Now's the Time: Part 2-5

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

He hears a voice and looks up to see a woman standing over him, frowning. He heard her clearly but her tone indicated that she did not think he was able to understand what she said.

He opens his mouth and discovers that he cannot speak. This alarms him and he thrashes around on the bed, attempting to lift himself. He panics, gasping for air and trying to look up at the nurse, but she had disappeared.

Then he is no longer there.

He is young again, a boy. South Philly. In the winters that wind followed you, sapping your strength quickly and efficiently. Especially at night. That dark chill came and stayed, obscuring, even overwhelming the day's light. Those winter days were just a dull, gray cloud hanging over the city, clinging to the buildings like a leech.

There were a few things he could remember as having been consistent in his childhood. Things that memories—and the time and tempest which tempered them—did nothing to alter. Among those things were the ceaseless, cold cruelty of those interminable winters; the grinding poverty his family endured; the indignity of wanting: a stain that no thoughts or prayers or deeds were able to effectively blotch out, or overcome. More than anything else, when he thought of his youth, he thought of his father, who had not lived long enough to see him become a man. Therefore, it was his Pops with whom he most closely associated those days—his days as a sullen, often scared little boy.

His Pops: a man, an American, who, despite the prevailing prejudices and mores of the time (which, time has consistently indicated, are not unique to a country, or period; but rather, seem to be the requisite footprints left in the muddy walkways of history: a cumulative lethargy inseparable from any era which enables acts of concentrated—as well as casual—hatred to immolate the innocence that precedes the fears and ignorance which predicate culture) was able to make a living in the factory, the lifeblood of the big city. Factory work: there was a common ground and equality that existed which would have been unimaginable elsewhere. Names, faces and ethnicities: they tended to be alike in that none of them were immune from fear. The fear of God, the fear that they might lose their jobs, or be replaced. And the fear of the factory closing down, a fear that eventually unfurled as reality.

He was a difficult man, a hard man. This is rarely by design—it is not a choice one makes, but rather, the result of circumstances that define the way one comes to regard, and approach, their life. In his father's case, the inextinguishable specter of poverty obliged the development of an impenetrable outer core in order to deflect the obstacles. The relentless doubts: would there be work, a job? Without a job, there was no money, and without money, of course, no security. And for the man with a family, security encompasses the basic requirements such as food, shelter and sustenance. It is, above all, a source of identity. The source. A man that can't attain, or provide, security is a man with nothing to hang his hat on. For a man, there are no excuses, no laments or regrets. What it all came down to was that a man was regarded (by others, by himself) by the ways in which he produced, and provided security. This is the impetus that informs a propensity for silence. It's the solitary burden a man feels rendering him incapable, or unwilling, to share what he considers best left as an unspoken anxiety. For, unlike matters of the heart, or soul, the issue of security (and the man's ability to cultivate it) is something that either bolsters, or erodes a man's sense of self. If he's doing his job, then there's no need to discuss it; if he isn't doing it—or doesn't have one at all—it ought to remain undisclosed, for everyone's sake.

And yet, even more so than a stoic wife, a child is apt to overlook the incongruity. An inconsistent father can still be a reliable provider, even if the cost of this fortitude is his relations with his family. The lines between fear and love and respect get increasingly blurred the longer the consistent security is corroded by a predictable turbulence. And this is merely one of the many ways in which a good man can be perceived, justifiably, as an insufficient father.

And what of his own legacy? He had no children to carry on his name. And yet, he was the one who had led the different life: he had experienced what so few are fortunate enough to afford even a glimpse of, the reward of recognized artistic expression. Wasn't it Duke Ellington himself who had declared music is my mistress? Well then, art, his music, had been his offspring, and that was his gift—for himself, and others. When he died his name would be preserved, not in the surname found in a phonebook or signed on a check, but in the music. And the music never died. It was there, if anyone cared to hear it. Through the music, he defeated death and lived on. And this made him happy. Besides, he had his own family; the ones he'd made music with.

And death? What about it?

If there's nothing, then I won't know the difference. And it's nothing to worry about, really. It's nothing particularly unappealing about a good, long nap. My body sure could use one. As for my soul, well, if I go somewhere else, I don't know what to expect. But I know exactly who's waiting there for me.

All those years on the bus: dues paying. On a bus, you saw everything. Anyone who has flown over a town or skirted around it on a major freeway is like a person looking down into an aquarium: you see the fish and get a view of the scenery, but you don't feel it and you can't know it. Not until you're in there, on the inside. Swimming in the smoke, shitting in the public toilet, tasting the home cooking of all those backwoods diners, hearing the way folks pronounce the towns (which was always different from how everyone else said it): Norfolk was Nawfik; Worcester was Woosta; Fayettesville was Fayville; Durham was Durm; New Orleans, of course, was N'awlins. And so on. Staying in all those towns, year after year, was an education in itself. It didn't make you book smart, but names and dates weren't important anyway. The bandmates he went on the road with had set foot in all the famous places (and a great deal of the joints in between) those history perfessors only talked about.

On the road: That's where you got to know people. That's where you got to know yourself. If a man never leaves the place he grew up, he never really grows. If a man is unable, or unwilling to call any one-place home, he never stops growing. After some time, this inclination becomes an imperative, a mode of existence. Thus, upon settling down (if one indeed decides to cease moving), the passion and compulsion for progress has effectively become internalized, and one's mind is never still. The spirit never ceases to be in motion. And in this way, and only in this way, can one truly be free, no matter where or what their environment. The only stockade capable of incarceration is the one that exists in the mind. You learned this, over time. And, of course, through the folks you associated with.

How much he had learned from the cats he ran with, his boys.

They had, he saw, their own way of thinking, of talking; their own way of doing things which was altogether different from the way he came up. The cold city scene obliged folks to move quicker, to speak faster, to think harder, to always keep an eye over their shoulder. These cats, who'd come up in the South, were slower, but more deliberate; you could see when they were thinking, because they thought with their eyes, and they always seemed to know something that you weren't hip to yet. In a word, they were cool. They showed him how to slow down: to see and smell and breathe and taste, and of course to hear—all at the same time—which was something he'd never done, nor ever thought possible. Just let it get good to you, they'd say.

And the nicknames. Everyone had at least one name. Back then, a few of them had taken notice of the extra time he tended to take grooming himself, and he very quickly became Pretty Boy, then The Boy, then P.B., then P, and finally they settled on Sweet Pea, which they pronounced SweePee, somehow making it sound monosyllabic. The drummer, who was well over six feet and thin as a flagpole, naturally became Fat Boy, and then, Fat. The trumpet player, who had a voracious appetite for sexual indulgence (getting' some exercise, he used to call it), was the Horn Dog, then, Old Dog, and eventually, just Dog. But then, after a gig in which he claimed to have had two different partners in the space of an hour, they began calling him Two-For, or, Toofer. For a while they employed a cantankerous young pianist from Alabama, who they used to call Bama until he got into a fist fight after a gig one night with the bassist and broke his nose. Then they started calling him Killer. He wasn't on the scene very long, as he had a proclivity for challenging the local yokels whenever the band would get heckled (which was often), and he'd want to fight any cracker who called him a spook. They'd had the pleasure of watching him whip some sorry redneck ass (the ones who'd be so drunk they'd actually accept his invitation to step into the parking lot and dance). Most of the time the loud and boisterous ones had their buddies around to bolster their bravado. Killer was too wound up to hold a steady gig. He would have made a great cop, they always joked, when his name came up years later.

Jazz: it's our music, and in this century we finally became Americans. American music, our music. We invented it, played it. Practiced it, perfected it. We own it. So we can teach it.

And this was how he came to view himself as a man, as an artist.

This was how he came to understand America. His world, his universe, was a life, a song: a part in the movement, which was interconnected and reliant upon all the others songs to complete the score. But it's a participatory experience. Without the expression being responded to it's an empty gesture. The dialogue begins when the artist speaks, and is completed when the individual receives, and reciprocates. The thing about music is, it's alive: it's always in transit, it's always coming or going, sometimes both at the same time.

Yes. It was never stagnant. The moment it's created it is immortalized; capturing the performance, or the session, on tape ensured its perpetuation. Then, each time it was listened to (or even thought about) it was alive, in a way that transcended even the mind that created it. It was in this way that any piece of music became a running discourse between the artist and the audience. Live performance, of course, was the height of this shared experience, transmitted in the act of a spontaneous creation—the improvisation—captured as it occurred. Nothing could compare to that feeling. And yet, a recorded piece, while less immediate, nevertheless contained the possibility of a heightened intimacy. The individual necessarily cultivated their own association, and interpretation, which unfailingly evoked a mood, a feeling, with each listen. And the memories.

Continue to Part 3.

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