A finalist in our recent Short Fiction Contest, Willard Manus’ “When the World Was Young” is a love story between a man and a woman, and a woman and her musical inspiration — Clifford Brown
Willard Manus is a novelist, journalist and playwright. His latest play, Bird Lives! about the jazz icon Charlie Parker, just closed after a successful run at the Attic Theater in Los Angeles. He writes often about jazz for such periodicals as Jazz Rag (UK), LA Jazz Scene and Dr. Jazz (Holland). One of his jazz short stories can be found in the anthology From Blues to Bop published by Louisiana State University Press.
“Clifford Brown,” by Frans Mandigers
WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG
a short story by
“How is she, nurse?”
“She’s still in intensive care.”
“But what’s her condition?”
“One of the doctors will come out later to talk to you.”
* * *
I fell in love with Gail the first time I heard her sing, in a small ginmill in the Village called The Stray Dog. She was working only with a guitarist but didn’t let that bother her. Sitting on a barstool with cigarette in hand and long black hair sifting down around her shoulders, she sang with a concentrated intensity and beauty that pierced my heart.
Her set lasted just short of an hour, with one song following another with nary an introduction. I’m here to sing, not talk, was her attitude, so why don’t you just kick back and listen, really listen. And that’s what the audience did; all chatter ceased as her dark voice–soft, smoky and lush–filled the room; all eyes stayed on her as she picked her way through the Great American Songbook.
Most pop songs are about two things: finding love and losing love. The songs she sang that night were no different, but she managed to make them sound new, find fresh things in the familiar.
That was quite a feat I told her as we walked afterward through the Village, accompanied by her brother, Jim. It was he who had brought me to The Stray Dog and I would forever be grateful to him for having done so.
We headed to the Colossus Diner on Hudson Street; it was owned by twin brothers, Greeks from the island of Rhodes. Gus worked days; Pete, nights, which meant that there would always be a friendly face to greet me.
Pete ushered us to his best booth, where we sat and ate and shmoozed until two in the morning. I couldn’t take my eyes off Gail; so smitten was I that I even watched as she chomped away on a hamburger, a messy sight that I somehow managed to find endearing.
* * *
“Any further news, doctor?”
“When will you know anything?”
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that.”
* * *
Gail lived up on 67th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in a three-room flat whose kitchen-sink did double-duty as a bathtub. She didn’t have much furniture but the flat’s walls were painted in bright and unusual colors.
“A set designer friend is responsible for the look of the place,” she told me. “He came up here and painted the whole damn apartment himself.”
“Is he my competition?”
“Nothing to worry about, Lou. He’s homosexual.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“I sang in an off-Broadway revue that he designed. Marvin’s a real pet.”
There was always recorded music to be heard in Gail’s pad: Billie or Ella or Bird but especially Clifford Brown. “I just love the way he plays his horn, with such soaring melody and long, flowing lines. And when he drops down and starts hitting those sexy low notes–oh my, I just turn to jello!”
The only time Gail sang at home was when she cooked dinner–“Hawaiian chicken, it’s the only dish in my repertoire.” She’d stand at the stove and warble favorite verses or scat to one of Brownie’s solos–“Joy Spring” or “Lullaby of Birdland.”
She kept playing LPs as we ate, in candlelight, killing a bottle of Almaden, listening to the throbbing guitar of Segovia, the insolent piano of Bernstein. The only time the music stopped was when we made love, but it resumed immediately afterwards as we sat propped up on pillows with Gail taking long, deep drags on a cigarette, listening to Brownie again.
Gail smoked Sweet Caporals, a cigarette she had discovered while on a gig in New Orleans; its dark, pungent smell filled her small bedroom and would forever be the smell I’d associate with her, along with the Chanel No. Five that she dabbed on her wrists or behind her ears.
When we went out, which wasn’t often because of the lack of funds, it was almost always to a jazz club, especially one where a vocalist was appearing. She also made it a point to catch the work of another young trumpet player she liked–Miles Davis.
Davis had made his mark with bebop musicians like Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz, but now he was going his own way, cooling down jazz, making it more introspective and understated. His slow, muted playing took some getting used to, but thanks to Gail I began to understand and appreciate it.
“Just think of his sounds as clouds, drifting overhead in a mysterious, beautiful way,” she said.
* * *
“Why don’t you go home and get some rest?”
“No, I’ll stay here with you, Lou.”
Jim had recently gone to work as a copy editor at the World-Telegram, on the midnight to dawn shift. “It means I won’t be able to work on my novel for a while,” he said. “But what the hell, I need the damn dough.”
Jim was halfway through the writing of his first novel, which was about a character named Billy Bravo, an amusement-park motorcycle rider who sped round a perpendicular wall at 120 mph to entertain and titillate the public. He defied gravity and the fates for ten years, only to suffer a sudden and devastating accident that left him a cripple. Now, having retired to a single room in a crummy boarding house, he craves only isolation until a girl named Lorelei shows up and tries to pull him back from the void, save him with her love.
The book was offbeat, dark and unsettling–the work of a poet. Jim was by far the best writer in our workshop, but he worked so slowly and painstakingly that he’d written only seventy-five pages in two years.
“You need to get on with it,” I told him. “You need to bang out a complete draft instead of trying to make every sentence perfect. All that tinkering and fussing is holding you back.”
“Not everyone can work the way you do–bashing away at the typewriter like a wild man, going on instinct the whole time.”
“Writing is like sex,” I told him. “It’s best not to think about what you’re doing!”
* * *
Just before Christmas my savings ran out and I had to find work myself. Since I didn’t want to commit to a steady job, I decided to look for seasonal work at Railway Express. A vast shipping company that moved everything from packages to heavy machinery, Railway Express had such a need for extra hands at Christmas time that just about anyone who walked in the door could count on being hired.
It was here that I made a major mistake. The day before my job interview, I went up to the Bronx to visit my mother. When she discovered that I had the sniffles, she persuaded me to try her pet remedy for the common cold.
“Eat this clove of garlic,” she said. “It’ll clear your head in a flash.”
Normally I didn’t pay much attention to anything my mother said, but this time I went against myself. Down the hatch went the raw clove.
Twenty-four hours later, while I was being questioned by Railway Express’s personnel director, he suddenly slapped down his pen and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t go on with this.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I hate to say it, but you have the worst case of halitosis I have ever encountered!”
“But I’ve never suffered from halitosis.”
“Look around the room,” he said. “You’ve cleaned it out.”
Sure enough, we were the only ones left in sight in the large, open room.
It took some persuading to convince him to allow me to come back the next day.
“I’ve never smelled anything as foul as that breath of yours,” he said as he okayed my application. “If I were you I’d never eat another piece of garlic as long as I lived!”
* * *
Gail was fortunate enough not to have to work at a menial job to survive. She’d had her fill of those when she was in Chicago, her home town.
“Chicago’s tough on singers,” she explained. “There are so many good ones there, mostly black of course. “If I could book one or or two gigs a month, I felt lucky.”
So she quit Chicago and went elsewhere–Kansas City, Indianapolis, New Orleans, a year on the road with a dance band. “Have voice, will travel,” she cracked. “I’m just a gypsy at heart.”
She’d been in New York for two years now. The jazz scene was competitive–nothing came easy in the Apple–but she’d managed to survive nonetheless. She could count on finding work in the clubs or singing backup on someone else’s record date. She also sang at weddings, industrial shows, even at private parties.
Her dream was to become a headliner, but in the meantime, the tweentime, she carried herself lightly, taking whatever came her way with grace and aplomb. She knew that most of the people she worked for appreciated her: she not only sang well but came to work on time and well prepared, and was unfailingly pleasant and even-tempered. As one bandleader put it, “She’s good folks.”
Gail was also much liked by the jazz fans who frequented the clubs: the night-birds, hipsters, mobsters and molls who sat over drinks and dug the way she interpreted a song, going deep into herself and tapping into the primal emotions that were needed to sing the blues.
And always as she sang, her long, dark hair glistened in the lights and smoke from her cigarette curled around her–smoke that was laced with the Sweet Caporal smell I had come to love. That was Gail, the lady in my life, the love of my life, not just a singer but a jazz singer, the highest form of pop-music royalty.
* * *
When I was done toting and baling it at Railway Express, I’d join her at the club, mingle with the regulars. It was good to feel a part of the jazz world, accepted by it, even though I was usually referred to as Gail’s old man or her main squeeze.
I became particularly friendly with one of the habitues, a guy named Eliot Landry, a self-styled hipster who worked in the publicity department of RCA Records. For some years now, Eliot had been compiling a dictionary of jive talk and was forever referencing it.
“What’s shakin’, man?” he’d say when we met. “What’cha been puttin’ down lately, you big muggle head?”
Eliot dug the way Gail sang and tried to catch her whenever he could.
“She is one down chick!” he said. “I just wig out when I hear her voice. She’s got the stuff, no need to bluff! I’m gonna help her make it, sure as a hard head makes a soft behind!”
Then he checked his wristwatch and took off abruptly, explaining, “Sorry. Gotta catch the midnight subway to Brighton Beach!”
* * *
A lot happened in the new year. Thanks to the money I’d made at Railway Express I bought enough time to finish my first novel, which was based on the basketball scandals of the early 1950s, when several New York college players were arrested for trying to fix the outcome of certain games. Some bookies had paid these gullible kids to hold the score down, come in under the point spread, enabling them to cash in big.
My novel was turned down by all the important publishers in town–“Sports books don’t sell”–but then Roz Sutfin, another member of the writer’s workshop, got a job as a junior editor at Ace Books, a fledgling paperback house. She gave my book to her boss, who not only bought it (for a thousand bucks) but expressed interest in Jim’s book as well.
That prompted Jim to quit his job at the World Telegram and devote full time to his novel. By working seven days a week, twelve hours a day, he ground out the second half of BRAVO, powered by coffee, cigarettes and the occasional shot of Irish whiskey.
His relentless work paid off. Roz took his still-warm manuscript to her boss, who promptly made an offer (twelve hundred dollars, a small fortune!). We were going to be published. We could now call ourselves professional writers.
It was time to celebrate!
We did it by renting a car and driving down to West Philadelphia, where Gail was singing at Pep’s Musical Bar with Clifford Brown and his band. Yeah, that’s right, Clifford Brown!
Brownie had heard her in New York a month earlier, when she filled in one night at Birdland for an indisposed Anita O’Day. He liked her so much that he invited her to join him in Philly for a weekend gig. Her turn to exult: she was singing with her idol. And the live session was to be recorded!
We got to Pep’s just in time to catch the first show. There was Brownie, tall and alert and youthful as he stood on stage and played that horn of his, round face scrunched up as he soloed crisply and economically on “Lady Be Good,” attacking it head on, seducing everyone in the room with his inimitable fat sound.
Then Gail came in with the lyrics, articulating them with her usual precision and warmth, giving them a hip, distinctive edge. As always, she chose not to wear a glamorous gown or play the diva, just stood there and sang from the heart, sharing whatever she felt with the audience. Then she turned and got into a spontaneous dialogue with Brownie, the two of them spurring each other on, voice and horn dueling one minute, harmonizing the next, neither one of them missing a note or going over the top with their virtuosity.
It went on like that for two nights, nights filled with excitement, with and swing. Triumph and pleasure were also in the air, joyfulness and love as well. Everyone in the room felt it, performer and audience alike. We were all one, all part of something rare and worthy, and everyone joined in spontaneously when Gail began scatting, making crazy sounds like shoolyakoo and oobla dee and vop vop VOP!
* * *
A few months later Brownie left Philadelphia for Chicago, where he was to join his pal, drummer Max Roach, for a week-long gig at the Blue Note. Brownie made the trip in his Buick with his pianist, Richie Powell, and the latter’s wife Nancy.
Brownie started out driving but then turned over the keys to Richie and climbed in the back seat for a snooze. Richie, contrary to Brownie’s strict instructions, soon gave the wheel to his wife. It was raining heavily that June night and the Pennsylvania Turnpike was slick with water. Nancy, driving fast, failed to negotiate a curve and struck the guardrail. The car then careened across the road, hit a bridge abutment overlooking Route 220, jumped the barrier, and rolled down a seventy-five-foot embankment. Nancy, Richie and Brownie were killed instantly.
* * *
Gail wasn’t the same after that. She kept working when she could, turning up on time and singing for her supper, but something subtle had gone out of her voice, a feeling of optimism and happiness. It was replaced by a different sound, a sad, wounded, mournful sound.
And at home, up there on Amsterdam Avenue, all she would listen to now was Sinatra, the Sinatra of “Wee Small Hours,” the Sinatra of such odd, melancholic songs as “When the World Was Young,” whose first verse went:
“Ah, the apple trees
Blossoming the breeze
That we walked among.
Lying in the hay,
Games we used to play
While the rounds were sung,
when the world was young.”
And then, after we had made love and she’d sit there smoking Sweet Caporals and staring into the semi-darkness, I’d see a tear beginning to form in her eyes, slide slowly down her cheeks.
“Thinking of Brownie again?”
She nodded and sighed. “He was so young. Only twenty-five. How could he have died like that? Why did he die like that?”
I had no answers. All I could do was take her warm, slender, grieving body into my arms and hold it close, hold it tight.
* * *
Later that year Jim’s book was published; a month ahead of mine. BRAVO’s lurid, trashy cover showed a semi-naked man and woman in bed, but the flip side of the book balanced that with a truthful photo of Jim that Gail had taken in Central Park. Jim stood posed against a grey boulder, wearing a herring-bone jacket and a turtleneck sweater. His gaunt, lined face and thick black moustache gave him an intense look, the look of a man who felt deeply and painfully every word he had written.
Because Ace Books published original paperbacks on a skimpy budget, there would be no promotional push for BRAVO, no advertising or publicity. It wasn’t even sent out for review; it was simply tossed out on the book-trade’s waters and left to swim or sink on its own.
It was left for us to give Jim a publication-day party, in a small, used-book shop in the Village. It was a low-budget affair: jug wine, chunks of cheese, Ritz crackers. But the atmosphere was jolly and festive, with about fifty friends chatting, joking and laughing. A stack of Jim’s books was sold at thirty-five cents each. “Five cents more for an autographed copy,” he cracked.
Joe Levitan, head of our writer’s workshop, said a few words about BRAVO, praising it as “the work of a genuinely gifted writer. His world, even though seemingly ‘foreign,’ is one that is immediately credible. With intelligence, energy and originality, he has produced a profound and powerful work. I’m so proud to have worked with Jim on it.”
Then Eliot Landry took the floor and said, “Haven’t read Jim’s tome yet, but I’ve gotten to know him lately and all I can say is that he’s a real gone guy, a bitchen, gassy, outta sight cat who I dig the most!”
Next it was Gail’s turn. Clad in tailored jeans and a rough-wool sweater, she put her head back and sang an a capella version of “When the World Was Young.” Big applause.
Then the bookstore owner put on a record, a dixieland thing, and we all started doing an approximation of the Charleston, whooping all the while, and when it was mercifully over, Gail fell into my arms and cried, “Oh God, I’m pissed, I’m so fucking pissed!”
* * *
I once read in a physics text book that there is a law of inevitability in life. All things that converge must also recoil, separate, and divide. Then they rebound and begin to converge again, only to disintegrate.
That’s what came to mind, for some reason, when the phone rang early one morning a few months later, when I was in upstate New York, visiting my ailing Aunt Mag. It was Jim, with news about Gail.
Having finished a gig at the Five Spot, she had gone home alone at two a.m, crawled into bed, lit up a cigarette, poured herself a glass of Almaden, and put on the just-released record she had made with Clifford Brown. As she listened to herself singing a silky version of “September Song,” with a muted Brownie playing double rhythmn behind her, followed by a slow-paced “Lullaby of Birdland,” she began to doze off.
Was “Lullaby of Birdland” the last thing she heard that night, or was it one of the other tunes on the disc, “I’m Glad There is You” or “April in Paris?” Not that it matters. What does matter is that sometime in the next half hour or so she fell asleep.
Did she have a brief, conscious thought when she woke up to find herself engulfed in flames? Or did she simply pass out from the pain and horror, lose all consciousness? Only Gail could answer that but she was presently in the intensive care wing of West Side Hospital, heavily bandaged and sedated.
I arrived at the hospital just before noon and joined Jim in the waiting room. Neither of us spoke. Neither of us could speak.
We just sat and stared at each other, and all I could think about, once again, was that law of physics, the one which insisted that all things that converge must inevitably recoil and divide. Or disintegrate.
* * *
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said that night. “We did our best but we couldn’t save her.”
* * *
At her memorial a few weeks later–it was held at the same bookshop where Jim had celebrated the publication of BRAVO–people told stories about Gail, sometimes weeping in the telling, sometimes laughing. Some of the music that she loved best was played: Miles’ “Moon Dreams,” Ella’s “Taint What You Do,” and of course Brownie jamming with Max Roach on “Tea For Two.”
Afterwards, Jim and I walked through the Village, moving aimlessly and silently. Only once did I stop, when I caught a whiff of something familiar.
A kid was sitting on the stoop of his Bank Street tenement, smoking a cigarette that smelled like Sweet Caporals. But when I approached him it turned out to be marijuana. It wasn’t the real thing. Not even close.