A nice little ghost story to get your Halloween mood going. This one more sweet than scary. In Middle school I got to play in a Jazz Band, and I’ll smile over that experience to my grave. It also allowed me to look back with my adult eyes and imagine a different life…
We were just putting away our instruments when the old man shuffled up. He was bent with spotted hands that looked like claws, and a thin wisp of hair covering his head. But he was also smart enough to be polite and kind. The $100 bill that he held up didn’t hurt either. There’s a saying among musicians, “I may listen to Jackson, but I’ll sit down with Franklin.”
It was early evening. Early for us at least. The hotel’s reception room closed up like the small town it sat in. The wedding guests all leaving well before 10:00. All except the old man and his ancient wife. We don’t mind, as a rule. We charge for the whole night, but will gladly only work part of it. Besides weddings are not a big draw for us. One can only play so many top 40 songs without having their heads explode. We were in town for the north east regional jazz band competition, and just happened to pick up this gig at the last minute when the guitar player from the band that booked the gig broke his hand in a bar fight.
What settled the deal was probably the old man’s last word. He been rambling on about something to Billy, the alto player, and nominal leader. Something about the music of his youth or the like. I don’t know what, I was busy cleaning and oiling my slide. But my ears perked up when he finished with, “something that swings.”
Some of you may not know this, but swing is not just something you do while hanging in a tire under a tree. Swing is a groove; a sweat spot of rhythm specifically designed to make your toes tap and your butt move. Swing marks the heyday of the Jazz era. It was the hip-hop of its day. Immensely popular, the music all the cool kids danced to. Take a simple set of chords, add a melody made of sugar, a counter melody made of vinegar, and a bottom end thump made of sin. That is Swing.
And boy do we know swing. Our band could play dance tunes or show tunes because we were all competent musicians, but what we really liked to do, how we really let our hair down, was to swing. It was the one thing that drew us together, the thing that let us put up Sniggly’s (the drummer) drunken sprawls, or Rubio’s (baritone sax) preaching. We even put up with Billy’s amazing ego, because all of the band, every one of us, could swing. Let me tell you, that song is right. It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got the swing.
So when the old man asked us for something with a little swing to it, it caught our ear. Like asking an author about his latest novel, ask a swing band to pull out the stops, and you’re in for a treat.
I could see the old man’s words hit the rest of the band like they hit me. Derek (tenor sax) let out a big old grin, and Hairy Z. (trumpet) did his little laugh. “Uh-huh.” The one that he saves for his brand of understated humor. I knew what he was thinking. “We can play it, old man. The only real question is can you take it?”
Really a Franklin would have been fine for us. After a couple of sets of crap music, we were ready to cut loose, like bloodhounds on a scent. The Jackson just made it that much better.
Billy looked around with that stupid grin of his, and saw the rest of us putting our instruments back together. “Yah,” he said, pocking the money quickly. “We can do that. Just one more dance you said.”
The old man smiled, and I swear his eyes lit up a bit. “We came here for our grandson’s wedding,” he said, “but it’s also our anniversary.” He looked over towards his wife, white haired, and crumpled on a couch near the corner. He must have seen something we didn’t because looking at her put a silly smile on his face. “Close enough anyways.” He said looking back at us.
“Tell you what,” Billy said. “We’ll play you a song. If you like it maybe we’ll play you another. How’s that sound?”
The old man smiled. “Good,” he said. “We’d like that.”
He shambled over to the corner with is wife, and we got ready to roll. Billy looked around and asked quietly “Autumn Leaves?” We glanced at each other, but no one nodded. “It don’t mean a thing,” Derek asked? Eyes all around, no nods. Finally Hairy Z. said “Rosebud” with finality. He was right, you could tell by the response.
We quietly tuned our instruments. Brass players warming their mouthpieces, and woodwind players wetting their reeds. The old man and his wife limped out to the small dance floor, one of those parquet affairs with four foot by four foot sections, that interlocked. It had brass edges to mark the slight slope transition to the regular floor. Portable and cheap, but good enough for a low budget wedding in a small town. Billy raised his hand when the couple got to the middle, and we all settled in. When he let his hand drop Sniggly rolled in with a nice fill, popped a rimshot, and started in with the brushes. Rosebud is a nice tune, moody and complex, like a deep red wine. It starts off simple, at least our arraignment of it, with an oboe (Billy) pulling the smooth and tasty melody out, warm and legato, like Liberace warming the crowd. The second time around the verse, Derek drops in a counter melody that starts out smooth and even, working the fifths and thirds like a dark chocolate under the oboe’s light caramel, but ends up more desolate, finding the bitter minor third out of the last chord, building up tension for the next verse. We do one more verse down tempo, with alto sax, and trombone (me) fleshing out the melodies. By the end, the entire band has slipped in, building the last chord thick and quiet. We stop for a second, and then bam, drop into the song at twice the tempo, fresh and sharp, all brass and hard edges.
I had been watching the old couple move while waiting to come in. They had started the song close, and hesitantly, like they were afraid to make a mistake. They were facing each other, standing like teens do when they are embarrassed; trying to recognize the song, and get a feel for how to move to it. When the song took off they got wide-eyed for a second. I could actually see the old woman’s eyebrows pull back. Then a devil-may-care smile hit her face, and a glow hit her eyes. Two beats in, their feet were moving, and move they did.
They started dancing in the simplest of steps. Exactly like you do when you haven’t danced for a while. But before long I could see them start to work in more moves as they warmed up. You could see the song working in them, slowly unwinding the kinks as their bodies remembered how to move.
When the song ended, they were panting slightly, with small pink dots on their cheeks, and eyes that glowed with all the happiness in the world. Billy called out, “Another?” They both nodded with enthusiasm. A good thing because I don’t think you could have stopped us. We had been penned up all day, and now that we had a chance to show our stuff, we pulled out all the stops. Without saying a word, Billy did a finger snap four-count, and jumped into the melody of “It don’t mean a thing.” We followed with a will, and the couple jumped into the song like they were made for it.
All of us in the band had been playing swing for years. We knew it, and loved it, like a mother loves her child. We’d started competing as a band some twelve years back, and most years we took the nationals. We were that good. But there is something different between playing for the judges, with their cold expert criticism of timing, tone, and style, and playing for a crowd. A dancing crowd. In all our years, all our practice, and perfection, we’d forgotten a simple thing: Swing is not only a style of music, it is a conversation between band and dancers; a mystical connection, a journey down the river of music, but one that is propelled by the power of dance. We had played well in a technical sense on many different occasions, but we had never played great. That is until that night.
The second song ended, and we dashed into the next, not even bothering to ask. We knew they wanted to hear more. We could see it. And the old couple, they danced like nothing I have ever seen before. They smiled, they moved, they gamboled across the floor. Their eyes remained locked on each other, while their feet tapped out a song of love with every step. You could see it in their bent backs that they had been married long and with a hard life at times. But they danced with all their joy, their happiness. They danced all the good things they had shown each other, and all to the rhythm of the song were we playing.
It was intoxicating to watch them. Absorbing. We would have played all night, and well into the next day, had they but asked. It was such a pleasure to see them move, to see them reach into our music, and make it come alive. It was the greatest gig we ever played. All the justification we would ever need for the sacrifices we had made. All the years of practice, all the stupid gigs, all the stares while carrying a large instrument case on the subway, all the rejection, the ready knowledge that we could be making real money, or be real players. All of it paid in full, in one night. It was our zenith, each of us realizing we were just barely good enough for this gig, and yet happy for the chance.
Finally, after what seemed like a few moments, but was actually hours, we stopped. The old couple had started to slow down, and let us know they could take it no more. As they walked off the small dance floor, we collectively let our shoulders slump. Each of us was bathed in sweat, and panting, as if we had just run a marathon. No one spoke. No one wanted to break the spell. Slowly, ever so quietly, we gingerly put away our instruments like people at a funeral. I could see that everyone was still thinking, still floating inward. Billy was polishing his alto, and staring off into space. Derek was sitting on his case, and smiling with an idiot grin. I put my bone away quickly, and helped Sniggly with his drums.
It was late, and the lights were turned low in the reception hall. For the first time I noticed the hotel workers standing around. Bored kids glancing at their watches, and wanting to go home. I wondered briefly how long they’d been waiting, and then laughed.
Harry Z was all perplexed. Sweat had pushed his thin hair back from his round face giving him a look like he’d been driving all day in a convertible. “What?” he asked, as we loaded up the van.
“Nothing,” I said pointing at the hotel staff.
“Think the squares didn’t like our impromptu concert?” he asked.
“Nope. Don’t care one way or the other,” I replied.
He looked at me for a moment, and then laughed. “We’ll make a musician of you yet, mother,” he said, using my nickname.
Sniggly had all of his kit in the van by then, so I decided to go back in for one more idiot check. Instruments are expensive to ship if you leave them behind.
I was just finishing up when I saw Billy enter the room. Everyone else was outside, smoking a cigarette, or talking off their energy. I saw him wander over to the old couple who had by then slumped into a sofa in the back, leaning on each other. I didn’t blame them. I don’t know how they kept up, at their age. Dancing that long had to have been exhausting.
When Billy reached them he stopped a few feet away, and said a low thank you. He didn’t want to disturb them but needed to say something. I paid attention because Billy wasn’t always the best with his words. The man could play a sax like a dream, but often put both feet in his mouth when it came to talking. That was why the other guys called me mother. He ruffled the feathers, and I smoothed them. Whatever it was he said, the couple didn’t respond. They sat their leaning against each other, eyes closed, and smiles on their faces. The sofa was far enough back in the corner that it was dark, and difficult to see from where we played.
Billy said something again, and got no response. By then I was hurrying over, knowing he might say something stupid if he thought they were ignoring him. Before I could reach him, Billy took a hand, and touched the old man on the shoulder. In his other hand I could see he was holding the Franklin. I was touched that Billy, usually a selfish prick, would care enough to give the couple back their money. It was a gracious call on his part, one I was sure the rest of the band would agree to. He was just about to touch the man again, when he stopped and did a double take, pulling his hand back suddenly as if he had been bit. By then I was right beside him.
“What?” I asked.
“Dude,” he said startled by my sudden arrival. “There’s something… that ain’t right.”
“Huh,” I said.
“Cold. He’s cold.”
I reached past Billy, and gently touched the old man on the shoulder. He didn’t react to my hand. I touched him again, this time saying, “Excuse me sir,” but he didn’t move at all. Neither of them did. Then I noticed something on my palm. Under his suit, the man, his flesh. It was cold. Ice cold.
I jerked my hand back, and looked at Billy. “Shit,” he said. “We better call an ambulance.”
By the time the coroner came the night was shot. The local sheriff showed up and took our story. He had with a mustache so big that Billy swore the man a was pedophile. It was all I could do to keep Billy and the other guys from laughing at him. Idiots. It was bad enough being a stranger from another town, let alone a musician.
Right before the coroner left he took me aside, as Billy was pretty out if it by then. “You know,” he said without introduction, “rigor had set in.”
“Huh,” I asked?
“Rigor,” he said. “When you touched them, rigor mortis had set in.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Don’t you watch TV,” he asked, “C.S.I.?” giving me the look small town people reserve for outsiders.”
“Ah no,” I confided. “Don’t have time for it much.”
“Hum,” he said. “What it means is they were dead for a while. Long enough to get stiff.”
“How long does that take,” I asked?
“It depends,” he said, “on a lot of conditions. Temperature, humidity, type of death. Usually it takes hours.”
“Hours! But… how can that be. They were just over there,” I said pointing to the dance floor. Someone from the night shift had started picking up the parquet pieces, and stacking them for storage. Now they were a jumbled pile with yellow police tape surrounding them.
“I don’t know, hot shot.” he snapped. “You tell me.”
We stayed in town the next day, at the request of the sheriff, but by evening he let us go. Fortunately he knew the night staff at the hotel, or we might still be there today sitting in his jail. Their story matched ours, or was close enough that they let us go. We traveled the 10 hour trip back home in silence, none of us knowing what to say.
Not long after that, Billy took a job waiting tables, and Derek got a regular broadway gig. Harry Z moved out to California, and Rubio became a missionary somewhere in South America. Most surprising of all, Sniggly finally sobered up, and moved back in with his wife in Connecticut, taking a job in construction. Of all things, I got a teaching gig at the local middle school, and started enjoying the benefits of a regular paycheck, which tickled Harry Z to no end. We still talk to each other, and write a bit on the internet from time to time, but none of us, not a single one, has ever attempted to swing again.