I had read some good comic books one evening and had the idea to gig again. In my past I’d been a coffeeshop folk singer. It was my main thing, though I’d had and been in bands as well. I knew there was an open mic at a jazz club that night. It was like a Monday or Tuesday. Head full of word balloons and Photoshopped colors I put the ukulele on the passenger seat and drove there.
It was summer, still light out when I got there. I found parking on the street. Rush hour restrictions had just ended. Or maybe that’s not true. I had the right colored parking meter though. I felt a bit exposed carrying my uke. It didn’t have a case. I was out on the sidewalk walking against the one-way traffic, all of which glanced or stared at me. I was the only other moving thing in the evening sun.
Because I’d arrived when the open mic started, I was one of about 3 people there and the only white one. Even in these small numbers I was conscious of it. The staff was black. The inside was dark and most of the light was behind the bar. I sat on a stool at a tall round table nearer, but still in the back of, the seating area. There was no stage. A backline was set up on the floor against the wall. A backline is the drumkit, keyboard, and whatever amplifiers. There were micstands too. I was the only one sitting there. A waitress came over and told me it was a two-drink minimum and what did I want. I smiled and the inner drop-shadowed sound effects went off in the panels in my head. I ordered, she brought it with a pretty smile, and I asked if it was okay to play a couple folk songs, meaning did they allow that type of music or only jazz. She pointed me to the guy to ask, who seemed surprised by my question but said okay. I was relieved. I sat at my seat a while with nothing happening.
Three guys came over to the instruments. One was the one I talked to. They were older men. The drummer sat down and the bass player plugged in. He was playing a 6 string, of course he was. The keyboardist started running scales. Then he stopped. There was the type of pause without anticipation. So when the three musicians kicked in together, it was a jolt. There had been no count-in. The bassist hanging out in the upper register. The keyboardist beat the hell out of the melody, anchoring it only subtly, hitting blue notes, leaving the Fall like a pushing continental drift that goes above the timber line, and that’s the last season that forest will ever see, the one it will be remembered by. The drummer kept time in that jazzy langour like dandelion seeds off, white and wispy, to another clime, only to hit a wood-plank fence, stuck there. But then he did something, the drummer. I immediately came to attention. I didn’t know what it was, but my eyes got wide and my mouth, it was crazy, I reached that level of happiness that is unadulterated awe, and with my inhibitions chemically loosened I felt my face contort into a beaming Black Hole Sun smile.
He kept it up, the drummer. I wasn’t watching the sticks anymore. I couldn’t see them. I just saw his elbows, and his elbows were crazy. He saw me. I was one of only a dozen people sitting there. The awe he brought out in me was driving him. The bass and keyboards were going, simply I think, but they hadn’t dropped out for a solo. I just wasn’t hearing them. The drummer was controling them, not normally, as what to play a bit behind of, but powerfully, playing over them, cymbals bursting kindly but without mercy, as disregard is always merciless. The drums weren’t calling out so much as they were taunting anyone who couldn’t listen, for this city who was all but a dozen patrons and a staff, who we could look down on as we do on the impoverished. One minute of this drumming passed, two minutes, three. I resembled a movie maniac. I was drumming on the table, poorly, my head nodding with full crew shoulders to a beat I was keeping for myself because I couldn’t follow them, and wasn’t sure how the bassist and keyboardist were staying with him, if I could hear them, which I couldn’t. There were only these drums and the man with thick eyeglasses behind them. A whole town’s worth of playground slides walked on first-step legs until they were touching, curved bottom lip to curved bottom lip, making U’s, walking back to back across the parks until their stairs slotted into the other’s stairs behind: the great metal sine curve of Baltimore County. Kids were thrown with love into the air on blanket trampolines. No die stopped its roll til it was what its bettor wanted. He took us to the world of the deaf where everything is gestures and still we heard it all. He played the double underline and the circle twist on the signature of John Hancock. He burned up all the space debris. He parceled out our collective subconscious the way rain only gains individuality when it runs off a leaf, becoming single drops. He teetered on the line of what could be annoying thus finding something new.
I let out the cheer that attracts attention when it’s the only one. The bassist was the spokesman. They were the house band. It was time to bring the open mic’ers up. Most of them were singers. The drummer clambered off and stopped at me. He was all giddy smiles and chuckling. He was all cool because he didn’t make eye contact with me much. I think before he spoke I blurted out, “That was awesome!” I think I repeated that after whatever he said.
When it was my turn a drummer came up from the audience. The bassist put a mic at the height of my uke’s sound hole. I said thank you and I hoped they didn’t mind my playing a couple Kentucky folk songs. Some woo’s and applause heartened me. I looked back to see if the band was ready. The drummer was taking some time. He was adjusting the cymbals. We made eye contact. “I’m waiting on you,” he said. Well that threw me. I guessed he wasn’t pleased that his slot wouldn’t be jazz. I called out the key and started the first of two Bonnie Prince Billy covers. The drummer didn’t do much more than hit the closed high hat, but the bassist caught the simple chord progression, and the crowd received me warmly, although I sensed repeating “I am a cinematographer” 16 times in the song tested their patience. They preferred improv. Still, they clapped and I went off pleased.
As the night went on the club filled up. More and more musicians came and waited for a turn. One was a white guy, on the short side, with a military haircut. At a glance I judged him. Well that taught me a lesson about jazz. When it was his turn he held his trumpet to his lips and blew out a non-stop jet stream. I couldn’t believe it, that he was the best horn player in the club, but he clearly was. After he was friendly. He made conversation with everybody and gave tips, mini-lessons even, to the guys who looked like college students. He told me he was in the Marines jazz band. Talent was talent, I couldn’t deny it. I despised the military a little less that day.
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