You feel it in your soul when the notes swing low and tumble over themselves after a hovering vibrato. The brass sax breathing warm air from wet lips, waiting to create a new feel.
I got a theory that jazz chooses the artist. Picking someone who doesn’t know what’s gonna happen next but trusts the flow of vibrations to carry him through to the end, resolved.
I knew a guy once, an old buddy of mine from school who we always bugged about playing music so much. He always had that damn trumpet spewing who-knows-what. On the school bus, in the hallways. It drove them teachers mad, but it was no secret the kid had a rough life, so they let him do as he pleased.
Trumpet Tony and I bonded over having mothers that had to work too hard to raise a bunch of kids alone that didn’t know any better; always secretly hoping dad would come back and show us how to be a man. After his Dad left his Pap would come over for dinners and sit with his Ma. They’d play some records and sometimes they’d ask Tony to move the coffee table out of the way so they could dance. He learned how to play the trumpet after his Pap gave him the one he used to play. His Pap passed a little while later, but Tony kept playing for his Ma, so she could remember.
I guess a couple years after graduation he was still living at home with his Ma and her boyfriend while playing at some clubs downtown. Some folks think he was running with the mob, but I don’t believe it. If he was playing that way it was to support his family. Sure, he was a lonely kid back in the day. But he was always nice and when he’d see me, he’d say “Hey, Eddy. Hope your family is doing alright.”
My Ma was the rock of our house, but God knows it wasn’t easy for her. She had a boyfriend that started to beat on her when my brothers and I got a little older. At the time though, I didn’t really know enough about it and never really saw anything. But loud voices were common at night and I wasn’t stupid. I never talked to my school buddies about it cause I wasn’t even sure what I would say, and deep down I knew I should have done something. I didn’t need them seeing me as a coward.
Don’t get me wrong, we understood when we got older and Ma was happy to see my brothers and I once we all started coming home to take care of her. She loved jazz and we had an old record player that she would play when all us kids were at school or out playing ball during summer days. We would walk home from the diamond and knew she was in a good mood when the music flowed through the open kitchen windows and the smell of homemade pierogis made us race home. We could smell them from a half a block away.
The last time I saw Trumpet Tony was ‘round Polish Hill near the Strip busting his brass on a corner with his case open while my buddies and I were on our way to get a drink. We invited him along and caught up. We were all grown now and establishing ourselves in the business world. Turned out his Ma had passed and the guys that run the clubs he played at were supporting him. I didn’t ask what kind of guys were supporting him cause he was a grown man and that’s none of my business. But we got real into talking and I ended up going back to his place to watch some ball.
When we got to his place, he opened this closet full of a bunch of random stuff to put away his instrument and something caught my eye. An old saxophone was stashed on one of the overflowing shelves. I asked him if he knew how to play.
“Nah,” he said. “Never learned and don’t plan on it. Just collecting dust now unless you’re looking for a new hobby.”
That was years ago, but every time I pick up the old sax and give it a whirl I think of Tony. When Ma got sick, I moved home from college to take care of her. I was just going to some dumb school anyway cause to be honest I’ve never been one for books. So, she was sick, and I was just taking care of her. I’d never played an instrument before or did anything real intellectual, but when I was moving my boxes in Ma saw the rusty thing sitting in one of them. She asked me to play.
At this point I had only ever messed around with it, blowing and playing random notes. Didn’t want to disappoint her so I actually tried to put something together in my head on a whim. I led her over to this great, big, yellow armchair we had that matched the floral wallpaper. Honestly, I always thought it looked good next to the dark wood entertainment center, but I kept that to myself cause my brothers woulda been on me in a second if I told ‘em something like that. Ma liked the softer side of me. All my brothers went off and moved to bigger cities and didn’t come to visit anymore. But me and her, it was special.
She was looking at me and smiling with her fragile old hands folded in her lap. The wrinkles in her face framed her eyes and made it look like she was squinting with her smile so big. She was beautiful. I took the sax up and placed the mouthpiece against my tongue and started blowing real soft and warm so the sound was full.
I got real lost in it. I don’t know a thing about music and its technicalities, but something happened. I’m a real practical guy, but when the notes started flowing and sounding real good, I ended up closing my eyes. It’s like the sax did it really. The notes flowed and swung up, down, and around again. I coulda sworn I smelled Ma’s old pierogis and felt the dust on my fingers from holding the old baseball; my skin felt young and taut from being out in the hot afternoon sun all day. When I opened my eyes after I was done, Ma was crying and the layer of dust over everything in the house seemed to have disappeared. I never put the sax down after that.
Jazz made me feel stuff. I’ve never been one to know about destiny and having a purpose. But if all those things were true, I think that rusty old hunk of metal was meant to be mine and we were supposed to do good together. Ma always thought I had some sort of intuition about things, and I had this special gift of making people feel better.
We had great times together with me being home with her. She had her treatments in the morning which made her real tired, so I did most of the house keeping stuff then, so it’d look nice when she came down for dinner. We’d make dinner then go sit in the living room watching some game shows or whatever. Eventually I’d bring out the sax and play for her until she fell asleep.
The cancer started spreading and she couldn’t do much. The nurse that would come in the mornings to give her treatments explained things were getting bad. I would bring dinner to her; she couldn’t be my pasta stirrer anymore. She stopped being able to come down to watch TV at night, and we didn’t really talk much. I talked a lot, just telling her stuff about the neighborhood and how the town was doin’ and stuff like that. And I kept playing. I’d lay next to her in bed and play a slow tune. Before, she liked the happy kind. Something with some pep in its step. But smooth melodies soothed her now and she always fell asleep easily.
When she passed, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I stayed in the house, it’s exactly the same as it was then. Didn’t change a thing. Ma would be happy to see I kept it the same. The yellow armchair still reminds me of the first time I played for her, twenty-five years ago. I stopped for a while. The melodies that used to feel safe just started to make me sad when I realized nobody was listening anymore. Playing wasn’t helping anyone no more so what was the point? It was nice while it lasted but everything comes to an end I suppose.
I’m an old man now. When I was a kid, I wondered why old men always wore brown and beige, but I’ve grown into it. Even got me one of those old man hats that are flat on top but have a little brim in the front; keeps the kiddos I see on my afternoon walk from getting scared of my thinning hair. It keeps me warm in the subway. See, I started playing again.
The concrete walls of underground suit me, and they really like to echo. The perfect place for some jazz to swell if ya ask me. Somethin’ about the yellow tinted lights makes me feel like I’m on a stage or something. I started playing down here cause I thought it would make people happy. People stressed on their way to work, or people that don’t know where they’re going or where they’re gonna end up. Ma always said when I played, she pictured her happiest moments in her head. Maybe some complete strangers got that too. Besides, I never married and had kids of my own, but I always loved watching people. Real interesting if ya ask me.
I liked to think of myself as a character down here. The old guy with the saxophone in the subway in those paintings you find on coffee shop walls. His beige and brown making the brass of his instrument really stand out. A chubby but happy guy just playing some songs, swayin’ along.
Maybe it was the intuition of mine Ma always told me I had, but something felt wrong one day. Like the air was heavy and the walls weren’t echoing all the noise they usually do. I pulled my sax out the case and fitted the reed when I noticed this kid. His blond hair kept getting in his eyes cause it was just a bit too long but he couldn’t push it out of his face while moving his legs as fast as he was to keep up with his Ma. Poor kid was uncoordinated as hell.
I assumed the woman dragging him around was Ma, but she looked young enough to be his sister. Real tiny thing. Like your arms could make it around her twice if you gave her a big hug. He noticed me when they were coming down the stairs. She had at least three bags strapped onto her every-which-way and she was in a real hurry. The poor kid was basically falling down the steps to keep up with her. When they got closer to me, I noticed the state they were in.
They must’ve had those same clothes on for some time cause they looked real tattered, holes and such. Not terribly bad, but they were obviously tired and trying to find something to work out for them. The kid had some bruises on his face. It wasn’t my place to assume anything or stare, so I just bent my old bones over and picked my sax up out its case.
The train arrived sputtering and sighing like it always did and opened its doors. I brought my instrument to my lips and drowned out the sound of the machine with a happy tune. This one had sharp and long notes, I thought maybe the kid would like it if he was listening. I closed my eyes and fell into the soul of the song.
I didn’t hear the train leave, and I didn’t see what happened to his Ma. But as usual, when the tune was over, I opened my eyes to make sure all my things were still there, and maybe try to catch a glimpse of someone smiling, ya know? Makes me feel good.
But there he was. The kid was sitting crisscrossed applesauce right in front of me. His head was on his fists, elbows on his knees, and his eyes closed. I looked around trying to find his Ma, but we were the only souls on the terminal.
I didn’t say nothing, I just played another tune. When I finished, he was still there when I opened my eyes.
“You okay, kid? Where’s your Ma?” I said.
He didn’t answer. He opened his eyes and looked at me. And like I said before, I don’t know anything about destiny or all that jazz, but I could tell by the look in his eyes that we were the same. I think the jazz chose him.
I played all day like I usually do on a Sunday. You don’t really notice the time passing down here cause everything always looks the same, but people can tell when day turns to night. Something bigger than us we can just feel. We were alone again, underground. After the last song came to me, I took the support strap off my neck and removed the mouthpiece of the sax to pack up. I put it away and clicked the little gold buckles shut.
With my case in hand I turned to the kid, he was just sitting there starin’ at me.
“Ready to go, kid? I’m making pierogis for dinner,” I said.
He got up, walked over to me, and took my hand.
“You got a name, son?” He didn’t answer. Just looked up at me and shrugged his shoulders a bit.
“No name, eh?” I gave his head a little pat. “That’s alright. How about Tony, you like that?”
He nodded, and we made our way home.