That night, the club was swinging. I’m not talking about just a couple of brass pieces lighting up the stage. I’m talking about full on music making, absolute art. Songs that resonated in people’s souls, making their blood beat in tandem with the bass.
“Testing one, two, three,” Ella’s voice sputtered through the microphone, a singsong of syllables. Hell, she could make a grocery list sound beautiful. I whistled between my teeth and a throaty voice exploded from the opposite side of the room.
“Took you long enough to get here, Henry,” Louis Armstrong said, strutting out onto the floor, his trumpet tucked under one arm.
“My feet aren’t what they used to be,” I confessed. He laughed, slapping me on the back.
“You ready or what?” he asked.
“I’ve always been ready.”
Coltrane on the sax. Ella on the vocals. I swear I saw Joplin on the piano. The stage lights slammed hard into my eyes and I licked my lips, pressing them against the cool metal mouthpiece. Armstrong tapped his foot next to me, keeping time. He raised his eyebrows, his mouth twisting into a smile. Yeah, that’s right. Me and Louis on the trumpets, battling the night away. He was a legend. And I was about to become one.
I took a deep breath, ready to echo Ella’s vibrato. The night was about to be ours. All ours. The first notes blasted from my trumpet, a sweet call to arms. I wrapped my needs, wants, and dreams into those first pieces of music, and started to tell my story. And everyone else’s.
Henry tapped his foot against the sidewalk, shaking his head back and forth. A humming, slightly off pitch, slipped between his lips, drowned out by the city sounds. Flecks of grey speckled his hair, his back hunched over slightly, emphasizing his emaciated figure.
A couple passed by him, the woman startled as she watched his fingers trace over an invisible instrument. They were on their way to a café, to what people dared to call jazz clubs nowadays.
“My friend. My friend Louis,” Henry said, pausing, his glassy eyes smiling at her. “He’s playing down at Milton’s Playhouse tonight. I’ll be there. I’m starting. You better come see me.” But he wasn’t looking at her. He was talking to the air, gesturing beside him. “Tell ‘em, Louis. Tell ‘em what we’re playing tonight.”
The husband pulled his wife away. “You know these New Orleans musicians,” he whispered. “Spend so much time out here they go crazy.”
Henry nodded, unable to see their startled expressions as they passed, his mind traveling back to the lights, the stage, the applause. Henry had been born the year Louis died, 1971. But that trumpeter had taught Henry everything he’d known, taught him things school never could. The dark night fizzled out of view until all Henry could see was that club, dressed in a tuxedo, ready to take his bow.
“A tisket, a tasket,” Ella crowed and I smiled. Yes, yes, that was it. Her body swayed side to side and I raised my trumpet, matching my music to her rhythm. Because that’s what music was. It possessed the body. The instrument owned you. Not the other way around.
Sweat glistened on Louis’s brow and he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wiping it away. The crowd was on their feet, swirling to the music. The music swelled inside me, pulling me in a million different directions.
The numbers went on and on until I couldn’t remember what we played, my fingers slipping over the buttons and levers, bending the air to do my bidding. Notes danced before my eyes as we pushed the improvisation. I talked to everyone through that instrument and they answered me back. They really heard me.
Henry was a regular on this particular street corner. He was an unmistakable presence. His ratty jeans and collared shirt full of holes, his body bent in crooked turns, his black skin covered with filth. But it was his eyes that drew people past this place. They feared him and were in awe of him at the same time. Of how he always seemed to have a concert going on in his mind.
As Henry tapped and danced his way back into the clubs of the 1930s, a man smoked a cigarette, staring at his movements. This guy was a regular, too. He pushed himself off the building wall, slipping a ten-dollar bill out of his pocket.
“You’re quite the music maker,” he mused, watching as Henry talked to the air, laughing at jokes of unseen millions. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Duke Ellington,” Henry said, extending his hand, his eyes twitching in and out of focus. He had been Miles Davis last week and before that he had trouble deciding if he was Charlie Parker or Theolonious Monk.
“I was sure you were Louis Armstrong,” the stranger said, but Henry shook his head.
“Oh, no, oh no, oh no. He’s my mentor. Would you like to meet him?”
The man said nothing, watching as Henry swayed back and forth. He doesn’t recognize me, he decided, as Henry’s hands lifted and began playing the trumpet.
A smile lit up Henry’s face as he disappeared from reality. “I got music in my soul. Music in my soul,” he mused.
I shared cigarettes with all the greats. We would sit backstage after a show, lighting up, sharing jokes, and advice. They liked me. Told me I’d be just like them if I worked hard. I knew it, too. The way light took the form of notes, the way everything had a song.
“You’re special,” Ella whispered in my ear, her fingers caressing my face. And we made music too. Sweet music.
“Just keep working son,” they instructed, winking at each other in the spotlight. And I did. Because I knew little else.
The stranger actually was no stranger at all. Dr. Fredrick Sanders. Taught at Berklee School of Music. And in one of his classes, he’d met that man from the street corner. Henry Denvers. Aspiring prodigy, musician. That kid had a true gift.
Henry hadn’t dropped out. No, he’d graduated, full honors and a place in the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. But then he disappeared.
Taken Sanders almost ten years to track him down. It’d happened on accident. He’d been in New Orleans for a press conference when Henry came up to him and invited him to a concert. When he asked where, Henry simply arranged his hands around an invisible trumpet and started playing.
He’d seen it before. Even tried to help the boy, but Henry wasn’t there anymore. The doctor couldn’t even tell if Henry knew who he was or where he lived. But Henry was always there, playing that trumpet and talking about his invisible jazz friends who’d passed decades ago. So Sanders gave him money and food, company sometimes, but to Henry, the doctor didn’t exist.
Once though, he swore that Henry snapped out of this stupor for a minute. His eyes had focused on Sanders face and his hands dropped. “What do you want?” he’d snapped. That rage made Sanders step back before holding his ground.
Sanders took a drag from his cigarette. “Nothing,” he replied. “You just remind me of an old student.”
“And you, remind me of my teacher,” Henry said smiling. Sanders’ eyes widened. Did Henry recognize him? “His name’s Louis.”
Dizzy. That’s what the air made me. That’s what the city made me. Dizzy. It was a whirlwind of sound and smells and sometimes I couldn’t see. I’d go blind, disappearing into darkness until I’d feel that hand on my shoulder, shaking me awake and I’d look up and see old Armstrong.
“No dawdling,” he’d tell me, and I’d shoot to my feet and grab my trumpet and play. My hands went numb from practice. But he meant something to me. All those jazz players did. Because they knew I could be better. I knew I could be better.
So I played and played until all the clubs became a blur and the music wouldn’t stop singing in my ears. I could hear it at night, so loud I couldn’t sleep. When I spoke, only notes issued from my mouth. And only the other instruments understood me. No one else.
“We’re up,” Coltrane said, nodding in my direction.
So I placed my fingers of my trumpet and began to play.
Sanders didn’t know why he stayed down in New Orleans. It was the heart of all jazz, a style he loved more than he was willing to admit. He spent hours wandering around the streets, listening to the musicians. The songs were heartbreaking and memorable, but gone within hours, never recorded or written down, a secret language people chose to speak.
He took his own trumpet out of the case he’d been carrying, watching as Henry continued to tap his feet against the pavement, oblivious to the passersby. Sanders extended the trumpet toward Henry, his heart sinking.
“Would you like to play this?” he asked, his throat hoarse. It’d been years, but he still remembered how Henry could make an instrument sing. And he ached to hear that music, that beautiful way life curved through the air, once more.
“Thanks sir, but no. I only play this one,” Henry replied, pointing at his empty hands. So Sanders nodded, lifted the trumpet to his lips, and played what his student couldn’t.
I looked up to see Louis smiling down at me. Dressed in a tuxedo as usual. Looking sharp and snappy.
“For the next set?” I asked. My hands still hurt, my head tired from thinking, my body aching, bent with age and weather and memories. But I could make myself stand up, make it all work.
He shook his head. “Not for that, son.”
My forehead creased as I stared at him, trying to discern his meaning. “I don’t understand.”
“I think you’re ready to join us.” I looked down and saw that he offered me his hand.
My fingers shook as I placed my palm in his and he pulled me to my feet. Ella laughed lightly behind him, a wide smile breaking across Coltrane’s face.
“Atta boy,” the saxophonist said, smiling.
I looked back at the empty club, my trumpet still sitting in my hand and for a moment I thought I saw the flash of a street, a man with shock white hair standing over me, his eyes bowing down in confusion.
“I gotta go,” I whispered, even though I had no idea where this stranger had come from.
“You coming or what?” Louis asked and I could hear their laughter, the eternity they offered of language and love.
“Of course,” I replied. Turning back to the man, I tried to explain myself.
“I have to follow the music.”
Gone. Just up and disappeared. Sanders didn’t know how many people he asked, searching for Henry again. But it came to no avail. It was as though Henry had never existed.
The wind whipped through his coat and he crossed his arms in front of his chest, a biting chill making its way up his back. Henry was probably freezing somewhere, alone in some alley. Maybe not alone in Henry’s mind. Perhaps, that was all that mattered.
“I’m sorry,” Sanders said to the air, his breath coming out in puffs of fog. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”
Another voice answered through the wind, carried by the music of millions of other New Orleans street musicians. “All you really had to do was listen.”
Salena Casha is an English major at Middlebury College in Vermont. Her work has appeared in Six Sentences and Niteblade Magazine.