by Nigel Jarrett
When Karen Thomas flicked a CD at her husband, Frisbee-style, it caused a long thin bruise on his forehead. It was there for three days.The disc was a re-issue of a 1959 LP by Charles Mingus and his sextet that included the tune Goodbye Porkpie Hat, an elegy for Lester Young.
That’s the sort of detail her husband Rick glazed the eyes of non-jazzers with when he wasn‘t chatting up other women. Not that Karen didn't now and then chat up other men; but Rick always wanted more than chat, as much as he could get away with. Rick wanted the Mingus track played at his funeral and was not to be denied. Sometimes it was jealousy, friends supposed, hence the skimming CD. Karen said he should have ducked.
Seated at the crematorium, she glanced across and noticed among the mourners a large, neatly-bearded character wearing what could have been a look of permanent censure. Maybe it was the seriousness of the occasion. The boys, Benny and Louis, sat beside her and stared straight ahead. They didn’t like jazz; they preferred The Ting Tings on MP3 downloads.
Rick thought Goodbye Porkpie Hat the most beautiful piece of music he’d ever heard, but its elegiac character had never moved Karen until Norrie Clements inserted the disc, found the track and pressed the button on the crematorium chapel hi-fi, retreating to his pew like someone who’d lit a firework’s blue touchpaper.
That was the difference between her and Rick: he never needed a context to understand the potency of anything, particularly music; she invariably did. Differences.
What everyone said about the attraction of opposites never made any sense to her. It was the context, Rick’s passing, that had caused the simple tune to make her cry. She must have heard it scores of times before but had never registered its power to move.
Norrie, their best friend among the
unmarried ones, had helped her organise the service, because its
unusual content was not restricted to the playing of a four-minute
jazz ‘classic’. There were things to be said, and readings to be
chosen with people to deliver them. Someone read something by
Malcolm X, which she thought was a bit OTT and not very Rick, but
she hadn’t objected.
Someone read the words of the Billie
Holiday song Strange Fruit.
She was touched by them almost against her
will. She'd always found
When the music ended, Norrie made his way to the pulpit. He’d called it a ‘lectern’ when he was running through the order of service with Karen and her family. ‘Then I go to the lectern’, he’d said. ‘And do my stuff.’
Norrie coughed, surveyed the congregation and pulled a sheet of paper from his top pocket. He was soon describing the trip to Montreux.
They’d attended a few concerts, and at a suburban club afterwards there’d been a scene involving some black men and women. The term 'person of colour' wasn't current then. A ‘spat’, Norrie called it, though even in his bravado version it sounded more serious. Karen began to recollect that Rick had mentioned the incident, but she didn’t remember his including what Norrie described as ‘a momentary darkening of the clouds’ as the audience had begun polarising into black and white. Norrie attempted a bad joke about the blacks having previously been invisible in the shadows. She thought she heard the bearded stranger mutter a 'tut-tut’. Norrie himself must have regretted the lapse, because he quickly recovered to praise Rick for having been first to intervene in trying to quell the dispute before it became nasty. It already sounded unpleasant. Karen wondered if it had been the reason for Rick’s subdued manner on his return from Heathrow. He’d been quiet,and complained of ‘a cold coming on’ but it hadn’t amounted anything.
Outside, leaning against the wall of the chapel, was a huge white wreath in the shape of a saxophone, surrounded by a half dozen smaller bouquets. The wreath was Karen’s idea. Rick wasn’t a musician; he was a listener, a devotee. A sax, invented for classical purposes but appropriated by jazz, seemed to symbolise the outlandish music, its lawlessness. Rick had died suddenly while listening to an Erroll Garner record. Karen was out and the boys were doing what little boys do about the house. They told her that when Louis commented on something, his father didn’t respond and was 'asleep with his eyes open'.
The jazz crowd, as Karen called them, were in a group of their own, chatting furtively beyond the relatives. It wasn’t that she didn’t like jazz; just that she wasn’t passionate about it. Passion had its exclusive side. She’d heard jazz fans described as embattled - musicians too. She saw the stranger looking at the floral sax, patiently, as though waiting for it to play something. She went over to him. The boys trotted behind her, positioning themselves at her side.
‘I don’t think we’ve met,’ she said.
Only then did she guess who he was, because she had often seen his caricature on the envelopes in which Rick's CDs arrived by post. It was the chubby face and pointed beard that clinched it.
His name was Jed Morrison and he
used to own a record shop in
‘I organised the trip to Montreux,’ he said. ‘I do - did - discounted travel. Couldn’t make this one, unfortunately. Got reports though. The pulpit feller seems to have most of the details. Your husband bought lots of stuff from me. We knew each other quite well after a fashion. I’m sorry for you.’ He looked at the boys: ‘You and yours.’ And then: ‘Your husband had good taste.’
She assumed he was referring to the choice of music: ‘It’s a very moving piece.’
‘It certainly is. I don’t think we can really understand.’
Karen could see the others – friends and family, not the jazz lot - looking her way, wondering whom she was talking to. Maybe some of the jazzers, also buyers of records by mail order, half-recognised Morrison too. No-one else was hovering to speak to him, though. ‘Do you know anyone here?’ she asked.
He looked around, as if double-checking: ‘No, I don’t think so. This is foreign territory for me. Maybe some of them bought stuff from the shop, by post. That’s finished as well. Jazz seems to be called something else these days.'
‘Why did I come? Let’s say there’s more to jazz than sales and toe-tapping.’
He smiled and cocked his head to one side, wondering if she was interested in asking him to explain, but all she could do was speculate on how far his naivety extended.
‘You’re welcome to come to the pub,’ she said. Norrie had handed out a blanket invitation from the lectern. ‘It’s not far.’
Later, after everyone had spoken to her and the boys were outside in the beer garden being looked after by Norrie or the relatives, Morrison approached her again when she was momentarily on her own. ‘Can I get you anything?’ he asked. She smiled and shook her head.
They said nothing for a few minutes, imagining grief to be biding its time. Then Morrison placed his glass on the table and re-arranged himself in his chair.
‘That trip to Montreux,’ he said. ‘Do you know anything about it?’
She turned her face towards him slowly and blinked, like someone on medication. His question sounded to her as if he were seeking more facts.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m afraid I can’t help you.’
He chuckled. ‘No, I didn’t mean that. The fellow in the pulpit didn’t say all that much.’
Karen was interested now. ‘Go on,’ she said.
‘Well, you know what tours are like, trips abroad, all male.’
She looked at him quizzically, her brow furrowed. ‘Actually, no, I don’t.’
Morrison then embarked inexplicably on a long screed which Karen would afterwards liken to a fifteen-minute solo by John Coltrane but without its 'ugliness and its dismal lack of interest'. Rick had once handed her a book on jazz by Philip Larkin, who had criticised Coltrane for 'being ugly on purpose'.
‘Your husband deserved a medal after that Swiss business,' Morrison said. “As I heard it, there were three of them at the bar, including your husband and the Norrie fellow. The other two on the trip were sitting at a table, listening to the band. It was blues singer and two electric guitars plus drums. Pretty deafening, I should think. There were three women at the bar with the men, having drinks. Black women. I mention their colour because it’s relevant. Three white men, three coloured women, and an audience of two, maybe a few other stragglers. That’s jazz for you.’
He waited for her to laugh but she was just staring at him, almost through him. She was waiting for him to continue, curious as to why he was telling her all this.
‘A couple of other black guys come into the club,’ he said. ‘They see the six at the bar and walk towards them, bumping into the table with the two other friends of your husband and knocking over a drink. They look mean. One of the seated friends tells the new black guys to watch where they’re going. One of the black guys turns around and picks your husband’s friend up by the lapels. The other friend pushes him away. The other black guy wades in.
' Your husband’s two friends at the bar, the drinkers, go to sort things out. The band stops playing and the drummer steps forward and clouts one of your husband’s drinking friends. By now the black women are screaming. Your husband’s two drinking pals go to do something but get clobbered. One of the guitarists appears and pulls a knife. Your husband goes forward. The black woman he’s with tries to hold him back but fails. Your husband tries to talk to the guy with the knife. Someone hits him from behind. The knife guy takes a threatening lunge at someone, your husband reaches up and grabs his wrist. Then it all gets confused. Someone steps in, maybe some new punters turning up – that's what I was told. Anyway, it quietened down and the band started playing again. No-one got really hurt. The two troublesome black guys left with two of the drinking women. Anyway it all ended happily. I’ve got a photo to prove it. That’s how I know. He tried to grab the knife did your husband. Very brave.’
He took a Polaroid out of his wallet and handed it to her. It showed Rick and Norrie at the bar with presumably the one remaining woman between them, her arms around their shoulders. Or perhaps it was taken before things turned unsavoury. They’re all smiles. Karen found the woman’s ebony beauty alluring beyond any standard from which other women, women like her at home with two kids, would regularly fall. Before the attentions of such a woman, men were defenceless. That woman - dark, glistening, voluptuous - looked as though she could deal with men two at a time. She was not a rival but an idol, Karen thought. The word ‘idol’ amused her. But she knew what she meant. She also knew at last the extent of Morrison's naivety.
‘Where did you get this?’ she asked.
‘Oh, I had to pop there and sort things out. I didn’t want it to affect the business. I go over there a lot – the Continent. I found the club. Your husband told me about it, about what happened.’
‘You story was from him?’
‘No. From some chap at the club who saw it all. He pointed to the picture - it was pinned up with others above the bar. There’s a picture of Charlie Mariano up there too - and Palle Mikkelborg.’
She found these names vaguely familiar but unimpressive and they slipped past her
with a lot of other things, an ever-accelerating procession of bad experiences. She handed back the picture and shook her head when Morrison asked naively if she wanted to keep it.
They must have been standing there for a while, waiting for Morrison to finish his story - Norrie, with Benny and Louis at his side, each holding his hand, like orphans who'd discovered a substitiute father. She asked Norrie: ‘What happened to your woman, then?’ with the emphasis on the ‘your’. Norrie, mystified, looked to Morrison for some clue.
But without waiting for an answer and leaving the two men stranded, she called the boys forward. The family members were gathering. ‘Come along, you guys,' she said wearily. 'It’s time we were making a move.’
Eventually, with the crematorium marking time before the arrival of the next cortege, they got into the head limo as one of the funeral director's men held the door open for her and the close family mourners. She had neglected them at the funeral as she had grown away from them when the marriage had begun foundering. Their tears and doleful expressions she imagined as reactions to what Morrison had revealed, not to her premature widowhood or her mitigated grief. Norrie, who had organised Rick's jazzer friends in the fourth car, approached with Morrison in tow. Both stopped short when she held her hand to the window, palm outwards. All right, OK, you win, they seemed to be saying, fixed to the spot as the limo's engine purred respectfully into life. But not really, nothing so harsh. The words were from a tune made famous by – who was it now? - Joe someone, Joe Williams. Yes, Joe Williams. She looked at the boys, who had had death explained to them to their infantile satisfaction. They were already plugged in, listening to someone or other. Someone else. And quietly she began to hum a tune of her own.