“You have to flow man. Listen to those cats. They flow — bird, and dizzy, and satchmo, they just turn it on and let it all come out.”
Albert walked up to cafe Bohemia’s unassuming storefront. It was a club, like all the rest. A stage, some seats, a bar, and dim lighting. They all had dim fucking lighting. ln the dark lived the sound of bop and swing, side by side with the cool and moody. It was bright and aggressive and softer than a mother’s caress. It existed only in a world where dichotomy made sense. Only the real cats got that. The heavies. He wanted to be a heavy. He tried to be a heavy.
His first teacher taught him the rudiments and he practiced for hours. Blowing his sax into the wee hours of the morning in the basement of PS 149. His friend Eddie taught him how to pick the lock and he used that knowledge to sneak out of the crammed apartment he shared with his parents and his four sisters. There he learned how to woodshed. The thing blew hard at first, unforgiving noises that pierced his senses. The perfection of the notes that he saw in his mind couldn’t travel through the reed. His lungs weren’t strong enough yet. His technique was flawed. His mind was complicated and it had too many choices to make; choices that required agility and split second reflexes. He got bogged down in the details and everything that originally drew him to the instrument now hindered his development.
The sound came eventually though. It slipped in little by little. In between the noise and the disjointed chords, melodies began to spring. They were fleeting at first, peeking through the wall of dissonance only to disappear seconds later. Those seconds grew into minutes and finally, years later, into hours. He could play the damn thing. But so what? So could anyone else with a few years of practice.
He searched Harlem for the greats and found them. They were there at the clubs and the bars, each mixing his individual brand of alchemy with the greater sound. The structure was always loose, the sound always immaculate. Dizzy was the loudest. Miles was the coolest. Trane was the kid. Bird had already passed into oblivion. The openers let him sit in — the heavy cats never did. But they listened and occasionally nodded at a run that interrupted their merry making with each other and the women that always surrounded them.
Those nods signaled something. They were not there to encourage him. They didn’t give a shit about that. Nothing was handed to them and they weren’t about to hand what they earned to someone else. You had to get it on your own. The nod was a reflex; it was genuine appreciation for what they heard. It was a pat on the back. Enough to inspire him to start his own band.
He booked opening gigs at the bigger clubs and tried to headline the smaller ones. He was getting there — his music was growing along with his confidence and he felt within arm’s reach of his heroes. But then it all stopped. His fingers, his mouth, and his hands refused to go any further. His notes became cliches and imitations of his former self. There was nothing more to offer.
So he started searching a different way. Watching the heavies play and trying to pick up what they were throwing down. It was familiar but unrecognizable; the details were lost to him. He hounded them for answers. They replied in jest:
“Man it’s all right there. Duke said out loud and to the world before I could even wipe my own ass: ‘it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing’ brother. So just let it flow man. Swing with the cats and they’ll do the rest.”
Albert wanted to talk theory: modality and harmony, dissonance and cadence; the shit that he could take back to the lab and practice. All they wanted to do was have fun. The told him to relax and let it come. He didn’t listen. His search continued.
He started in on the Junk because there were promises of inspiration there. Dizzy wrote notes about it and called it Manteca; the slang term used by his afro cuban band members. Byrd died from it. He was willing to take the risk.
He fell to the dragon and did not emerge for years later. An experiment into expanding his mind turned him into a whisper of his old self. His sanity was half gone and his body in shambles. On a sunny afternoon in Greenwich Village, the echo of Sonny Rollins broke that spell:
“Man listen to that shit. It’s unreal. The cat doesn’t stop — he just flows man. Like fucking Niagara Falls.” Two hippies on a bench in Washington Square park blasting their boom box as he rummaged through the cans in search of his next meal.
“Yeah. Sick man. Sick.”
“You know the motherfucker spent years under a bridge practicing. Didn’t talk to no one or jam with anyone. Said it was the only way he could create anything that was original.”
Albert walked up to the two guys and asked if they had some change. One of them gave him a dollar and told him to buy a pizza. He took that dollar and rode the subway to Brooklyn where his sister lived. Holed up in another basement, this time with nothing but the sound of his heart racing and the pounding in his head, he got clean. Then he found his own bridge. An abandoned warehouse in the meatpacking district, a neighborhood where life stopped at 3pm and didn’t resume again until 5 in the morning.
The sound didn’t come easy, it never did. But he managed enough to get by and eventually ended up back in Harlem, playing minor Jazz clubs. The scene was different now. Much less camaraderie and much more competition. But he didn’t care. He was playing and getting paid enough to get by. He no longer wanted what the greats had. He gave that up along with the junk that almost killed him.
“Yo Albert. You better blow something special tonight. Miles is here.”
“What the fuck is he doing in this joint?”
“What I look like, his parole officer. How the fuck should I know.”
Albert got nervous. It was good to be a little nervous, it brought fire to the mix and stirred the pot just enough to have the band play to the edge of their potential. With nerves they could communicate through sound. But this was a different kind of nervous. It was the kind of thing that someone felt before being executed. Miles was there to throw the switch. He didn’t think anything he’d played in the last few years would warrant even a head nod.
He took the stage and blew through the first bop number, playing Giant Steps to let the cat know he could swing through the key changes without tripping. Miles sat back and smoked his cigarette, seemingly disinterested in anything other the blonde woman’s neck that sat next to him. He casually pulled her hair aside every soft often, whispered in her ear, and then caressed her there in order to cause a slight giggle.
Albert blew through a few more standards without any acknowledgement. He looked at his watch; he was only 20 minutes into his hour set. He walked back to where drum kit met the velvet rope separating the stage from the dressing room behind it. He caught sight of his drummer, shaking his head at the situation as he lit his cigarette and took a few puffs before putting it out next to the bass drum.
He leaned over to Albert, “That motherfucker don’t give a fuck. He ain’t even listening. He just wanted a dark place where he could lay a rap down before taking his bitch back to his hotel room.”
“Maybe so Harry, but we got a job to do. That motherfucker can do whatever he wants. He’s Miles fucking Davis. You don’t like the way he doesn’t pay attention to you, then get off the fucking stage.”
Albert said it to himself as much as he said to Harry. He walked back to the center of the stage and closed his eyes. He thought about what brought him here and the detour he had taken. He thought about all the pain he went through. It didn’t inspire him; instead, it settled him. He had nothing to prove. His time had come and gone and he squandered it chasing paper dragons.
He played the rest of the set with calm dexterity. He flowed. He didn’t try, he just played. He lost himself in that and the band went with him. It was their best set. He opened his eyes at the end of it all and Miles was gone. There was no one else to nod their head at what he had done. He was on his own. He always was. That was good enough now. He found his flow.