by Christopher Bacas
My answering machine whirrs. From an echoing room, the chainsaw-voice shouts into a speaker phone:
THIS IS GOD.
ANSWER THE PHONE…
Creator of the universe overloads a magnetic comb-and-wax-paper. Failing to make contact, he curses his fragile creation, then himself. W was that God. In truth, he was an atheist. Son of a Vaudeville pianist, Confirmed Catholic, drummer and devout musician (per Prophet Charlie Parker), W realized early his Washington, DC parish was as ignorant and segregated as its city, so he kept only the latter faith.
In the sixties, W opened a music store in a sleepy neighborhood just beyond the District line. As the population grew, it got rougher. During a lesson on a hot day, one kid asked to go out for a cold drink. W pulled a pistol from an ankle holster, then headed to an open window, saying over his shoulder. “Run, I’ll cover you.”
If I HAD answered that call:
“(chuckling) Ahhhhh, yes. Is this the saxophone deviant I’ve heard about? The one who sniffs gasoline and jerks off to 4H magazines?”
Fire back? Grab some childhood dozens crumpled at the bottom of my school backpack? I lacked the confidence or pummeling delivery. He’d idle, an exhalation caught in his throat, a solitary grace note of laughter, then:
“ignorant half-wit, offspring-of-a-motherfucking-ape and a fruit-fly. Goddamn fish horn-blowing, cock-biting, piece of shit!”
“Greek, ass-fucking, garlic-eating, inbred hillbilly!”
I was down now, not getting up. He laughed, more punctuation than derision.
“Saturday night, the 24th, you working?”
He was always genuinely interested in my scene, too. As our call ended, he walked toward the speaker phone. Just before he clicked it off he’d say, absently, “snufflebunnies…”
W joined the whites-only DC Musicians Union as a teenager. The black Local toiled under Jim Crow wages and humiliating conditions until the two merged in the Sixties. He worked as a drummer in society bands and was an officer in the combined Local. Then, opened his own office with Ron, a black alto player who played in Duke’s band. Together, they booked jobs and ran a big band.
Leading the band for a wedding reception, W brought the parents to the dance floor.
“Mr so-and-so, dance with Mrs such-and-such. Mr such-and-such, dance with Mrs so-and-so.”
“Jesus, you folks don’t get out much, DO YOU? Here let me help you.”
He stepped down to the dance floor, grabbed the flustered guy’s arms, coupling them manfully with their new in-laws.
Society bandleaders controlled various Union boards, setting wages and scales, making rules and profiting exponentially. W and his partner wouldn’t sign their Collective Bargaining agreement, a document designed to drive little guys out of business. The Local expelled W and Ron, both life members. For many years, its monthly rag always contained the half page notice: “DO NOT work for or with: W and/or Ron”. Then the Local redesigned its newsletter and shrunk the warning to business card size. W called the office, stated his name and told the hapless functionary: “Yes, I want to complain about the size of my ad.”
When Montgomery County opened up for developers, their engineers drew streets like great birds on the Nazca Plain. Then they paved over the farmland and wiped clean many acres of Maryland history.
The only way to navigate there, ADC maps, atlas-size publications featuring a single county divided into numbered blocks, each block gridded, appended by a voluminous alphabetical street list with coordinates.
W lived on a suburban street carved across those Andean plains. RVs, racked dirt bikes and trampolines guarding its double-wide driveways. His home, a wide, custom split-level with pool. The two car garage half-filled with lawn equipment, drums and chlorine vapor. A basement ran the length and width of the house. It was set up for a big band: horn sections at right angles, drums and bass underneath the staircase and a bar in the corner, well-stocked with self-serve libations. On the walls, a gallery of firearms: long guns, hand guns, some with historical significance, all pristine.
W sat in a captain’s chair above the lead alto book. He announced charts laconically, giving succinct road maps and pointing out hazards for individual players.
“when I want to hear your fucking opinion, I’ll GIVE you one, otherwise, shut your fucking mouth.”
In the band, W’s friends and peers, accomplished men, lawyers, scientists, intelligence officers. For musicians in W’s generation, Lester Young was the hippest, a beige Einstein whose annus mirabilis stretched from Basie to infinity. His pals’ chops and reading weren’t always in shape. To keep the wheels on, W augmented the group with military players and guys like me. The drummer was a female high-school student whom he mentored for years. Quiet, disciplined, intense, she played masterfully. Her career quickly soared. The credit he took: “I told you she was going to be a motherfucker.”
W’s library was packed with one-of-a-kind items: vocal charts for specific singers, tunes he fancied and arranged himself, commissions collected from friends and colleagues. Most of the parts, copied by his hand on heavy stock. Even with ringers, some of the knottier material broke down in tuning and/or time. During a particularly tortured loop, I watched W lean toward the wall and retrieve a handgun.
While we struggled, he turned the gun over in his hands, pointing it at the floor and closing one eye, then hanging it down at his side while scanning the saxophones below him. When we finished punishing the music, quiet discussion continued. I looked at W.
“Is that loaded?”
“What do you think?” he said, scowling.
After rehearsal, the day gig folks packed up quick. Upstairs, in his den, walls and shelves crowded with signed photos and profane tchotchkes, all steeped in decades of smoke and liquor, W played records and supplied backstory.
For years, he booked a room and led its after-hours band. Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae and many other great musicians of the era passed through. He’d partied with, supplied and taken confidences from many of them. Sinatra’s name came up. W said he couldn’t listen to him. When Frank found out his ex, Ava Gardner, had been with Billy Eckstine, he made sure no big rooms ever hired Mr B, effectively destroying his later career. There wasn’t much in human behavior that surprised W, but that was unforgivable.
W leading a gig: “Crazy Rhythm, Bb”
Jewish pianist: “F is the usual key”
W: “ Shut the fuck up or I’ll make a lampshade out of you”
He mentioned his children, all of whom worked for government intelligence or law enforcement agencies, then his wife. When I asked, he gestured up.
“She’s here. Parkinson’s. People come in during the day and I take nights.”
“Don’t be. She’s at peace with it. It takes a while, the progression, we always talked about the stages. This is the last one. It’s a horrible fucking disease.”
His face turned out of the shadow.
“We decided she was going to stay here. She loves all this going on. She was always a part of it. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Nearby, a framed photo. With milky contours, it reproduced a much older print, including stains and small folds. A petite woman in a dancer’s leotard looked directly into the camera, luminous eyes and gentle smile. He turned toward the photograph.
“No, that’s not my wife. She and I were together years and years ago,” he swept his cigar around, “before any of this. Christ, we were kids! She was here with a dance company, British. They went back after 6 weeks. We wrote to each other for a long time. It couldn’t have worked out. We both knew that. She got married, had kids, course so did I. The letters stopped.”
The tumbling grit in his voice settled.
“She was always here” he said, thumb tip on breastbone. “My wife knew about her. When she started to really go downhill, she said ‘go ahead’, you know. So I wrote to England…. Nothing for six months.”
He stopped, sibilance buffeting his cigar.
“Then I get a call, her daughter. Turns out she died the year before, cancer. Her husband had died many years ago. After that, she told her kids about me. They had all my letters, too.” He kept steady gaze on her photo and took out a handkerchief.
The kid from the music store became an accomplished drummer and vibraphonist. At a gig, he introduced his fiancé to W. Glancing at her briefly, his former teacher growled through a cigar, “Nice! At least this one has tits”
His students skewed young and punkish. On any week night, they might bring friends, loading in beer, liquor and other comestibles for all-night revels. He kidded with them, showing easy acceptance of many types of pleasure-seeking. He shared in most, too.
W’s wife passed. In his kitchen, a young chef, former student, prepared the week’s meals. I asked how he felt. He stared at the floor.
He shook his head like there was water in one ear.
“..weird emotional things…”
When I reunited with a long-lost love, W took an interest in our happiness. He lent us a car for an excursion and was gracious meeting her. He cheered our move to Brooklyn and kept me mind for good-paying gigs in DC. The young woman he mentored bought a condo up the street from us, though she was on the road most of the time.
After a brutal bout with pneumonia, his doctor, surely a patient man, warned him off any type of smoking. W arranged for edibles and told me his regime to gain weight: “I go to the bakery, have them pack a box full of eclairs and danishes. They’re soft and easy to eat. I stuff myself with ‘em. Have a glass of milk to go with it.”
W contracted a full studio orchestra for a White House gig. Its headliner, a brilliant, award-winning musician. In rehearsal, Star, a peevish, Jewish New Yorker, lorded over the local cats, dumping unreservedly on the French horn.
“This is totally unacceptable! I just CAN NOT work with people like this. I’m going to have to fly my horn player down from New York.”
W had to send his player, a longtime friend, home. On a break, some society ladies gushed to W, “it must be so great to work with Star. He’s a genius!”
Loud enough for the boss to hear, W said: “He’s the number-one reason the Holocaust was a failure”.
Star had to be held back by his staff. Too bad, W certainly would have relished the chance.
I wasn’t in town when W passed. Much later, his memorial convened at a catering hall deep in the Altiplano. A hot band led by one of his punk students headlined. Their gig, a local one-off. The parking lot overflowed with cars, many from distant states. Their fans never met W. What they gleaned from the encomiums impressed them, though. On the other side of the room, jazz guys exchanged heartfelt and predictably cynical greetings. We picked teams, each with a Hail Mary tune and queued for the stage. I’m grateful whenever I see my gifted, industrious friends. Still, it’s too easy to tell W stories (this one, not so much). That facility hollowed out the event for me.
Age slowly inundates our memories, engulfing them like Debussy’s Cathedral. Sentimentality drips from everything. W kept that emotion full in his gun sight, then never really pulled the trigger.
“About the 24th, it’ll be me and you against Shitballs on bass and a piano-player-to-be-named-later. 8 P.M. Tuxedo. Don’t fucking squawk! We’ll have fun. Ok?”