A short story by Harry W. Kendall
King David,elder jazz sax giant with an inferiority complex expressed by extreme aggressiveness, is driven to acknowledge and change by Cede Krammer, a young and talented enthusiast. The musical genius of these two alto combatants drive my story entitled Giant Steps. Its title is taken from a musical composition written by world famous jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. www.goodreads.com
A light in the alley over his head casts a thin shadow of slouched King David on fading red bricks and crumbling mortar. He sits on a beer keg at the rear exit of Wendell’s Jazz Corner in The Village, drinking the dank August night air, cooling his hot lungs. King David coughs, a rattling bark, and flicks his cigarette to the pavement, grinding it under his shoe as if it had been a worm crawling on his double-breasted white suit. After each set he retreats here to this blind alley where old ragged men and bag women rummage in dented garbage cans.
Across the alley the maudlin cry of a blues shouter wafts through the rear walls of Big Nick’s Wiggle Cafe.
“Black night is calling, Reverend Lee is knocking at my door.
I heard him knock once, I heard him knock twice.
Be damned if I will open it, he’ll have to kick it in.
And when he do, I’ll be sitting right here
Singing these farewell blues for lonely you, babee.
Black night is calling.”
The blues man’s guitar twangs, a loud electrified whine. King envisions a yapping dog running with its tail on fire and snorts with contempt. He wouldn’t play that raggedy-ass music. Swears it doesn’t suit his fancy; the moaning, the crying, dying and going to hell; then reincarnation in some coal miner’s bed between him and his wife. Immortality is too big a gamble and death is a crooked-dealing Maryland farmer. King wouldn’t admit it, but he craves the blues. Its implied degradation, the hurt and loneliness sooths the dragon in him.
A few doors away from King a derelict forages for his supper. “Jesus,” he says, polishing a waxed red apple on his tattered jacket, “sounds like somebody’s done throwed a seven. Blues man don’t lie. Reminds me a little of Louisiana Red, yessuh.”
Dropping his harvest into a burlap sack, he looks in the direction of King. “Reaper done claimed a whole heap of’em; Hawk, Prez, Billie, Blakey ‘n Diz, Divine Sarah too,” he says, with a sigh. “Ain’t but a handful of the giants left. Glad ‘a one thing though. None of them took their music with’em.”
King flinches and runs his hand across his stomach. “Stop pestering me, ole fool. Can’t I ever come back here without hearing you rattling off about doom or seeing your raccoon face ducking in and out of those garbage cans?”
The old man casts his wistful eyes at King. “Got a hold of your world by the nuts, doncha? Feels good too, un-hunh,” the bum says, looking into the neon sky at a billboard on the beltway circling above the rooftops. “Like the Pepsi lady says, this is your life. But you ain’t forever neither.” He saunters away like a contented bear.
King’s stomach growls. He fishes in his pocket for the antacid tablets and pops a few.
Inside Wendell’s Jazz Corner, lights blink. An eager crowd applauds. King stands, shakes a white towel spread across the beer barrel seat, and thinks about them– faceless souls who come night after night rubbing knees at little tables, propping themselves at a bar more compact than the five p.m. subway train, waiting for him to spread magic, sweet, biting and cool like no one else can.
Spotlights flood the velvet curtain at the rear entrance with reds, blues and oranges. King, a thin-frame coffee-colored man medium tall with brown eyes and kinky gray hair, enters and presents his profile to the audience. A white collared shirt with sky blue and white stripes, a beige necktie and beige calfskin shoes complements his white suit. King unbuttons the coat and places his hands against the top of his trousers as if adjusting them around his small waist. Expensive rings flash on manicured fingers. A soft green spotlight plays on him strutting past an egg shaped bar that runs the length of the room.
A tall young man with twinkling gray-blue eyes gulps the last of his orange juice as King steps onto the raised platform. With the back of his hand, the stranger wipes juice that has washed over his top lip and picks up a black leather case from under the table.
His back to the assembled patrons, King lifts his golden alto from its stand. He licks the reed, coating the dry bamboo with a thin layer of saliva, and speaks briefly to the accompanying trio–Scott Hicks on piano, Spider Kelly on bass, and June Alston on drums. When King turns around there stands the lad with blond hair combed straight back to his shoulders. It seems to King the stranger’s head almost touches the ceiling from which the twilight glow of a soft light casts a halo over him. Designer jeans rest on high wiry hips, the University of Iowa inscribed on the breast pocket of a white polo shirt fitting snugly over a chest built like an Olympic swimmer’s.
“Mr. David, your technique has influenced a whole school of alto players. I know it well. Would you mind if I, er a, sit in?” The youngster’s voice rings with adulation.
King glowers at the lad hard enough to burn a hole in his broad chest. What kind of insult–doesn’t he know King David shares his spotlight with no one? The maestro turns to Hicks at the piano, raises an eyebrow, puckers his lips, and drums his fingers on the piano top. Spider and June stare, silently asking each other will King cuss him out or burn him out. The bold intruder smiles blandly. King watches his Adam’s apple bulge and disappear. Suddenly aware of everyone watching him, King puts on an air of dignity befitting a venerable star.
“Not stashing a machine gun in there, are you, sonny?” The quip evokes a burst of laughter from the patrons close by. King gazes through the young man with an expression that holds less warmth than the Arctic moon.
The youngster erases the smile off his face. “That’s my alto.” He places the case on the floor and reaches to open it.
“Whoa, hold up there,” King says, stepping back. “Look here young blood, what’s your name, anyway?”
“Cede, Cede Kramer.”
“Where you from, Seedlings?”
“Humboldt, Iowa, near Dodge City.”
“Uh-hunh, and you think you can blow?”
“I can work out,” Cede says, smiling eagerly.
King adjusts the microphone. No one sees him flip on the switch. “Naw, naw,” he says. “I don’t mean play a few hot licks you learned from a college chart out there on the prairie. Can you cook strictly from your head with a racing tempo kicking your rump, searing a hole in your brains? Can you make that alto so hot the ivory on the keys will boil the sweat on your fingertips?”
“You want to hear me play?” An adoring smile tips the corners of Cede’s mouth.
“Look here, youngster,” King says. “I’ve entertained kings and queens on more occasions than the years you’ve been in the world. Can you play well enough to justify standing here making a scene?”
The insult stings Cede into an embarrassing silence in front of the packed room. Beyond the rim of the spotlight King’s admirers wait.
“I hope you can play jazz.” King says. “At least enough to save your ass.”
King turns to his trio and drops cue, slapping his thigh and nodding his head. “A one, a two, one two three four.”
At the piano Scott sets tempo to Charlie Barnett’s Cherokee, with short, choppy be-bop chords of the old jazz standard, it rife with golden possibilities for Cede to really showcase his art. After Scott’s eight-bar introduction, King, Spider and June move in. They do one chorus of the melody, King solos the bridge, all together in the final chorus, and everybody stops–a four-count rest. Then, with a vibrant boost from Spider’s bass and June’s snare, King lifts off with an obvious cliché or two, engendering an aura of musical feel-good that draws jazz lovers unto him. He expands upon the stock phrases, moving improvisationally through Cherokee’s changes into the alto’s upper register screaming, bending notes in his fashion. Downward he cascades with gusty runs into the bowels of his horn. Bursting ripples from June’s snare, and syncopated booms from her bass drum holds the rhythm tightly in the rough-riding straight ahead hard-bop groove. King is on top the world, he and his golden alto on an unblemished slab of granite. Impenetrable to even his dragon, the fiend of lean years, a burning chest, of wrinkles and tired eyes. Beneath him, the whole world reverberates to his music.
King leans his head back and glances down the ridge of his nose at his young competitor. So much music inundates Cede in each instant of time. Studying scores, even listening however intently is one thing, but being smack dab in the heart of such a performance, did he bite off more than he can chew? Each person moving at full capacity in his and her own direction complements each other with counterpoints that coalesce into one huge electrifying sound; the hills and dales of excitement created by King’s phraseology, the ease of oscillation from one musical idea to another.
Suddenly and without cue King stops, raises his hand to quiet the applause and without looking at the Midwestern youngster points his thumb at him. The spotlight flickers from soft amber to loud red and washes over Cede. June announces him with a long roar of her tom-tom and a rim-shot. Spider lingers on a single monotone, waiting anxiously to launch him. Scott greets him with a huge chord, swollen with rich harmonics. Cede inhales a deep, tense lungful and exhales. King, basking in egotistical splendor, scowls over his shoulder at him.
“Stake your claim, boy.”
Scott offers Cede a friendly smile and begins weaving a simple pattern of the melody, like a teacher coaxing a favorite student. Cede closes his eyes, blocking out the staring interference of wondering eyes, and from the upper register he races down scale and blows a clinker–a booming low note. Awkward, yes, but musically sound and it lifts him from the abyss of frightened nothingness. June raps her drums, relegating time. Spider abandons the monotone and skips about suggestively on quarter notes.
“Come on, Sugar. Sweet as you are, I just know you can play.” A young woman with skin the tone of apricots perches enticingly on a bar stool in a low-cut sequined dress. Her brown hair is styled in a boyish bob. Dark bright eyes and the velvet edged sensuality in her tone speak tenderly.
Cede begins following Scott, simply responding to the voice he hears in the chords, and daring to weave curious movements around them.
King stands in the outer circumference of the klieg lights staring at the darkness; hands clasped behind his back, the alto hanging from a strap around his neck. Though he feigns indifference, he locks himself into Cede’s musical consciousness like a sensor measuring the impulse of his brain waves. He listens to Cede’s progression, spontaneously gauging it by what he would have played, predicting the youngster’s statements, measuring his worth. This boy definitely has potential. He came here to cop King’s sound, bleed him of his music and then run. King though, will hand him some hard news in short order. There isn’t a single solitary mother in the entire Big Apple who can stand up to King David, world-renowned alto saxophonist extraordinaire. Very true, but if by chance Cede does slip into King’s mind, like a leach he’ll try damned hard to suck away his genius.
Cede is paying some dues, the going is rough, though the trio has keyed onto his musical personality and is complementing him. King notes Cede’s melodic and fluffy delivery, definitely a Desmond influence. Then Cede slurs–tightens his thin lips against the reed–and bends a huge note that could never sound like anyone except himself, acquiring his personage. Spiteful jealousy, inferior sensitivity so infuriates King that he herds in, overpowering the youngster.
Cede relents and coasts while the elder statesman ends the piece. The audience responds heartily, not robustly as it did after King’s solo flight, but encouragingly. Cede nods appreciation. The trio smiles. King grants him a minute of ovation.
Time to ass this lanky bastard. “All right, Seedlings,” he says, speaking loudly into the microphone. “Straight ahead, hard bop, up-tempo, hang tough.” A title matters little, Half Nelson, Billy’s Bounce, Ladybird, Speedball, merely variations of melodies from chord changes of driving bebop. King launches into a blistering execution at breath snatching speed, charging like an adrenaline-high sprinter attacking the track. The piano, bass, and drums sample King’s tempo at various stages of his first time around and then fall in beside him in the stretch. He heads into a second sprint.
King doubts Cede has ever heard anyone attack his instrument with such ferocity and precision, every note in place, every phrase a smooth transition from the one preceding.
A middle-aged man sits in a chair as still as a mummy except for the rhythmic nodding of his head. “Work-out, man,” he says. “Son of David!”
King makes his alto cry as if in pain. It is a breathing and growling technique learned from Cleanhead Vinson when King was Joe Collier on the road with Cleanhead. King lingers in the low register jiving around, spent and panting.
Scott’s lead for Cede is perfect. Like a swimmer damning his trepidation of cold water, Cede leaps in, searching for a channel in which to express himself. He meets the challenge head-on, building straight and yes, some radical patterns, making it palatable as if stirring spices in a dish already prepared by the connoisseur.
“All right, Cede, eights,” King says, rejuvenated with a second wind.
Cede already active, fires when the drum kicks. King grins deviously, hearing his adversary build a string of ascending triplets to the peak in his instrument’s upper register and descending he surprises King, double timing and slurring the final three notes.
King is wondering more than slightly at Cede’s inflection, and turns up the heat. From the corner of his eye he watches Cede waiting, working the reed in his mouth, nodding his head to the beat.
Back and forth they spar–King jabbing, Cede mostly bobbing and weaving. Beads of sweat pops out on King’s nose and top lip. Perspiration stings Cede’s eyes. The audience’s excitement intensifies–guttural encouragement, heads bobbing, feet spanking the floor.
Cede interprets King’s chord progression as carefully as he possibly can. It captures him mind, soul and body. The piano is the central nerve in his anatomy. Spider’s bass tingles from the bottom of his feet clean to his soul. June’s percussions pulse in his heart. And now, Cede’s head spinning, he does his utmost to counter or compliment King’s eight-bar statements, but needs more time to shape the flashes of ideas crisscrossing in his mind.
King executes a harsh atonal bluster that sounds like echoes crisscrossing and bouncing off the wall in a long hollow tube. The King on his throne, the vanguard of high-energy fusion and heavy metal. Too much!
Cede hears riffs of distant motorcycles revving and shifting, hydroplanes with dual exhausts, their carburetors wide open, but he needs more time to execute. He responds with straightforward riffs etched in memory, yet still challenging and determined he’ll stay the course.
Suddenly, without warning King’s dragon snorts. Fire leaps from its nostrils. King feels the rumbling in his stomach, tastes the heartburn. The bamboo reed in his mouthpiece feels dry and rough. He holds the saxophone away from his body, silently scolding as if it is his woman suddenly rejecting affection. The dragon inside him tearing at his gut snatches King beneath into its murky depth.
King’s ruthless demands of Cede catapult him to a level of competence he couldn’t have imagined. The improvisational exchange between them becomes balm for Cede’s stressed spirit. King’s lungs burn. Cede in his groove, waits, counting-out King’s eight bars, working his bottom lip against the mouthpiece to June’s beat. King’s stomach aches. Cede makes another statement; it is tinged with pure funk.
King can’t stop Cede from taking his music, claiming it for himself. He glowers at his trio with eyes that would be more expressive closed. The music winds down in a cacophonic blunder with a final thud of June’s bass drum.
Every pair of eyes except Scott’s is on King. “Not bad,” the pianist says, standing and staring deadpan into Cede’s face. Then his eyes soften. “Where did you cut your chops?” He touches Cede’s shoulder.
“Cross town at the Conservatory.” Cede’s eyes sparkle with appreciation. Grinning, he turns to King. But the elder musician has stepped from the bandbox and is dragging himself through the jazz room as if he is hiking across the Sahara Desert.
Cede waves his hands in an exasperated gesture. “I at least want to say thanks,” he says quietly, “but I think he’s really pissed.”
“King’s music is vigorous be-bop,” Scott says, turning off the mikes. “It’s full of his life, and it can be really mean. But he set a good stage and let you wail. It’s an honor and deserves more than a grunt.”
Beyond the range of questioning eyes King grabs his cigarettes, and pushes open the door to the alley. He stops, gawks and rubs his eyes at the sight before him. Under the light above the rear entrance King sees Joe Collier thirty-years ago walking the bar in some sleazy, backwater locale, fighting for his berth in an all night jamming and cutting session.
“Hell no!” He grimaces, slamming the door shut. In the nightmarish gloom of King’s inner vision Joe Collier is sitting on a lame bus eating a take-out hamburger from some greasy spoon all-night eatery and staring at its Whites Only sign. He pops a handful of antacid tablets to counter the awful sooty taste of gall rising in his throat, and slumps against the wall in semi-darkness, waiting, hiccupping, and hoping for relief of misery. It is torment caused by his obsession to possess what rides the wind, dances on ocean waves, is precious like rain drops, and beyond human ability to own. He gags, and spitting into his handkerchief, King glimpses Cede coming upon him. Cede stops several feet in front of him. King puts the soiled handkerchief in his pocket and straining, hears a faint, flutelike melody he can’t discern.
Cede notices King quivering, believes he is piqued. “Thanks for a lesson I’ll never forget. It’s been real, I mean it.” he says, turning to leave.
The music King hears fades almost to nothing. He fakes clearing his throat, moves closer toward Cede. Rhapsodic resonance he hears compels King to accept the obvious. The game he worked on Cede boxed himself into a quandary. There is no way he can escape. Cede is music. King burps a ghastly nauseating roar that sounds like a wild animal bewailing its captivity.
“Aiy-yi-yi,” Cede says, stepping backwards, waving his hands in front of his face. “I’m outta here!”
“Jesus! S’cuse me.” King says, rubbing his stomach and leaning against the wall. His weakened voice is without its acrid edge. “Hold up, young lion.”
“Let’s finish the set.”
“Are you for real?”
King twists his mouth into an apologetic grin. “As real as John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.” He walks gingerly toward the entrance, turns and motions to Cede. “They’re waiting.”
Cede is reluctant, he really doesn’t trust King, but even if for no other reason to stay, his axe is on stage. The room is quiet as he and King enter the periphery of the jazz set’s ambience and step onto the raised platform. King smiles at the trio.
“Tonight, we’re going avant garde,” King says, “a little free jazz with two altos.” The rhythm trio nod agreement without questioning King’s disconcerted appearance. “I know a sudden switch could be too risky a digression from our pure bop groove. But just a little radical sampling.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Call it fun and games.”
King turns to the audience, extends his hand to Cede, and smiles with the resounding applause. “Here, Cede, jam up in the middle.”
Cede comes center stage with his alto, trying to catch Scott’s eye, a nod, anything to tell him this not another embarrassing setup. Scott, Spider and June get ready for cue.
“Giant Steps, King says, glancing at Cede. “Medium bounce and driving with clean, staccato on every note. Cede, carry the melody. Do what you want three times around. Then it’s Scott’s turn. Don’t mind me.”
King switches on the mikes, looks at June. “Hut hut,” he says, bobbing his head, giving the downbeat.
Two altos begin in unison; King David’s signature is full and robust, reminiscent of Cannonball, Cede’s is comparatively subtle and more melodic, a combination Desmond and Art Pepper. At first Cede plays John Coltrane’s signature threads- -G major seven, B flat nine, E flat seven. Now he is himself, moving in and around Scott’s envelope. Spider punctuates the melody in unison with Cede, then drops deep and rises chromatically in a flurry of funky, chaotic notes. King begins trickling in atonal substitutions a quarter note behind Cede’s line and Scott’s comping of the original changes. June loves to cajole by emphasizing certain phrases with the bass drum, making her high-hat cymbal a separate instrument. Or she might demand Cede accentuate places in the tune she announces with a roar of her tom-tom.
King drops out and meanders over behind the piano. He turns his back and quietly fiddles with the chord structure of a haunting ballad piece. Cede drops out. Scott bends his head down to the keyboard and unleashes his left hand, expanding a multitude of altered chords of which his kinetic and propulsive right hand connects with runs of scales and arpeggios. Oh, my God!
While Scott is stretching out, the lady in the red sequined dress, and perhaps some in the audience realize King is juxtapositioning Giant Steps with a piece written by Gelsa Palao, entitled I am Music. She slides off her stool, harmonizing as she sashays to the front, sequins shimmering on her petite frame. She steps up to the mike beside Cede. King comes to the forefront, announces her with a chaotic vibrato expression over the din of the piano onslaught that reins in Scott. The room becomes so quiet King can hear the piano strings echo-ringing.
“Vocalist Sheryl Lee, ladies and gentlemen,” he says.
Amid the applause Sheryl begins a cappella.
“I was here before life began
In the wind and on the waves of the seas
Lying on the flowers—dancing through the trees.”
The trio joins her; Scott accompanying with classical phraseology, Spider with his fiddle bow, June with subtle brush work.
“I am music I am ageless—I am love
And when the first man came I was lying there in his brain
I gave to him my treasure…”
Sheryl’s contralto vocalizing is hypnotic; a wave of infectious emotion buoys her up. Enraptured in the splendor of her aura, Cede fancies she had earlier urged him on just for this moment and is singing to him. He whispers various nuances, accentuating her lines. Sheryl winks satisfaction. King catches himself actually smiling.