Tough Tenor: Balmer Beginnings

by Christopher Bacas

Bertha's 12-31-92After Allen fired Mike, I replaced him the next Friday night. Mike showed up for the gig anyway. That's how we first met. He was not tall, solid, short grey hair, onyx eyes, and all Baltimore: the accent, the indestructible Hunky genetics, the edge that let you know it might get real, right now. Before he spoke, he cleared his throat; that reflexive grunt, grammatically sound and ever present. His voice wasn't just gritty, it came out in cinderblocks; the kind with corners shorn, that scuffed skin off your palms when you picked them up. He often used the word bark. It described a responsive saxophone (“that horn barked”), the ability to play something (“you barked off those fourths”), or an aggressive person (“they barked at me, but fuck 'em!”). Mike's voice barked, too.

I was uncomfortable walking in on his gig. Allen was solid on his invitation. Earlier in the week, on the phone, he precisely quoted, in Bela Lugosi accent, Lenny Bruce's bit where a junkie jazz musician gets a gig with Lawrence Welk:

“you're perfect boy for my band…..YOU'RE DEAF….we play a lotta college dates,mostly industrial colleges.”

Selling me on a fifty-dollar-a-night weekend gig in menagerie of drunks. With travel, it amounted to seven hours.

Immediately, I said yes.

Before the drive to Baltimore, Allen invited me into his apartment. He lived alone and was raising two sons with a combative ex. It smelled of sandalwood inside. A Ben Webster record was playing. Allen always taught me, even things I thought I already knew. Ben shaped notes with exquisite varieties of breath: some had glowing El Greco halos, others popped like champagne corks or made panting dives into nothingness. I knew his sound, but hearing his loving care was the night's first lesson.

We drove up in Allen's car, a station wagon, spotless inside as if it rolled off the dealer's lot.
The music lay on the back seat; spiral-bound books of hand-copied pages covered by wide strips of clear tape, packed in a leather-sided case, our instruments alongside. Allen relayed Mike's story. They disagreed about the price and division of some comestibles. There were spots nearby to buy stuff and our quitting time was their Christmas season, unless, of course, you bought a package before the gig. Allen was easing out of getting high and didn't want hassles about small change and mindless recreation.

When we got to the joint, I unloaded the music and went to park while Allen set up. There were always spots on unlit side streets; lavishly potholed and dusted with gravel. Walking back, cars roared past, swerving around ditches while bottles smashed.

I got my horn out and chatted with the band. They were all old buddies. Mike talked to them, as well, but ignored me. I heard Allen's name mixed with lots of cursing and grunts. I didn't know what to say, and wasn't about to approach him. Before we climbed on the bandstand, Mike leaned against the wall. Behind him, at shoulder height, an ovoid double-pane window with a neon sign sandwiched inside. He slugged from a beer can and listened.

The doorman, whose intellect did not exceed his job description, sat outside on a bar stool, checking every patron. Our crowd was a Friday mix: diners waiting for a table, bar regulars settling in, tourists playing hopscotch across the neighborhood's joints. Flush with the door frame, a three foot high stage fit drums, bass and horns. The guitar or piano player set up on the floor in front, squeezing between the stage lip and the audience.

Playing the set, I was aware of Mike, but awash in great music. The band was strong and the repertoire, Blakey, Morgan and Silver, had swing built-in. Allen led us, as always, with confidence and care. He knew how keep musicians happy, but didn't countenance disrespect. That alone explained Mike's demotion. The bandstand code reigned: handle your shit, don't fuck with another guys' gig or bread.

When we finished the set, Mike walked over, a can of Budweiser next to his white t-shirt, stuck out his hand, cleared his throat and introduced himself. He complimented me and seemed shy. Insecure in my new role, I was disarmed. We talked: him downplaying the disagreement with Allen, me trying to distance myself from hard feelings. Mike started to look at me. His eyes, dark and wet, darted sideways with animal pull, then fixed on mine. I'd been around serious, spiritual people who lasered into your warm maw with ceaseless insistence. Mike's eyes, collapsed stars, took you to their event horizon, and marooned you.

After the second set; time for our band meal, a key part of the compensation package, Mike talked himself out of the gig. He had a day job, didn't go to music school, played for strippers on Baltimore's famous “Block” and raised a family. I went to music school, made a living playing (hardly) and had no dependents. While my crab cakes sweated between plates in the warmer, he told me about his mentor, Mickey Fields, a master musician who continued to work constantly in town. I hadn't heard Mickey play yet and took it in eagerly. Allen came out to remind me to wrap up my food soon or the staff would toss it. Mike told me to go eat. I headed back to the dining room. After plenty of non-sequitur barroom jazz gigs, this one had the full faith of the owner. He appreciated the skill of the players, liked the folks who came to listen and never interfered with repertoire. A student at Peabody Conservatory, musicianship brought him to the neighborhood, looking for a venue to play early music on lute and guitar. He found a seedy and neglected property. It came to life in stages: recital hall, dance studio, tea room, bar, restaurant, and finally a successful business employing an eccentric and accomplished house staff, befitting its' bohemian origins.

The closing crew worked around us in an otherwise empty dining room. After gorging on seafood, I returned to the bar. Mike was gone. We climbed aboard and played until 1:30. I walked to the car, dodging staggering college kids, and returned to pickup the music and boss. On the drive home, I ignored the novelty of starting the first steady gig of my life. Allen asked what Mike said to me. I told him how unguarded our talk was. Allen's stance, complicated and frank, opened windows on my new friend.

“He's a charming motherfucker….but unreliable. He plays his ass off. But, then he fuckin' disappears. Fuck that. You're a grown man, right? I mean, do you want the gig or not? I'm not looking for you all over Fell's Point. I don't need that.”

Just showing up for three sets completed a requirement of my employment. I dropped Allen off. Huge apartment blocks and their parking, row after row, all looked the same. Where was the exit? Smelling of cigarettes and fried food, I didn't sleep until 4. The next day, my head, tightly packed, never fully drained; something I would get used to.

The second night we met in a store parking lot nearby. I left my car there and wouldn't drop Allen off in dim enormity again.That night, the music and band were thrilling. No sign of Mike. He'd gotten what he needed on Friday. When we returned at 3 am. The car was gone, towed by a private company. Allen dropped me home, apologizing for the hassle. After a few hours of restless sleep, I called the tow company. A tough lady told me an auction started at ten. Hundreds of cars filled their field now and soon I'd be parked in until Monday. I tore over there. In the paneled office trailer, hunched over a big desk, a southern Maryland white guy: thick-necked, flannel shirt, fat hands. He wolfed a sandwich of raw onions and liverwurst mashed into white bread; greasy hunting knife and half-tube of meat product next to his sleeve. The smell made me gag. The same woman from the phone handed sandwich-man a sheaf of hand-written forms and carbons. I signed for the car and paid seventy-five dollars, three-quarters of my first weekend's wages.