Carolina Shout and Whisper

Carolina Shout and Whisper
Jakob Baekgaard BY

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Edward Fox was introduced as the pianist in saxophonist Cory Dextrose's quartet in the short story Last Song for Valentine. This is his own story.

The thudding sound on the floor was followed by a piercing voice Edward Fox knew all too well. "Stop that damn noise, will you!" Old Mr. Grayson had taken a broomstick and hammered away at his own ceiling, competing with the hammers on Edward's battered piano. He had been deep in a dream rehearsing the same two chords for hours.

This was something he liked to do. He would sit at the piano and practice the same two chords. There was something soothing about it and somehow the music opened itself to him, but it didn't feel that way to others.

You call yourself a jazz musician, right, Grayson said. How come you can't play more than two chords? Now, if you only played a little melody, perhaps I could stand listening to this junk for hours, but it's always the same shit. Don't you ever get tired of playing like this?

I never get tired of music, man, Fox answered with a quiet smile somewhere between amusement and desperation. I just go into the zone and relax. Do you know what that means? What do you like to do to relax? Turn on the TV, buy some stuff on the Web or make a cup of coffee? This is what I do. I disappear into my music. Look, I'm invisible and I can't hear the outside world. It all disappears until it comes back with that broomstick and voice of yours.

Grayson ran his fingers through his last few hairs and sighed. I don't understand you, but I don't mind weirdos. I've had a lot of them in this building. Now, the thing I can't stand is a noisy weirdo, but there is one thing that I hate even more and that's a weirdo that can't pay his rent. You're lucky that you haven't missed the rent so far or otherwise you would be out on the street. Do you know what I'm saying?

Yes, money makes the world go around and the green makes the cripple walk. What? What are you saying Fox? Nothing, I'm just saying that you're speaking your language and I'm speaking mine. You see? No, I don't see that, and I don't see how you can earn any money at all doing what you do. Is this how you play when you're doing your gigs? I can't understand how anyone would listen to this.

So, what do you like then? Something like this? Fox made the tangents dance with tingling melodic lines and jumping rhythms as he played "Carolina Shout." Oh, that's nice. Who is that? That's James P. Johnson.

Tell you what, those two chords I played were taken from that tune. I call my composition "Carolina Whisper." Fox started playing the two chords again. Stop! You don't fool me with that trick. It's just two chords and there's not much whispering about this. It sounded loud to me and it still does.

No problem, man. I'm out of here. See you later Mr. Grayson. Fox took his jacket and left the apartment. He liked to walk around the city, just to listen to the sounds around him. A couple having an argument, a kid buying a hot dog, an old woman passing by with her friend, businessmen discussing stock prices. The sounds of wheels and feet moving forward.

Sometimes he would also just sit still. He had his special spot on a bench in a park nearby. This was his favorite place to play. He would close his eyes and place his hands in the air as if he was playing a keyboard. In the beginning people laughed and thought it strange with the man who looked as if he was playing an instrument, but in the end, the neighborhood got used to it and by now many people knew his name and sometimes they asked jokingly what he was playing? Fox would always answer with a solemn tone. He would explain it was a sonata, a blues, a standard or something like that.

This is how Cory had met him, on the bench playing air keyboard. He had asked him a lot about his music and Fox had answered in detail. Eventually, Cory asked him if he ever was a sideman and Fox had agreed to playing a gig with Cory's quartet. Cory had liked the way he was always trying to find his way into the music. He said that he never thought he took it for granted and that was the reason he hired him.

Fox still struggled with ironic distance. He had to feel the music down to each single chord. Some people can play music like they think they have invented it, but Fox played painfully aware that he hadn't arrived at his own sound yet. He was always struggling with chords and quotations, referencing everyone from Art Tatum to Andrew Hill. In the middle of it all, he was trying to find himself and he could find peace playing just a few chords or get carried away by an old tune. He could be sentimental and cynical and something in-between, but he lived for the moments when he just got lost in the music without thinking about it.

People who asked him what he thought about when he was playing were not getting it at all. He would say to them, the moment I'm in music I don't think about it and when I'm thinking about it, I'm on my way out and I try to get in again.

He didn't speak much about music without being asked, but for some reason, the musicians had started to come to his spot on the bench to talk. Cory often visited him in the park and as he was making the transition to a new chord, he heard his familiar voice. How are you Fox?

Fox had never felt the need to stick to formalities, so instead of saying he was fine, he explained his situation. I'm blue. My landlord doesn't get what I'm doing. He says it's just noise. What did you play? I played my piece "Carolina Whisper." It goes like this. Fox moved his hands in the air, placing his fingers like chords. That's a very simple tune, Cory said. Only two chords. I understand why he would get tired of this. But it's not about the chords, Cory. The chords are WHAT you play, but it's HOW you play that's interesting and the things you DON'T play, that's the whisper.

Think about Bill Evans. You can mention the chords he played, but it wouldn't mean much. His music is in his touch. That's the mystery. Think of the many ways you can attack a chord. It's mindboggling. Do you know Matthew Shipp's composition "The Note"? It's just one chord and how it rings into eternity. Just one chord, but it's played like a haiku-poem. A perfect stroke in the moment of time. The space around the chord and how it keeps ringing, that's the music. Not the chord itself. Don't listen to the chords Cory. Listen to the things around them.

You're a strange man, Fox, and I'm a hungry man. Let's go somewhere and grab a bite to eat. A car came by and drove directly into the park and stopped in front of the clearing nearby. Two men jumped out and got their stash in the forest floor and got into the car again. It was daylight and there was a playground nearby. Snakes in paradise, Fox said, but all kinds of people got to earn a living. I can't judge. I can only live.

They found a place called World of Soup with soups for all seasons. It was a hot day and they both ordered the gazpacho with crusty homemade bread on the side. The joy of eating, Cory said. Nothing like a good meal. I don't like eating so much, Fox said. It's just something I got to do. You eat to live, but it's music that keeps me alive. You should take better care of yourself, Fox. A nice meal can be like medicine, especially in the company of good people. Cory reached out and gave Fox a squeeze of the hand. I'm not good with people, Fox said. I don't understand why I love them so much and still I feel so lonely. Everyone feels lonely sometimes, Cory said.

They talked about their plans for the quartet and considered the possibility of new compositions. Cory even said he would like to try out "Carolina Whisper" with the quartet. Fox beamed. Yeah, we should try it.

After they parted with a hug, Fox headed towards his apartment and let himself in. He was home.

Photo Credit: Alexey Komarov (Wikimedia Commons)

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