LJ Idol Exhibit B | week ten | 1301 words
All That Jazz (an intersection with lrig_rorrim, whose story on 'Beneath the surface' can be found here.)
The Excelsior was not the fanciest or best-known venue in Harlem, but it had history and a certain ambience. Many of the great artists had played there, and Billings Bodry's chance finally came his second year of touring with the New Notes Quartet. He was the group's front man, and they'd made a big enough name for themselves that doors were opening to places he'd long dreamed of playing.
The group arrived by train just after noon on Friday, and took their suitcases and equipment over to the Luxe Hotel. They'd been offered rehearsal time at the Excelsior, and headed over there after lunch.
The men set up onstage: Slats Wilson on drums, Lincoln Harris on string bass, Bernard Doucet at the piano, and Billings with his array of saxophones. They positioned the amps and microphones, got themselves settled, and tuned up. Then they went into their traditional warm-up piece, I Get A Kick Out Of You. Billings used the alto sax for that, and for the next several pieces. The horn's leaning flat today, he thought. Something to keep his ear on later that night. He switched to tenor sax for a few numbers, working that smooth, smooth sound with authority. The band shifted into a couple of original tunes, things he'd collaborated on with Bernie. Not bad—tight, lots of energy. We've got the moves. After a few more turns on the tenor, and a solo piece for Bernie, Billings was ready to try out their newest piece, the one he'd been cooking up for a few months. He picked up his baritone sax, and after a quick check for pitch, they started in.
'Just Messin' Around' was a bit of a stomp, in 5/4 time. Audiences likely wouldn't mind the unusual meter—it just made the music seem to rush forward, livening things up. The bari sax added a playful touch, and nothing honked like a bari. Whenever they did this piece it was like jamming, even though it was written all the way through. It was just fun, pure and simple.
Yessir, we are smokin'. This one's ready to add to the show. The Quartet jived and swayed as they played, and the stage seemed to move and shake right along with them. That was the power of getting caught up in the music.
They were all nearly giddy by the time that number was done, and finished out with a standard and couple of mournful blues tunes. Billings would work out the order before the night's performance, but they'd covered everything they needed to practice and a few extra songs just in case.
The men all went back to the hotel to dress for the performance and find a place to eat. Billings often tried to fill up the time between practice and the actual show—it kept Slats from pumping his arm full of poison, at least until after they'd finished the gig.
At the Yellow Rose Café, he sketched out the sets, reworking here and there. It could all change once they went live, depending on the mood of the audience and the feel of the show, but planning lessened the jitters. The food arrived—hot and plentiful, not quite tasting of home but near enough. All four men liked the relative ease of working in Harlem, where there was no color barrier blocking the way when a man needed a place to sleep or eat.
They went to the Excelsior afterwards, and were admitted backstage. The equipment was still set up where they'd left it. Billings checked all the microphones and amps, making sure they still worked. With half an hour until the doors opened to customers, Billings paced, working his lips on a mouthpiece and keeping an eye on Slats while Lincoln dozed on a worn-out sofa. Bernie sat onstage at the piano, noodling around lightly and practicing occasional runs. Once the Excelsior opened, he'd be doing the same thing backstage on a tabletop, keeping his fingers nimble.
At fifteen minutes to showtime, Billings pulled a flask out of his inside suit pocket and took a couple of long swallows. He wanted just enough to make him loose, but not enough to mess him up. He wasn't much of a drinker, not like Bernie, but at least Bernie stayed relatively sober on playing days. Small favors, Billings thought. Gotta take 'em where you find 'em.
At last, management gave them the signal. The Quartet stepped out onstage, smiling and nodding to the audience. More than half of the tables were filled, and Billings felt a surge of energy and anticipation. He picked up his alto sax as the other men got situated. Then Slats counted off, and they went into their first number.
They followed It Don't Mean A Thing with an up-tempo version of How High The Moon, and halfway through people got up and started dancing next to the stage. The Quartet played couple of slightly slower pieces after that, then transitioned into April In Paris. Billings worked the melancholy notes of the solo like never before, and was pleased to see a tear or two on the faces of several people down below. The next tune was Midnight Sun, with its winding melodies punctuated by clipped piano chords, and then The A' Train whipped up the energy all over again and doubled the number of people dancing in front of the stage.
No better time than now. "Let's do Messin' Around," Billings said to the group. The audience was in the mood for it, and the band had the juice to pull it off.
He traded his alto sax for the bari, and pointed his finger at Lincoln. The string-bass intro started the piece, and the rest of the group came in on the second bar. It was just the way they'd rehearsed it—smart and snappy, the kind of music that made you want to move. Billings could feel the whole stage vibrating as they played, all the notes falling in place in a rhythm so strong it came right back at them from the floor itself.
Damn, but we sound good! The audience was hopping and stomping to the beat, everyone wrapped up in it together. Billings was dizzy with the moment. His piece was going over hotter than the standards they'd played before it. Bernie looked like he was fighting as hard to stay on top of the music as Billings was—as if the stage was a wild thing, trying to buck both of them off. The whole world tilted and weaved as the group played on, dangerously close to being out of control but as amazing a ride as there ever was. Knew this place was magic, Billings thought, but it was more than that. The right time, the right venue, with the music and the audience in perfect synergy—he'd dreamed of it his entire career.
Suddenly Billings heard a loud banging noise right behind him, and someone in the audience screamed.
Not the damn amp, please don't let it blow! He kept playing, refusing to look and make the problem real. The rest of the band stumbled to a halt and something grabbed hold of Billings and lifted him into the air, something huge and black and rubbery.
Lord, what on earth!
The audience erupted in panic, people yelling and tripping over each other as they rushed toward the exits. Billings dropped the sax as the grip around his middle tightened, and he was yanked down through the stage and into darkness. The world became a pinprick of fading light up above as a black haze of pain and blood-loss and confusion closed in.
It had been so perfect and now it was ending, and Billings died without ever knowing why.
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