Hacky was skin and bones in a black Coltrane tee and tight leather pants, his alto sax swaying violently over the faded image of his hero, sweat pouring from his stringy black hair.
He was a rock star playing “Naima” in double-time. He was a drugged-out soul whose only outlet to others was his music. He was lost, yet he could be found every Friday night at the keyboard lounge, speeding up jazz standards and mutilating them with his frenzy.
The crowd was small but enraptured, mostly lonely thirty-ish women who were lost in his hips, his lips, and his glazed green eyes. They were the same ones that always came, long islands scattered across their tiny tables, occasionally knocked over by their crossed and kicking legs. They seemed to know something the greater public didn’t: Hacky was an emerging jazz giant in an era where there were no giants to be found.
Behind Hacky a trio of hard-driving characters plodded away and attempted to keep up with his derailed train solos. George, Jimmy, and Mac tried everything they could to not drown in polyphonic sheets. Everything was wet with their sweat and vibrating at their call. They weren’t bad, and they let Hacky shine.
When the last, ecstatic note of “Naima” was held perfectly by Hacky for over a minute, the women almost lost their skirts, the band almost fainted, and the lights in the club flickered respectfully. That one note had never been rendered so well since ‘Trane pulled it off on Giant Steps nearly a half century before that night, and most everybody in the club sensed it.
Something in the molecules shifted, the molecules of the women in the crowd, the backing band, the club, and Hacky himself. He trailed the note off and fell dead onto the stage, his silver saxophone tumbling across the wood and finally resting against the back leg of the house piano.
The writer sat back into the dark corner behind his table and watched silently as the paramedics tried and failed to save the musician’s life. The band stood off to the side, smoking cigarettes and shaking, and the women hovered to one another for the first time and hugged mercilessly.
He didn’t move because he didn’t need to. He only wished to absorb, a self-conscious chronicler of events that would surely go down in jazz history. The falling of the shooting star against the Midwest night sky. The moment when the heavens broke on that final note. The recalling of the ancestors.
He saw it play out in real time, unbeknownst to the patrons of the club, when Charles Mingus sauntered in through the back, face covered by the shadow of his enormous fedora, a shimming gold bass over his back. He shook the rain off his trench coat and took a seat at the next table from the writer.
“Where’s Miles? That motherfucker,” he grumbled, tucking his bass into the other chair at the table.
One of the paramedics stood up slowly and looked at the clock. “Time of death: ‘round ‘bout midnight.”
The club was shut down for the night, expelling the twenty or so women onto the street. They looked around with wide eyes and huddled together, wiping tears and quickly talking through trembling lips.
The writer shambled out behind them, staying in shadows, and lit a cigarette. He waited patiently as the women filtered away, their voices becoming more and more distant from the alleyway. He lit another cigarette, smoked it slowly, and re-entered the club. He had his own key, and it was his building, his club.
“A Night in Tunisia” sailed through the corners of the club, but at half-volume. It was all they could conjure. Mingus strummed away on stage, his head down, left foot stomping, while Miles and Hacky played the tune. Duke smiled from behind the house piano and Max Roach sweated through unheard of polyrhythmic masterpieces.
The writer sat back in the corner and bobbed his head slightly, stroking his bush beard with one hand and stirring a scotch on the rocks with the other. The place was empty except for him and the ghosts.
“What the hell, man?” asked Coltrane, who had suddenly stepped out from the bathroom and was slouched at the table where Mingus had rested earlier. “I mean, shit. That dude even has my face on his shirt! What the hell, man?”
The writer raised his tumbler into the air and spoke in a grainy, smoked-out voice, “No disrespect, but you’ve been usurped.”
“U-what?” Coltrane sneered and leaned in.
“Your glory has been stolen, my man. You should’ve wished him to stay alive.”
“You mean Miles ain’t gonna play with me any more? Well fuck that, I can do my own thing.” He stood up, slung his tenor around his neck, and stormed back into the bathroom. When “Tunisia” wound down you could hear his notes from the stalls, dissonant and frenzied.
The smoke from the writer’s cigarette rolled through the club, breathing and expanding, seeping through the band as they tried an up-tempo version of “Milestones.” They were thwarted by Miles’ refusal to move on to the solos until they all “figured out what the fuck they were playing.”
‘Trane was now seated at the bar, hunched over, a needle flopped over his forearm. His saxophone was nowhere to be seen.
The writer watched as a woman mysteriously entered the club, even though the door was locked. She was tall, curvy, and knock-dead beautiful, carrying herself in a long tight black dress. Her long brown hair sailed over bare shoulders when she walked, and the strong scent of sandalwood emanated from her dark, Indian skin. She sat across from the writer and reached into a small red purse, pulling out a platinum cigarette case.
“This is the most amazing thing,” she said, lighting a square and blowing smoke out of the corner of her thin lips. “I’m in a dream, and I realize it! Can you believe that?”
The writer lit his own cigarette. “Yes, I can. Lucid dreaming,” he said.
“I’ve never had a lucid dream before. And this band. . . they’re great. I’ve never really listened to jazz before, either.”
“You don’t know who those guys are?”
“No. They’re good though.”
The writer scratched his head and looked momentarily confused. The band launched into a slow blues jam, one he was unfamiliar with. Smoke from his cigarette drifted toward and through the woman. “Do you have a name?” he asked.
“Yeah. Um. . .” she started, then seemed to realize that she had forgotten it. “I guess I can’t remember,” she finally said, wide-eyed.
“It’s very normal.”
“To not know your name? It kind of bothers me.”
“But this isn’t your normal reality, lady. You said you were dreaming, remember?”
“Oh yeah! But shouldn’t I know my name? Everything is so real, you know?”
The writer stood up, snuffed out his cigarette on the ashtray between them, and beckoned for the woman to come with him. They walked past the stage as Hacky began an uncharacteristically mellow solo. He was holding the blues in his hand, in his horn, and milking it for what it was worth. The woman halted and soaked him in.
When the writer returned to fetch her, she said “He’s so beautiful. His music is so beautiful.”
And that point, she disappeared like the image on an old television. Her image danced for a short second in front of the stage, compressed into a small dot, then ceased to exist.
“Shit,” grumbled the writer, returning to his seat. He had wanted her to stay and read his poetry about dreams and death, and maybe he could’ve seduced her, but apparently she was too perfect to be dead. She was just dreaming, and that meant she wouldn’t come back.
But she did. Four nights later.
“My name is Paula. I remember that now,” she said, taking the seat across from the writer. The band began twittering through an Eric Dolphy composition, bending the air around them with surreal vibrations. He leaned forward and looked in her large, dark eyes. He seemed to be searching for something.
“Are you dreaming?” he asked, leaning back in the velvet chair.
“I think so,” she said, perplexed.
“You think so?”
“This is different. I’m not worried about waking up, for one. I can smell the smoke in here, and the band seems more. . . I don’t know. . . real. Alive.”
Paula turned to the band and focused on Hacky, who was standing off to the side while Miles blurted through a punchy solo. He was watching her, his eyes unblinking. The writer heard her breath quicken.
“He sees me,” she said, quietly.
“Yes,” the writer replied bluntly, lighting a cigarette. He seemed to be wrestling with something in his mind. The beautiful woman had fallen, once again, for the musician, and not the writer.
“I’m dead, aren’t I?” she asked, reaching into her purse.
“Yup,” the writer grumbled, exhaling smoke.
Meanwhile, Hacky had made his way down from the stage, his ghost moving through dim blue lights and sheets of smoke to reach the back table. He sat down next to Paula and stuck out a shaking pale hand.
“Wow. Wow. Wow,” was all he could muster, followed by a short series of rapid fire sniffles. Onstage, his music elevated him to the level of a God, but in person he was nothing but a skinny, coked-out musician who spent all his money on drugs.
Paula clasped his hand in both of hers. “Your playing is incredible,” she cooed.
“Thank you s-s-so much,” he squeaked through purple lips.
“Go play some more for me, baby,” she intoned, with salt in her voice.
“Yes ma’am,” Hacky said, running back to the stage and almost interrupting the final bars of Miles’ solo with his inability to hold himself back for Paula. Miles glared at him and shook his head when Hacky almost shot into the refrain too soon.
The writer watched Paula’s back as she rocked her head to the final seconds of “Out To Lunch.” He admired the shape of her shoulders, the fine dark hairs that trailed down from her neck to the top of her back, and the softly defined shoulderblades that moved softly as she swayed to the music. He lit a new smoke from the butt of the old one and sighed. “Play some more blues,” the writer whispered through a mouth crowded with smoke.
Across the room, ‘Trane coughed and waved an indifferent hand toward the stage, his image beginning a long, slow fade that would last for centuries.