Issue 35, Final Fringe

West End Blues

by David Press Issue 35 06.24.2013

Cadenza

I’m warning you. Whatever you do, don’t try to count the notes. You will go mad. I know. I learned the hard way. And now I tell these lunatic stories. The trick is not in how many. The magic comes from some damn sequence of where each falls, how long it lasts, what came before, what comes after. It is twelve seconds of effing the ineffable.

Lil

Bronzeville. Miss Josephine’s all night diner. Lil and Louis sit in a booth eating eggs. Louis sips from his coffee cup and stares over the rim at the seductive spit curl escaping from Lil’s cloche hat. The rim of Lil’s coffee cup is decorated with pink lipstick. “I love your clever cock,” Lil tells Louis. In French she says, “I am yours, open me. Your music will change the world.” (Je suis a toi, ouvrez-moi. Votre musique va changer le monde.) Ashes from Louis’ cigarette fall in Lil’s coffee. “You’re trying to get me pregnant, aren’t you?”

June 28, 1928

“Excuse me, excuse me,” says God, “Comin’ through.” God uses his right elbow to wedge between Zutty Singleton and Earl Hines into the small, almost soundproof room. “Don’t mind me.” says God. “I won’t get in the way.” Heavy blankets drape the window. Towels at the base of the door. God wants in the lead pipe of Louis’s trumpet. Something stops God. Six men stand close to the bell of a reverse gramophone. God gets in the way.

The Biopic

In the biopic, Will Smith plays Louis Armstrong. In the biopic, Halle Berry plays Lil Hardin. In the biopic there is a makeup crew of 19. In the biopic, everybody calls Louis “Louey” and “Satchmo” and “Pops.” In the biopic, we get to see Halle Berry’s tits and Will Smith’s ass. In the biopic, Will Smith fakes it. Wynton Marsalis plays. In the biopic I make a brief cameo appearance as Bix Beidebecker, but you have to watch very closely. In the biopic, Armstrong’s best years are the 50s and 60s. In the biopic, the epitome of his art is his cover of “Hello Dolly.” The film is rated PG-13.

King Joe Oliver’s mangled body in an alley on the stroll.

Friday, June 29th, 1928. The secret moment of 3:33 am. An alley behind the Sunset Cafe in Chicago’s The Stroll. The body of a Negro man lies in a silent pool of spreading blood. His skull is clearly crushed. It is beautiful the way his blood reflects the light of a flickering street lamp. His left leg is twisted and tucked behind his back. A cornet with pink lipstick on the mouthpiece lies on the ground sixty feet, six inches away.

Illinois Central, Union Station.

It’s all jizz and jazz and jass and blues. It’s contagion. The Illinois Central is filled with germs. Germs of colored folk, germs of New Orleans, of Storyville, Bunk Johnson, Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet, Joe Oliver. Germs of hunger, germs of scat, of dirty cornets, and spit valves. Whiskey germs, devil germs, germs of jazz. And southbound? Germs of Chicago streets, of after hour joints on the Stroll, of Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Bix Beiderbecke because it don’t matter the color of your skin if you got the chops then you can sit in. Of day old copies of The Chicago Defender collected by crisp Pullman porters and sold in New Orleans for a buffalo nickel to musicians who want to be infected. The train starts pulling out of the station. All Aboard!

The Stroll

It’s after 3am. Capone’s men load gin through the back door of the Vendrome. Is that a body or a drunk under that streetlamp? Gene Krupa takes a benzedrine break. Paul Whiteman asks him, “How’d you get mixed up with these people? Why’d you get mixed up with them?” Inside it’s all Black and Tan. Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey sit in with Louis and Earl Hines and Calloway. They brew until dawn.

The Third Chorus

La dah dee. La dah dah. It is a lazy and seductive scat. And Earl Hines transforms piano into more than a percussion instrument. There’s a sequence of notes that opens things. Then, with fifty-one seconds to go, Louis conjures Lil’s embrace and blows a single high B for four bars, twelve seconds of holding her tight inside this one sustained note, with just enough tremolo to capture the quiver of Lil’s racing heart.

Coda

With a plink and a moan and a groan and a clop it ends. The last of 200 seconds that leave us to wonder how this ever happens. And why it always stops.

David Press

David Press

Read More

David Press lives in Milwaukee where he has taught, run an educational publishing company, sold battery-operated Santa Clauses, and authored six young-adult nonfiction books on abolitionists, music, and sports. His two, 30-minute plays are available as an eBook, “Holy Mackerel! Theater of the Absurder,” with “Narrow Escapes,” an eBook of innovative micro-fictions to follow. Press lives with his wife, Petra, an art teacher, print maker and book artist whose works are exhibited nationally. They sometimes collaborate on unique word/design projects.