by Christopher Bacas
My first paid gig: volunteer fire hall, Saturday night. The leader picked me up at my house and drove to a small township outside the city. Barry was related to a woman who worked with my mother. In the orphanage where he spent some years, a teacher drilled hymns and choral music into his charges. Sam Cooke, in his Soul Stirrer days, visited the school and heard the boy sing. Sam embraced and encouraged him. That moment, Sam's music changed his life. He still played guitar and sang in a fetching tenor. With a day job now, weekend gigs were all he could manage. In the car, he talked to me like a musician, not a kid, explaining what we'd play (not surprisingly, I knew a few) and where I'd be contributing.
I was in tenth grade and a bit under a hundred pounds. So far, I'd played football games, Pancake Jamborees, and school assemblies. The high school fielded a juggernaut band of 250, drawing eager youth from three middle schools. A local wind band, filled with parents and teachers, performed park concerts all summer and included a jazz unit. At the fall agricultural fair, its stalwarts backed touring acts. Music as vocation wasn't in the air, though. Sulfurous paper plants, tar and asphalt makers, and a feed mill all smoked constantly. Guys started a second or third shift job the summer after graduation. Their father or uncle would vouch them in. If they did well, better hours and money, a car and house could follow. My trajectory was different. The day I came home with a tenor, my dad played “Soultrane” for me. On the LP jacket, a saxophonist with onyx skin and a gold mouthpiece; an African God pouring molten ore from his mouth. His playing, on “Russian Lullaby” (written by a real Russian), confirmed that mythic gift. Later, at a Woody Herman concert, Gregory Herbert, unimpressed I listened to Weather Report and Mahavishnu, pointed me back to Stitt, 50's Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Of course, my father had their records,too. Later on, I saw Herbert burn up the bandstand with Thad and Mel. A year later, he was dead at 30. I knew about Bird and Fats Navarro, of course. Punctures came soon for the rest of my innocence.
The firehall was the latest of many adult citadels I visited. Purgatories where children were neither unwelcome nor indulged. In the neighborhood tavern, its' fan winding out sour beer and cigarettes, the AC's refrigerator clatter and scent strong, I ordered fries and watched adults drink at the bar. Along it, gallon jars of sausages congealing yellowish oil or peeled eggs in beet juice. I always wanted to see someone eat those red eggs.Towards the back, the kitchen; by stacked cardboard cases crowned in rows of bottles with embossed labels and paper seals across their caps. My fries slid onto the counter, piled in a plaid tray, smoky paper cowled on top. Nose level with the knurled edge, change trickled out of my shorts and up onto the scuffed surface. Talk and music, TV and pinball, a cloud of adulthood; above reach. My hands imagined pulling up a bar stool and sitting down. Fan spinning sunlight into tumbling threads playing across my arms.
From the parking lot, we carried an amp and PA equipment through heavy doors. Inside, a smooth concrete floor with widely spaced folding tables; bowls of chips and pretzels on each. One big rectangular table against the cinder block wall held trays of cheese and bologna cubes on a creased plastic sheet. We set up under a beer sign, its' cool glow, our stage lighting. I met the guys: Dave, a straw haired drummer, quiet and gentle, Don, piano man with long dark hair and a half-dozen silver rings on each hand. Barry worked with them for years; a Sunday dinner rapport. Folks arrived, getting beers or unboxing liquor bottles to mix with setups purchased at the bar. We started without preamble. Our repertoire: Country ballads, 50's, Motown and plenty of Elvis; the tavern jukebox come alive. Barry stood on my left, the pianist, behind me to the right. I had my own mic and reason to use it. When he wanted me to play, Barry said “Take a ride” or just swiveled his right thumb in my direction. Don fed me changes and keys during down time on stage. He soloed with stiff up and down melodies or Floyd Cramer grace-noted chords. I grabbed what I could. The melody was always right and playing jazz over it all, like chicken bones in a banana split. This music fell off the blues tree and still lay close.
On break, I stayed to myself. At a party for grown ups, tagging along and honking out-of-tune with the band. The guys asked about me, my teachers, family, then left me alone. They had girlfriends or wives. Drinking and supporting the fire company remained the business of the night. Raffles, emceed with gentle humor by Barry, filled baskets with small bills.
Women danced on fast songs with occasional male participation. On slow ones, introduced, “here's a slow one ye can rub bellies on”, couples staggered around, some more and some less, in time.
For the last song, we started “You Are So Beautiful”. A recent radio hit, sung by Joe Cocker, who, by its' end, asphyxiates in his own tenderness. Barry laid into the melody, making it a cousin to the 12/8 ballads he routinely knocked out of the park. Once verses and solos were done, he addressed the ladies:
“Now, we want ya ta know, you ARE beautiful. We love ya. Each and ev'ry one of ya. And if ya want ta come up and show us; Don on the piana, Dave on the drums, Chris here, on the sax, n' yours truly, Barry, that ya love us, please, come on up.”
While the churchy progression repeated, women lined up to kiss and hug the band. Barry offered a cheek, Don bent at the waist over the curved Rhodes top, Dave didn't stop playing until his own wife stood by the drums with a smile and shrug. Stiffly, I held my arms out. Perfume, cigarettes, a damp clench, wet lips.
The line up was Barry's shtick and it worked. At the end, a sweet, tipsy wave receded around us, sweeping all away. I'd come to know this void better than I knew myself. The infinitesimal gaps between our notes inverted to enveloping silence, blanketing the barkeep's radio, the dwindling voices, the folded bills Barry passed me in a handshake, the dark ride home and all our goodbyes.
“when you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air, you can never capture it again” Eric Dolphy