So I wrote in my last post that I’d submitted a piece to Popshot magazine, which if they published it I’d have to keep it secret until the magazine came out.
Well, this time they chose not to publish it. The decision is fair enough; it’s not my strongest work, mostly because I wrote it in fragments of snatched time spread across a couple of days when I was still on a comedown from Secret Garden Party.
The upshot of that is that I can now give it out freely to the world. So here it is, a piece of flash fiction, or more (as it feels to me) a poem in prose, meditating on love, race, and jazz…
THE BIRTH OF JAZZ
“The first jazz musicians played in the same part of New Orleans where slaves would gather to dance,” you say, taking another sip of merlot, dark as blood.
In the corner of the restaurant the saxophonist blows a bittersweet tune like sand settling into a riverbed and we sit together on this knife-edge night, balanced where one year takes a bow and the next stands poised to sweep onto the stage. Outside the wide glass window snowflakes begin to fall, and as I stare across the table at you the light catches on your earrings, two golden stars against the night of your tight black curls, coffee brown skin.
I still can’t believe you’ve got nowhere better to be, that of all places and all people you’d want to spend tonight here with me. But I’ve never been one to count my blessings, or to worry too much when the going is good. (From somewhere springs a memory of riding trains with used ticket stubs, waiting to see how long my luck will hold, if I’ll make it half-way across the country just to be thrown off in a middle-of-nowhere dustbowl town – and hoping maybe my ticket’s good for tonight.)
“Each Sunday when they were free from work, the slaves would gather in Congo Square, and dance, and play music, and try to forget themselves.”
Here we are, we two together, you telling me about music born of the enslavement of your people by mine, and it flashes through my mind that it took hundreds of years of suffering for you to sit across the table from me right now, for the saxophone player to play these notes in the background, for us to share this night. And I wonder how you wear that knowledge, that who you are and where you are is somehow built on this.
“Then later, near Congo Square, they built the Globe Hall, where the first jazz band leaders played.”
The drummer with the too-long hair stroke-taps the snare with his brushes and I look into your eyes (thinking, Blind Lemon Jefferson never once knew this, to look into a woman’s eyes, singing about Southern women and playing in whorehouses and never once looking into a woman’s eyes) and those two dark whole-notes are near loud enough to drown out the music.
“Before the band leaders played jazz, first came ragtime and blues. And blues came out of the old work songs.”
Your voice is soft and clear, more Billie Holiday than Bessie Smith, and I guess that makes me the Chet Baker kind, a blonde boy who falls in love too easily. We fit our own rhythms over the clink of glasses, and what is conversation anyway but two musicians improvising a melody on common rules, playing sharp or flat or bang on key in the hope of finding the notes to touch each other. But I’m no Louis, no Dizzy, no Duke; my tongue slips and struggles to catch your beat, but you don’t seem to mind, you can carry the tune for the both of us.
“Jazz bands travelled up the Mississippi on steam boats. It was the boats that carried jazz out of New Orleans.”
Outside the window snow still falls, but in my mind we sleep together with the shutter windows open on a sticky, mosquito bristling night, I a Creole gentleman, you my kept mistress, somewhere in the Crescent City way back when.
“Those boats carried jazz out of New Orleans and gave it to the world.”
I watch the bass player hold his instrument like a lover at a dancehall, one arm at her neck, the other slid around her wide waist holding her tight, and I reach across the table and put my hand into yours. And here we are in a moment that lasts until the band stops playing, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m frozen in rapt attention, mouth half open in a smile, and you’re frozen the same way, yellow lights catching on your golden earrings, and we sit together in the restaurant with empty plates in front of us, and the saxophone plays a soft and melancholy song in the background, and outside the window the snow keeps falling, and you tell me about the birth of jazz.