A story from New Domangue
It was early spring and the New Domangue heat was only beginning to hint at its unwelcome arrival. On the lower side of the Booker Gardens neighborhood, porch doors were propped open with anything heavy enough to serve as a doorstop. Cinderblocks, rickety chairs, gallon jugs, and even engine parts held back screen doors so the brief spring breezes could flitter into living rooms and kitchens. Before long, families lucky enough to have air-conditioning would close their doors to the suffocating summer heat. But for Lil' Blue and his mother, the porch door would remain open throughout the summer, letting in the hum of window units, the sounds of cars speeding down the street, and the latest rap jumping from stereos. This noise never bothered Lil’ Blue, who practiced his piano religiously every day. The noise outside was simply a part of his own playing, and he sometimes harmonized to the noises from the street with base chords to give them depth.
When Lil’ Blue started under Professor Magnus, the old man immediately began re-training him. Lil’ Blue resisted, and three weeks later he was still having a hard time figuring out what the old man wanted.
“Stop, stop, stop,” Professor Magnus said.
Lil’ Blue looked at his teacher with dismay. He didn’t get it—it sounded right to him. What was wrong this time? Why was the old cat tripping on him?
“Son, what the hell you wasting time for?”
Wasting whose time? Lil’ Blue thought. He was there to learn. He could care less about some of that old-fogy crap the professor was throwing at him. If anyone’s time was being wasted, it was his. “I’m giving you what you asked,” Lil’ Blue replied.
“Your keys are flat. They got no life. No connection.”
There he went again, Lil’ Blue thought. What the hell he meant by connection?
“Don’t you get it? Ain’t you got it at all?”
“Sure, I got it,” Lil’ Blue said. “Listen.” He rammed a few quick melodies while banging a couple of chords that jammed up in a knot and then burst out like a universe in chaos, jutting into the room like fire from a hurling volcano until only the leftover remained, the thick, oozy leftover that trickled deep into the bones, seeping out and rolling over like lava down a mountainside, eating up wasteland for the hundredth time. When he finished, he felt sure about it. He had hit everything in stride, with precision, with force. It was hot. Hot stuff. The kind of stuff he saw people do on TV, playing like the piano was on fire, making girls go crazy. That stuck with Lil’ Blue. He wanted to play like that. He wanted to make girls go crazy with his playing. That’s what he wanted from Professor Magnus. He wanted lessons on how to do that. He could care less about that mumbo-jumbo stuff about connection.
“Excellent,” Professor Magnus said, “you sound like a piping-hot monkey.” The old man shook his head and began packing up his things.
“Where you heading, professor?” Lil’ Blue asked.
Professor Magnus ignored Lil’ Blue’s question, grabbed his instrument case, and walked toward the door.
“Professor, why you tripping? We’re not finished.”
“Your momma was right,” the professor said. “You got skills. But you got a lot to learn.”
“What you mean by that?”
“You got to know something about where this music coming from. You got to know what it’s trying to say. Ain’t your momma ever tell you nothing about this music?”
“No,” Lil’ Blue admitted. He had an urge to blurt out that his mother thought jazz was for hoodlums, that it didn’t bring nothing but trouble and that nobody in his right mind should care for it. The only reason she bothered to get Professor Magnus at all was because Lil’ Blue begged to be taught for his birthday. He had to beg and beg and beg until she finally couldn’t say no—but she still didn’t like it. Ain’t the professor noticed that she ain’t been home most times that he’s been here?
“It might do your music some good if you know something about how it come to life.”
“What I gotta know that for?” Lil’ Blue asked.
The professor didn’t answer Lil’ Blue. Instead, he turned away abruptly and walked out of the house, leaving Lil’ Blue owl-eyed and speechless.
All of a sudden, Lil’ Blue felt as if a cold bucket of water had been thrown over him. A moment later he rushed outside, but the professor was already driving off in his car. “Damn,” Lil’ Blue said. He sat on the porch and waited, anxious about what his mother would say when she found out that he’d run the professor off.
Later that night, Lil’ Blue’s mother had little to say to him about the matter. “No use moping about it,” she said, and she moved about the house as if nothing was wrong.
It didn’t feel right to Lil’ Blue. Shouldn’t she be mad at him? Or at the professor? She did say they were old friends. Maybe she could work it out with the old man. Lil’ Blue wanted to ask, but he didn’t dare disturb her while she worked. He watched her from the corner of his eye while he softly keyed a few of her favorite hymns. She sang for the Sweet Blessed Light Baptist Full Gospel Church up on the north side of Booker Gardens. That was her passion—outside of taking care of him. Lil’ Blue had thought about this a lot while he waited for her on the porch. He thought about how he’d known the piano his entire life thanks to her, and how it had been fine most of his life to sit at home and play some classic hymns for his mother. But not lately. Not anymore. He’d gotten an itch. The itch was telling him he could do something more with the piano than just sit at home playing for his mother. He saw it himself. Saw it on TV. The rare moments they let him play at church wasn’t enough anymore. The itch was strong, and it wanted more. And when his band teacher told him that jazz-piano players got all the girls, it was enough for Lil’ Blue.
“Son, why you stopped playing?” she asked.
Lil’ Blue didn’t realize that his fingers weren’t moving on the keys. He looked at her for a moment without responding while he gathered his thoughts. She was standing at the threshold of the living room, her apron thrown on top of her work clothes.
“Momma,” he finally asked after a while, “how come you got me to study classical music? Nobody we know plays the stuff.”
His mother cocked one eyebrow and squinted both eyes while she studied him across the bridge of her nose. “Tell me something, Lil’ Blue. Who else at church beside you can play the piano like our music director?”
“Nobody,” Lil’ Blue answered.
“That’s right. Nobody but you. And you know why?”
Lil’ Blue shook his head.
“Cause you learned the classical stuff.”
Lil’ Blue looked at her as if he didn’t understand. His mother tilted her head to the side and eyed him wistfully for a spell.
“At one time, long before you were born, I dreamt of being a big-time soloist. But it never happened,” she said.
Lil’ Blue looked at his mother. This was the first time he’d heard his mother ever mention that she wanted more than singing at church.
“And do you know why it never happened?” she continued after a moment. “It never happened ’cause I ain’t had no classical training. That’s what I was told. No classical training. I didn’t understand it too well in those days, and one thing led to another, and before you know it I end up with you and then your daddy die and, well, I had to take care of us. By the time you was two, you were playing music. Nobody taught you. It just came natural to you. You played music on cans, on tables, on everything. So I got you one of them baby keyboards and you couldn’t let go of it. That’s when I vowed I would get you trained proper. You weren’t going to be ignorant like your momma.”
Lil’ Blue didn’t get that statement at all. As far as he knew, he had a smart mother.
“To this day I ain’t learned what you already learned about the piano,” she said. “I never learned nothing about reading and writing songs and all that.”
Lil’ Blue had never heard his mother go on like that. She was usually loud, demanding, and in his face about what he needed to do, about what he wasn’t doing, or about what he could accomplish. She was never calm. And she certainly never revealed these things about herself. He knew an opportunity when he saw one, though, and he felt that this was a good time to ask questions he normally wouldn’t dare ask. “What you got against jazz?” he wondered. He didn’t mean to actually ask, but it popped out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
His mother studied him again. She shook her head and turned toward the kitchen.
Lil’ Blue felt braver than ever and pressed on. “C’mon Momma, what you got against it?” he asked her as she started to walk away.
His mother stopped and turned back to face him. Lil’ Blue was sure she was going to give him a good yank on his ear, and he tensed just in case, but she didn’t do it. Instead, she stood in the dining room, halfway between the kitchen and the living room, one hand on her hip, and sighed.
“All I know is that jazz music seem to always be about something I could never get. I went to many jazz clubs in New Orleans in my time,” she said. She paused, looking concerned, as if she had just remembered something that she had forgotten and didn’t know if she should bring it up. “There was nothing but smoking and drinking and noise, and…”
“And what?” Lil’ Blue asked.
“Nothing, never mind,” his mother answered. She remained in place for a minute and looked as if she was deep in thought again. “Look,” she said, “just ’cause I never got it doesn’t mean there ain’t nothing in that stuff. I may not think much of it, but if you want to know that music then I don’t see why I should keep you from learning. I just been worried about it because it don’t seem reputable.”
“That why you gave me a hard time about it?”
His mother nodded. “I didn’t think it would be any good for you,” she said.
“Then how come you got the professor?” Lil’ Blue asked.
“You begged enough, didn’t you?” His mother smiled. “Besides, I knew long before you asked that one day you would.”
Lil’ Blue looked down at his shoes. While he heard what she said, he missed what she meant. A good part of him was still worried about the quick hand that might grab his ear. The professor had run out, mad as hell at him. And she probably spent good money to get the old man, Lil’ Blue figured, because he had to drive all the way from New Orleans. She couldn’t be too happy with him. Then again, he thought, she did smile. And she wasn’t acting mad at all. Thinking this, he figured he could keep talking to her. “Professor Magnus was talking a lot about slaves and stuff during our lesson,” he said. He stared at the floor between his shoes. “Do you know what he was talking about?”
His mother looked at him as if she hadn’t quite heard, although she responded by shaking her head. “He’s an old family friend, Lil’ Blue,” she answered. “All I know, he’s supposed to be a real good jazz man. He always been kind of quirky, though. Your father and him used to be friends.”
The comment jumped out at Lil’ Blue as if it had been speared into his brain. A golden nugget jutting out of the mud. He didn’t know much about his father, and his mother rarely mentioned him. All she ever said was that he was a good man who died before his time.
“I’ll speak to Magnus,” his mother said and returned to the kitchen.
That night Lil’ Blue wondered about his father’s friendship with Professor Magnus. Did his father play? His mother never said anything. No one ever told him anything about him. There were some stories he’d gotten. Stories people close to his mother would share. But for all his fourteen years, he had nothing more than a few interesting pieces of myth. There was a story about his father diving into the Mississippi because he wanted to prove that he was strong enough to swim. And the story about when he was down in the bayou and he used an umbrella to poke a nine-foot alligator that was sunning on a rock. But not much else. All the stories were the same, all about something crazy his father had done.
Six months passed before Professor Magnus returned. In that time, Lil’ Blue continued to wonder if his father had played, but he didn’t dare ask his mother. He knew better, too, than to ask his auntie or his gran. It would get back to her that he was snooping, and then he would be in trouble he couldn’t even begin to imagine. He looked up a few books on jazz, but he couldn’t read them. None of them said anything exciting that could feed his imagination. Each time he opened to any page of any of the books he immediately found himself rubbing his eyes. The words would run from him and his eyelids would fall automatically. He felt like a swimmer in a thick mud pool. No matter how hard he tried, he never made it past the first page of any book. When he found some old sheet music in a closet beneath a pile of dusty folders in his school band teacher’s office, he forgot all about the books. He asked if he could have the sheets, and his teacher agreed without so much as glancing at the music cradled beneath Lil’ Blue’s arms.
Lil’ Blue read the music over and over for days, but he couldn’t quite figure if he was reading it right when he tried to play it. This didn’t matter to him much, though, because it was enough to imagine himself in a smoky club, playing with his father while a crowd of young women shook, swayed, and swung. Toward the end of the school year, however, he began to believe that he was getting the hang of the music, which was slowly drawing him in. It was different than anything he was used to playing, and the more he kept at it the more he wanted to try to get it right. After a while, imagining that he was knocking the socks off a bunch of girls no longer mattered. He practiced the stuff through the end of the school year. No one he knew could tell him if he was on the right track or not, but that didn’t matter either. Sometimes he felt that there was something to it that he was beginning to get, something, maybe, like what Professor Magnus was talking about. On these days, the faint echo of a negro hymnal would creep into his head. He didn’t understand how it got into his head, because it was nothing like the stuff he played at church. But there it was anyway, popping into his head as if someone had put it there. And he would be drawn in as if he had been called. Before long, his friends stopped coming around to look for him after school. At first they would walk up to the porch and peek in through the screen door in the same way they’d done all school year.
“What you up to, Lil’ Blue?” they would ask.
“Trying to get the hang of this stuff,” Lil’ Blue would answer.
“Who’s that?” they would ask.
“I don’t know,” Lil’ Blue would say.
“Whatever. C’mon. We need you for three-on-three,” they would press. But Lil’ Blue had other matters to attend to. He never gave a hint of wanting to join them, not until the music got into him, which wasn’t quite happening and he didn’t know why.
Eventually, they stopped showing up at the screen door. Lil’ Blue didn’t mind—he wanted to get the hang of the music. Most of the time, the music kept running away from him. Sometimes, it felt like he was playing one of the hymns he played at church, and other times it felt like a classical piece, though none of it came through in what he heard coming from his hands. He couldn’t quite figure it out. He could read the music and he could hit the keys, but the sound wouldn’t come out right. There was this feeling growing in him that he was trying to unlock something. His hands kept passing close, his fingertips kept brushing the surface, but he never quite got a good hold of the thing. He struggled with it for weeks, and what little grasp he believed he had he lost, which made him feel adrift. Rather than growing confident, he grew desperate and wished to regain what little he had mastered. Soon, there was no trace of any music in his playing, just the crude blasts of keys being struck and hammers pounding disjointed notes into the air. Something in the back of his mind whispered to him that he wasn’t ever going to get it.
One afternoon, he felt particularly off-track as he studied the notes on one of the sheets while his fingers pressed on. At the precise moment when he found himself completely confused about what he was playing and what the sheet music said he should play, Professor Magnus knocked on the porch door. It was three weeks after school had let out and three weeks before Lil’ Blue’s fifteenth birthday.
Lil’ Blue didn’t know how long the professor had waited at the porch door, watching him, but he was sure the old man had stood there long enough.
“What’s up, Professor?” he said, laying on a wide-mouth smile that he hoped was big enough to hide his sudden self-consciousness. He was taken aback at the sight of the old man. At the same time, he was inwardly excited and anxious to ask the professor about his father.
“What you trying to play there?” the professor asked.
“Some music I found in my band teacher’s closet.”
Professor Magnus let himself in and walked over to the piano. He read the title on the sheet music, whistled, and then looked at Lil’ Blue. “Who gave you this?”
“Nobody,” he said. “I found it in a closet.”
“You know,” the professor said as he pulled up a chair beside Lil’ Blue, “you playing it all wrong.” He was calm, almost father-like, as he said this.
“Do you know when this music is from, son?”
“Know what era this stuff from?”
Lil’ Blue shook his head.
“This from before Armstrong’s time. You do know Armstrong, don’t you?”
“Wasn’t he a jazz player?”
“The best there ever was,” Professor Magnus said, still calmly, still father-like. “He laid down all sorts of stuff. Knew where it came from, and knew how to tell it.”
Lil’ Blue thought the professor was on his way to one of those crazy kicks. He hoped the old man wouldn’t get into it, because it would be hell. Besides, he wanted to ask about his father. If the old man went off, Lil’ Blue knew, he wouldn’t get a chance to ask.
“Armstrong played the cornet,” the professor continued. He paused for a moment and looked as if he wanted to say more about the cornet but stopped short when he noticed Lil’ Blue’s eager face. The old man sighed and then smiled. “What you have here in front of you,” he said, “was written by one of the best at the piano. He was swinging before swing was swing. Know what I mean? And he was telling it.”
Lil’ Blue didn’t know what he meant.
Professor Magnus looked at him. Lil’ Blue thought this might be a good moment to ask about his father, but he couldn’t find the courage to speak. The old man asked Lil’ Blue to move over and put his fingers on the keys. “Let me show you what I’m talking about.” Professor Magnus removed the sheet music from the piano and placed it in Lil’ Blue’s hands. “Find the one titled ‘Jelly Roll Blues’ and follow along as I play it.”
In an instant, Professor Magnus’s fingers rolled into what sounded like an off-rhythm melody, which he punctuated with a few chords until the piece began to fly. Lil’ Blue tried to keep up with the fast pace of the professor’s playing, and he did fine for the first minute before he lost track. Suddenly, the music seemed to leave the sheet. There were hints of what was written, but something was different. Something about the music didn’t sound at all like what Lil’ Blue read on the sheet. The professor finished about two minutes after what should have been the end of the song, from what Lil’ Blue could tell, with a sudden flurry of notes that rushed toward a sudden precipitous drop. Then, all of a sudden, the old man got up and headed toward the front door. Lil’ Blue was still feeling the rush of music flowing through him. This was what he was trying to capture when he trained alone, but he hadn’t been able to get there.
“Your momma and I had a talk about you,” the professor said as he reached the door.
Okay, so now where was this going, Lil’ Blue wondered as he stared at the black and white keys in front of him. He wondered if any of it had to do with his father. He wanted to ask.
“We figured, with you turning fifteen soon, it might be all right for you to be at my gig.”
“What you mean?” Lil’ Blue asked, suddenly feeling suspicious.
“Don’t your momma tell you nothing?” Professor Magnus said. “I want you to come with me, I want you to see what I’ve been telling you. Sitting up in here ain’t going to do it. Besides, it’s time.”
What did that mean? Lil’ Blue almost dismissed the old man’s crazy talk before he caught what had just been laid out in front of him. It took a minute, but once he fully understood, he couldn’t believe his ears.
“You want me to play with you?” Lil’ Blue asked, his mind momentarily summoning up an image of him with three old men in a smoky club. Happy, sweaty girls smiled at him while he played, his piano smoking hot, the old geezers tired and spent.
Professor Magnus laughed. “Ask me that again in three weeks,” he said after he stopped laughing. “If you learn what you need to learn before your birthday, I might let you play on the last set. We got two sets per night, one night a week for the next three weeks. I’ll be by to pick you up at six tomorrow.”
The next evening, Lil’ Blue could barely keep his anxiety in check as he waited for Professor Magnus to show up. His eyes were on the clock the entire day, and it wasn’t until he was in the back seat of the professor’s car, squeezed between two men about the same age as the professor, that Lil’ Blue finally calmed down.
“That there’s John John,” the professor said. “He play the piano. You going to sit with him and learn tonight.” A thin, charcoal-black man sitting on his right side smiled at Lil’ Blue and shook his hand. “This other cat here is Blowin’ Charlie. He play the trombone. And next to me is Rags. He’s on bass. You’ll meet our drummer at the gig.” Everyone else shook hands with Lil’ Blue and welcomed him.
Lil’ Blue noticed that he wasn’t being treated like a kid. He marveled at this on the short ride to the bar where they would be playing.
The club was down in King Central. Lil’ Blue had never been to King Central, but he knew that it was a rough neighborhood. He knew boys from that part of town, and they were almost always trouble.
As they drove through the neighborhood, Lil’ Blue listened to the men talk about the different pieces they would play that night, about the sort of crowd that The Blue Lady brought in, and about whether or not Mackie, their drummer, would be sober. He listened and he took it in as if he were breathing the entire scene directly into his memory. This must have been what his father did when he was alive, sit in a car like this one, surrounded by friends, shooting the shit while heading to the club he would play at that night. Lil’ Blue could almost see it, could almost sense himself going back in time while he imagined this very scene.
“Boys,” the professor said, “let’s bring another one into it tonight.” He pulled up to the curb in front of the club and turned off the engine. The men responded by shouting remarks and leaping out of the car as if it were on fire.
“Let’s do it!” they said.
“Get us one!”
“Yessir, we going to get one!”
Lil’ Blue didn’t understand what they meant by that. He followed them into The Blue Lady. He couldn’t have imagined it better: it looked like the stuff from his daydreams. The place was dark. Man, was it dark. And smoky. Full of smoke. Looked like everyone smoked. But instead of happy, excited faces, Lil’ Blue saw something else, something he couldn’t quite recognize, couldn’t quite understand. There was a nice crowd out, but Lil’ Blue thought there might be more than was already in there. He followed the band to a small room behind the stage.
His face must have spoken for him.
“Not what you was imagining, eh kid?” John John asked.
“I don’t know,” Lil’ Blue lied.
“Don’t sweat it. It’s going to be packed by the time we get rolling on the second set. It’s always that way. Besides, when we up there, none that shit going to matter to you. You got something else to worry about.”
“John John!” Professor Magnus called. “Stop scaring the boy before he even get out there.”
“I ain’t telling him no lies,” John John responded. He spoke aside to Lil’ Blue. “Don’t worry, kid. Just sit on the bench with me and observe.”
Lil’ Blue wondered what the crowd might think with him just sitting there next to John John. He also wondered if his dad was known here, but he didn’t dare ask. Instead he watched quietly as the band members fidgeted and fussed until it was time to get on stage. Mackie showed up just as the band was getting on stage and began to arrange the drum set.
Each band member made an adjustment here and there, making sure they were set to go as soon as the professor got it going. Lil’ Blue looked out into the crowd, but it was hard seeing anything because of the handful of stage lights shining in his face.
“Don’t worry about seeing them. You’ll learn how to feel them out eventually. Right now we about to start, so just focus on the music we playing.”
“Where’s the sheets?” Lil’ Blue asked.
“That ain’t going to help you right now. Just observe. Close your eyes sometimes. Feel out what we laying down.”
Lil’ Blue nodded, but he didn’t quite trust this type of teaching.
“You ready, John John?” the professor asked. “How’s our apprentice?”
“He real green, Prof,” John John answered.
“We going to make him well soon enough,” Professor Magnus laughed. “He going to puke everything he know and get well.”
“That mean you going to lay it out for him?” Blowing Charlie responded.
“You got it, Chuck,” the professor called back.
“Yes, indeed. We going to lay it out clear as day,” Mackie added.
Professor Magnus tapped on the microphone a few times and then blew into it. “All right,” he said, “I know you been itching long enough. We’re the Magnanimous Five, and we’re here to swing and holler.”
The small crowd erupted into commentary and applause.
“I hope y’all don’t mind,” the professor continued, “but I got a young apprentice who’s going to be with us for the next three weeks. We going to learn him all he need to know to put some of that deep stuff in him. If we lucky, we might see how we done on our last night at The Blue Lady. What y’all think? Think he’s going to be telling it in three weeks?”
“Don’t know, Prof,” someone from the crowd yelled. “He look mighty green!” The crowed erupted in laughter.
“That’s all right. Y’all got to help us make him puke his guts out. He’s going to puke ’til he’s clean again.”
The crowd responded with hooting and hollering.
John John tapped Lil’ Blue with his knee. “Okay, keep your eyes and ears open. Here we go.”
Professor Magnus made the signal to everyone, tapped the tempo with his feet, and took his horn into the first piece. From this moment on, everything was a complete blur to Lil’ Blue. He tried to keep pace, to listen to the expressions—how the piano played with the horn, how the trombone jumped in, how the drums rolled, how the bass echoed—but it was hard to follow. Every instrument had a voice. Sometimes there would be two or three lead voices in a piece. Sometimes two voices would compete. At times, it was like people battling it out or shouting to each other. But no matter how each piece developed, every one ended with a unified voice and one lead. They each would go their separate directions and end up on the same page.
When the first set finished, Lil’ Blue followed John John to the bar.
“What’d you learn?” he asked Lil’ Blue.
Lil’ Blue explained what he had heard as best he could while John John ordered drinks.
“That’s a start,” John John said. “In the next set, I want you to pay attention to how I get the piano to respond to the different voices. Listen to when I’m in lead, when I’m responding to the lead, and when I’m blending in with the group. I’ll change tones according to the call.”
“What’s a call?” Lil’ Blue asked.
“Man, you are green,” John John answered. “All right. Listen sharp. I’m going to tell you quickly as I can. Call and response is a part of this music. One voice calls and the other voice responds. You get me?”
“Sort of,” Lil’ Blue said.
“Okay,” John John continued. “Did the professor tell you about slaves and hymns and all that?”
Not that again, Lil’ Blue thought. He was sick of that. He didn’t want to hear about that stuff. What was this, anyway, history? “He tried,” Lil’ Blue answered, “but I wasn’t getting it.”
John John, who was in the act of taking a swallow of his drink, interrupted himself. Some of the liquid trickled down the side of his mouth and onto his shirt. “What you mean you weren’t getting it? Look, you going to have to get it if you want to play this stuff.” Suddenly John John turned into a historian. In a very quick manner, he told of slaves taking European hymns and making them into their own. He talked of blues being born from those Americanized hymns and of jazz being born from the blues. “Now, imagine,” John John said, “that you’re a slave in the fields. Imagine how out there you got to call to the next slave you working with and he have to respond to you, and so on, to make sure the work being done right, or to make sure you know where the overseer at, or to make sure you know when you might get a chance to steal a potato and hide it for later. That’s call and response. Only it’s changed and grown over a hundred years. And in that hundred years many stories have been told. And jazz keeps telling it. You got me? That’s what you got to listen to. That’s what you got to pay attention to. Jazz is telling you a story that goes deep into the woods, deep into the fields. Man, it goes deep into everything from apple pie to a lynching mob.”
To hear John John tell it, this stuff was deeper than just some hot melodies. It was much deeper than that, and it made Lil’ Blue wonder if his dad had gotten wrapped up in it somehow. Lil’ Blue wanted to ask about his father. He wanted to know if the old man had played. And if he did, did he get it like John John and Professor Magnus?
Lil’ Blue listened intently during the second set and kept his eyes glued to the piano. He tried to picture what John John said to him while the music played. He tried to listen to the stories in the instruments’ voices. Slowly, they started to come. The crowd was larger, more lively, and sometimes they asked him directly if he was getting it.
“Apprentice,” they would shout, “you getting this good? There’s some deep stuff here. You sure you getting it?”
When the second set was over, Lil’ Blue felt he had a better understanding of what Professor Magnus had tried to teach him. He could feel that the music was alive with stories, that it was sharing an experience, that it was sharing some painful stuff, some happy, struggling stuff, and that it was telling it. He didn’t quite understand what it was saying, but he felt it was saying something. He could tell now that the band was communicating. Each instrument was a voice that was telling a story in a group, and sometimes the group spoke and sometimes the individual spoke. When the individual called, other individuals responded.
“That’s it,” Professor Magnus said after Lil’ Blue explained it to him as they drove home. “You beginning to get it.”
“The boy’s smart,” John John said.
“Not smart, deep,” Professor Magnus amended. “It’s in him.”
Lil’ Blue felt confident. He wanted to ask about his father. Had he played? Had he played with them? What story had he told if he had played? What had been his remembering and sharing?
When the professor dropped him off at his mother’s house, Lil’ Blue had an urge to ask, but he still couldn’t bring himself to do it.
His mother was awake, waiting in the kitchen when he entered the house.
“How was it?” she asked.
Lil’ Blue shared with her everything that he had seen, everything that he had learned, and told her about this deep level in jazz that he had no idea existed.
His mother, upon hearing this, sighed and shook her head. “That’s what I never could get,” she said.
Lil’ Blue wondered if she was going to talk about his father. He was hoping she might say something, and he felt like asking, but nothing happened. She got up and walked toward her room. “I’m glad you liked it,” she said. “I can see that it was meant for you.”
Lil’ Blue knew when to leave something alone with his mother. He could tell she wasn’t exactly excited about him venturing into a jazz club. Maybe later, he figured, after he learned more, he’d be able to teach her. Maybe later.
The second gig came and went like a whir, but Lil’ Blue was prepared. He had spent the week reading those books he couldn’t read before, and he learned about the birth of jazz, how blues traveled across the slave fields until it took its jazz shape in New Orleans. His mother stayed away, mostly, and never asked. She seemed different to Lil’ Blue, but he didn’t worry about it too much.
At the gig, he imitated John John’s finger movements during the second set. He played in the air, but it didn’t matter. Some members of the crowd shouted at him, asking him if the air was tuned. He ignored them. He could feel the music, where he was supposed to go with it, how he was supposed to tell it, and when he was supposed to hush or shout. It was as if it came like second nature—but only during the second set. In the first set, he sat back and watched intently while John John told him the story behind each piece.
“In this song,” he said, “listen to the trumpet call after about the eighth bar. That’s a slave negro hollering that the master’s coming to whup someone’s ass. Then listen to how the piano responds. I’m the rest of the slaves scuttling away, spraying save-me-Jesuses and help-us-lords. Then the trombone cut in. He’s the master. He’s hollering, looking for his nigrah cause he feel like beating something.” John John filled in the story for every piece, and slowly, Lil’ Blue began to see the music. He began to hear the voices and feel where they were coming from, what they were trying to say. It was as if he had known it all along, and he recalled the negro hymn that had tried to pop into his head when he was learning some of Morton’s music.
When the set was over and the crowd had emptied out, Lil’ Blue sat at the piano and began to play. Professor Magnus, who was negotiating his band’s pay with the proprietor, turned his head toward the half-lit stage. The rest of the band members walked over and sat in the front row. Lil’ Blue was laying it down. It was as if it had come out of nowhere. Someone who was at the bar shouted.
“Knew he had it in him. Boy’s ready to tell it.”
The band members nodded their heads. Lil’ Blue stopped playing and looked around at the old guys. He could see now that this was more than music. It was who he was. He wondered about that and recalled his mother’s comment about his father. He and the professor were friends. His father must have played. He must have played and played better than anyone. Lil’ Blue knew this, knew as sure as he knew that he would play this stuff for the rest of his life.
“Now you getting it,” Professor Magnus said. “Now you getting it. Next gig you play. For your birthday, you get to play on the last set.”
Lil’ Blue spent the week in a frenzy of excitement and anxiety. His mother tried to show him that she was happy for him, but she didn’t seem real about it, Lil’ Blue thought. He pushed the thought aside and focused on practicing every minute that he could. Improvising a little here and there, he played and played and played. When the third gig arrived, Lil’ Blue could barely contain himself. He had memorized all of the band’s pieces and was ready to play whatever the professor threw at him.
It was supposed to be a big night, but when he realized that his mother wasn’t dressing up, he knew she wasn’t planning on coming.
“Momma, ain’t you going to get ready? The professor almost here.”
“This your night, son,” she answered, “and I don’t want to spoil it.”
“But I want you to be there, Momma.”
“I want to be there, too,” she said. She started to walk away.
“So how come you ain’t coming?”
“It’s your night, son. On your first, you shouldn’t be worrying about me. I’ll see you soon enough. We got plenty time for that.”
Professor Magnus knocked on the porch door.
“Magnus,” Lil’ Blue’s mother said, “make sure you bring him back safe.”
“There ain’t nothing to worry about. I told you that,” the professor replied.
Lil’ Blue noticed that there was something thick going on between them. They were referring to things other than just him. He wanted to break in, but he knew from long practice that when things got heated between adults it was best to keep quiet.
“Just the same,” his mother said quietly. “Bring him back safe.”
“You know I will,” the professor said. He looked at Lil’ Blue with a smile on his face. Lil’ Blue could tell that it was a strained smile. “You ready, kid?”
It wasn’t how Lil’ Blue had pictured his first night playing in front of a nightclub crowd. He thought his mother would be back there, watching quietly with pride in her eyes.
“Let’s go, Prof,” Lil’ Blue said. “Try to come, Momma,” he shot back as he stepped outside.
The first set at the club went the same as it had the previous week. Lil’ Blue watched while his fingers played in the air and the stories from the instruments told him what was going on. He watched, and he listened, only this time he felt the stories in a much deeper place. He felt them as if they were his stories, his experiences. They hurt. It was a strange feeling, which he both feared and accepted. This was what it was about, he suddenly realized. Knowing and feeling. He hoped his mother would show up.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Professor Magnus said into the microphone. “We have a special treat for y’all tonight. You been seeing him up here for three weeks. He’s been studying. He’s been watching, and he’s been preparing. Now we about to find out if he got it. So give a warm welcome to a very old fifteen-year-old, Mr. Blues, at the piano.”
The crowd erupted with cheers and applause, just as Lil’ Blue had so often dreamt about. But he felt hollow inside and he worried about being able to bring the stuff to them, about being able to capture those voices and give it to the crowd when all he could think about was why his father had died and why his mother was acting so strange. He bowed his head slightly toward them and prepared.
“John John,” Professor Magnus called, “why don’t you let him have the first three?”
John John left the piano to Lil’ Blue. Suddenly Lil’ Blue felt heavy and full of dread. It wasn’t a fear of performing—he’d been in front of a crowd many times before. He was afraid of something deeper than that, something the crowd waited for that was more than a good sound, more than a hot beat and flashy piano-playing. Would he tell it? Would he tell it well? He heard a voice: yes, he would. He would tell it and tell it right. He looked around to see who’d said it, who’d whispered it in his ear, but he could find no one who could have been close enough. It didn’t matter.
The music began and Lil’ Blue threw himself into it. He played, and as he played he could feel something awful coming from within, something full of pain, full of bitter joy, and full of blood. His father had died. His mother wasn’t coming. Blood had been spilt for no good reason. It came out. It came out through his fingers. Life had to turn this pain. Life had to celebrate it as life. If not, he would die. Suddenly, he knew. This was what killed his dad. He knew it. You have to have more strength than a mule to bear it. You have to have some kind of strength to take it and turn it into song and celebrate from it. It ate his father up, and his mother didn’t know how to help him. She couldn’t go deep in there and see what was eating him up, so now she stayed away, because Lil’ Blue had what his father had got. And now Lil’ Blue had to take this stuff and turn it. He would have to find the strength to do that. Would he find it? Could he tell it and keep sane?
As he dove into these questions, these deep-down feelings, he played, and while he played, in the middle of a piece, Lil’ Blue suddenly saw his father. Lil’ Blue didn’t know how it happened, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that he knew it was his father. He knew it was him, and he knew that his father had told it better than most. He told it on the horn, but it killed him. It killed him because the music got to him in a way it shouldn’t have. It broke his heart. Not the music itself, but the playing of it, the stories the music told that he couldn’t celebrate without feeling pain. It came from blood, it said. And he couldn’t turn it. Couldn’t bring it around to fuel his soul. Instead, it ate him up. He took it too personal, Lil’ Blue knew, and it killed him. The old man nodded at him, and Lil’ Blue nodded in return. With his nod he let his father know that it wasn’t for nothing. There were cats out here who were taking that suffering and turning it on its head. They weren’t dying, either, they were swinging and blowing and hollering and they were taking it to the people. Yeah, he got it, he answered. He got it, and he was going to tell it without letting it eat him up. And one day, he would speak to his mother about it and let her know that it was going to be all right. Just like he was telling the crowd at that moment: we suffered, but we here to celebrate because we just want to live. We aim to live. We aim to swing, hoot, and holler to our graves.
About the Creator
I'm a Dominican immigrant living in the New Orleans area since the 70s. A father of two, I've been a service worker, war medic, ER tech, pro fundraiser, nonprofit leader, city bureaucrat, and now a PhD'd person, but always a writer.
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