B. B. Riefner wrote with chalk on blackboards; then, with a 1918 typewriter on tailgates and picnic tables in South America, Europe and Africa. Today he and his wife live near Washington D.C. with a canine muse and a computer which must be fed daily.
A BRUSH WITH REALITY
IN THE KEY OF B-FLAT MINOR
A sane person would ask why he was drowning in a puddle of beer, but the man staring at his reflection knew why. He also knew why his face was trying to run away, trying to fall off the edge of the bar where he sat. It was all because twenty-two years before he stopped to play Come to Jesus in Whole Notes with a Salvation Army Band
The Salvation Army brass quintet was not having a good day. They were positioned half way along The Block, the world famous two block strip of East Baltimore Street. Its fame was based upon willing, though often infected ladies, and a variety of peep shows, and burlesque houses where nudity was the ordinary dress. The musicians were stumbling over passages because the weather was so cold it was almost impossible to keep ones lips on a metal mouthpiece. There were two trumpeters, a trombonist, baritone horn player and the tuba player. Each player seemed perfectly matched with not only the limitations of each instrument, but in retrospect, each physical likeness to his or her instrument was outrageously amusing.
The woman, playing the baritone horn, was a short, pudgy person of at least sixty, who did not even try to keep any semblance of tempo. She simply forged ahead like some winded horse running for its stable. Her obvious intention was completing the last hymn and getting out of the terrible February cold.
Just as she raced into the final verse, two full beats in front of the other four, and threatening to drag them all with her, like it or not, he and his silvered trumpet had stepped among them. He joined the second trumpet part and in less than five notes, the splintered effort transposed itself into crystal clear perfection. To the passersby his contribution seemed slight for he made no effort to overpower the others. Nor did he perform any
miracles of virtuosity, but he did become the anchor to which all the others immediately fixed because his vitality and ability inspired an instant respect and discipline for the music.
He was at least four inches over six feet, but standing among the short, stubby performers, he soared to what seemed an impossible height. His silver horn shone in the pale afternoon sun. His back was slightly bent rearward; his head lifted so his instrument was pointed toward a grime smeared row of town houses, long since converted into store fronts, crowned with furnished rooms. He attacked each note with the precision and love all music demands in order for art to rise above the normal dim.
Almost immediately passers- by commenced dropping money into the covered red pot suspended from a slightly rusty iron tripod. Rapidly the collection mounted the sides of the small container until the paper notes threatened to flow on to the sidewalk. Not only did most passers-by contribute, when he forced two more verses, many stopped to begin swaying and listening in spite of the deadly cold and wind. Slowly they bunched together and as a soft humming began, a few brave souls began to sing, even if they did not know all the words.
As soon as the final notes were completed, the thin trombonist took the mouthpiece from his lips and began complimenting the young man.
“That was a wonderfully uplifting experience," he stated, peering steadfastly into the young musician's face. The brown liquid eyes returned the leader's gaze with a directness which brought warmth in the man's chilled limbs. “You have a great talent. The Lord has given you a wonderful way to sing His praises and serve Him."
Smiling the young man nodded and pointed to the collection pot. “Looks like you made expenses, Rev."
"We certainly were almost empty until you came along," the baritone player interjected, reaching out to take the young man's free hand." What's your name?"
"You play so well we picked right up! It's got to be the work of the Lord in weather like this," she finished without releasing his hand. He was not ill at ease. He patted her hand, and gave her a broad smile which revealed a chipped front tooth.
"You're so good. Are you from here?"
"Yeah. I play down here all the time. Just picked up my week's pay from The Gaiety," he said, and motioned toward the infamous or famous strip palace almost directly across the street from where they stood. He thought he had spoken as though it were a concert hall, so it did not bother him when every member of the quintet winced.
"They got the highest pay scale in town if you're playing on stage. With the war and everybody getting drafted, or joining up, they may have women playing in there before this is over. I'm working six nights a week and they want me to do the day shows. Can't do that ‘cause I' m in school.”
He paused and smiled but it did not erase the grim expression on the older man's face. Street Norris decided it was time to exit gracefully, but he lacked a good excuse. The leader solved that problem.
"It was very nice playing with you, Street. Hope we see you often. You have a great voice for singing the Lord's praises. It just could be in better
"Whoa, man. I got no reasons for being ashamed. I'm making sixty-five bucks a week."
"I just think the Lord meant you to use the talents He gave you to better advantages.”
"Dad always tells me the Lord moves in strange and silent ways. He says not to question the will of the Lord. That everything works itself out the way He wants. My Dad’s got to be right. He made it through four years of the last war on the wrong side, and he still got all his limbs.”
“Amen to your father's faith!”
The trombonist nodded vigorously as Street pulled off his mouthpiece, slipped the silver trumpet into its felt bag and pulled the draw string tightly closed. As the other four members waved from the warmth of the hot dog stand, a dilapidated streetcar came by, and he hopped aboard.
The Salvation Army never knew the real reason for him stepping up and joining in. That would have been really difficult to explain. It was almost as difficult for Norris to accept.
Back then music was undergoing drastic changes and the most radical one, Be Bop, had captured Street completely. The music was so new no one was recording it. It was so unique those playing it instantly understood they were inventing and opening utterly new doors where flatted fifths, fiery chord changes, and breathtaking velocities driving chromatic runs ruled. Musicians played with an intensity announcing they all knew that one day this new innovation would hang right alongside of Picasso and Matisse at The Modern Museum of Art.
The times and the new style gave opportunities to the young and talented. As soon as some of the better players heard what they were doing, Street, Jimmie Winters, the pianist and Gus Constantine, the drummer, were invited to the Valhalla of Bop, The Campus Club, to perform
and absorb. It was a large night club which featured after hours and Sunday Jam Sessions. In a few months all of the musicians who extended them the invitations had drifted up to New York for better paying jobs.
The Campus Club never paid for its talent but young players clamored to get on its tiny stage after a week end playing sixty-five cent arrangements which did not challenge them. In almost no time Jimmy, Gus and Street became the judges and jury as to who was going to play when, what tunes and with whom.
A few nights before he began full time at the Gaiety, a trombone player who worked the local bands, came in and asked to sit in for a set. Street gave Jim and Gus a wink for the man played nothing but those sixty-five cent arrangements for the standard seven dollars a night, took his pay and was always uninspiring. He was so totally unhip! It was hilarious just imagining him playing anything with them.
"It's all full speed ahead, man," Jimmy grinned. “No sheet music up here." The man nodded, and unpacked his horn. After slipping the slide up and down, he came in right in the middle of a racing unison chorus of Bernie's Tune, and managed to drive every one of the nine performers right off their feet with the first break he blew.
And that was only the beginning. His first full chorus of Laura made everyone but Jimmie and Gus lower their instruments and cock their collective heads. He played things they had never heard, never imagined, and each new chorus brought on greater and greater majestic jewels. By the time Georgia on My Mind ended, he had managed to blow everyone in the house through the doors.
"Where you been hiding, man?" Jimmie asked, grinning as if this was his own personal discovery. "You been gigging with us off and on for six months! How can you stand to play the crap we do at dances?"
"Yeah," Street inserted, not wanting Jimmie to hog every minute of glory." How come you are so damned methodical with that junk?"
The expression the man returned was genuine shock and disbelief. The expression a priest would assume while hearing the confession of a mass murderer. Then in a very low and quite voice he said, "You got to play everything exactly as it's written. That's what you are getting paid to do. Play it the best you can, but play what's there in front of you. And if you don't want to play crap, man, then don't take the money.”
He paused, frowned and then added, “And don't ruin the dreams of the dudes who paid you."
Hal Franks became a nightly contributor. Women loved his soft solitude. They asked him if he kissed as good as he played. He laughed a lot, but seldom took the bait. It was only after the music, usually in some all night greasy spoon his wisdom came forth. One night Jimmie was pouring some gin on a Formica table top so he could light it because he was furious that Hal began talking exclusively to Street.
"You got to find out just how good you are, Street. Otherwise art will eat you alive and skin you while it does. It’s really important you find out if you only got enough talent to entertain yourself and maybe a few close friends. If that's it, you can get off the hook early, and go back to being a normal person. You know... to sleeping nights, working days and having someone other than weird people for friends. Hal paused as the flaming gin began pouring off the table.
After he helped stamp out the almost invisible blue flames, he went on, “You're already past that. You got to find out if you can entertain more than local folks. Can you captivate strangers? Can you make people stop eating, drinking and talking to listen to you? You got to take your talent right to the end of the line. Got to find what your limits are, or if you don't have any. Some don't."
"He's very limited," Jimmie interrupted."
"Could be… But he's out in front of you all." When Jimmie turned his back, Hal drove in the nails. "I hate telling someone they got talent, Street. Talent isn't all you need in this racket. Everywhere I go there's kids like you. They can play ink flung up on the wall." He shook his head as if he had already said too much.
“Give me the rest of it, man,” Jimmie grunted.
"Draw five lines through it and they can lay it down flawlessly. But they don’t have any control over the luck they need. There are some who can read perfectly but only play the notes. Then there are a few who can do both. It sounds like you might be one of those. Maybe you got something. If you do, you got to ride it right to the end of the line. If you don’t, it will turn you into a very bitter man.” He drank his orange juice.
"You could be cursed, kid. You sure play better than you should for your age. But you really don't read that well, do you?"
Street confessed he could hardly read anything, “But if I hear it just once, it’s mine forever.”
"No. Not forever," Hal muttered softly, "Only as long as you have to play it. Tunes run away and hide fast enough when you aren't using
them."So, you may be fully cursed. You better listen to the rest of this real carefully. Are you listening, kid? Promise me you’re listening."
“I’m all ears,” and then he felt badly about being so snide. “I’m really listening, man.”
"If you got talent enough to entertain strangers, who will pay to hear you, then you got to let it take you right to the brink of the falls. You got to see exactly how far you can go. Put it all on the line and really find out if you have it or don't. Test yourself to the fullest. It ain't simple and it sure as hell ain't easy, because most of us don’t want to face our limitations. You got to let your art and talent beat you every day of your life…just as much as it wants. Screw it over drop it and one day it will come back on you like all your worst nightmares."
Hardly anyone spoke, as Street Norris prayed for all of this to end.
“Screw with your art and one day you're going to wake up , not tomorrow, but one day, ...might even be years... Just when you think you got it really made, or you got your life defined. Right then and there you’re going to start hating what you became. Hate what you did, are doing and going to do...All the tenses any language can construct. You are going to find out that nothing will do except going back to your art. Then you get the good old
‘Ace- Duce- Buster’ right in your face. It ain’t going to take you back. So for the rest of your life you are only a bridesmaid. Right then, your art starts beating hell out of you...Day after day...World without end." Then Hal laughed as hard as Street ever heard a person laugh.
In the ensuing twenty-two years, Street Norris owned nine cars. The only thing they all had in common was none of them, till now, had a radio. This brand new Buick Road Master sedan boasted one of the most powerful
models available. He was driving the Buick for the first time when the radio suddenly invaded his thoughts. Instantly the long melodious trumpet solo only a young Miles Davis could have composed and played, acted like a nail driven right into the center of his brain. He stared at the dash board as memories sloshed over it like old musty water.
The Salvation Army Quintet shimmered and blinked like an old black and white silent movie as he waited for Peter Adams his assistant manager, who was five minutes late as usual. As he tried to tune I on the sound track, he thought about definition and potential. He despised waiting. Norris had many faults, but making others wait for him was not one of them. Slowly he counted to one hundred and then disobeying the silent protests screaming at him for deserting his best legal researcher, he drove off.
He stopped only long enough to call his office, then his wife. He told the first he was getting sick and was going to see a doctor and would call in later. He told his wife he was going to be in court all day and would not be available. His secretary showed proper concern, since this was the first day he had missed in over fifteen years. Her concern almost made him feel guilty about lying to her. His wife had only pouted that she would not be able to reach him in an emergency.
Five hours later he was so drunk he tried and failed to pick up a stripper, who was no more than nineteen. He was so drunk he bribed the trumpet player in the house quartet to let him sit in. And he was certainly drunk enough to think that the ten or so bars of bleats and missed notes before the owner reclaimed his instrument, were good enough to allow him the right of re-entry into his art.
He did not hear the drummer's comments." Jesus Sy! You'll do anything to get off the stage.”
After returning to his bar stool, Street peered into his beer puddle, trying to identify who it was in there peering back, but there wasn't enough light. He spoke to the shimmering puddle figure anyway. “Think what the hell you could have done if you hadn't gotten married when you were twenty-two."
Clarity returned where his abilities to play had not.
You had it. Everybody said that… Said it all the time… But you had to get Ga-Ga over a pair of nice boobs, really great legs, and marry them. At the very least you should have deserted them when you had your one chance to go to California.
“Should have just walked out on it all: Kids...job...family, house...thirty year GI mortgage… Just got up and went, man. Just like Tommy, one of your best friends was about to do on his wife and kid when he dropped by the office and asked you if you wanted to cut out with him. What would you be right now? You didn't listen to the fates yelling all those sleepless nights? Whispering to you while you were making...."
"Hey, bartender...Did anyone ever tell you art was the most demanding mistress?” He whispered to the whole bar top since the puddle seemed to have lost interest. “Did I mention that neglected art eventually takes you right into the only room where you will be totally unhappy? The damned room you've worked all your life hiding from? Bet no one ever told you, did they?"
The bar tender did not hear what Street was saying because he was at the far end of the room Norris did not know he was getting concerned and about to cut the old drunk off before something stupid happened.
“Bet you heard about guys driving by old girl friend's houses trying to see whose she’s in bed with. Whose she’s in bed with ain’t the question. Who gives a damn? That ain't the question. The question is now that he ain’t in her bed, who the hell is in his bed? Art's in the bed, man. Art is always in my bed. She can support herself and she's the meanest broad in town. I ignored her. Now I’m on the edge of the world, gladly pulling its entire history after me.” As Street Norris decided he could never cry enough tears to make a puddle that large again, he laid his head down on the cold oak, but he did not sleep.