pick up the cymbal from where it had fallen to the floor, but he began to shake as he returned it to its standing position.
“You OK, Ed?” Mel asked, but Eddie’s face was pale. He sat back onto his stool, crumpling his body inwards and wincing in pain, before falling back onto the floor. Mel rushed to his side and Bob and I were close behind. His face was red and creased in pain. As Mel stooped down to help him, he received a sharp blow across his shoulder from Eddie’s arm. “Play, God damn it!” Eddie shouted. “Play! Please. Play,” his voice was frantic with fear. “Play ‘So What’! Play ‘So What’!” Mel stood back and looked at the band. “Play it, for Pete’s sake. Are you deaf?” Eddie lifted himself up and glared at Mel before falling back to the floor.
The double bass player picked out the “So What” chord and the pianist and drummer followed suit. Mel stood, trumpet in his hand but not playing for a moment before nodding his head and signing on with the gentlest jazz melody. Eddie let his head roll back onto the floor, one arm straight along his body, the other gripping his chest. Bob and I tried to move forwards again to help him but he flapped his arm at us to move us away. Mel’s trumpet cried on into the night and nobody moved.
* * *
An ambulance had been called and taken Eddie away, but we all knew what the outcome would be. We all secretly hoped that it was the end because it felt the end Eddie would have wanted. Being played out to Miles Davis would surely ensure a clean connection with the afterlife, if there was one. Jazzman was the most shaken of all of us. It was clear he felt in some way responsible. But the truth of the matter was that we were all moved by the prophesy of his appearance and the enlightenment he had brought to us through Eddie’s final flurry.
That night I returned home and sat for a long while in silence, staring across my living room at Alice. Did this mean I should play, or did it mean that I should quit trying, put her away and forget about the past? I called in on Bob and Stan during the week but the store was closed. A handwritten sign on the door read: Temporarily closed due to the passing of Edward Steadman, Jazz great, bandleader of the Croydon Jazz Ensemble 1959-1984 and dear friend of 8th Position Record Store.
The week went by with a solemn tune to every sound, and Saturday morning arrived. I was woken by my phone ringing at just gone seven in the morning. It was Bob asking me to come to the store that day. He didn’t say anything else. Didn’t even ask how I was.
I arrived around my usual time, with both biscuits and sandwiches. The door was locked and Bob came over to let me in. To my surprise, Jazzman was already inside, sat on a stool next to Eddie’s empty chair.
“Welcome, welcome,” Bob said as I came in, patting me on my back fondly and locking the door behind me.
Stan got up and ushered me towards him. He set a hand on each of my shoulders and then slapped me gently across the face. “You OK, boy, huh?” he asked.
“I’m OK. What about you?”
“Terrible. But also good as well.” He set himself back down in his chair.
“Sorry ’bout Eddie,” Jazzman said as he embraced me.
“It wasn’t your fault, hey,” I said as he sat back down. “It was sad, but what a way to go.”
Bob and Stan both nodded. “What a way to go,” Stan replied.
“We’ve got some of Eddie’s business to see to,” Bob explained, sitting down behind the desk and taking out a brown file. “Eddie has rather surprisingly left us with some things to sort out in the event of his, um, demise.” Bob took out his glasses and flicked through a couple of thin sheets of typed text. “He has asked us to see to the playlist at his funeral for one, although I understand that the Croydon Jazz Ensemble will be playing for at least some of the time at the wake.
“It seems that whilst Eddie didn’t continue as bandleader of the Ensemble, he had continued to play for several other jazz groups in London. In fact, his last gig, so it turns out, was only the Thursday before, um, the Thursday before his demise,” Bob coughed lightly. “One of his band mates came in earlier and then, during the course of the day, several of his, um, female admirers, shall we say,” Stan grinned widely, “also paid us a visit. Apparently Eddie preferred to perform for strangers, people he didn’t really know. What was it the gentleman who came in earlier said, Stan?”
Stan sat forwards and held up his finger. “Better to play to strangers, just like it was better to make love to strangers.”
“Eddie said that?” I asked, slightly bemused by the thought of it.
“Said it and lived it by the look of some of the women we’ve had in today to pay their respects. That one in the blue dress, Stan, whatcha make of her?” Bob asked.
“Oooh lordy,” Stan closed his eyes and began to tap his fingers in an imitation of Eddie. “You were one randy old bastard, Mr Steadman. Yes sir, you were,” he laughed to himself.
“Now, on with more important business. I think that’s enough gossip.” Bob picked up the file in front of him. “There are a list of tracks that he wants played during the ceremony and he has specified that these be vinyl.” Bob looked up at me. “Think you can be the DJ at the funeral ceremony?”
“Sure. Do you know where it’ll be?”
“Registry in Croydon. I’ve already checked and they’re fine for us to set up a record player. We’ll just have to make sure we’ve got all the tracks marked out and ready to go. Eddie has been quite specific on timing. He wants ‘So What,’ the original Miles Davis version, played as the coffin is lowered. He also wants us to play ‘We’ll meet again’ as a final sing song before that – not the Vera Lynn version, but a version by,” Bob looked down at the notes, “Johnny Cash. Never heard it – you?”
“I actually have that record, believe it or not. Eddie told me it was a bunch of nonsense when I played it to him.”
“Fine, that’s largely sorted then.” Bob handed me a copy he’d made of the list. “I’ll leave it up to you to sort the records. Let me know if there’s any you can’t find. Now, there’s something else that Stan and I wanted to discuss with you.” Bob glanced across in Stan’s direction, who nodded his encouragement. “It’s something we discussed with Eddie too, actually, and he’s made a point to note it here in his, um, his last requests, if you like. It’s something also that John here has agreed to help with and it’s, well, it’s non-negotiable I’m afraid.”
“You sound like my bank manager, Bob, what’s going on here?”
“We’ve decided that you’re too young for this place. You need to get out more. And you need to play. So we’re limiting the frequency of your visits here to one Saturday a month. And when you do come we want to hear that you have been out on a date with at least one woman since you last came. And we want details, proof. No fobbing us off.” Bob raised his finger as emphasis. “And John here has agreed to introduce you to some musicians he knows who need a sax player. John says they’re young, but not too young, and they play around town, on and off, in the evenings. It’s nothing too serious.” Bob sat back and folded his arms, giving me a hard stare.
“For y’own good,” Stan shouted from his chair and looked away.
“Blackmailed in a record store by three old men and a dead guy?” I replied.
“Two old men and a dead guy – leave John out of this, he’s younger than any of us. Two old men and a dead guy afraid that when you get to the age of sitting in one of those chairs and mumbling like Stan, you’ll be mumbling regrets for what could have been.”
“It sounds completely ridiculous, but I’ll accept it on one condition.” I leant forwards.
“Go on,” Bob scrunched his face.
“That you and Stan come to see me play at least once a month somewhere other than here.”
“Ha!” Jazzman clapped his hands. “That, gentlemen, is what friends are for.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Astute readers may have observed a few seeming grammatical errors that we missed in this piece, for example, “we were sat” and “Eddie sung in a low baritone.” While these are considered nonstandard English, they do occur in certain regional dialects.
Rhuar Dean is a poet, writer and occasional journalist based in London, England. His fiction has appeared both in print and online. More information is available at www.rhuardean.com
Brittany Davies is an illustrator and artist-maker living in Ross-on-Wye, England. To see more of her work, visit www.facebook.com/brittanydaviesart
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH THE JAZZMEN:
Rhuar Dean has delivered up a magnificent character study in The Jazzmen and wrapped us in the world of jazz. This piece especially resonated for my wife Rose who had recently watched a ten-part series on the history of jazz and therefore caught the subtleties in it.
Whether you’re a jazz aficionado, a casual listener, or you know next to nothing about jazz, we’re sure that you’ll be as thoroughly drawn into the three-dimensional lives and world of these wonderfully drawn characters as we were. And, like us, you might be a little sad at having to leave them.
We also want to thank Brittany Davies for contributing her wonderful concept art piece to Rhuar Dean’s story.