by Marie Marshall


I hate strange cities. I avoid travelling unless I have to for work, and even then I wriggle out if it if I can. I pretend I’m nowhere at all, hurrying back from my appointments to hide away in my hotel room and flick through the television channels, settling on the least dreadful show. Sometimes I do get sick of this, and resolve to go out, leaving a mental trail of elastic thread back to my hotel, like an umbilical cord that attenuates and attenuates as I go. Long before it snaps, I let it reel me in, and I retrace my steps exactly no matter what temptation tugs me sideways.

Occasionally what seems to me like a wild spirit of adventure makes me disobey and kick against my agoraphobia. These are no big deal – I might go ten paces down a side street, or into a late-opening store for a few minutes, until the frisson of defiance is threatened again by a panic attack coming on and the feeling that I’m going to be sick. I know, I know! To you for whom it’s no adventure at all to roam the phoney souks and bazaars of the world’s far-flung towns, it must be laughable to hear someone so timid in her home country. But to tell the truth, beyond my own patria chica of a few streets and byways, everything is alien to me. Maybe I understand other women – who knows? – but beyond that everything animal, vegetable, or mineral, all that is natural or artificial, seems kind of inert and soulless to me. I guess that is why I’ve always been on my own. Sometimes I’ve provoked interest in other people, but it has always been short-lived when they don’t find that vital point of contact with me. I watch it happening. I can see it, but I can’t do anything about it.

What magic was around that one day, during that last professional mini-exile a few months ago? Normally there’s a voice in my head nagging me to forget the evening sunshine and go back to my hotel, but on this occasion something cemented me to the spot, by the door of a small bar. Easily answered. The magic was in the siren voice of a tenor saxophone, that’s what.

Precisely, I caught a snatch of a run of notes, repeated, repeated again and toyed with. Over the hum of conversation and the clink of glasses beyond the dark, open doorway, this simple playfulness, all within a single chord, I heard as suddenly thrown aside by the saxophonist, caught briefly by the right hand of the pianist, before the latter began to comp and the sax took up the melody of a standard. “Why, that’s…” I began to say out loud, and took a step towards the door.

I can’t say I actually remember walking into the bar. It was dark, half full, mercifully free of smoke – that I do remember. I must have ordered an apple cider with ice. I must have paid for it. I must have found my way to a small, unoccupied table, because that’s what I do recall. The table’s surface was slightly tacky against my bare elbows, the chair hard and almost uncomfortable, the cider was sweet on my lips and sharp on my taste-buds, the ice painful to my teeth, the jazz quartet…

Say what you like, black and white musicians come to jazz from totally different directions. Never mind what pressures homogenize them, there are still times when the racial mix of a band is as strange as a dog in a dress. The most liberal person – and people of my generation always are consciously and conscientiously liberal – listens out for tell-tale jarrings, slight… I don’t know what… I’m not a musician. Really. But I listen; music is lodged in my idiotikos and it’s something I escape into, burrowing down into melody and rhythm, resting there hearing and feeling things which may or may not be in it. So there I was, my umbilical cord somehow detached or forgotten for the evening, my lips sipping zinging apple from a glass, my elbows sticking to a table, my ears taking in sound which my mind was trying to filter unwanted ambient noise out of, my eyes making a composition from the oblong backdrop of the small stage on which were three black men and one white woman.

One man was at the piano – a grand, wedged tight into stage right, my left – and I could see him, head and shoulders only, looking down and sometimes flicking his gaze upwards to check out the saxophonist, as though looking re-established or reinforced a mental link. Another man was at the drums, taking in the rest of down-stage, loose, relaxed, smiling, chopping a syncopated be-bop as loose as himself with sticks or brushes, a swinging dynamo behind the flow of the music. A third, intense, brooding, brow lined with concentration, eyes shut, head nodding on the off-beat, hunched himself over the double-bass. All three were dark-suited, the drummer’s and bass-player’s neckties were loose, and I felt with them because I too, in my own way, was making a little gesture of non-conformity, defiance, simply by being here and conspiring with them to make or to hear music. I was engaged. They were not background noise. They were not wallpaper. Not to me.

In front of the three men was the saxophonist. Between numbers there was very little chat between her and the others, or amongst them generally, and no patter at all to the audience. Could we have been called an audience? Hardly anyone else apart from me was engaged; there was always a pitter-pattering of applause, like a brief rain-shower, at the end of each number, and maybe a couple of other people applauded solos along with me. The band hardly breathed between numbers, hardly waited for the brief applause to die down, seeming to regard it as a minor distraction along with the conversation, and the cross-currents of tinkling glass and the cash drawer opening and closing. Captained tenuously by the saxophonist, they cruised through standards and easy-winners, giving them an edge, a swing. I heard Cole Porter, I heard Gershwin, and then even Lennon and McCartney, Bricusse and Newley, Lionel Bart. Applause was a little louder the more people recognised a tune.

They had just eased their way through “Have You Met Miss Jones”, and the saxophonist put down her tenor and picked up a soprano for the first time since I’d come in. The sling her tenor had hung from was now lying loosely between her breasts, emphasising them slightly, making a sharp V, bisected by the fly-front of her white shirt. The shirt itself was picked up by one of the few spotlights almost randomly lighting the small stage. The shoulders inside the shirt were broad but spare; the arms, though I couldn’t see them, gave the impression of muscle tone, the wrists were slender, the fingers long. I caught myself thinking with a lot of “the”, sub-consciously de-personalising her, trying to ignore the fact that she was attractive. And she was. I saw a sister, about ten years my junior, and simultaneously an object of desire, an equal. Beneath my involvement with the music was an admiration for the roundness of her hips, which her formal slacks emphasised. She was tall, her hair short, feathered, spiky, and black. Her face was pale, slender, and seemed to hang from high cheekbones. Her playing… her playing was instinctive, intelligent, understanding, restrained enough for this time and place where experimentation was neither needed nor wanted, but still probing, flirting with a kind of effrontery.

Now, with the soprano to her lips, she led the combo effortlessly into “Every Time I Say Goodbye”. I recognised it immediately, right in the first bar, and I heard in it a distinct echo of John Coltrane’s Paris concert. It was no carbon copy, but the way she handled the melody said, “I’ve heard it, I know it, I understand it, and here’s my reply, my ‘take’”. She took the melody, and her improvisation made it fly like the loops, swoops, and sudden turns of a lapwing’s flight, and culminated her solo with a series of skylark trills, making my mind come up with all these silly bird-images – but wow! My applause for the solo, and at the end of the number, was louder than before, and she glanced over. Then she had a longer-than-usual word with the pianist, who nodded and mouthed something to the bass-player who nodded too.

As the saxophonist put down the soprano, and re-attached the tenor to its sling, the bass was already sounding out a few preliminary notes, making his instrument enter into a conversation of sorts with the piano. Then he picked up a familiar riff, and my heart jumped. It was Miles Davis’ “So What?” – the sextet version. It was like he was asking a question over and over, and the piano and sax started to answer with a flip comeback, “So… what? So… what?” Then suddenly they were off; the drummer swung on the hiss-cymbal, set the high-hat chapping the off-beat, clipping rim-shots across the swing; the bass player making large steps, four-square up and down the neck of the big fiddle; the pianist, watchful, comping. And oh that woman on the sax!

She didn’t exactly ignore the audience, didn’t turn her back on us, but she did turn sideways and drop her head, holding her horn close. Without imitating a muted trumpet, she was suddenly introspective, centring the music on herself, and I heard and understood the tribute to, the imitation of… no, the emulation of… Miles Davis’s initial solo. She took me with her. Her playing wasn’t Davis’ total self-absorbance – not to me, anyhow – but rather it left a way in, a window through which she showed the inner workings of her mind. Again it said, “I heard this, I understood, now here is what I have to say.” The fact that she took a trumpet part and moulded it to suit her tenor sax made me take notice of what she had to say.

Suddenly she abandoned the introspection, turned to face us full on, and relaxed out of her hunch. With eyes wide open she began to paint with brash, primary colours, launching into a second full-length solo. This was a tribute to Julian Adderley, Miles’ second soloist. It was loud, straight-ahead, bluesy, confident, adult yet playful. It was a joy, and I found my foot tapping and my head nodding as I listened.

As that second solo seemed to be coming to an end, I made to clap. But she took a breath, and turned the music round again. Her blowing became more concrete, more like sound for its own sake. She took runs and chords and tested them, searched them, used them to search other ideas and feelings. The music was less bluesy, hanging less and less upon the driving swing of her rhythm section, cutting more and more across it, probing, looking for something that was always beyond the reach of her fingertips. No, I was wrong about that, because I am sure she was holding back. But again, her playing said to me, “I have heard John Coltrane!” I held my breath and listened. No one plays like Coltrane did, but she played like someone who had known him and loved him and understood him. She played like someone on the same pilgrimage. And just when I thought she could pull out nothing more, she started to overblow, to make sounds that were fuzzy with harmonics and overtones as she made the reed in the tenor’s mouthpiece protest. The bass-player was still hunched and intense, but the pianist and drummer were playing freely and without inhibition, the former hitting loud chords, the latter syncopating wristy blows on the crash-cymbal and grinning broadly as he did so. The whole began to compete with conversations, and people bent towards their companions and put their hands alongside their mouths, looking over in annoyance. The music was beginning to be too risky for the environment.

But that was ok, because as suddenly as it had all happened the triple-solo of the sax faded, the music regained subtlety and composure, and the pianist took a short, tinkling solo.

As the sax-player took a step back and a breath, I couldn’t hold back a whoop as I applauded her solo. And I gave the whole piece a standing ovation at the end. The band stood too, to take a brief and final bow. It was the end of their set. The sax-player looked briefly in my direction, winked, cocked an index finger, and mouthed something which might have been “Thanks”.

The world was suddenly very empty simply because the stage was empty. I struggled to bring back the sensation of listening to that triple solo, but although I felt as though I could sing every note of it in my mind, its immediacy was gone. I felt like asking, “Did the earth move for you?” but there was no one to ask. The ambient noise of the bar was total now, even though it was no louder than before. There was nothing to draw my attention from it. As my teeth clattered against my glass, the conversations around me engulfed me without becoming any clearer in themselves. I was drowning, and realised that it was death to breathe. I recognised this panic and wondered if I shut my eyes and counted to ten, would I be transported back to my hotel room.

I have no idea what would have happened next if someone had not slipped into the seat opposite mine, and pushed across another iced apple cider.

“Hey!” said the saxophonist, smiling.

She was wearing jeans and a sweater now, and she had bought me a drink. I felt somehow that was the wrong way round.

“That was… I mean… hi, hello… that was just so amazing.”

“Thank you. I noticed you liked it. Not many people who come in here could care less about the jazz. I’ll get my ass kicked by the owner – he likes me to stick to standards. But I saw you dug the Cole Porter, so I asked the guys if they would mind playing something for you. They were ok about it.”

“You played it for me?”

“Uh huh.”

“Wow… I don’t think anyone has ever played anything for me before. But thanks. I mean it really was great. You got into something there – I could hear something of Davis, and Cannonball, and Coltrane of course, but it was all you at the same time. You were creating, not just being a copycat.”

She grinned again. “That’s nice of you to say, and it’s great to get someone in here who’s really into jazz. You know Sonny Rollins said – If Charlie Parker had been a gunslinger, there’d be a lot of dead copycats!”

“You’re too cool to shoot,” I said, and then thought to myself, “God, how lame!” But she was still smiling. There was a couple of bars rest. I sipped the drink she’d bought me and thought of what to say next.

“How long have you been?” I said. “I mean… into jazz?”

“My dad brought me up on Duke Ellington. Then I heard stuff like Brubek and the MJQ, and then I got into Trane, and Ornette, and Sonny, and Roland Kirk, and Pharaoh, and listened to everything I could on a jazz station. I took up sax in junior high, but there’s only so much you can do in a school band. I went for about four years in my late teens deliberately not listening to any jazz at all, so that I would play stuff that was all my own. Then I started listening again, and realised I could hear what was really going on. Trane and Sonny had been talking to me before, but now it was like I spoke the same language. Maybe with an accent, but I could talk back to them.”

“And now you’re fronting a quartet of your own.”

“Yeah, kinda. They’re some guys I know. Been playing on and off with them for about a year now. It works.”

“It certainly does. You read each other, you’re on the same wavelength. I don’t know what else to say.” I really didn’t. My isolation makes me gauche. I converse mostly with myself, and find little to say to anyone else. I was drowning again, but I wouldn’t reach out for her, I wouldn’t let her pull me out of the water. There was a pause, and I looked away as I felt her eyes searching my face.

“You look flushed – are you ok?” she said.

“I guess… maybe I’d better…”

“Look, give me a minute to get my jacket and I’ll meet you outside.” She got up before I could answer, and I was alone at the table again. Then, seemingly without any period of transience or mode of transit, I was back in front of the doorway, outside. It had gone dark, and a breeze played with a Styrofoam cup in the gutter, making it skitter. God knows how long I’d been in the bar, now I felt the umbilical tug; I knew which way to walk to get to my hotel – it was only five minutes away at most – but everywhere seemed different, and the breeze made me feel chilly.

Then there she was, coming out of the doorway pulling on a leather jacket.

“Hey!” she said again.

“Your horn?” I asked.

“The guys took it for me,” she said, and then stood there smiling, while I treated her to another silence.

“Look… “ I said. “I would really like to see you some more. I mean I don’t live around here, but we could… Do you want some coffee? I have a coffee-maker in my hotel room? Oh my God – sorry – that sounds so crass!”

But she was still smiling, and it was open, unaffected by my crassness.

“Hmm, coffee,” she mused.

The  she leant forward, and that embouchure that had kissed Davis and Adderley and Coltrane kissed me!

“Cool!” she said.

And it was. Very. As was the whole of the rest of that summer.


‘Cool’ © 2007-2013 Marie Marshall