Now's the Time: Part 1-5

Sean Murphy By

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The life and times of a minor jazz legend are recounted through his narrated memories. In this fictional treatment of jazz music in the mid-to-late 20th century, issues of race, creativity, addiction and, ultimately, redemption, are explored. With a title taken from the immortal Charlie Parker tune, "Now's The Time" is an extended meditation on the artistic life.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

It is dark, then bright: dark, bright, dark, bright. The light stays on—then goes out.

There is hushed, cursory applause, the nervous silence of a crowd collectively holding its breath. And he thinks: I am afraid.

Then he hears himself, talking: What is there to be scared of? This is what you've prepared for. Nothing to do now but look up, look around...see what happens.

What am I doing here?

Finally, he thinks. Time to pay the piper.

He opens his eyes and takes in his surroundings. At least they'd given him his own room (which he knew was due to his age and condition, and not because anyone at the hospital had any inclination as to who he was—who he had been—in that other life, nor would they have necessarily been unduly concerned or interested if they did happen to know). The tan and turquoise wallpaper, an innocuous, neutral design of flowers and trees. The curtains covering the window were yellow and bright to the point of distraction. It was as though in the effort to project a sanguine atmosphere, they could disguise the fact that people were brought here against their will, or obliged by an infirmity that compelled medical attention or treatment that could not otherwise be administered.

But you couldn't fault them for trying.

How different it was compared to the old days!

He had not been unfamiliar with hospitals, the knitting factories, as they used to call them, in recognition of the fact that people went there to be stitched up, put together, or otherwise mended. All white. So white it was disturbing: white sheets, white walls, white curtains, and white tiled floor. Doctors and nurses, of course, dressed in white. Their white teeth grinning as you looked into the whites of their eyes as they assured you everything was fine. White, white, white. It was, of course, supposed to convey the secure sterility of cleanliness—an environment where ill health, germs, bad karma, anything unsavory would be overwhelmed and subdued. Nevertheless, it was no place to get well, that was for certain. Especially if it got good to you, as they used to say to one another.

You gonna get good?

Not unless it gets good to me first.

And yet, now that he looked around at the cultivated congeniality, he understood that the stripped-down lack of pretension of the old hospital rooms possessed its own efficacy: it was the stark comfort of honesty. No promises were made, but the people were there to do a job. Dirty work in an impossibly clean place. It was so honorable, so meddlesome. So human. A workmanlike approach best reserved—and suited—for an undertaking that was very unlike music. The business of battling death was not inherently beautiful, nor did it strive toward that aim. It was objective, without a tolerance, or need, for opinion or reaction.

His health had been relatively stable since he stopped drinking. About ten years. So when he began noticing new, different types of pain—the kind not associated with the vices which seemed inextricable from his youth—he had sensed that the time was no longer a distant, disconcerting concept. It was nearer than it was far. And while this wasn't a pleasant realization, he simply did what he'd always done in the past: he focused his mind on more immediate issues and concerns, and found that when he did not have time to think about it, he often was not burdened by it.

But it was there, all the same. He had been clean (except for the smoking, of course), so he knew that the symptoms he was beginning to get used to were not to be blamed on addiction or ill-health brought about by an incautious lifestyle. Also, he was not a young man anymore, and hadn't been for quite a long time. Certainly, he was reaping the harvest from the seeds and misdeeds sown long before.

The occasional maddening bouts of insomnia; the thick phlegm that dripped like a slow faucet while he slept, congealing in his throat, the sudden flashes of vertigo (which were short-lasting, but came without warning, so he was never prepared, always forced to sit down until he was able to manage that terrible dizziness, as though his legs were balloons and his body was a lead weight): he'd grown accustomed to these things. But during the past several months, in addition to these negligible symptoms, he'd begun to experience new and more discomforting setbacks.

The first time he coughed up blood he had known. That's it, he thought, staring into the mirror at the less recognizable man who looked back at him, warily, still holding the toothbrush. After a while he was no longer repulsed, or surprised, when he went to urinate, and could not. Or worse, when he'd awaken suddenly in the middle of the night and stagger, disoriented to the toilet. His body was doing things it didn't used to do. And there was nothing to do but adapt, make it work. Either that or you stopped living. And that was out of the question.

But as the summer waned and the days became shorter, all those symptoms—and some new ones—came calling again. For the first time in his life he felt a realization, a resignation, that he'd done everything he said he'd do—had left no accounts open. His body seemed already hip to this, and was acting accordingly.

How many years had it gone on?

On gig nights: drinking, smoking. Sure. Then sleeping it off.

The women. So many of them. Faceless, or more accurately, all with the same face. At least the way he saw them, the way they revealed themselves to him, in his eyes, in his mind. His memory: the face that would not reveal itself.

Those pathetic, occasionally desperate hours: the sun, resplendent as it rose—as it always did—immutable above a city that woke and worked: a single, connected entity. The world (the other world) existing, right outside his window while he tried to sleep, his ears ringing and those heavy thoughts. And occasionally, hearing the music. Even in that state, those moments when he could scarcely lift his head, the sickening scent of smoke seething in his sheets, in his hair. As he felt the turgid bulk of his body, the music, still, somehow allowed him to marvel at its symmetry; it contained the possibilities of this world. This, over time, is what convinced him that the body was merely a shack, but the soul, his soul was awake and resilient, even in those moments. Alive, despite the abuse he heaped upon it. And there was a reason for this: the music.

To play an instrument—to create music—a response to something that exists inside, but apart from, the body (and even conscious thought). One needed to grasp this, and cultivate a fortitude that could keep the extremities these feelings induced in check. Because it was not always productive, or positive, this energy. There was a toll exacted for accessing this accord. To scale the sometimes significant heights of creation required a familiarity with the more frequent depths; the feelings of human frailty, to which no one was immune. This is what caused the pain. The cold nothingness that even in its most fleeting spells could, and often did, rival the clarity.

The lonely hours: in the darkness. He remembered them well. How could he forget?

Alone, in a strange motel. Or worse, in the all-too-sudden unfamiliarity of his own bedroom, when minutes crawled by, languid lifetimes of maddening, empty space. Having nothing to keep that graceless horror at bay but the conviction that there could not possibly be nothingness. Unless the mind—independent of reason, fear or faith—also retained the notion of immortality.

God (or whatever that supreme spirit was) did not reveal Himself (or Itself) through light or darkness, pleasure or pain, heaven or hell. Rather, it was through the intractability of these things. Seamless. Dependent upon one another, one inconceivable without its opposite. Only accessible from some distant perspective: the soul.

Better Git It In Your Soul.

Yes, Mingus.

Was there a more aptly titled composition in all of jazz?

It describes jazz itself: the necessity to improvise, of skill and faith. The diligence of one's dedication, and belief. If there is no soul, there is nothing. No song, no art, no music. No life.

It wasn't merely a way of regarding jazz music; it was a philosophy of life. The only way to live.

Continue to Part 2.

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