Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Bohemia After Dark by Julian Gallo

New York City — Present Day

They said no one would show up but they were wrong. The club is packed, standing room only. I look over at my bass player, the incomparable Rollo Jefferson, one of the best bass players I’d ever worked with. He’s wiping the sweat off his brow, looks a little confused. I reassure him that everything is going just fine, better than I expected. He looks at me, smiles, massages the cramps from of his fingers. Yeah, I know it’s hard, brother, and it’s been a long time but you can do it. I glance over at Billy Tyler, the baddest fucking drummer there is. He nods at me, adjusts his high hat. Hank Smalls, the pianist, I don’t know what’s wrong with him. Seems to be out of sorts, throughout the entire first set he’d had trouble keeping up. I can’t even get him to look at me. What’s his deal? This is the ‘classic’ line up — the ones who have been with me through thick and thin. The audience is waiting for the next piece, the last one before we break between sets. I’m pleased to see that the club is packed. As usual, the naysayers were wrong.

I’ve been following Chester Reardon’s career since the beginning. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him play at the Village Vanguard back in 1961. One of the best horn players I’d seen, to be honest. His tone, his inventive melodies, his willingness to take his trumpet places no one ever dreamed of. His band were equally amazing. I don’t know where he found these guys but they were obviously lurking somewhere out there, hidden in the shadows. When he first took the stage, I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest. I had been writing columns and reviews about every Jazz musician on the circuit at the time. Some, those like Coltrane, Rollins, Miles, they were taking the music to a whole other level.
    Some of my peers didn’t understand what I saw in players like them. They were a bit more traditionally inclined. They didn’t have time for these guys who were willing to push the envelope. I was an early champion of these modern players. Hentoff was another. He and I both contributed reviews and articles to the Village Voice. Nice guy. However, we didn’t always agree. Hentoff wasn’t all that impressed with Reardon, saw him as a ‘Coltrane clone’, as he put it. I didn’t see it. First off, Reardon played a different instrument, had a different sound, but I guess I knew what he meant. I still didn’t agree. What Reardon did with that horn made my hair stand on end.
    Now here he is, all these years later. No one, not even myself, imagined he’d be able to get through a couple of tunes, never mind the first half of his two sets. He’s a shadow of his former self. Granted, he’s a much older man now but even Sonny Rollins can still handle his instrument and he’s even older than Reardon. He doesn’t look as bad as I thought he would, although he is very frail, showing signs of his seventy plus years. He had a rough road along the way, like most headstrong musicians. This scene is small and had always been small. It’s even smaller today. No one can count how many bridges he burnt along the way. It saddens me to see this, I have to be honest.

No Quarter, a difficult track off my fourth album. Rollo is getting through the tough introduction just fine. He’s not as quick as he used to be but he sounds like his old self. I look out over the crowd. They seem a bit stoic for some reason. I look out over the audience, spot Brooks. John L. Brooks. Jesus, is he still alive? Motherfucker used to sing my praises in the early days then I lost him and I never knew why. It was that damn clique he ran around with, those who convinced him that what I was playing wasn’t Jazz. Who the fuck was he to say? The fool never picked up an instrument in his life. All he did was write about it. I’m surprised to see him here. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. He’s just sitting there, watching. His body language betrays nothing. Rollo nears the end of the introduction. Time for my part, time to shine...

Jesus — I don’t know what the hell that was. Can’t he hear it? After he hit that note I glanced around the room and actually saw some people cringe. Literally cringe. He had to have noticed that. Even his bandmates shot him a look. But that’s Reardon for you, in his own world — eyes closed, veins bulging in his neck, sweat pouring down his forehead. He’s having a difficult time but apparently he doesn’t realize it.
    I remember when I first heard this track from his 1967 album of the same title. No Quarter indeed. I remember taking it home, putting it on the HiFi and getting the fits. Who the hell told him that this piece of shit was releasable? Didn’t the record company vet the damn thing? Between his horn playing and the way the piano clashed with what Reardon thought were notes, I thought I was listening to the traffic outside my window. A discordant mess. None of the critics liked it, saw it for the bullshit that it was.
    Now he’s playing it, as if anyone wants to hear this shit. It sounds even worse now. Reardon can’t hold the notes, that is, whatever notes there are in this disastrous piece. The band looks confused, lost, embarrassed. Reardon carries on, oblivious. I have to ask myself why so many people even bothered to show up to hear him. An absolute train wreck. Worse, even.

Hank’s solo — he’s killing it! Go, man, show ‘em what you got! The band is cooking now. The audience, rapt attention. I look at Brooks, who sits there, his elbow on the table, his hand over his mouth. He’s listening. The one thing I’ll give Brooks is that he always listened, even if he hated it. He knew exactly why he hated something. I wasn’t the only one he trashed over the years. After a while, this dumb ass hated everyone. I think he got a kick out of those damn hatchet pieces of his. A lot of musicians didn’t like him, thought him too critical, too harsh. But that’s a critic for you. Those who can play, play; those who can’t sit back and shit all over everything. Hank is bashing those keys, now, those inventive chords that no one ever truly understood. “This isn’t music!” they used to say. Right, but yet when Cecil Taylor came along, everyone praised the shit out of him. Hank was Cecil Taylor long before Taylor ever set foot on the stage. I’m convinced Taylor got his whole thing from Hank. No respect. No respect at all.

Someone let a cat run all over the piano. What the hell is this shit? It’s not even what he played on the record. It sounds as if he were sucked into this vortex and he can’t find his way out, although I can hear he’s trying. He looks confused, frightened almost. I remember before Hank Smalls began playing with Reardon, he was one of the best pianists on the scene. His old trio made some damn fine music. Once he got involved with Reardon, he lost his ability to play. What the hell is he doing up there? If one closed their eyes, one would think he was simply banging on the keyboard with his fists. I get discordant music but this is far beyond discordant. This is an assault on the senses. And Reardon stands there beside the piano, rocking his head, urging him on. The rest of the band looks as if they just closed their eyes so they could get lost in their own thing, playing whatever parts they wanted to. This is not even improvisation. This is like setting children loose in a room full of instruments.

Quiet now...yes...Rollo’s turn, his runs on the bass. You can hear a pin drop. I look out at the crowd. They’re watching his every move. He’s even improving on his part from the original recording. Rollo still has it and Billy’s locking it down, even trying out some new things. This is what it’s all about, things people like Brooks could and would never understand.  

As the first set comes to an end and the band exits the stage, the crowd begins to file out. Do they realize that there’s another set? Perhaps they had enough. I plan on sticking around for the second half. I don’t even see band anywhere. They disappeared backstage, probably high-fiving one another, thinking that what they were doing was actually good. I actually feel a little sick.
    I look around at what remains of the audience. Either these are die hard Reardon fans — believe it or not, there are some out there — or they are here to watch this once promising musician’s final destruction. God knows what he has on his mind for the second set.
  I keep thinking about how this guy was once one of the more inventive musicians out there, how his very first album, Sound Sculptures, had been unanimously praised by nearly every critic and aficionado alike. What he was doing then was truly revolutionary. I guess all the accolades, being called a ‘young genius’ all the time went to his head. His follow up album, Abstract Symphony, showed promise but I thought it paled in comparison to his debut. One could tell that he was trying out new things but he kept it all within a traditional framework. He didn’t go into outer space, at least not yet. I could tell Coltrane had become a huge influence on him, wanting to do what Coltrane had done with his saxophone and translate it to trumpet. It sort of worked, sort of didn’t. At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of it but I gave it an overall positive review because he was trying, at least.
By ’64, he started going off the rails. It didn’t help that he started getting more into drugs, booze. It wasn’t uncommon to see him take the bandstand and be utterly out of his mind. He started to augment his band around that time too, taking in a sax player named Richie Henderson, who was a young, promising musician as well. Henderson ruined his career by trying to remain loyal to his mentor, who word has it, treated him like dog shit. He didn’t only ruin his career. Henderson started getting into heroin and other drugs. Poor kid wound up having a stroke before he was thirty years old and that was the end of that.
Then his third album came out, in the summer of ’66. By then everyone was starting to experiment with different sounds, different modes. Coltrane led the way, of course, but you had players like Yusef Lateef who also brought eastern sounds and modes into his music. Reardon did the same, taking a cue from some of the pop bands of the time, seeking out exotic instruments. Reardon wasn’t the first Jazz musician that I knew of who worked with a sitar player. Bud Shank had beat him too it by a good five years and he had the great Ravi Shankar working with him. Reardon, by the time he decided to experiment with it, found some dopey hippy kid he met out in San Francisco who merely made noise with the thing. It sort of worked within the context of Reardon’s strange compositions but it didn’t sit too well with a lot of critics that I knew who thought he was merely jumping on the bandwagon.       But I’ll give Reardon credit for being one of the first to begin experimenting with different sounds. His contemporaries did it much better. That album, Black Caravan, did very poorly from what I remember, and it didn’t help that Reardon started taking another cue from pop musicians — acid.
Then the disastrous Concave came out in mid-1967. That’s when he lost me. That’s when he lost virtually everyone except for a few die hard fans. His performances, after that record, barely drew more than thirty people. It was clear to me that it was over.
    Oh, he didn’t like my take down of that album. Not one bit. Two weeks after the review appeared in the Village Voice I ran into him on Carmine Street. It was clear that he was out of his mind, nodding out, barely able to speak, but that didn’t stop him from trying to attack me, swinging at me with those emaciated arms of his, but all he did was collapse on the sidewalk, split his head open. I had to run into a nearby Italian restaurant to use the phone to call an ambulance.
    Reardon carried on, albeit with much smaller labels who could barely get his music distributed properly. He hardly made a dime and whatever money he did make, he spent on drugs and alcohol. By the end of the 60s, he was a sad, pathetic mess.
    He eventually got his shit together, stepping away form music for most of the 1970s but he came back in 1981 and started playing out again. He came back to a completely different world. No one cared about Jazz anymore. He didn’t draw much, playing to sparse crowds wherever he could, only his most loyal devotees following him around. He never made another record. No one wanted to work with him.
    As to what happened for him to draw the biggest crowd he’d seen in nearly forty years, I don’t know. I hadn’t been keeping up with him in nearly as long. I only knew about this show because I just happened upon an ad in the Village Voice and I got curious. When I showed up, I expected to walk into an empty club. When I saw the standing room only crowd, I was floored. Perhaps he really did get his shit together, after all. Sometimes people are too far ahead of their time. Perhaps I was wrong, I thought. Maybe it just took a long time for the rest of us to catch up to him.

I tell the guys that I want to play Concave but they’re not having it. Hank is concerned that we hadn’t played it in over twenty years. I tell him that I’m sure the crowd wants to hear it. Rollo wants to dip into tracks from Sound Sculptures but I tell him we had already done half of that album in the first set. Billy wants to just improvise something. I insist on Concave, especially since Brooks is out there in the audience. Brooks tore that album to pieces and I never appreciated that. He never understood that piece, was way over his head. Was way over everyone else’s for that matter. Everyone laughed at me at the time but I knew better. Well, not everyone. Wayne Shorter complimented me on it, told me that the piece was far ahead of its time, that no one was going to understand it. I even heard in the wind that Cecil Taylor was a fan of that record, which doesn’t surprise me, when you consider he took everything from Hank anyway. Brooks on the other hand, called it a ‘cesspool of noise’. I never forgave him for that.

I can’t believe it. Concave. He’s actually going to attempt to play that mess. His introduction is already off key. How can he not hear that? I feel sorry for his bandmates, who keep giving each other sidelong glances, knowing looks. They know they’re heading for disaster. This sounds even worse than the recording.

I’m looking right at him and I think he knows it too. This is dedicated to you, my friend. Sure, you may have given up on me years ago but you’re here, you paid to get in. I wonder where the audience went. Did they know I was going to do a second set? Those that remained behind, they’re listening, I’ve got their attention. Okay, Hank, here’s your entrance, hit that chord! Yes! Perfect! Let’s show that know nothing what he should have known forty years ago. Okay, Billy, here you go, nice...smooth entrance...easy now...bam! You got it! We’re cookin’ now!

I feel bad for Chester, I really do. Little by little whoever is left in the audience are starting to file out and he doesn’t notice a thing; he’s in his own world. The band struggles to keep up with him, trying to work around these insidious microtones, which aren’t intentional, that much I know. Perhaps he can’t hear himself? No, he just can’t play anymore. Look at the faces of his bandmates — what a horror show. Rollo Jefferson looks like he just wants to drop the bass to the stage and walk off and Billy is laughing behind the kit. Chester, his eyes closed, veins bulging in his neck and forehead, he continues to bring forth this racket. It’s not only an insult to the audience, it’s an insult to himself. There’s nothing more sad than watching a once promising musician soil himself like this. This isn’t ‘Avant Garde’. This isn’t even experimental. It’s a horror show.

Rollo is taking this to a new level. His solo is remarkable. He and Billy are really locking this down. I stare at Brooks. He’s just sitting there, totally unmoved, but even he has to admit that what we’re laying down was the best thing we laid down all night. Hank just played some amazing chord progressions. Let them go for a while. Let them shine.

I can’t take much more of this. I want to leave but for some reason I can’t get up from my chair. I can’t look away no matter how hard I try. It’s obvious his band is trying to salvage this thing the best they can and they are putting down some good parts but there’s no salvaging this garbage. It sounds infinitely superior without Reardon’s squawking. It makes me wonder whether or not he’s still on drugs. If not, then the drugs and the alcohol had taken its toll. An absolute nightmare. I almost want to cry.

All right — the second movement. This was always the most difficult part to play but I seem to be handling it okay. Could be better, though. I’m not as young as I used to be. Don’t have the lung capacity anymore. Still, it’s soaring. Billy’s attacking the cymbals like a madman. Bring it, brother! Having trouble hitting the high notes, have to readjust. It’s okay. Take it somewhere else. Damn, this feels good! I haven’t felt this good in years!

Nothing but a swirl of noise now. Worse than traffic. In fact, I’d much prefer to listen to a symphony of car horns on a crowded Manhattan street than to subject myself to this any longer. I have to get the hell out of here.
His horn is literally splitting my ear drums. The guy at the door gives me a knowing look before I step out into the street. I feel as if I just got back from a war. I actually feel dizzy. I take a moment to stop, lean against a parked car, watch a few more people file through the door. How many actually remained behind? Masochists, all of them.
    As much as I would love to review this show, I’m not even going to. What good would tearing him up again do? It’s too easy to beat up on an old man. I just want to go home.
    As I flag down a cab, three more leave the club. One of them is laughing.

Sporadic applause.
    There are only three people left.
    My bandmates don’t say anything, pack up their instruments.
    I thank those who remain, express my deepest appreciation.
    I did what I set out to do.
    After all these years, we’re still way ahead of our time.

New York City
February 2016


Julian Gallo is the author of 'The Other Side Of The Orange Grove' (Empty Canvas, June 2018) and other novels. He lives and works in New York City.'  

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