Tough Tenor: Chekov’s First Act

by Christopher Bacas

ImageA friend asked what he'd been up to. Mike cleared his throat.

“Snortin' coke, fuckin' whores and goin' to the track.”

Duke Ellington said 'Jack Daniels' was Paul Gonsalves' punch line. The former might have been Mike's. He knew Beethoven symphonies and Coltrane solos, Victorian poets and Tupac lyrics. While welding bolts into steel beams, interval sets danced in his head.

He bought a gorgeous Silver Selmer Mark VI tenor with money from selling his mother's house. Soon, it was in pawn. When a saxophone-playing buddy found out, he paid the ticket and took the Selmer home. He lent Mike a student-model horn and showed up to the gig to deliver it, staying to listen and babysit the cheaper ax. The usurious loan on the Selmer; twenty-odd bucks a week. As long as Mike stayed current with his friend, he could look forward to playing the beauty in a few months. Despite union wages and assorted disability scams, Mike failed to make timely payments. His pal reluctantly kept the Selmer and let Mike have the student horn.

If we were working the whole weekend, Friday, he'd be Dr Jekyll, and Saturday, the other guy. After a Friday night adventure that saw his car and horn disappear from a convenience store, Mike arrived with a borrowed instrument and very wrinkled shirt. He cleared his throat.

“I seem to have misplaced my conveyance.”

So many stories attach to him that verifying them is a whole career. This one, I witnessed:

Mike reported for work early; low key and ready to play. Sometimes, he'd show up after a bender, looking rough. Not this night. I watched him hunched in the corner, warming up, his sound raw and bright. He wore a mesh vest, the kind a fisherman or hunter would use, over his t-shirt. The vest's sewn-in vinyl pockets had snap closures.

Regulars were already standing around. By the near wall, Floyd and Laverne settled in, their drinks on a chest-high ledge. Floyd, short and dark, in ascot and tweed jacket. Laverne, long-limbed, cocoa skin, bright lipstick and a clingy dress. Not a couple in the romantic way, they shared the music. Floyd had plenty of records and attended the Left Bank Jazz Society's concerts. As board member for many years, he heard the greatest exponents of this music in person. Laverne danced while we played. She built up to it: eyes rolling up first, head nodding, then arms snaking around, soon she'd move into open space and fling herself around with real creativity and stamina.

Before we climbed on the bandstand, the door banged shut as a local couple rolled in. The guy was built low to the ground and chubby, sunburned arms poking out of a Cal Ripken Jr jersey, Orioles cap and thick glasses. His date, taller, equally red, in Daisy-Dukes and a halter with plenty of cleavage. Both were drunk, eyes gluey and vacant. They'd been to the O's game and (hopefully) taken the water taxi to Fell's Point. The guy spun slowly, as if his neck were fused, inspecting the premises. The lady breezed past the stage, then turned, blearily recognizing imminent entertainment. She fixed on our guitarist at floor level and and walked toward him. In the din, I heard nouns and proper names, no verbs; a synthetic grammar.

“Girl from Ipanema…”

“Jazz…”

” Horace Silver, Lee Morgan…”

“Favorite song”

“First set…”

“Leader…”

Mike was closer to the principals and interrupted, erudite but inimitably Baltimore.

“Excuse me, Miss? Yeah, we don't play 'at song. We have a special repertoire, ye know, Jazz, be-bop. Girl from Ipanema. That's by Antonio Carlos Jobim, ye know. We play bossa novas, but not by him”

Cal Ripken jersey barreled in, voice Yogi Bear-ish and mush-mouthed.

“Hey man, you don't gotta talk to her like that. All she's doin' is requestin' a song. Why you gotta be so rude? She's a lady. Why you bein' so rude? You can't talk to her like that, you know”

“I wasn't bein' rude, sir. I'm just tellin' her we don't play 'at song, ye know. This is a Jazz band. These guys are great musicians. They can play Girl From Ipanema, but that's not what they're here for.”

The guy continued, low-pitched, with level intonation.

“I don't know why you were so rude to my girlfriend. She didn't mean nothin'. All she did was ask you..”

Bookishness done, Mike growled.

“Hey, fuck 'at! Nobody said shit to yer ol' lady. Don't fuckin' start shit wit' me. Fuckin' asshole. Blow yer' fuckin' head off.”

Mike turned and mounted the bandstand. I followed him. Standing above the guitarist, he opened snaps on a vest pocket and pulled up the flap. There was a pistol inside. My stomach lurched. Like a steam leak, a thumping pulse opened in my throat, condensing as sweat on my forehead. On the floor in front of us, the guy never stopped; glassy-eyed, his monotonous voice babbling the same noun-audible language I'd heard earlier.

“Girlfriend…..You…rude…request…song….man….music….you…..mean…”

Mike looked toward me and snapped the pocket shut, pressing his palm against it, fingers spread.

” 'at fuckin' asshole fucks wit' me, I'll blow 'is fuckin' head off”

The voice continued.

Mike called a tune, counted it off and we played. He was in great form; aggressive with a raw, sweet tone. The other cats matched his energy. He finished his solo. It was my turn. I watched Mike pat his vest pocket. My belly was sour and trembly. I played with eyes open, my insoles cramping as they held the bandstand. The man stood directly in front of us, chest out, feet splayed; a pink-armed penguin. His lips moved slightly as if in prayer. Next to him on the floor, Laverne was in a trance. Eyes wide, she reached up and across, pulling her body through swooping turns with energy gathered in outstretched palms. I imagined the aftermath: bullets, blood, a scramble, bodies on the floor, rotating red lights. With nothing to play, my solo ended in an ellipse. When I looked down, the guy had moved to a spot along the wall, mouthing intermittently. His companion in a scrum by the bar, head occasionally visible through haze. Laverne wheeled and gestured below us.

We ended the tune and discussed. When band guys spoke, their voices came from other buildings. It felt as if I'd peed myself. Mike's face was blank, eyes darting, he didn't look at the babbler by the door. At the opposite wall, Laverne sipped her drink with Floyd. Mike grunted.

“I'm gonna kill 'at mahfucker.”

The band agreed on the next one and set off. Laverne found her place in the music and moved. As break-time approached, my belly sank in a queasy swamp, ears roaring on the way down. We played our break tune, the intro to “I Should Care” from a Milt Jackson record, 15 seconds of A-flat insouciance. Mike leaned his horn in the corner and stepped off the stage. His body folded then straightened, feet clapping creaky floorboards, facing his tormentor. I felt warm liquid sluice down my lower back.

The penguin shuffled forward. He stuck out his hand. The same mushy basso voice:

“Hey man, I'm sorry what I said. I thought you yelled at my girlfriend.You guys are great. I really like your music.”

Mike grabbed his flipper and shook it heartily.

“Thanks. Don't worry about it, ye know. Want a git a beer?”

The two men turned together and waded toward the bar.

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