Tuesday, April 12, 2016

# 99 Easy Street, Part Eighteen. Louis Shalako.

Louis Shalako

Doc tapped his stick on the lectern where he kept his sheet music, all bullshit, but he liked to have it around according to an interview from a few years back in Village Voice.

He give Mark a look.

“And where would you like to start, young man?”

“I want to do Low Down Dog, Big Joe Turner. Or how about, ah, How Long Blues, whichever you prefer.”

Doc gave Mark a quick nod, turned to the boys, and tapped his stick again.

“How Long Blues—” There was a long breath of air, their eyes on Mark, who was hoping against hope that he wouldn’t blush or stutter or hit a wrong note right out of the box.

No big chunks of phlegm, please.

A bit tired, a bit jaded they might be, but it was also a welcome respite from hard work and boring old rehearsal. They’d played it a million times and they still liked it. What the hell.

They’d seen it all and watching someone destroy themselves in front of the real pros was always compelling—always instructive, always with that tinge of pathos. Some guy’s dream, shot down in flames. Poor son of a bitch, that could have been me.

He’d worked his whole life for that moment, and he was always going to be the last one to figure it out.

The drummer started them off and then Mark put the bell to his lips and began to play.

Doc threw Mark a curve ball after a minute, and segued into John Coltrane’s Spiritual. It threw him off only for a second and then Mark was once again faking the sax.

“Stop.” Mouth open, Doc turned and gave Benny a shocked look.


The thought hung in the air.

Well—that was quick, and the guy not bad, either.

Mark’s heart sank as they settled into a hushed silence.

He stood there waiting. Mark thought he’d been doing all right, but it had been a long time—a very long time. Benny whispered something to another man leaning in for instructions.

The guy went away as Benny sat and smoked inscrutably. The other musicians muttered and whispered among themselves. Mark looked at Doc for guidance but he just shrugged.

You either run or you wait. You could quit. The choice is yours.

The choice is yours.

You could always shit your pants.

The fellow came back from somewhere, a battered black case in his hand.

Mark’s heart began to pound (it was still pounding) as the man brought it up to the stage. 

Staying at ground level, he put it down and gave it a good shove.

“Mister Jones?”


It was right there. A sober-looking Doc kicked the case lightly, sending it two inches closer to Mark’s left foot.

“Open it.”


“It was in the lost and found. Mister Jones. Someone must have forgotten it. Or maybe he fucked up a good gig and left a big tab or something. I forget which.” Benny had never forgotten anything or anyone, especially a horn or sax man, and they all knew it.

He opened up the case.

Mark found the horn out of tune and loose in the joints. He could only waste so much time fucking with it. He did the best he could. Some poor bastard’s broken-down old saxophone.

That mouthpiece hadn’t been washed in some time…fuck.

Nabokov, (Wiki.)
Doc saw that he was ready and started them again, picking up where they’d left off.

The reed was maybe a bit dry. It’d been there a while, in the lost and found.

Getting into the tune again, his body began to move and shake.

The lady was smiling, biting her lip and her hand stole over and Benny took it and gave it a squeeze.

They wound up the tune to a hand-clap from the lady at least, and Benny puffed furiously at the hundred-millimetre cigarette in its amber holder.

“I love that backwards shuffle.” She stared at him up on stage, nudging Benny again. “What’s that bit where you’re sort of leaning from side to side, and bending at the hips?”

She was a lot smarter than she looked and Mark began to sweat.

They hadn’t thrown him out just yet.

“I’m just moving, Ma’am. Miles. Autumn Leaves.”

Doc nodded at the boys and for the love of God, brought out his little tuning pipe and blew a thin clear note. Doc’s head turned and he gave Mark a quick wink.

The band members laughed, but it was a good laugh.

Mark handled his parts no problem, even improvising a riff or two when Doc gave a sardonic nod at the guy on the drums. A tall, thin reedy fellow with narrow shoulders and a cheap black suit, everyone else fell silent as he thrummed slowly on the bass and Mark had beads of sweat on his forehead as he put everything into it. His hips went back and forth in a double lean, like a skier on the moguls.

Finally, he came up for air. The guys looked at each other, nodding and grinning.

“Take Five.” Dave Brubeck.

The band sighed, thinking it was just another number, but things were going okay and the kid looked all right so far. They went along with him, perking up a bit as this was more than just the routine practice and jam.


After working their way through In the Mood, with Mark back on the trumpet, Doc made them take a quick break. The anonymous fellow was at Benny’s table, head down, working on the sax.

Hopefully he could do something with the old thing.

Mark hadn’t played in a while and he seemed to have been doing pretty well with it. Benny and the lady were whispering back and forth, back and forth…

Mark turned to Doc.

“What sort of a crowd do you get here?”

“Hmn. Blues, progressive, not so much swing but you can get away with it. Give it a funkier, more aggressive arrangement, and go nuts on the solo. You’ll be all right if you don’t abuse the privilege.”

Mark nodded. That sure sounded good. One or two of the guys were smiling, always a good sign.

They still wouldn’t quite meet his eyes yet. 

They knew how it felt, all right.

Sudden death, in overtime.

Karpov and the lady were waiting and the other guy set the sax down on the tabletop to listen.

“All right, boys. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Mark lifted the horn and 
Doc got them going again.

“One, two, three…”

After that, it was back to the sax again for a little bit of Charlie Mingus and Moanin’.


His session was over, and he had done very well to even get that far. Mark was wrung right out.

Just being there was a dream. Doc and the band were back to their regular practice. It was an amazing group, all of them gifted and very professional. They didn’t always agree, and there was some discussion back and forth in between numbers, but when they played they played very well indeed. It wouldn’t always be this way of course. They would have had bad days and even worse days along the way. They had a lady singer and a couple of the males had real good voices…

Mark sat on Benny’s right, and Mona was on Benny’s left. Benny had bought him a beer.

Holy, shit.

She leaned forward, squeezing Benny’s upper thigh and studying Mark. Biting her lip, smiling inscrutably, she leaned back and watched the band.

“Mark, this is Dale Cromwell.”

Mark took a good look, having heard the name. He’d never seen his picture anywhere, in spite of reading the music mags all the time, at least before his current troubles began. 

Cromwell was their horn player—and the man who had brought the sax from the back room. 

He was a tall, good-looking dude about a hundred and eighty pounds, with thick, wavy hair. 

Very distinguished.

“Oh. Pleased to meet you.”

“Yeah, me too, Mark. You’ve very good, incidentally—”

Coming from Cromwell, this was high praise indeed. But someone had said Benny was looking for a horn player.

“Lots of emotion, lots of little signature flourishes. You have a unique voice on that thing.”

Cromwell looked at Benny and grinned. Benny’s eyes were downcast, his mien sober.

“Thank you.”

This didn’t look too good all of a sudden. Those cold amber eyes came up from the table.

“Okay, Mark, here’s the deal. I’m not really looking for a horn man. However, I’m always looking for new talent. And you can obviously play the horn. The question is, how are you at arrangements? Can you back Dale up, without drowning the man out and engaging in a duel—unless we decide that’s what we want. Can you play the sax, when we need it, anytime we need it. I want to see some chemistry when you guys play.”

“Uh…sir. Yes. Sir.”

Dale grinned and the lady sipped champagne.

“…but what’s really interesting is that Ed Hanrahan is getting kind of old. He’s been on alto sax for years. His wife’s not well and he wants to take her home to Omaha where they can be closer to her family. He was born just up the road, I forget, some shit little town out there.” Benny was Big Apple born and bred.

Anything west of the Alleghenies was a foreign country.

“You seem okay on the sax. You’re still young, and hopefully capable of learning a new trick once in a while. Do you want the job? It’s thirty-five a week. Free drinks, we have a bit of food every night, within reason.”

Mark’s mouth opened but no sound came out.

Dale slapped Mark on the shoulder.

“Of course he wants the job. Right, Mark?”

Mark nodded dumbly.

Of course he wanted the job. The trouble was that he couldn’t speak or even breathe properly.

He’d just scored a regular gig with the Benny Karpov Orchestra.

Benny nodded, pleased.

“Be here Thursday night. Seven at the latest. You work Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Sometimes we get a special gig, a festival somewhere close and we like to do that once in a while. It pays pretty good, too. That’s over and above your salary. Sometimes we get a big name in and we play backup, and we have to be good enough for them to want to come here and play. Congratulations, young man.”

Mona said the same thing and so did Dale.

“Congratulations, Mark.”

“Thank you.”

“Sundays are rehearsal. Start at one, but we wind that up by two or three o’clock and the rest of the time is your own. Some of our guys do a lot of sessions work and you can pick up some useful money there too.”

“Absolutely.” Mark bit his tongue, holding back the word sir. “Sounds good.”

“Okay. We wear suits and ties here, so I want you to look real sharp. Black or charcoal-grey suit. I’m not a big fan of brown, although I’ve seen a few good ones. Blue, I don’t know—it depends. White shirt, tie as you like, but colourful is good. Do you have a suit?”

“I’m sorry, mine’s kind of a light grey.” Mark began to sweat a little. “I’ve really only got the one.”

So near and yet so far.

Benny’s hand, shaking slightly, went to his inner breast pocket. He pulled out a well-stuffed billfold and peeled out a dizzying number of twenties. There had to be two hundred dollars there.

“Okay. Go see Mister Wong. West 25th Street. It’s between Broadway and 6th Avenue in the Flatiron, hopefully you can find that. Don’t cheap out. It’s a good investment. You can pay that back, no interest. Fifteen dollars a month. That okay?”

Mark bobbed and grinned, unable to speak. The money was in his hand somehow.

Dale nodded, seated on Mark’s right and studying him a little.

“Take the sax with you. Get a little practice, as much as you can.” Dale stood to let him out of the booth.

The tall trumpet player, confident in his own position, afraid of no other horn man in the world, clapped him on the shoulder one more time and headed up to the stage where they were labouring a bit through a new tune by the sound of it.

“After you’ve been here a while, we’ll see about getting you a better one.”

“Sure, Benny.”

It was a question of how to open up as Doc and the drummer argued over a minor point. They weren’t exactly shy about it.

“I write too, Benny.”

Karpov nodded, not looking up from the sheet music in front of him, making some faint marks with a pencil after giving it a look and rubbing some things out.

“Yeah, I know, Mark.” Of course you do. “Anyways, the accountant will have some forms for you to sign. Not right now, he’s not in, we’ll worry about that on Thursday night.”

That smile took all sting out of it. It was just a fact. Mark wrote music and Benny somehow knew it about him…Benny had a mind like a steel trap. Or maybe a guillotine.

Fuck, I’m not that good, am I?

Benny studied them on stage as the orchestra started up again, squinting, listening intently. 

His mind was somewhere else, Mark a bit of a distraction.


Mona winked, nodding, and waggled her fingers bye-bye at him.

That was one nice lady.

He nodded, grateful for her help, whatever intuitive and telepathic form that might have taken.

He took another gulp. He had questions, but later might be better.

Benny looked up.

A withering smile crossed his seamy, wizened face.

“What, are you still here?”

Mark Jones could take a hint.

“Yes, Benny.”

Standing, he downed the rest of his beer. Waste not, want not. The latches were secure.

Taking the two horn-cases, one in each hand, he beat it for the door and the street.

“We’ll talk to you later.”

One look back and Mona, eyes still on him, blew him a kiss. He just about cried on the spot.

Holy, shit.

I’ve just scored a job with Benny Karpov—and Dale fucking Cromwell!

(End of Part Eighteen.)

Thanks for reading.

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