Wednesday, April 6, 2016

# 99 Easy Street, Part Eight. Louis Shalako.

Louis Shalako

Monday must be garbage day in the neighbourhood. There were city ordinances to deter folks from putting stuff out too early. People preferred to put the trash out in broad daylight. They could scuttle back inside or take off to their day jobs. They wouldn’t have to contend with the pimps, the pushers, the prostitutes, the winos and the bums and the criminally-insane. That bunch tended to stir from their dens later in the day. If only someone had thought to ask, and he might even be one of them.

Either that, or one with them. It was a surprisingly cheerful thought.

He’d found a home.

Life was what you make of it—crazy old Bill, back at Bellevue.

That one would never get out.

Mark found two maple chairs, a bit rickety, but a bottle of carpenter’s glue would fix that. 

They were light and easy to carry. It was nice and close to home. He grabbed them and headed back off to the building, which was barely two blocks away. One or two other items caught his eye, but he wouldn’t be coming back. To hell with it.

No one gave him a second look.

People tended to ignore you anyways. It was a fact you could rely on in an uncertain world. 

They just didn’t want to know your story.

Once again he went through the whole rigmarole of the stairs and the fire escape. Setting the chairs down temporarily in his doorway, he went up, and out, around and down. Grabbing the chairs, he stacked them in the corner of the front room. Why, he couldn’t really say. He’d think about them later.

Seeing his horn sitting there disconsolately, he thought why not?

Why not?

Taking the case, he locked the door again, went out the window again, up, over and down again, down the stairs and out the door, turned and headed for the park.

No guts, no glory.


There was a cold east wind blowing in off the Atlantic. He wondered what the weather held in store. It might change pretty quickly. The buds were just cracking in the park and the sunshine was uncharacteristically brilliant.

The strong winds had blown all the pollution away. The heavier stuff remained, in the gutters and in the alleys. Lighter bits of trash, chip bags and candy wrappers rambled along like tumbleweeds in the narrower streets where the wind was strongest. The worst thing about spring was the ever-present smell of dog-shit, coming from street-corners and trash bins and every possible place where a dog might crap, now that the season was warming up.

Washington Square Park wasn’t too far to walk, just a couple of blocks. The neighbourhood gradually improved as he went along.

Gentrification was setting in, not that Mark Jones, a jazz-trumpeter badly in need of a shave, gave a damn one way or another. That one wasn’t his problem.

Walking down the street with a horn case had always been an affirmation to him. This is who I am, this is what I do and I will not be ashamed of it.

Fuck you and God-damn you all to hell—it’s better than carrying a shitty old chair.

At one time it might have even been cool.

Some frumpy old lady, not that bad really, just nice really, gave him an odd look. Normally avoiding eye-contact, New Yorkers smiled at each other but rarely, and yet there it was. He gave her a nod and kept going, his thin and lanky blond hair lifting in the breeze. He clamped his hand over his Yankees hat to keep it from blowing away. It was a typical day in the big city, and he was merely one of a million pedestrians. People looked a bit pale after a long winter. They’d been locked up too, just like him.

They’d been locked up for far too long. The streets, just as much a prison as their rat-hole apartments, were at least bigger. There was more going on. There was more to see and more to do.

He entered the park just opposite the lovely townhouses along Washington Square North and turned in towards the fountain in the centre. There were already spring flowers up, in clumps amidst larger areas of mulch.

There was an ache in the pit of his stomach.

After four years, it was like the first time all over again—like boning Amy on the floorboards, only this time he had an audience. Maybe that’s what he needed. A little excitement.

Hadn’t he had enough excitement lately…

One or two people looked at him incuriously as he set the case down on a bench and unsnapped it.

Someone actually groaned when he pulled out the horn and gave it a quick look. Mark had as much right to be there as anyone else. Inside the case, it wasn’t actually dusty, but the keys might be a bit stiff…he had to start somewhere. He’d almost been afraid to touch it, the allure was so strong. You simply couldn’t play the thing in an apartment, any apartment. He’d almost driven his parents mad, trying to learn the thing as a kid. The neighbours hadn’t liked it much either, probably, although no one had ever made a complaint.

He had Mister Scully, the bandmaster at Lincoln Memorial High, to thank for all of this. 

Scully wasn’t such a bad guy, looking back.

None of them were, looking back. They’d seemed like heartless tyrants at the time. Every kid that had ever lived had hated school. Mark Jones was no exception.

He wasn’t in school anymore.

His heart beat pleasantly in his chest and he was very aware of the sounds all around him, near and far. He’d always had an ear for it.

It was the sound, the throb, the lifeblood of the city. It never ended and it never would end.

People came and went. They lived and they died, but the city would endure.

The city would never die because it couldn’t die. It was unthinkable, and so therefore the city had taken on a life of its own. It had become something greater than the sum of its parts. 

Every great city was like that, standing at the confluence of rivers and history…or something like that.

Mark stood there, staring off into space, horn at the ready, getting his pulse and his breathing down. It was best to start off slow and easy, calm, cool and in total control.

He wanted to be nice about it.

He did the scales and fiddled with the tuning. There were one or two tolerant looks. Nothing too sarcastic so far.

The throb, eh.

He smiled in spite of himself.

Now or never, buddy.

Music mirrors the soul.

Something breaks loose within you and you just have to let it go.

Licking his lips, he brought the horn up and started into Take the A Train.

No one paid him the slightest attention, the denizens of this village meeting place intent mostly on their own business. One thing he could say for sure, was that he needed the practice. Tourists and citizens milled around the fountain, old people fed squirrels and pigeons and young mothers walked past with their prams. People cut through, going from Point A to Point B.

This was more like work than he had realized. He was still kind of burned out. The music, or his rendition of it, was loose and flowing, and yet his timing seemed good. He seemed to be hitting the notes, although that could be deceptive if your hearing was out of whack—having a cold or something like that. Relaxing a bit, his body began to bend and sway and the thing, as usual, was starting to get away from him.

Izx, (Wiki.)
That’s how you knew when it was right, when it started to get away from you and it started taking on a life of its own. Everyone had their own style, and this was uniquely his. No one was going to take that away from him.

There was such a thing as white privilege, but that meant nothing in jazz where the acknowledged best were all untrained Negro musicians. It was hard to say where he stacked up, probably somewhere down around near the bottom. It was all right. There were worse places to be.

A little training hadn’t hurt though.

People were listening. They could hear him. He had no doubt of that. They could hardly ignore him.

They could hardly be unaware of his existence. Faces turned his way and they were listening.

He was privileged to be able to do something well.

A little girl, seemingly unaccompanied by any adult, came over and stood before him as he segued into Rhapsody in Blue, but only for a while. This little ploy had been the trademark of the Burt Anderson Group ten or more years before. He’d only been with them for five months before Danny, the drummer, had gotten married and that pretty much broke up the group. 

They weren’t making any money on the road and hadn’t been able to get a recording contract in spite of agent Solly Mathews’ best efforts.

The thing was to play a few of the greats, songs anybody would recognize, and then later on, try a couple of your own compositions.

He worked his way through So What, and someone put a dime in his case. He almost lost it, unable to play with a grin stiffening his lips and pulling at his cheeks. There was also a bit of water in his eyes.

So he still had it then. He still had something.

For fuck’s sakes.

Get on with it.

It was better than nothing. Stopping for a moment, he nodded at the little girl. She might have been about nine years old. Her eyes were wide at the thought that some guy with a horn could get people to give him money.  Stars went off in her head and he tried not to pity her. But this was clearly why her mother made her take music lessons…

Hopefully she would grow out of it.

Just for the sheer hellery of it, he swung effortlessly into the theme from Peter Gunn.

It had been one of his favourite television shows, growing up in a staid, middle-class bungalow in St. Louis, where his dad was a dentist and his mother active in the church and the bridge club among other things.

That had never been the life for him.

Their expectations were stifling, and he had soon rejected them.

For this.

For this.

The little girl, looking around in guilt or shame, dug deep into her pocket and found a nickel.

Shyly, looking into his eyes as he played, she dropped it into his case.

If that didn’t bring a tear to your eye, nothing would.

Fuck the God-damned world, man.


One of the great technical challenges of a tune with a prominent trumpet part in the middle of a bunch of other parts meant for other instruments, other tones, was how to work up to it. He had one instrument and he was alone. He was trying to interpret an entire piece of music. People had to hear the beginning of the song. They had to know what you were playing, and like all instruments, the horn had its own unique strengths and its own unique weaknesses. It only had so much range.

The key was breath control. Any idiot could blow through the thing and make loud noises. 

Too many cats did just that. They had no finesse. To start off low, and slow, and muted, and still hit those notes—that was hard. To make sense of it all, on a mechanical device that only held so many octaves, well. That was skill. Maybe even just training. To make it sound good, that was art, or heart, or soul, or something. Or understanding, or interpretation. The truth was that music had to come out of your guts somewhere. Mark could read the music on the sheets and see what the composer meant. Any asshole could do that. You could interpret the squiggly marks, hit the notes, and come out with some kind of a tune. Some guys couldn’t even do that, couldn’t read a note, not one, and yet some of them made better music than him.

At least in his own humble opinion. That ability to really wing it was something he had always admired, always seeking it within himself and hardly ever finding it. Today it was working. Today was a good day to be alive, but what were the alternatives as someone once said.

There was no good day to be dead. Maybe that’s what they meant.

Dead men can’t tell you anything. All they could do was to write the score, the operas, and the history books. Then they dropped dead and wouldn’t answer your questions anymore.

You can only make sense of the living.

There was little doubt that this was a gift, and yet one he had worked very hard to acquire. He had sacrificed much, to play this simple device of deep-drawn brass. Faking the alto sax or the clarinet, the bassoon, with another instrument wasn’t easy, and one had to adapt and simplify, guessing sometimes when it wasn’t good or easy to do so.

He stopped and stood there breathing, conscious of a little sweat in the armpits. He shrugged off the shitty old coat, letting it fall beside the case. He nodded at the little girl.

“Thank you, young lady.”

“Play some more.”

He nodded.

“Anything for you, my dear.”

Her smile lit up the world when he said that, and he looked away. He made himself go on. It was all you could do sometimes. He was thirty-four years old. He’d never been married. The way things were going, he’d never have a kid—didn’t stand a chance, really. He focused on the music.

The thing had to be made somehow, and then it had to be played with a kind of confidence and authority he had always found astounding in himself—an acknowledged pussycat. It was the one thing Mark Jones did well.

You either could or you couldn’t.

He lifted the horn and began to play again.

He didn’t pretend to understand himself, he merely had to live with it.

Sharkface217, (Wiki.)
The key thing was to know the song well, to stick to the main notes, and then when your solo came, to really let loose. After working slowly, lasciviously, through Chet Baker’s Summertime, he hit the small and accumulating crowd with Billie Holliday and Easy Living.

New York still loved its jazz, all this rock and roll notwithstanding. Someone appreciated him, and one or two more small coins landed in his case.

What Did I Do (to Be So Black and Blue), Louis Armstrong, met with a small murmur of appreciation. An older woman, probably a tourist, smiled and clapped, her husband looking a bit sheepish, possibly wondering whether it was okay to snap a picture of this bizarre phenomenon.

Mark nodded and grinned, playing along, and the camera was raised and a flashbulb popped.


He still had it then.

He still had something. It was a lot better than having nothing at all.

It was a good thing to know.

Mark Jones still had soul.

Whatever the hell that meant.

(End of Part Eight.)

Here are some more Louis Shalako books and stories.

Thanks for reading.

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