– Part 1: Theme –
Jerry Rickman might have never been the sharpest tool in the shed, mind ya, but boy, he could play the saxophone just like the great ones. I’d always suspected that he’d had the stuff, the musical talent to really make it and go places, and that some day people would talk about him and name him in one sentence with Charlie Parker, Stan Getz or John Coltrane. But in all the years we toured the stages together, Ricks never showed any ambition for more. He seemed perfectly content and happy just playing along with the rest of us two-bit amateurs, who all shared the same heartbroken, drunken love for the musical style known as Jazz. And in a way, that dedication to the sound alone made him seem only more professional to me.
I hadn’t told any of the guys just why we’d been booked to this particular gig. When the request came for me and the band to play at that wedding reception, I accepted without hesitation. In fact, business had been a little slow for a while, so we took just about anything offered to us. And the job really wasn’t too hard, either. Most of the time we just eased our way through a few instrumentals on that late afternoon in May, knowing that we’d have to do a couple more lively numbers later on. After all, this was a weddin’, an’ people would wanna dance – and now we would make them swing.
Now, avoiding your father completely wasn’t possible. I recognized the look on his face when he spotted me, a silent warning shot to me not to do anything stupid. And I wouldn’t, I’d promised that to myself already. I’d stick to the job, do my thing and get out, no harm done. Still, I could see that your choice of the band didn’t sit well with him – and I couldn’t blame him at all. Considerin’ how close we once were an’ all… But he held his temper, so I’d hold my tongue.
So there we were, the five of us, and everything seemed like always. We went trough our first set smoothly, keeping in mind that there we had two more sets coming up. ‘We’ – that word alone felt good. ‘We’ as in ‘me and the band’ or ‘my band and I’ as I sometimes liked to think.
Constantine Jacobs was a mountain of a man, but when he was on the stage, his long arms slung lazily about his double bass and his unexpectedly nimble fingers dancing on the strings, you could see in his dreaming face the fragile soul of the musician that lived within this giant. He also doubled as our transport master and technician, so without him, there was no gig.
Sam Harris manned the drums, and he did quite well, considering that all he had in the way of a musical education was only one year in his high school’s marching band – and he only did that to impress a girl, as he’d admitted to us many times. Usually, that confession would take place while we were having dinner and drinks after a gig, when one of us told him, he’d done okay. Yeah, Sam was proud on his self-learned skills, and he picked them up fast, just like his glasses of whiskey and his ladies. Coping with what was expected of him was his strongest suit, and he’d learn and adapt quickly. Not only in his daytime job, but also in the band; he’d listen to the tracks we’d suggested in between the rehearsals and then he’d surprise us with a new trick he’d learned within just a week. Fast learner, yes, but when it came down to improvisation … not so fast.
Then, there was ‘Lord’ Carl Mulberry, a classically trained pianist, and that little fact showed in everything he did. On his black’n’whites he’d sit up, always straight as an arrow, his fingers delicate but precise on every key – and every damn note had to be written down for him and was rehearsed to perfection. Even his improvisations were rehearsed, and although they turned out fine – he just wasn’t an on-the-spot kind of guy, at least not at the beginning. After a couple of years he’d become relaxed enough, but not back at that time. Whenever one of us would deviate from a note, he’d nervously look at us, above the rims of his glasses, as if he was trying to find the culprit and chide him for it. Sometimes we’d do that – usually in band rehearsal, never on stage – just for laughs, to see the mousy look on his face. “Oh, Lord” we’d say then and laugh until he joined in.
On the saxophone was Jerry Rickman, of course, ‘Ricks’ to us and those who knew him, and I’ve already said all about him, that seems important to me. Ricks was a good friend, and older than the rest of us, experienced and one of the best we young screw-ups could hope for. Hadn’t it been for him, we’d probably broken up the band after a few months, but his energy, his dedication to the music held us together. Made us better in what we did and how we appreciated our own music.
As for me, I was the youngest in the band. Having taken various musical classes in my youth – and never any of them completed –, I had dabbled in a lot of instruments over the years, only to use the one, I’d been given at birth: my voice. So, the microphone was mine, and so was the job as front man: introducing us, entertaining the audience and the whole rest that went with it. I was the go-to when people booked us for gigs. To me, being on the stage was a dream come true, an anachronistic wish to live in a past where Jazz was not nostalgia, but everyday reality. Singing could take me there, and I never regretted any second of living out that dream.
On that day, I hadn’t sung yet, not during the first set. The introduction was to come later, so I could remain in the background for now, busying myself with the little assortment of percussion instruments I had assembled over the years. Compared to Sam’s drums they were only a whisper, but they could liven up a couple of the quieter songs or provide that little Latin spice to the bossa nova.
And then, you were there. You looked fantastic in your all-white dress, the small bouquet still clasped in your hands. Your eyes gleamed with complete happiness, that only the most wonderful day in life could bring forth. The most beautiful day a woman could ask for. This was your wedding day.
I don’t recall the precise order of the next things to happen. I know that the band fell silent as the first speeches were made. All these people were there, looking at you and your newly wed husband. Your bride maids huddled together in expectation, waiting for you to throw the bouquet and you obliged the tradition. Him at your side. Him and you smiling brightly, clinging the glasses with champagne, accepting toasts and good wishes from all sides. There was the speech from his best man delivered with the help of my microphone, that Constantine had laid out for him on the corner of our stage. Of course, the idiot forgot to switch it off when putting it back, causing an acoustic feedback of deafening quality that threatened to douse the applause he got for his words. Constantine had expected such and killed the shrilling noise almost instantly with the flip of a switch on his mixer. Still, that mistake would be credited to us, and not his best man – as usual.
Then it was time for us. You had insisted, much to the chagrin of your father and your in-laws, to open the dance not with a waltz. You had asked for a certain song, and we started playing it. Carl opened it, as rehearsed, and within two bars Constantine’s bass and Sam’s drums joined up, and then my voice rang through the speakers.
I’m in heaven…
and my heart beats so, that I can hardly speak…
and I seem to find the happiness I seek…
when we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek…”
Up to this point you hadn’t spared me a single glance, most likely because there was too much going on, but now you looked at me, over his shoulder, while the two of you whirled to the rhythm. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one to see you looking at me. I noticed the warning stares of your new husband’s best man and of your father not far behind, but these were unnecessary. His voice in your ears was enough to divert your attention and whatever your conversation was, it lasted all through the song. After Cheek To Cheek we followed up with a couple of Jazz standards: All Of Me, of course, and That Old Black Magic and pretty much every other song about love and romance. Which qualifies to almost all of them. It had been right after the beginning of the second song that you and him let go of each other and took other guests to the dance floor. After a few minutes all of them were swinging, while me and the guys worked the magic we had come here for.
As we neared the end of the first set, people still showed no intention of settling down. Between two numbers I shot a short question towards the guys and within a few nods it was settled: they’d play on, doing a few more instrumental tunes, slower, more quiet, while I could rest my voice. With any luck, people would also be hungry and the waiters had used the time of us playing to prepare the reception feast. We knew, the slower music and the scent of the food would draw the guests off the dance floor and we could take our break with only a little delay.
“…and it’s torment won’t be through…
’til you let me spend my life making love to you…
day and night…
niiight aaand daaay…”
I finished the final song of the first set and while I turned off the mic and made my way back off the stage, the others came up with the next number. Behind the curtain, I dug into my bags, producing the bottle and took a few sips of much needed water.
Suddenly, you were standing there, right next to me, smiling. Dragging your vowels in that sweet southern gal way you always had, you asked “A dance with the bride?” Expectantly, you looked straight at me, while I hesitated, looking around if your father or anyone else could see us. Then you took my hand. “Please?” I could feel your fingers, their softness, their warmth. So reassuring. You led me to the dance floor, right below the spot where I just had stood at the microphone. There were still several couples dancing, giving us cover from your father’s eyes, who had already sat down after the third song.
You smiled, took hold of me and slowly we started to move in rhythm with I’ll be seeing You, but I knew that the song wouldn’t last another minute. We would be on the floor for yet another song. And suddenly it felt just like old times, just like back then, in the days when we were inseparable, but still not together. The music fell silent; I heard the whisper behind me on the stage before the guys momentarily slipped into the next tune. I recognized the song at once: I’ve Got You Under My Skin. You huddled closer, touching my cheek and jawbone with your temple and the side of your forehead. Memories of the old days came to mind, uninvited flashbacks and I felt a pang when you suddenly whispered: “I had no idea it would be so difficult.” I knew, you were talking about us being back together again after so long. I felt the same, and asked myself again, just why we never decided to go down that road. The simple answer was: we both were too scared to lose what we had. “’Tis your weddin’” I reminded you softly, falling back just a little into the slang of my home. “You’re just having this one dance with me, okay?”
You suddenly lifted your head and looked me in the eyes and I knew at once exactly why you wanted me to be here today. I could see it in your face. This was for getting over the past. The band was just a pretense, but you needed to see me in order to let go. And then you would finally close the chapter, turn around and go to be happily-ever-after with him. Driving home the message to both of us. But letting go was never easy, for neither of us.
“Kiss me” you demanded, haste entering your voice. “Do it, for tradition’s sake, like, ‘kiss the bride’ or… or do it for good luck or … oh, I don’t know, just do it, quickly! Once and never again.”
I stared at you incredulously, you couldn’t be serious. “Here? Now?”
I could feel your grip getting tighter. “Do it, or I’ll scream. And then Daddy’ll come over and you know what he’s gonna do to ya when he thinks that you’ve hurt me again.”
There was nothing I could do. I was in your trap. “Okay,” I finally agreed, “once and never again.” I slowly bowed my head to the side. Behind me, the saxophone grew louder for a melody phrase I recognized all too well. Usually, I’d be singing this song up there, so I knew the words exactly.
‘…but each time I do…
just the thought of you…
makes me stop! – before I begin…
’cause I’ve got you… under my skin…’
And I had stopped, right on cue, as Ricks had accentuated with his sax. My lips were less than an inch from your cheek, my intended target, when I ceased all motion, while the music played on.
But I had not considered you. You turned your head, looked into my eyes and then pressed your mouth to mine. In the electrifying second that our lips touched, there was no more stopping us. I gave all in that one kiss, that I hadn’t dare to give to you back then. There was nothing left to lose. You were a married woman now and nothing would change that. So I was as honest as I could, pouring all of my affections from back then into it, while never taking my eyes from yours.
After three heartbeats – three heartbeats that perhaps shouldn’t have been –, you released me. Pretended, we had just talked and shared a whispered joke among the other dancing couples. You laughed prettily at the joke that wasn’t there, smiled your pretty bride smile, spun around in your pretty bride’s dress and took a pretty bride’s bow at the end of the song. While the saxophone carried out the last tone of the tune, you prettily clapped your hands together.
“Why thank you, dear. Funny, charming, a great singer and a great dancer… and still not roped and dragged to the altar? My, my, those gals up north really don’t know how to catch the good one’s, do they?” A pretty little playful speech with you dragging the vowels again, just loud enough for those around us to hear, before you turned around, still smiling, and went to sit with your new husband and your father.
I left the dance floor, confused, wondering if you finally had the closure you wanted. All your actions spoke of resolution, of you finally being able to wrap it up and leave it behind. But I’d also seen the phony, pretty smile – it never touched your eyes. It had all been just for show.
On my way back to the stage, I saw him, you new husband. He stood at the curtain, waiting for me with his best man at his flank. Weren’t they supposed to sit at the table? How much had they seen of what happened on the dance floor? I could hear the guys shedding their instruments and someone talking to one of them.
“I just wanted to thank you, personally” he said, offering his hand. “I know how much it means to her, that you’re here today, playing your, um … music.” Taking his hand, I noticed at once the pressure he put into the shake and also the wary look of his best man. “Happy to oblige,” I murmured “and my best wishes to the happy couple.” Then I saw the two talking man behind the stage: it was her father talking to Constantine, who nodded and fiddled with the equipment.
I held my ground when suddenly country music filled the room. It was the Man in Black himself, singing one of his great ones. With a satisfied look her father turned away from my technician and shoved his big figure back towards the hall. He would have to pass by just where we just stood. His eyes grew colder seeing me standing there with his new son-in-law, although I was pretty sure who of us was responsible for causing that reaction.
“Earned yourself the break” he said, passing me. Nothing else. Not even a look into my face. Then he and the other two made their way back to the rest of the guests. The best man scowled at me for a few more seconds, then followed, leaving me at the corner of the curtain.
I rejoined the rest of the band, while Johnny Cash made it clear that “Daddy Sang Bass” and with a look at Constantine’s gear I realized that there was a flash drive mounted. The play list I could make out to be several hours long. Knowing that I couldn’t take more than ten minutes of country music, I grabbed my personal things and motioned the others to ‘come on and let’s go for our break.’ As Carl hastily secured his precious stage piano, I noticed Ricks, alone on the open stage, who just stood looking at something in the room.
“…Singin’ seems to help a troubled soul…” Johnny Cash announced and it was at that moment, Ricks turned his head and looked at me. Then we were finally all ready to step out. One last phrase followed me before the door closed:
“…No, the circle…
won’t be broken…”
© by JDC
(Parts 2 and 3 will follow, but I can’t say exactly when. I hope it to be soon. Merry x-mas everyone and feliz navidad)