Issue 189, Summer 2009
I was told they found themselves retired and so they said, Now’s finally the time to form a band! You should see the instruments they fished out of attics and basements. Not so much the instruments themselves—horns haven’t changed much over the years—but the cases. Some are covered with flesh-tone leather, boxes made of wood with rusty hinges, lined with red velvet. When they crack them open, it looks like they’re pulling metal bones from the insides of a body.
The dudes are severely elderly, these Nightblooming Jazzmen. They wear white belts and bow ties, polyester pants pulled up high. Our angle is we’re old, they say. So you have to dress the part if you’re going to be our pulse, drumbo. They got me wearing plaid pants and bowling shoes. A couple of them have moustaches and they’re serious about them. I paste one on for the big gig just to fit in around the face. Bleach my eyebrows and stick that silvery fringe under the nostrils, pop on a straw hat.
They have the coolest names. There’s Clyde and Chet and Wally and Ernie and Horace. Do you believe that? When I first met up with them, when I told them my name was Tristan, they said, Ho, ho, what kind of name is that? Some of them thought I said Christian. I said I didn’t know what kind of name it was, how should I know? I wasn’t there when I was named.
They said, Where are your people from?
My people? Sounded like they were talking about tribes. But I didn’t have an answer for them. I’m from nowhere, around, all over.
You can’t use a name like that, they told me. We’ll think of a new one.
After my audition, Clyde and Horace came over to my car when I was packing up my drums. They told me I got the gig but from now on they were calling me Stanley and if I didn’t like it I could take my twenty-two years of living and go sit on a dick.
They were grinning when they said it.
The big gig is under the elms in a lonely old park. The bandstand is covered with graffiti and the tennis courts have tattered nets and faded lines. A crowd of old people and a few of their grandkids look on from folding chairs. Everyone’s eating. I watch them bite at deviled eggs and salted watermelon from behind my cymbals. The fans of the Nightblooming Jazzmen drink wine from Styrofoam cups. They eat cheese logs and grapes resting atop green Coleman coolers. Seeds are spat into the grass.
Clyde puffs into the mic and says, Good afternoon, ladies and germs. Then we’re off and running. We cook up a carousel of sound with our hands, with the wind in our chests. Me and a gang of senior citizens just tearing up the place.
We’re marching the saints and balling the jack. And, damn, these Nightblooming Jazzmen can bring it. Chet is coaxing sad wah-wahs out of his t-bone, muting with a toilet plunger. Clyde noodles out golden lassos on the clarinet and Wally burps wetly along on the tuba. I buzz the rolls and grab the crash. I stir the soup with brushes. I do all the stuff I never get to do—that no one plays anymore. Stuff I learned from my dad.
We play the Charleston and people are grabbing at their knees and head dancing. We stir up a flock of jazz hands.
The sun tilts through the trees and everywhere are shafts of dust. We’re just a speck in the grand whirling scheme, but at least we’re making noise.
We close the set like landing a plane, bouncing along a little then rolling to a stop. The guys are breathing heavy. They empty their spit valves into the lawn.
People applaud, then stand and fold up their chairs.
I’m tearing down my set and a kid comes over, starts asking me questions. How come there’s a Rush sticker on my snare case? How come I’m not old but I play old music?
How do you know I’m not old? I ask.
Your elbows, he says. Too smooth.
I’m waiting for Clyde to cut the checks, sitting in my car smoking some reefer. I can see some of the guys standing by their van, arguing about something. Me? I’m mellow. It was just as good a gig as any. Better in some ways because there’s nowhere to hide in this kind of sound. No smokescreens of distortion or feathered edges of reverb. You have to give these guys their due. They put it down precisely where they want it, dotted notes and all. I thought they were going to be a drag. I figured I’d play this one time and score the check, then ditch them. But I don’t know. That gig was pretty sweet.
Clyde and Horace come over. I stash the nub of weed and step out. Great job, they tell me. You can swing, by God. How’d you learn it?
My dad, I explain. He loved Krupa.
Did he play?
Yeah. That’s all I say, recalling his old Ludwig drum kit. His traps, he would call them. The shells were as thin as lampshades and the cymbals were brown and dull. I pawned it all a few years after he died, after I changed the skin on the floor tom and found some blood down in the crease under the ring. He threw up his guts during a gig once. He shouldn’t have been playing in that state. They carried him home and put him to bed in his bloody T-shirt. He was a welder by profession. Health insurance was like a Rolls-Royce—both things he knew he’d never have.
Clyde gives me my check. His hand’s all shaky when he signs his name.
Horace says, I tell you what, we met some nice old ladies and they’ve invited us over for a visit. Up for joining us?
What the hell, I say. It’s not like I have anywhere else to go.
Horace rides with me as we caravan over. He tells me more about the band. What happened was that they used to be a big band, all Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman. They had a good run for a while, playing locally. You can’t tour with a big band unless you have serious, Sinatra-sized bank. Costs too much to put all those guys in hotel rooms. But they did their thing often enough around town. Fellas started dying though, Horace says. Not because they whooped it up or got in car wrecks—the way the young bands die. These guys just died from staying in the world too long. Cancer mostly. Heart attacks and strokes. One after another.
So much for the big band. They tried to roll with it, calling themselves the littlest big band, but they couldn’t draw a crowd. So Clyde, who’s basically the leader, said they were going Dixieland and did anyone have a problem with that. Horace tells me one guy walked out, kicked over a music stand and flipped them the bird, grumbling that Dixieland was for Disneyland. Everyone else stayed put, even though Wally and Chet are starting to get flaky, Horace says.
He looks out at the yards sliding by. It’s a crazy thing to say you’re going to stick with something until you die, Horace tells me. You pick two or three things you feel that way about and life organizes itself for you.
He winks and it’s a little spooky how he’s talking right into me, how his words are driving into my head like pennies dropped from eight miles up.
The ladies are sisters, widows, some of them twice over. Three of our guys are widowers. Chet and Ernie are married, but Ernie’s wife is an invalid. Doesn’t give me an excuse to fool around, he says glumly.
What about you, they ask me before we go in.
We’re standing in the street of some shady neighborhood—shady meaning it’s leafy, not ghetto. The sidewalks are old and broken where the roots of oak trees push up. There’s a dove cooing somewhere. A sprinkler hisses a few houses down. I see the blue haze of mist in the evening light.
They’re waiting for an answer and I don’t know how much to say. You can’t tell people about your loneliness without adding to it. No one wants to hear how you’re somewhere between the beat with people, never finding the count.
I’m in between, I say.
A pair of legs? Clyde asks, grinning. He has a square jaw and a Charlie Brown curl of gray hair on his big, blotchy forehead.
Oh! Ménage à twat, Horace says.
Not like that, I say.
Now they’re all grinning.
You guys are some dirty grandpas, I tell them.
They laugh. Good band name, they say. They slap me on the back. Clyde makes like he’s strangling me. His hands are rough at my throat. You’re a good kid, he says. He pulls me aside. You’re not a cock-blocker are you?
I shake my head. Me? I’m thinking.
No one likes a cock-blocker, Clyde says. He’s patting me hard on the back, like he’s burping a baby.