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Chapter One: Gee, Baby
When Carla flew to Houston with Maxwell to meet his family, there were a lot of brief stares. The flitting attention spurred her to remember, as she now preferred to forget, that she was so Norwegian looking. Her sandy hair was flat as a piece of paper, her skin just short of chalky but robust, her blue eyes the perfect tint to match the veins in her arms and legs; but he was very dark and bulky, with close-cut woolly hair, his eyes drowsy and nearly decadent in their cast.
This contrast, which they used to joke about, meant too much right now. That put a gash in her spirit. They were no longer so damn superior to the dank rhetoric of racial talk. The two had been together for five years. The first four were so good they presently seemed like no more than an elaborate fantasy, a tale she told to herself about an idiotically wonderful life she had never lived. Over the last ten or twelve months, the supreme closeness of their love was suffering. Their home, as if from nowhere, was invaded by emotional disorder. It might linger, it might not. She hated most the mystery of wondering just how long that divisive prickliness would dominate his mood, then infect hers. If she had to experience the sudden spread of this interior cactus, Carla preferred the times when it disappeared almost immediately and Maxwell became himself again, not a perfect guy by any means, but her man. Then, sure, there was reaffirmation in his tone of voice, in his touch, in the way his eyes put themselves on her, as if she were now clear to him again, not a blue-eyed fog he could almost see through, knowing no warmth, no substance. At first, it always felt like a gleaming gift to know that her soul and flesh had risen from beneath a dehumanizing abstraction and had returned to their rightful place. Way inside, however, her heart eventually felt like a rubber band that had been pulled and pulled until it could not go back to its original size. Some hard, hard bitterness went with that.
It had gotten pretty ragged and pretty nasty by the time the couple arrived in Houston. Everything each one knew about the other had nearly become secondary to his being black and her being white, neither one individual, neither one human. That was where they were. But, for all of her feeling that things were just about over, she didn't accept what she sensed was his idea that it was natural for them to become alienated, an unmatchable boot and slipper. This girl from South Dakota and this guy from Texas, as far as Carla was concerned, were not instinctively doomed to lose each other just because she couldn't become what he was. She would die before she would accept some garbage like that.
While the two silently moved through the airport to get their luggage, her mood began pushing her mind around. That was how she did it; it was her impulsive way to get herself together. She always handled the moment she was in by constantly shuffling back and forth between the past and the present whenever the pressure was on. Carla knew that her life, just like everbody else's, was a detective story. So she was a person who always wanted to figure out if a problem gaining ground was a matter of personal blame, or if some shortcoming in combination with the slippery nature of life had landed her on the abundant curve of buttocks that made this white woman, like her mother but not her sister, such an anatomical anomaly. There was always a reaction to those soft twin glories below her waist, usually one that was funny or endearing or, well, kind of insulting.
At this luckless moment, Maxwell was walking toward the baggage claim as though he was by himself, all by himself. That was so mortifying. He might have been at home in Houston but he wasn't making any attempt to let her feel as if she was, or could be. What a chickenshit. It sure wasn't like that when they were first really getting it together and he took it upon himself to make her laugh and feel good.
Maxwell used to nickname her "Tailback" or "Back in Action" or "Black Bottom" or phone her from on the road and ask, "How are those Viking grandes dames doing?" That enchanting fanny also got its measure of attention when they traveled through the night clubs that were part of his Manhattan kingdom -- Sweet Basil, the Blue Note, the Village Vanguard, the Jazz Standard, Birdland, Iridium, Smoke. There was that time she often recalled with a secret fondness that was just as secretly embarrassing. An older drummer friend of his, so deep in his cups, said to Maxwell one night as Carla sat down next to him at the bar of the Vanguard after returning from the lavatory, "Boy, now ain't you a bitch? You got a blonde with a black ass. What is this world coming to? Now you got niggers so white a brother afraid to go out with a real white woman can get a black one black as a stovepipe hat and the black woman talks and acts just like the pinkest lady the Lord ever made. You seen 'em: all proper and shit, all baby-food smooth in the mouth -- cultivated, bubble-butt blackstrap molasses-looking women all the way up from the gutter, with no kind of jungle left. No soul to go home to. Just so nice. Ain't got a speck of fire sitting in their panties. Only thing wild left over is that barbwire pickaninny hair. But you, Maxwell Davis, nigger, you stumble your bodyguard-looking self out here and find a white woman couldn't nobody tell was white if all they got to see was the shadow of her profile. You know I ain't lying. She ain't got no regrets about it either. I seen her walking with that big ass banging and prancing along like she's proud of it. I'm telling you, I seen me some changes made in this man's world. Now you got black girls proud their hair is nappy and white girls happy they asses ain't flat as pancakes. I need another drink. The end is near -- near you."
As she now looked at Maxwell exhibiting his commendable manners by stepping so gracefully between the other passengers as he pulled his and her luggage off the ramp and made sure that he neither bumped into nor struck anyone with their suitcases, she, for absolutely no reason, saw him as he was before they became lovers. Before she finally gave up her apartment and began living with him, before they got so close that, it seemed, when one inhaled the other exhaled.
It was the indelible blue spring morning a year before their romance moved into hot couplings. Maxwell was very carefully lifting Bobo, who could no longer walk, and taking him to the cab that would carry his friend to the Veterans' Hospital. My God, my God.
There was still one more piece of luggage to get and Carla, as a clear pearl of sweat appeared on Maxwell's neck, heard the way he played the saxophone and thought of how attentive he could be and how much, while not feeling even a smidgen of inferiority, she admired him for the force of his sensitivity and the confidence he brought to his art and to the life they had together when nothing unreasonable was mashing down on them. What a mess they were in, the two of them heading for the rental car counter, no closeness distinguishing the air between them. They breathed separately. She was angry and she was insecure but there was also, down in the war room of her soul, a sureness that if this thing could be made right, and if the making it right depended on her, she could do it.
This woman was prepared to take all the necessary hard knocks for what she wanted because of the way she had already lived. That's right. Houston was just another stop. Her life had largely been a study in sturdiness, or the destruction of it: a body and soul graph of stability and instability, of difficult rises and hard falls. That was it. There was nothing to whine about, however. This wasn't particularly special. No way her life was so different from everybody else's. No way.
Carla, something of an adventurer when she thought about it, had been among so, so many different kinds of people that she had no doubts about certain things. None. The world was a tough place and anybody who stayed around found that out, in spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds. Call your trumps. The rules of illumination, satisfaction, disillusionment, thrills, surprise, joy, shock, and heartbreak were the same for everybody. But it was also just as true that the individual was still that human being out there feeling it alone.
That special aloneness was like getting out of a car back home in South Dakota. Back home on one of those windless days and one of those roads that had cost so many young lives when kids, drunk and looking for any kind of excitement, mistook the empty space for a boundless plane of safety and managed to kill themselves.
Out there all by yourself, there seemed to be no worlds of existence other than your own breathing, the feeling of your body, above and below the skin, and that horizon, stretching on and on in flatness. That exquisite solitude was warming because one could pretend that God had made all of this for no greater purpose than to provide just one person with a big target for musing. You could be that vain if you were comfortable with it.
The high-toned flummery one could get into back home when nobody was around for miles and miles had little to do with the overcrowding that she had known for a while now. Carla was breathing down the neck of forty and had been residing -- with a break of a couple of years -- in New York since her early twenties, arriving there with an unshaped desire to sing but not the nerve to sing what she actually felt. Her out-west ethnic background had something to do with it; she wasn't sure she could measure up. Even though the world of Negro music had attracted her since she had been a surprised girl in church, and even though her love of the music had taken her deep into the human side of the Negro world, where there were those she liked and those she couldn't deal with, Carla the new arrival trembled inside about being mistaken for a person unlike what she actually was.
That lack of sureness during her early and mid-twenties prompted the woman to make some mistakes along the way by trying to avoid seeking what she really wanted; by not stepping into the aesthetic line that pulled her most strongly; by not facing the reason but looking for something in which she could be authentic and white and accepted and accepting of herself; by, finally, not taking the chance on failing.
The girl from South Dakota had overcome that while listening to a little portable radio on a long bus ride. The music told her what to do. From then on, color be damned, she called upon the same will that had provided her with the discipline to become a local skating whiz with championship potential when she was a high school girl. Second by second, note by note, and beat by beat, Carla had made herself into a jazz singer, one who had been getting some light attention for the last few years. There was a blessing there.
That attention, those nightclub jobs, and the recordings that were now looming made her relationship to Maxwell quite different from what it was at the very start, when he was being called with job offers all the time and she was rarely the person the caller wanted to employ.
The telephone was the enemy then. It consistently defined the career limitations of the woman in the house, which was why she hated to hear it ring and turned down the speaker on the answering machine, choosing to find out what was going on later in the day, perhaps before dinner, or even later.
Such petty tactics made her feel she was a combination of a bitch and a coward. So let it ring. Let it ring. Ring. Pick up the receiver and act like a fully grown person. There. Her envy, that brittle cousin of awe, subsided to a great degree.
Envy hadn't taken up much space at all when Carla was a kid out on the plains, but New York had made her resentful of the success of others -- almost anybody, regardless of career -- which was something she hated and fought every time that covetous mood made its way to the front of the emotional line. Consequently, it was easy to be thankful for the fact that she was much more confident about herself as an artist, and now usually carried her accomplishments with the modulated authority she had been introduced to during her grade school years as Miss Popular.
That unintended preparation worked well for her when she was interviewed by the nincompoops who wrote about jazz, almost all of them guys who made the art into a revelatory mistress they bloated with the chocolates of their sentimentality or tortured because it so clarified their own inadequacies. Oh, she knew just how to play them. Easy as unsalted butter melting on a skillet. Clarified. Absolutely. Add to that the truth that the greasy spoons and the top flight restaurants where she had waitressed were finishing schools for her and any other woman who needed to learn how to express an amalgamation of dignity, good cheer, ease, humor, and appreciation -- with just enough of the perfume of sex to make a man tip better and feel closer but not close enough to say something so unsavory it would draw a snippy admonishment that might be compressed to a contemptuous razor of light in the insulted one's eyes.
Carla's demeanor convinced every jazz journalist who wanted to do a profile of her that he was discovering fresh material. Because Maxwell, no matter how good he was at handling them, never wanted one of those guys to ever set foot inside their home, her interviews were given in a coffee bar or she visited one of their overstuffed apartments full of the information that these men absorbed and too frequently displayed in place of souls. They were so unlike what she had dreamed about back home, when the South Dakota girl had her imagination tweaked by the exotic force of Eastern European men who were gutsy and physical. These nerdy jazz writers might have been pure New Yorkers, most of them Ellis Island stock to a man, but they never reminded her of the young Tony Curtis in The Sweet Smell of Success (whom her mother thought was one of the handsomest men ever born and never failed to look at with a special enjoyment when that movie was shown on TV). If being muscular or athletic or sexy was the subject, well, they sure as hell weren't Mark Spitz, whose very name made the girls shriek in the locker room showers at the health club when she went back home for a visit during his Olympic year of great conquest. Still, any one of these journalists, zhlulbby or not, badly dressed and unconvincingly poised, could be useful. The bean pole or the shorty or the average build or the zhlub of the moment would be taken by her humility and her shining appreciation of the fact that he had chosen to sprinkle some ink about the way she sang and the way she was. In the middle of those interviews, as with who knows whatever else, something human might take off.
The variously formed love both she and the interviewer had for jazz could redefine the context in the direction of camaraderie. Then a real mood punctured the game and flattened it. This resulted in the singer believing that much more in what the music was about and what it could do -- and how you, no matter what kind of a tricky plan you had, must bow down in your feelings before this thing whenever the right question was asked or implied with enough oomph to stimulate what it felt like to hear someone really take off, or what a miracle it seemed when you were on a bandstand and the swing lifted up.
Any time she was reminded of that swing during an interview, the girl from South Dakota knew she was lucky. Yes: quite. In some personal place, she also felt ashamed for looking down on someone so far outside the way it actually was, especially since there was no way on the entire earth that this woman could ever set her mind to forget how terrible it felt when she was trying to get into the jazz world and had exactly no idea which way to go. She might have had a big rubber butt but she sure wasn't hip. Besides, as Maxwell said, "Never get too hip, baby. Two hips alwaysI make an ass."
As it emerged from her like a tantalizing musk, this unspoken realization went to the head of the interviewer, shifting the gears of his enthusiasm into overjoy. The written results, putrefied by clichés, lacking in musical insight but delivered with all the quirks of unearned superiority, were embarrassing but also the substance that underlay a brief but very definite period of gloating. Yep: she was a gloater. Always had been. So while Carla wasn't sure that she would catch Maxwell, there was no doubt that she was going to get much, much closer to his level of success in only a few years. Well, maybe. If you're equal to your desire, maybe is just enough to bet everything on, just about enough.
Maxwell in all his power was no joke. Not that big boy. Stepping up to where he was would take some doing. She had learned the details of his substance by the day. His winning of jazz polls, the recording dates as leader and guest artist, the copious attention that had fallen on him over the last few years, and all that made his success were not come by simply or naturally. Those who believed the hazy things he said in interviews and thought his music was something achieved through no more than the will of his breath had been totally duped. Playing the part of the idiot savant was a mask Maxwell never removed among those he knew wanted to bite big plugs out of his style or take high positions in the critical circle for breaking down the essences of his methods. He had contempt and slight regard for such people. Her man was an old-timer in the sense that, like a master magician, he only displayed the puzzling charisma of the illusion, never revealed what it took. Not this guy. Those who would truly know where he had hidden the secret crowns and mirrors of his accomplishments had to have the heart to dig for it. He had no intention of using Santa Claus as a model because there had been no reindeer on the roof waiting while his prowess was delivered for no more than the price of wishing on a star or mailing a list to the winter wonderland of the North Pole. The language of the music that was literally at his fingertips resulted from unrelenting homework. Being gifted wasn't enough for him; he flogged his substantial talent; he set fire under it; he spurred it. Maxwell had mastered his horn through a discipline that pushed Carla from admiration to replication. His playing had fluidity in every key. Simple to complex chords were no barriers to his self-expression because of the time spent deepening an already highly perceptive ear. He knew entire recordings and could pick up his tenor, play the saxophone solo, the trumpet solo, the piano solo, the bass solo, and whiz very close to the drum solo.
Sometimes, to show off, he would attach the horn to the hook of the everpresent neck strap and put on a Duke Ellington recording, playing through every note in the arrangement, having learned the work so well that he knew the individual parts played by each of the trumpets, the trombones, and the saxophones. To further intimidate Carla, he would play the recording through yet again, this time blowing in unison with the bass player and laughing when the bassist either missed a chord or made a pedestrian choice.
The obsessive posture of his studying meant that he would examine new rhythms, melodic ideas, and harmonic intervals over and over, making himself into an aesthetic juicer that left nothing behind, not even pulp. When he was all the way into something that had no chance of eluding him, Maxwell would finger the air as he slept or sometimes sing out bits of phrases. Those were periods of increasing grouchiness because he was at war with his own limitations and saw new information not only as an area of intrigue but as an opponent. Maxwell believed that the things you didn't know were trying to
stay beyond your grasp. He had said as much. Weird. So there was a fusion of curiosity, determination, anger, and superstition as he worked and worked at the details until he had them down. Her man ceased being irritable and made fun of himself once his fluency in a new area of expression had been brought home to his horn. The tail he pinned on himself was that of a mad scientist scrambling around in his laboratory. With a melodramatic tone, hunched over and limping, he'd play one of the ersatz Gypsy themes from The Son of Frankenstein, then scream, "Ah! He's lost his mind!" He was funny. She loved her a man with a sense of humor. Geez.
Watching Maxwell on the bandstand cleared up why he had become one of the main men on his instrument. The mystery ended very quickly. After staring at the photographs of Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, and Thelonious Monk, he left the dead kitchen that was the dressing room in the Vanguard and walked to the bandstand through the tables on the red carpet, or came past the cooking staff of Asians and West Indians through the kitchen from the dressing room that used to be in the basement of Sweet Basil but was now right next to the back of the club in a small place that was once a watch repair shop on Bleecker Street, sauntered from the spacious and mirrored dressing room down the stairs of the Blue Note, emerged from the office-like dressing room to the right of the bandstand at the Jazz Standard, walked up the short hallway from the narrow dressing room at Birdland and through the doors near the waitresses' station across from the stage, came from his dressing room at Iridium where they served the musicians fine food and moved toward the left side of the bandstand, rose from the bar at Smoke and stepped up on that stage as if everything each person in the room possessed actually belonged to him. Hand it over. His dark fingers touched the horn like it was part of his jaw, not hanging from a neck strap. A reed he was wetting in his mouth had a functional role that even a non-musician could be sure of as he pushed the shaved piece of bamboo cane into the mouthpiece of his saxophone and turned the little screws that held it in place. Then he zigzagged across the instrument to see what was up.
The sound Maxwell got from that big brass tenor always stopped the talking when he began the first tune without introduction, never using a microphone because the size of his tone moved up under the paint on the back wall of a room. Yes, that tone was big, full, not loud and offensive. It was a statement in and of itself, which was what he had aimed for, explaining to Carla that the musicians who could play the very fastest weren't those who shot out scads of notes, lickety-split. Not them. The champs when it came to speed were actually people like Louis Armstrong and Ben Webster because the very sound each of those special people made was an immediate musical experience; no phrase was needed. They didn't have to build up. You were taken away instantly. One note against the ear. Boom: There. Instantly. You can't play faster than somebody who always has the sound of music in his horn.
Carla already knew that her own way but his saying it with such insight made her think more deeply about how true that was of all great singers as well. You had to get the sound of music in your voice. Then each note and each phrase was gravy.
He said important things to her about being in charge. As with the true masters of the bandstand, Maxwell led his musicians through his instrument, guiding the piano, the bass, and the drums in the directions that he wanted to hear. "Otherwise," he told her, "you're an employer, not a bandleader." Yessiree: this guy was a leader. He was also a mobile listener who told his musicians that you always had to play as if every other instrument on the bandstand was part of your instrument in order to create the feeling of a group giving spiritual order and fire to the moment. Then, on every level, all of you seemed to be playing something preordained but the art of it was actually the outcome of improvising beyond your individual ego into the collective soul of the music. "It's not magic," he said, "but it should seem like it is. It's about listening and responding and creating on the run. That's why the great freedom of the groove sounds impersonal, like a dream better than any fucking thing we know once we stop playing."
For all that, the particulars that Carla heard in Maxwell's improvising tended to dominate. His rhythm was perfect -- or so close to perfect that you could never be sure whether or not he had gotten lost or tangled up. Sometimes he would play under the tempo, rumbling like a train beneath the ground shaking the glasses in a bar. Then he would pick up speed, reducing the tension, and move in line with the rest of the musicians.
The kinds of ideas he had were endless. He might work through the harmony as though it were a staircase and each chord was a step to be danced on, or apply pauses, letting some chords go by, to give the impression that he was taking the stairs two or three at a time.
His melodies might be long balletic bounds of sustained notes that sailed up over the meter. He could use staccato phrases that transmogrified the saxophone into a tuned gathering of drums from which came brutal honks or kidding pats and mock punches or tap-dancing stanzas in swinging rhythms.
When feeling the limitations of the material, he might slither through the music with ideas that took him far outside the key, creating an ambiguity as ominous as it could be playful.
A monster when it came to form, he could dismantle a tune and throw away everything except a phrase or two, or he might repeatedly play the bridge over and over until his band recognized that he was only dealing with those eight bars. In the middle of one song, Maxwell could suddenly move into another, then back, then add one more song, twisting them up against one another in a maddeningly fierce weaving of motifs, strip them all down to a couple of blues licks and dive down into that funky-butt lushness, eventually returning to the first song he had begun working on.
It didn't always come off perfectly, and sometimes he sat brooding in the dressing room because he had failed, but the audience lost control of itself whenever he brought such an adventure off, which he did seven or eight out of ten attempts.
At certain times, he created dialogues with himself, singing out notes from the upper register, then responding in the grumbly bottom, only to use the middle range to wrap up the tale he was telling. Or he optioned to play the upper part of the horn in a shrill manner and retort from the lower part of the instrument with breathy lines that were part air and part pitch. He could reverse the process and play uncommonly high notes that were wisps of lyricism contrasted by roars and honks from the lowest register.
The control he had over the notes themselves allowed for a musical version of the well-cut diamond, which catches and holds such a large degree of light it becomes a kaleidoscope. Beneath, or run through the intellectual detailing, the passion, and the boudoir lore was never less than a mystical quality that gave his work the impact of overhearing very intimate prayer. There was a blue star in his tone.
Seeming to be stalking inspiration, restlessly walking about the stage or standing in different places in order to change the angle from which his sound was projected, Maxwell used his tenor with so much power and intensity, from penetrating stage whispers to nearly bellowing, that a light gray suit, inching down from the shoulders to the knees, would turn charcoal gray with his sweat by the last number of a set, when he could feel his socks squishing in his shoes.
Two or three changes were necessary when he worked clubs, always beautifully dressed, each part of his outfit matched, shoes, pants, jacket, shirt, and the tie visually aligned with his socks.
Watching that dandy become a laborer right before your eyes was reminiscent of seeing the fight films he had of Sugar Ray Robinson so smoothly entering the ring with his hair coiffed into delicate waves and crests but leaving with his hairdo reduced to a riot of limp quills and his body shining, his trunks sticking to his legs, and his opponent completely done in for the night.
From the Hardcover edition.