Sandy Brown Jazz



One Good Turn

A short story by Yvonne Mallett


Tuesday. Never the best night for a jazz gig. Start time is billed as 8 p.m. Pete is here ahead of us, his keyboard standing in its case against the wall. He’s found a spot and sits, head falling forward, at a table close to the small step up from the floor. (They call that ‘the stage’). He’s sleeping Jazz club signsoundly.

Now, a bunch of guys unpacking their stuff, telling a few jokes and sort of re-bonding may get a bit shouty – happy, moany, surly, you name it. And so it is. Pete has a sort of scowling, dejected expression. Chris, probably the tallest bass-player on the planet, leans across and pokes him with his bow. Pete’s expression gets even more scowly, and at last he wakes up. We give a mock cheer. He still looks gloomy and doesn’t speak.

“How’re you doin?” I ask finally, unpacking my horn.

“I’m dead.” Pete’s voice is gravelly.

Evan-the-Red (hair that is)  is already warming up the sax. Josh, flexing his considerable, gym-enabled muscles, is engrossed, making a racket with his drums.

“I don’t think I can do this,” says Pete. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere but with us.

“Smarten up, Pete” I wave my arm round the room for emphasis. “Dozens are waiting out there.”

“Yeah. Dozens of empty tables.”

“People! Fans! There’s the jam, too, don’t forget.”

“You’re trying to make me feel better?”

“You will”.

Pete groans. “Will there be singers? And will they all want to sing Black Coffee? And Willow Weep For Me?”

I have to laugh.  It’s almost a standing joke but one that’s often too close to the truth for comfort.

Pete groans. “I’m exhausted. Including travelling I’ve worked 16 hours out of the last 24. Only one decent meal. Had a gig in Bootle. Some sort of country estate. Had to row out to a small artificial island. I hate boats. Then there was a lunch session at an arty school in Maida Vale. Monday was Southend. Two students this morning – now this.”

“You’ll perk up once we start.”

“I feel like jacking it in.” His sourness is beginning to get to me.

Jazz clubEvan buts in: “What are we tonight? End-of-the-Pier, dance band or actual jazz?” He’s tired of waiting and getting stressed.

I take command, like the leader of the band has to. “Okay, it’s 8.20. Forget the anti. Time we started.”

A few folk have already wandered in, some with instruments to surprise us with later. It doesn’t take long to spot the girls with their sheet music, probably for ‘Coffee’ and ‘Willow’. I signal to the pub MC that we’re ready to go then control my murderous impulses as he makes his usual, crummy announcement about us being a bunch of great musicians plus a drummer. Josh shrugs and grins like he always does. He shouldn’t really complain. Drummers get plenty of applause. He’s pretty good anyway. Last time he dropped a stick. He was going at it somewhat so the stick sort of hurled itself out of his hand like a missile. It was caught by someone in the front row, who tossed it back to Josh, who never missed a beat.

We start off with a set list including:  Now’s the Time, From This Moment On and The Best Is Yet To Come.  We can be pretty versatile – everything’s on the i-Phone anyway. Sometimes I feel we should try to sort of educate the audience a bit. At least bring in some post-Parker material after the interval, before the jam. My hero is Dizzy, and sometimes I manage to let it show. After Ain’t Misbehavin and You Stepped Out Of A Dream a sweet older lady approaches us. She is dressed in what you could call vintage-style clothes. You could describe hair and make-up the same way. And her politeness.

“Sir,” she says to Evan, “Sir, I wonder if you’d be very kind and play a fox-trot?”

I hate to let her down but it can’t be helped and I call across, “Sorry madam but we don’t have a fox trot on the list tonight.”

We head back over some familiar territory: There’ll Be Some Changes Made, But Not For Me, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and So What? We’re heading for the break. To my shame I think I’ll tell an old joke: “There was a little old rock and blues band. They had a wonderful gig and were laughing and cheering and jumping in the air at the end. One of the musicians was so excited he threw his hat in the air -  it was Chuck Berry!” The audience groans.“Hang around for the jam,” I say. “That’s when we play the sweet stuff.”

Jazz singerIt’s the break already. Pete wolfs down a burger. The rest of us tackle various thirst-quenching rewards. The management allows us two drinks each per session. While we’re resting, talking about artificial islands and the like, a tall girl happens over.

“Do you do Black Coffee?” she says in a mock-sultry kind of way.

“We’ve heard of it,” says Evan. And winks at us.

“Could you possibly – I’ve got the music, let me do it tonight?”

Josh grins and butts in. “We do Black Coffee kind of Espresso style.”

A mum pops over. “My son is here,” she announces. “He’s only 15 but he’d love to play piano with you. He’s quite good. His name’s Edward. He’s doing music at school.” This proposition is not unique, and I have an image of a sweet faced kid playing Look For The Silver Lining. Obviously I’m wary. Then “Okay,” I say, without much enthusiasm but from the goodness of my heart. It doesn’t hurt to do the odd good turn, does it?

 “We’ll get him on first,” I say. Get it over with, I think. I guess we were all a bit jaded.

I shoot the breeze a bit more with the guys – the gigs we’ve done individually, any recordings (nil), the students that some of us have and how we make ends meet. We get back on stage while the prospective jammers in the audience twiddle about with their music, instruments and nerves. I remember young Edward and my promise to get him on first.

“Tonight for a special treat we have a young man who is going places,” I announce, smiling.

“Back to school,” mutters Chris under his breath.

“Please welcome Ed!” I say it with great enthusiasm, but I can see his mum doesn’t like ‘Ed’. The kid comes up eagerly. Pete vacates the keyboard. I need a few details from Ed. “What are you doing?” He says he wants to do ‘Round Midnight.

“Kind of sophisticated for a young chap like you,” I say. How patronising was that? Ed takes a couple of minutes to adjust things. Then he starts to play. Well, it’s not easy to describe the effect this lad has on us. ‘Electrifying’ might cover it. The privilege of witnessing greatness might be another. What we hear is a wonderful fluidity and the most sophisticated and subtle chord progression Jazz pianistever. I reckon the other guys are actually awe-struck as they back him, though they would never have said such a thing themselves. You bet they are listening, not just hearing.

After the number Pete seems to come to life. At last he’s enthusiastic: “Hey. What was that you played? It was great! Where d’you get those voicings?”

“It’s sort of Thelonious Monk,” says Ed with all the aplomb of a seasoned master.

“Monk? That’s cool.”

 “I intro’d with a minor sixth chord with a sixth in the bass and went from there. Of course, you can call the sixth in the bass the tonic, and the chord a C-minor seventh, flat five. Monk used to refer to an E-flat-minor sixth chord with a sixth in the bass as a C-minor seventh chord, with a  flat five because an E-flat-minor chord with a sixth in the bass is C, E- flat G-flat and B-flat. Same thing. An E-flat-minor chord with a sixth in the bass is C, E-flat. You can call it a half-diminished.”

Most of us are a bit too stunned to take all this in immediately. But not Pete. He does a high five with the kid and goes back to the piano.

“I guess you practise a lot, Ed?” I say.

“Well . . . Yes. But you mustn’t do too much,” he says. “I’m sure you know what Schuman said to music students: Practise scales and exercises of course. But it’s not enough. He said it’s like trying to recite the alphabet faster every day, and you can employ your time more usefully.”

Teddy’s mum approaches at this point, smiling broadly.“I told you so,” she says.

Back in recovery mode, the band does a few more numbers including, I’m Beginning To See The Light and What’s New? There’s a new sort of mood abroad in the band. I think we all feel it. Then we get up a couple of jammers, including a guy who does a real down-and-dirty blues with harmonica accompaniment, forcefully splintering the earlier mood of sophistication. We do a bossa – How Insensitive. Eventually, we get around to Black Coffee – espresso style. Josh introduces some unexpected rhythms into it. The girl sings well and even looks pleased.

A few more numbers then it’s time for our usual sign-off, Bye Bye Blues. Ed’s long gone. Yet tonight there’s not the usual panic to get unplugged, packed up and away. Almost in a whisper, Chris is bowing an extract from a Bach prelude – sweetly, hardly audible. Then I hear Pete begin gently to explore the keyboard in an unexpected way. He’s doing the Monk chords very subtly and drifting into ‘Round Midnight, just for himself. It’s beautiful. Next time I glance round, about to say goodbye, he seems to have fallen asleep again. But now he’s smiling.

Our thanks to Yvonne Mallett who writes short stories, sings and has been listening to live jazz since before she left school.


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Jazz Bass Trombone
Photographic Memories
Just A Gigolo
The Hot Spot

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2015-2017


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