We weren’t far into the next song, “Lover Man,” when Louie started waving one of his arms frantically. There were potential customers milling around the front door, and Bonnie was at the bar, trying to fix a problem with the cash register. “Bonnie!” he yelled, “Bonnie!,” and he angrily pointed at the entrance. I had mixed feelings, beyond my usual incredulity. On the one hand, Louie’s horrible rhythmic sense got even worse when he was disrupted like this. On the other hand, with one of his four limbs otherwise engaged, his din was reduced by a quarter. Bonnie ran to the door, composed herself, and greeted the customers; the music went on.
Watching her—and feeling sorry for her—took me back to Louie’s story. “When we get to the hotel we take our time, have a nice meal and everything, and then I ‘go to the gig,’ right? Because Bonnie believes I have a gig up there, and that’s why we’re there to begin with. So she waits in the hotel while I go to this gig, which is really just me #!@*!-ing this chick at her house.
“Now here’s the intense part. I get to this girl’s house at maybe 9:00 or so, and we go at it hard. You know, like really hard. Yah-he-yah-he-yah-he-he. And she’s exhausted and falls asleep, man it’s never failed. Now she wants me to spend the night there—you know, they always do—but she wants me out before her son wakes up. But I have to be back at the hotel around 1:00 with Bonnie cause I was supposed to just be at a gig.
“So what I do is, at about midnight I set her clock for six, and I wake her up and say I gotta leave now. She sees the clock and goes back to sleep. Then I set it back to midnight, and I get my ass out of there, and I’m back with Bonnie at the hotel. Everybody’s happy, man, and I’m getting it on both sides. Yah-he-yah-he-yah-he-he. I’ve got it worked out pretty well.
“I’m actually kind of starting to have a moral problem with it though, man. Shit, I shouldn’t be telling you that.” It was a tender moment; a sensitive confession followed by awkward silence. I ordered another Budweiser to break the spell; it was either that or belch as loud as I could.
“Stompin’ at the Savoy,” I called, trying not to let Mike see the defiant smile I couldn’t fight back. He sighed loudly, pursed his lips, then tried to exact revenge by deliberately playing the worst possible notes. AS IF IT WOULD MATTER! Louie was bashing away, unhearing, and I refused to let on that I heard or cared. After a minute or so Mike had to give up; sulking, he went back to his accustomed loud and busy self.
This was our final trio tune prior to the dreaded vocal numbers, and having successfully denied Louie a solo thus far, I charitably decided to set him loose. I looked at Mike and we both dropped out, setting the stage for Louie’s usual histrionics. But he was oblivious, one hand bashing away to a now imagined band, the other gesturing into the audience at Frank, a bassist on break from his hotel gig up the street. As Frank approached the bandstand, I concentrated on reading Louie’s lips. “Check out that chick by the bar,” he was saying. “Think she wants me to #!@*! her? Yah-he-yah-he-yah-he-he.”
Frank pointed at Mike and me, and Louie quickly realized he was about to forfeit a pass at the elusive spotlight. Soon the head was bobbing, the body weaving, and the din heightened. With small gestures hidden from the audience, Mike and I played air drums along with Louie’s unimprovised solo, a little piece of choreography we’d recently begun performing together. We stopped when the bobbing head began to periodically turn our way, consumed with its usual look of terror. I secretly cherished this moment, when tough guy Louie became a hooked fish, flailing away at his drum kit, now and then struggling to meet our gaze, eyes bulging. We returned his frenzied look blankly at first, playing with him, stretching it out just a little longer, until finally we took pity on him and finished the tune. The eighteen people in the audience, sensing that something meaningful had probably just happened, went wild.
As bandleader, it was my dubious privilege to acknowledge the enthusiastic and undeserved applause. “How about another hand for Mr. LOUIE VANN ON THE DRUMS! YEAH! LOUIE VANN! THOMASTON’S OWN LOUIE VANN! LET’S HEAR IT FOR LOUIE!” Frank smirked from the audience, having played with Louie often enough to feel my pain.
In a jazz group, the bassist and drummer have a special and essential relationship. They work cooperatively to lay down the beat, and their success as a team depends on their ability to adapt to one another’s internal pulse. Making a musical partnership work with Louie is like making marriage work with an unmedicated psychopath. Despite generally good intentions, Louie acts at every moment to destroy the relationship. His time shifts about spasmodically, pushing and pulling his unwitting partner to, fro, over, under, up, and down with unpredictable force at irregular intervals.
It’s a hopeless scenario, and each bassist has his own unique way of coping. Some play with the utmost simplicity, not wanting to contribute further to the turmoil. Others try to lock pace with Louie’s stutter-step, much as misguided citizens throughout history have embraced the notions of deranged but charismatic leaders. Others play randomly, treating Louie’s arrhythmic spewings as a postmodern backdrop for existential commentary. Mike, of course, turns up as loud as possible, plays a lot of notes, and curses fate that his gifts might go forever undiscovered. Frank is one of my favorites; shunning any potential codependency, he ignores Louie altogether, pretending nothing is wrong. Sometimes, playing with Frank, I’m shocked to hear something akin to music emanating from the bandstand.
So it’s to Frank that I direct my introduction of Jimmy. I’ve got one eyebrow inconspicuously raised to signal that he might just want to head on back to his own gig, an innocuous background music situation that has thus far left his psyche relatively untraumatized. “How about a big hand for our newest member, vocalist Jimmy Thomas!” On cue, Jimmy takes a Vegas-like half-trot to the stage, grabs the mike from me, and launches into the usual irrelevant stage patter. Before counting off our first song he shadow-boxes a few jabs at an invisible opponent and winks at two women sitting at the nearest table. All told, there are fourteen people now left in the audience.
He calls all the masterworks from the timeworn Lounge Lizard songbook. First, “Kansas City”—the “Route 66” of the Heartland. Same chords, same inane shuffle beat, same key, and—unfortunately—same crowd reaction. Small but mighty, the audience expresses its approval with hoots and hollers. The Cookin’ Cadenza’s jazz mystique has been shattered, and I’m less than pleased. I’ve driven five hours, slept in subhuman conditions, and joined a team of musical misfits, all for the sake of what turns out to resemble a bad wedding gig.
Meanwhile, I can see the wheels turning in Jimmy’s head. “They like me, really like me,” he’s thinking, and visions of his glory days race through his head. The time the Holiday Inn ran his name and photo in the employee newsletter; the night Henry Kissinger was in the Tiki Room audience and asked him to sing Happy Birthday for Mrs. Kissinger; and—his most treasured memory—the night Tiny Tim, in town for a sixties revival gig, joined him on stage, ukulele in hand. Surely the Cookin’ Cadenza gig, as a steady, would promise no less.
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