Week Twelve: Sitting In
Fakebook: Improvisations on a Journey Back to Jazz
by Richard Terrill
I’ve been showing up every Friday, talking to the musicians, saying how much I’ve been practicing, lying a little. I’ve talked about the records I like, people I played with who’ve made it big like Lyle Mays or Geoff Keezer. I’ve answered the band members’ questions: “How’s the balance?” “Is the bass too loud?” “Could you tell we screwed up on ‘Night in Tunisia’?” Somehow I’ve convinced them I can play, even though they’ve never heard me. The bandleader, the drummer, has invited me to sit in. One week when Linda and I come into the club, the sax player yells from the bandstand, “Bring your horn?” He’s disappointed that I’ve decided I’m not ready yet.
The next Friday I’m nervous even before my wife and I go down to the Bistro, since I know I’m going to play. Once there, I order ice water instead of a beer, and wait for the word in the middle of the second set that it is my chance to come up to play: one tune, maybe a second tune, not a lot of time to get loosened up after almost ten years. I have a few minutes to impress the four working musicians to the point that they'll let me sit in again.
“What do you wanna play?” Chaz the drummer asks me.
Brad, the usual sax player, walks over to sit by the bar, refill his on-the-house drink, and listen. “Hey, maybe I can just take the rest of the night off!” he says. I’m relieved that he’s not being territorial about his gig.
“‘Stella by Starlight’?” I suggest. I've been practicing it all week.
“You mean as a ballad?” Chaz asks.
“No. Sort of up. About here.” I snap out a tempo with my fingers and scat sing a few bars of melody. Then Chaz counts a tempo that is considerably faster than I thought I was singing, my nervousness having quickened the beat.
Chaz, a kind and almost overfriendly man, has the perfect day job for a weekend drummer—he’s a beer distributor. He is also a veteran of the Myron Floren pick up bands years before, though our paths never crossed. Chaz suggested last week that I prepare something to play when I was going to sit in. “That way, there's no sweat or nerves when you start to blow.”
He’s wrong. There are sweat and nerves. But I cut the changes on “Stella by Starlight” fine. I play the head and then a couple of choruses without any serious gaffs. I’m surprised at how small my tone sounds compared to the way it bounced off the walls of my empty basement laundry room. Bistro Roma is thickly carpeted, and the rhythm section plays louder and fuller than the imaginary one I had behind me in my head the last few weeks at home.
Nevertheless, I can feel the drummer slightly behind the beat, the bass player slightly ahead, as if musically on the edge of his seat. The piano player fills in sparingly around my playing. I don’t leave a lot of room for filling in; nerves often appear as too many notes, afraid to leave space against which mistakes can be identified.
I play two choruses of the up-tempo “Stella.” F-sharp minor seventh flat five goes to B seventh just the way it did in the 1980s. Then there is that surprising D minor seventh in bar three. Just the way I remember it.
I should quit while I am ahead, but I take a third chorus. I think it might be nine and a half years again before I have another one. Linda and a friend greet us with applause.
“Yeah, OK!” Chaz and the other musicians say.
“Pretty heavy jazz changes for the first tune in ten years,” Brad, the saxophone player, says. It’s a compliment.
“Well, I like changes,” I say. Somehow, I’ve always thought that if the harmonic background changed a lot around me, by just keeping up with those shifting demands of the chords I could make something that sounded like jazz. This is no modest goal.
“How about a ballad?” Chaz asks next, and there is some page turning in the fakebooks as the musicians suggest one tune or another. “How about 'Body and Soul'?”
I’m in luck. I have played it in my previous life, and in my fantasy life, many times.
I play the first eight bars, then Brad the next eight bars, and so on. But I own this tune, with its lush, surprising intervals, its dark key made for tenor sax. Ballads, slow romantic tunes, by the nature of their slower tempi have always allowed me to slow down, to leave the space between the notes that makes them sing. “You should have played all of that one,” my friend tells me later, and I know he’s right.
Chaz says, “Bring your horn as often as you like.”
I feel like a musician again. Or at least, as much like a musician as I used to feel, which had been enough to please me, enough to make my passion for the content of what I did outweigh the mediocrity of the way I sometimes did it. Jazz was for me a hobby, but not a hobby like stamp collecting or refinishing furniture. It was more a hobby like armed robbery or skydiving. These things can all be done to varied degrees of perfection. But at whatever level, there's clearly something at stake.
The lyrics to “Body and Soul” were considered scandalous in the 1930s, when the tune first appeared, with their message of giving oneself wholly and physically to another. Tenor man Coleman Hawkins recorded the definitive treatment of the tune in 1939, achieving popular as well as artistic success. The cut would turn up on jukeboxes as much as ten or fifteen years later. And the song became one of the most recorded in jazz history.
I can not yet give myself wholly to this song, as the lyrics would have it. And my rendition this night will be heard again by no one. Yet through the rest of the evening, back at my table, I find myself shaking a little, sitting before a series of drinks. I feel like a hitchhiker just dropped off by a man I knew to be a convicted murderer. I feel like I’ve been dropped off in another world just as the former world is about to end.
The week after sitting in with the band strange things happen. I don’t practice at all for a few days, not wanting to end the magic of my small success, and then when I do play again, I’m suddenly dissatisfied with my sound. I don’t sound like I remember sounding on “Body and Soul.” At first I think I’m encountering the saxophone player’s old problem with reeds: soggy reeds, warped reeds, bad reeds, worn out reeds—the subject Fred Hemke had so deftly danced by. But nothing physically can have changed—either with the reed I’ve been using or with me—not that quickly. Instead I’ve risen to a new level in my comeback: I’m no longer content with the merely passable.
And another strange thing that next week. Especially on good days when I do like my sound, I think less and less about sitting in with the band at Bistro Roma, and more and more about practicing for its own sake, about filling up that basement laundry room with a sound that I like.
Some days I don’t have it—not an unusual complaint for any of us. My fingers work against each other, or more often against my brain. Or I can’t hear anything interesting to play, and thus can’t imagine the melody before inventing it. Or I’m cross-eyed and lightheaded, so I can’t even read notes on a page. But most often when I’m bad, it comes back again to sound. The sound has no center, but is spread out, or stuffy, or small. You get that same bad sound when you talk with a cold or if you’re tired of talking over street noise or loud music. You just give up insisting on your own voice.
Some days I want to say, “Look out below.” I want to ask, “What kind of music is it that I am playing?” Some days it’s as if my sound is slumped over in a chair. And some days nothing can revive me.
But some days I sound relatively sweet.
Richard Terrill teaches in the MFA program at Minnesota State University-Mankato. He has published two previous books of creative nonfiction. Saturday Night in Baoding: A China Memoir (University of Arkansas Press, 1990) winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award for Nonfiction, and The Cross and the Red Star (Asian Pacific Foundation, 1994). He has won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wisconsin Library Association, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Wisconsin and Minnesota State Arts Boards, Lake Superior Writers, and Ironwood and New Letters magazines.
"Fakebook: Improvisations on a Journey Back to Jazz," a memoir of the author's experiences as a jazz musician. Published by Limelight Editions, New York, 2000.