Summoning the passion born from sixty-five years of hard living, Jimmy brought the song—and our first set—to a dramatic close. The audience burst into wild applause, but I could manage only a feeble smile. “Route 66” had never really pulled my heartstrings; instead of succumbing to its images of light Cowboy romanticism, I’d always seen a hot asphalt wasteland splattered with decaying armadillo roadkill. But it was the byway of choice for overzealous lounge singers looking to prove they could infuse heavy emotion into the purely mundane. Jimmy had just done just that; tragically, the audience’s reaction assured him a bigger role in our next set.
Jimmy’s triumph came on the heels of three songs belted out by the club’s former waitress, Bobbie, who’d just served a year in jail on a major drug trafficking charge. Prior to that Louie, Mike and I had slogged through four or five leaden instrumental tunes.
A curious cross between Tom Jones and Johnny Mathis, Jimmy was dressed to the nines, trying to revive a career that had peaked fifteen years ago at the Holiday Inn Tiki Lounge. Every morning he sang in the shower, closed his eyes, and saw an adoring public. Too old to make Star Search and too young to warrant a last dying wish, he’d gradually worked his way down to the Cookin’ Cadenza, where our sorry fates were now entwined. As leader of the backing trio, I was an accessory to his criminal lack of self-awareness.
On the positive side, he was eager to please. When I asked if he wouldn’t mind plugging my new CD during the next set, he was delighted to oblige. “Be glad to, man,” he said through a gold-capped smile. “Hey, I’m really digging this.”
CLANG! A bell sounded loudly in my head, ringing in the 1,000th time I’d had to confront this particular moral dilemma. Do I lie and say I’m enjoying it, too? Or do I ruin his evening by raining negativity from my personal jazz cloud of doom? “Likewise,” I say, then go have my second beer.
“Over here, man.” It was Louie, central figure in this musical sideshow. He was sitting on a barstool clutching a glass of scotch, gesturing with his free hand. Over the last year he’d undergone an astonishing physical transformation, swapping about forty pounds of fat from his stomach for twenty pounds of muscle in his arms. Only his scraggly beard and western attire were unaffected. Well into his forties, he was at last looking like the tough guy he longed to be.
“You know what I want to do, man? I want to #!@*! that chick in the #!@*!.” He pointed at a curvy blond in a summer dress, sitting at one of the room’s twenty tables. “She’d dig it too, man, believe me. Yah-he-yah-he-yah-he-he-he.” The cadence was Louie’s nervous chainsaw laugh, well-imitated among the room’s instrumental warriors; the comment was pretty standard barroom chatter from a man who had yet to embrace a feminist perspective. I nodded ambiguously.
Sometimes, for variety, I’d spend my break outside, leaning back on the club’s window, looking across the street at the darkened outdoor market that was the hub of Thomaston’s daytime tourism. Louie would join me and point down the sidewalk at an approaching couple: “Dig that chick in those shorts, man. Don’t tell me she doesn’t want it, man, you know? Yah-he-yah-he-yah-he-he.” Or I’d go talk to Mike, the obsessed bassist who’d inexplicably relocated from Tampa to play out this drama full-time. Louie would stroll over, put his arms across our shoulders, and ask, “Think that #!@*! talking to Bobbie wants to #!@*! my #!@*!? Yah-he-yah-he-yah-he-he.”
Louie owns the room that is Thomaston’s only jazz club, and—insofar as it has a clientele that doesn’t hate jazz, an owner who tolerates jazz, and an actual piano—one of the only ones in the South. Consequently there’s a semi-regular migration of piano players driving hundreds of miles to Louie’s place, which rates highly on the first two counts and nominally meets the third.
There’s a catch, of course. Louie owns the club and Louie is a drummer. You play in Louie’s club, you play with Louie. Never mind that he’s about 75% deaf and has never practiced in his life; you suffer through the gig, vow never to come back, then give him the benefit of the doubt (“Maybe he’s improved...”) three months later when he invites you back. Where else are you going to play?
Imagine a treadmill that, due to some peculiar defect, stops or even goes into reverse every few seconds without warning. Imagine trying to have an extended and meaningful workout on it. Now imagine an attentive audience scrutinizing your every move, looking for art. That’s what it’s like to perform with Louie on drums: the tempo slides about haphazardly, leaving no secure landing place for any soloist who dares go airborne. There’s a real camaraderie among pianists who have survived the experience; a game-winning, back-slapping bonding founded on the belief we’re all somehow stronger for the pain.
But at the same time there’s something magical and utterly unexplainable about Louie’s club. It’s a fundamental truism in jazz life that most rooms booking jazz—especially dinner clubs—are really looking for antiseptic background music. The minute the band starts to play as if it cares, customers complain and/or the management panics. But where the typical clubowner warns the band in advance to “keep it down,” Louie will punch his pianists on the shoulder, gleefully exalting, “Go crazy—you know, fists and elbows, man. Yah-he-yah-he-yah-he.”
Louie wants to bash, and he wants the band to bash with him. And for some reason the clientele—the well-heeled, mainstream American tourists who litter the otherwise beautiful streets of Thomaston during the day—they love it! Why? There’s no simple explanation, and visiting performers describe it to their hometown peers in wonder. There may be no other place in the country where this brand of clientele responds in this manner to this music—music that is not only undiluted and unapologetic (the jazz artists’ dream), but also lurchingly horrible (Louie’s personal contribution).
|Searching for Glory at the Cookin’ Cadenza
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