“In a Blue Moon, Once” — a story by Richard Herring about being swept away by the life-changing effects of discovering jazz music — was a finalist in our recent 37th Short Fiction Award competition. It is published with the permission of the author.
Richard Herring grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He explored a range of blue collar jobs across the South before a change of course took him through 35 years in the field of education and a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University. He has been a dedicated fan since a jazz epiphany took him in 1985. He now lives and writes full time on the Florida Gulf Coast.
Jazz Nightclub Scene, New York, 1957. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
In a Blue Moon, Once
“Night of the living dead,” a voice screamed in Tom’s head. A softer voice pointed out it was still late afternoon. It sure wasn’t life as he wanted to know it. In reality, it was just another long Thursday afternoon of monthly staff meetings, with new mandates and standards flowing downhill from the top. All the nodding mannequins around the conference room would take it all in, shoot a few inane, brown nose comments back at the presenter, then go back to do their jobs tomorrow the same as always.
Sylvia’s attention was on the crochet hoop in her lap. Jack’s eyes had been closed for the better part of 45 minutes. Tom’s life support system came through the cord fed neatly up beneath the lapel, to the headphones partially obscured by thick sideburns and abundant head of hair. A collection of earpieces was present among these old codgers, but his was connected to the brand new cassette player in his suit coat pocket.
The tape Mikki turned him on to seemed to emanate from a place beyond his routine, tired existence. It was as if the music offered a tangible escape from the dreadfully predictable pace and sequence of life. The cycle he lived dealt with ever changing faces, always asking the same questions, always satisfied with the same old, jaded answers. There had to be more. If not, he’d have to be content with his regular walk among the zombies.
At the break, refreshments were set up in the alcove, and that’s where she ran into him. It was always good to see Mikki, even if she did look better in men’s dress clothing than him.
“Hey, lighten up, man,” she reacted to his somber expression, “it can’t be that bad.”
“You weren’t in my session,” he told her. “This John Coltrane stuff you gave me seems to help, though. How was yours?
“Oh, the usual. But in a few hours this will be the last thing on my mind.” Mikki told him about a great vocalist playing at the club that night in Midtown. “You look in the dictionary under ‘torch singer,’ they might just insert her picture,” she nodded her own slow, repeated affirmative. “Can you make it?” she pressed a styrofoam cup of coffee into an oval against her lower lip, “or do you have a calendar entry to go home and kill yourself?”
“Yeah, I’ll go,” he told her. “I have a late conference call but after that, yeah. If you’ll be there.”
“Naturally,” she smiled, “Couldn’t miss April’s set. That’s my girl.” And tonight, well, there’s always that chance.” The serious gaze she fixed on him came in advance of her inquiry. “If you know what I mean.” He didn’t.
That chance had to do with another act in town that night. Brandon was one of the ‘Young Lions’ involved in the reemergence of the jazz canon. He was a name in his own right now, playing across town at the symphony hall. In a town like this, a class B venue for jazz tours, nationally known artists came in on weeknights, playing concert halls for high-brow season ticket holders. Then, if it worked out, they might drop in for an improvised late night set at a more an intimate venue, like the best straight ahead jazz club in town.
Brandon’s brother, a ‘lion’ in his own right, showed up one night last spring after his concert downtown. With one of his guys and a two from the great house band, they smoked through a set so hot it became the stuff of legends in the small, but fervent, jazz community. Mikki was fortunate to be there that night and, although the fire marshal’s plaque on the second floor posted a capacity of 140 occupants, she guessed maybe 300 people since that night talked it up like they were there.
The beeper tone to reassemble sounded and the zombies began to shuffle back to their designated meeting rooms. Groups were determined by scores on a personality profile earlier in the session. Tom’s name label was a different color than hers, so they went in separate directions.
“Hey,” she called after him, “whoever is first, get us a table by the stage. Right up front.” His wink signaled agreement with the plan.
Tom had driven by the place several times but never been inside. Scattered downpours on the way slowed traffic, and torrential rains over the last few days caused several detours due to street flooding. Later than he intended, he still found a decent parking spot, under a canopy of trees, about half way down the block. Owner of the Blue Moon, David was greeting patrons at the door this night and had the word to watch for Tom’s arrival.
“Hey there, Doc. Pleased to meet ya. Go on up,” he said. “Doc Mikki already has your table.”
At the top of narrow staircase, he saw that she did; a table within short arm reach of the stage, centered under the old wood beam ceiling; the best acoustics in the house.
“Wow, this is great,” he told her at the table. A couple dozen people were seated throughout the room, and a well-dressed crowd, too. In the aftermath of the young lions’ decade, musicians and fans alike dressed like Miles on a 60’s album cover. Mikki caught the waitress’ eye and signaled for a two shots and draft beers to follow the empty glasses on the table. “Ever bring anyone else from work over here?”
“No, I took a chance. I thought it just might happen to you. In our work day universe,” she told him, “you may be a singularity.”
“How so?” he wondered.
“Well, everything we deal with in our department involves dead, cold facts,” she started, “but, if you venture from subject matter with those folks, you risk pulling politics or resurrecting Jesus right into the middle of the conversation.” The tilt of his head and an arched eyebrow signaled he was working to follow her point. “So, you try to stay innocuous when the topic strays to, say, what kind of music are you into?” The blank expression she affected was broken by his silent chuckle. ‘Oh, they say, jazz. Yeah, me too! Nothing makes for a good time like that Dixieland sound.’ Or, ‘Oh yes, indeed, that Kenny G. really speaks to me,’ with a far off, elevator music look in their eyes?
“So, you’re saying the straight-ahead jazz you’re talking about is like communicating in Aramaic or Sanskrit,” he added. “Just another dead language to that vanilla crew.”
“Let’s not be so hard on them. It’s a trend that extends to the general population. Not everyone can hear it. All anyone can do is put themselves in proximity to the music, and maybe it happens. Maybe jazz chooses you rather than the other way around.”
Their attention was diverted by musicians addressing their instruments on the band stand. Following a few tuning notes, piano and bass tore into a double time rendition of “I’ll Remember April” as a long introductory piece for the night’s vocalist. She was gorgeous, coming out scatting from the start of the third stanza and took the piece to a soaring crescendo. Then somehow, to the delight of the attentive crowd, they segued into a sultry version of “Autumn Leaves,” with the rest of the band members filtering on and off stage as their solo spots came up. They worked through brilliant sets, authentic but imaginative, technically flawless. April sang timeless lyrics like a personal, oral history. When the final notes of last piece faded, a stunning, harmonically rich version of ‘But Beautiful,’ paced as slow as a glacier, Tom held both cheeks in his upturned hands and a trace of tears in his eyes.
“Whew,” he spoke quietly to Mikki. “I think I’m in love.”
“Poor baby, I hope it’s not your first case of unrequited.”
“Oh, you mean she’s already spoken for?” Tom explored.
“No, I mean she and I go to the same church,” she laid out for him to consider. She enjoyed his blank expression before closing the loop. “Sacred Heart of the Lipstick Lesbian.”
“Ahh, so there goes that chance, then.”
“Hey, I didn’t say that,” Mikki raised hands to either side of her head, as if showing she
was unarmed. “Like I said, all you can do is put yourself in proximity,” she laughed, “and see if it happens.”
They shared many more drinks and laughs through an equally killer second set. Mikki kept looking for an opening to make an exit when hoots and screams from the appreciative audience swelled between numbers. Then, she couldn’t tear herself away when the next piece started. Then the next. It went that way until the houselights came up with the ‘thanks for coming out’ talk from the bandstand. A ripple of mixed sounds, rain on the roof and the scuttle of chair legs, came from the edge of the numb quiet that followed the last set.
“Wow, I-Got-To-Go,” Mikki over enunciated, holding her glasses in one hand and rubbing her eyes with the other. “That eight o’clock will come mighty early tomorrow.” Recorded music came on the P.A. and filled the void. When she reached for her purse and the check, Tom covered it with his hand.
“You can get it next time,” he told her. “Thanks for the invite. But, hey, before you go, what’s with this?” He pointed at the speaker in the ceiling above their heads. “I don’t get it. This is from a different mix than anything we heard tonight.”
“That’s from the new Miles release. Some old school purists are horrified by that mix of genres, past and future sounds. If I’m still articulate, let me put it to you this way — jazz is a realm where old is made new, and new is never all that it might become.” She was proud of her explanation and stood up to gather her things. “Say, this cut’s right up your alley. Called ‘Hannibal.’ Let it take you and you might hear the elephants crossing the Alps. I’m gone,” she turned to go. Then she was.
“Under local ordinance, we have to officially lock the doors and close in fifteen minutes,” Dave was at the mic. “Not like we won’t let you out after that, but, you might have to find somebody with a key.” As some of the crowd filtered out, the rest were told they were welcome to stay and enjoy. “So if you’re ready to go, as Charlie Parker said, now’s the time.”
Tom wasn’t ready. He knew he was loaded, riveted, and uncommonly alive. He had the rest of his drink to finish along with most of Mikki’s, and a flood of thought racing through his mind. Now’s the time. If music is another tool to measure time, and time is immutable, how is time so indisputably bent in a blue note?
The remaining patrons began to fill tables around him, closer to the bandstand. A few people stepped behind the curtains and came back to the stage wetting their reeds and settling in for an impromptu set. The bartender sat in on the drums and a server brought her vintage Gibson L-5 from somewhere in the back. The bar was closed but drinks kept coming from somewhere and fat lines of powder were chopped out at the adjacent table.
The guys on stage spoke a few song titles between them before agreeing on one. Their train pulled slowly away from the station, picked up speed in rapidly changing increments and took everyone along. The diminished crowd applauded approvingly in what would be the last lull of the night. Some guy in the audience did his best Brando, grabbed his head with both hands, calling out in mock anguish, “Stella, Stell-aahh.” At that moment, his cry was like flicking a wooden match onto a pile of oily rags.
The musicians took off, using a bop version of the old standard as a bridge to whatever improvisational fancy materialized between them. There turned out to be no celebrity sightings that night, but no one seemed to notice. Tom was mesmerized by the energy and interplay and, at one point, overwhelmed by emotion. His hands were gripped in front of him on the table, as if in prayer. He felt the apprehension, the edge of fear, of a young boy with his face pressed to a fence, looking through a knothole at something he was not supposed to see. The power of the maelstrom on the other side sucked him through.
“Just leaving,” he called to the policeman placing a ticket on the car parked behind him. The club made coffee to go at dawn and he shifted the cup from hand to hand, feeling for his keys. The officer gestured to the sign; no parking after eight a.m. on weekdays. “Thanks,” Tom called, quickly getting in the car and maneuvering out in traffic. He faced two immediate missions; taking this unfamiliar route across town in morning rush hour, and concocting a plan before ten o’clock. It stopped raining sometime overnight. It might just be a beautiful Friday morning.
First stop was the faculty rest room to splash water in his face and try to shake the rumple out of yesterday’s clothes. Next would be the office to check messages and get a grip. He pushed through the door, glass panel painted with the letters, Thomas Moran, Ph.D. He was inside the small rectangle that constituted his second home. On the desk, a pair of cheap sunglasses were placed on a handwritten note. Painted on the lenses were crude, open eyes in liquid Whiteout. The note said, ‘Thought these might come in handy. Love, Mikki,’ punctuated with smiley faces above the ‘i’s.’
He sat down to pull himself together and typed a note on the Smith-Corona for Leslie, his new graduate assistant this semester. He scraped off the eyeballs with a paperclip, and wore the glasses as he walked down to the teaching theater.
Most students were already seated as he walked down the aisle to Leslie at the dais, grading this week’s essays. She read the note and nodded affirmatively. Before he was out the door, she was at the microphone.
“Spend 20 minutes or so assembling your notes, then the rest of the class in your discussion groups to align your answers and understanding on the following topic: Consider lasting outcomes of the Second Punic War, including Hannibal’s strategic use of elephants to cross from . . .” Tangential thoughts continued to glance off Tom’s head but, walking away, he was secure that morning in two certainties: the mysticism of jazz chose to take him, and tenure is a beautiful thing.
Read “Homage,” by Kenneth Levine, the winning story in the most recent Short Fiction Contest
Read another finalist’s story, “Silent City,” by Adam Murray
Click here for details on how you can submit your story for consideration in our next competition.