I hate the audience’s relentless stares. For a moment I am blinded into ignorance by the blue and purple haze from the coloured spotlights. I tilt my head above their beams and glance up. I see the movement of diffused silhouettes and hear the soundtrack of laughter and glass on wood. I resume my downward gaze, and look aimlessly at the stage’s black worn carpet and my recently polished shoes.
I can feel the panic rising. I would normally flirt with it for a few moments and then use it. This evening however, the panic has been afforded more time; time to strike a conversation; a conversation I don’t want to have. It wants to get acquainted. And all I want to do is escape. I can’t of course. People have paid their good money after all. I now feel it multiplying somewhere beneath my stomach like bacteria. The metal between my hands feels heavy. If all had gone to plan, I would about now, be in the moment, and it would feel weightless; my weightless brass conduit, through which the real me is allowed to briefly come out and display himself; or should that be the ‘unreal’ me?
This has happened before mind you. I hated it then too. New York 2006. The club was hot and haunted by a perpetual cloud of tobacco smoke and the smell of cheap alcohol. Same awful scenario. I lick my lips. Take my first deep breath. About to blow, when a technical glitch, halts the opener. These things happen of course. It’s expected, but it’ll usually be way before you’ve actually come on stage and connected with the audience. In this situation it is too late to run off, as it would seem unprofessional or even unfriendly. The generally agreed protocol is to sit and wait, while the DJ plays some of the greats. Only now you have seen the whites of their eyes. Felt the ice blue chill of expectation. You see a jazz lover is unlike your facile, easily pleased pop fan. Your avid jazz follower will know not only your back catalogue, but your contemporary’s. They’ll know your syncopation. They’ll hear you before you hear yourself. At least that’s what a part of them wants; the part that will recognise the ‘standards’, and nod with communal appreciation like a group of cult followers in some kind of drug induced trance. Your job is to grab the other side of their ears and take them somewhere completely unexpected; to surprise them! Make them lean back in their chair, look to the heavens and thank God they spent their $10. As much as I would like nothing more than to take all these scary people on my journey of musical exploration, I am instead due to a faulty connection in some lead or audio hardware, sat here like a fool wanting my trumpet to put its lips around me, and swallow me whole! I digress.
New York 2006. I found myself staring at the floor and sipping my glass of house water, as though it were 20 year old cognac. The glass inhabited the space my horn filled each and every night. It was my shield. You see contrary to common belief, not all musicians are brimming with confidence. The fluid dexterity heard within the bright screams and mournful moans of my trumpet’s voice, does not translate into eloquent, shoulders back, chest forward charisma. I’m neither eloquent nor charismatic. I’m a reserved, almost reclusive, if it weren’t for rehearsals and gigs, forty three year old session trumpeter, who’s afraid of crowds and change, and only finds his confidence when pressed against his horn.
Today we’ve been here for about three minutes now, and I feel uncomfortable, to the point of nausea. The fact that everyone else up here looks so comfortable in our musical purgatory, just adds to my sickly feeling. Pascal, band leader, alto saxophonist and serial womaniser is strolling nonchalantly between Ray, the pianist and the audio guy desperately trying to fix the electrical fault behind the desk. Mike on double bass is giggling with Art the drummer like a naughty school child. They may as well be school children. I am at least 15 years their senior, and just like school kids and teachers, the only time our spheres collide is in class. What they fail to realise is the stage is school, and I could teach them something if they just listened and stopped trying to impress each other and anyone else that’ll listen. Needless to say, they see me not as an experienced musician, but an old ‘has been’, who is only standing in to replace their regular trumpeter who is off with flu or herpes or something. There’s no respect for experience anymore. I digress.
I’m here with an almost finished glass of water, trying to avoid the gazes from a mature woman on the front table with the blue dress. If she could only be blessed with a prophetic eye that would betray this Jazz musician aesthetic, and reveal that I James Phyllis will not and for that matter could not just after a long and melodic delivery of multiple orgasms, pick up my trumpet and sprinkle improvised notes over her sweat drenched nakedness, like musical confetti. No I am more likely to favour a good whiskey and some Miles Davis, than a roll in the hay. In my unnoteworthy experience, fantasy is always better than reality. I envy hers. I lost the ability to fantasise years ago. The day she left. May Tipperton.
She sat and stared, in a not too dissimilar fashion to the lady in the blue dress. Only her stares were met with confidence. I was young you see, not yet bruised by life and loss, plus I thought I was ‘the shit’. I had bought into this Jazz crap hook line and sinker. I thought I could have the world. May however, just wanted me.
From that night on she would come and sit at the front and stare. I watched through squinted eyes from over the rim of my trumpet’s bell, as the arch in her back responded to my high notes. She’d twitch with every unexpected change in pitch; every shift in timing. I felt like a puppeteer. The power turned me on! After about two weeks of this surreptitious game play; when even the rest of the band had begun to notice her frequency of attendance and clear arousal I, during a short interlude, went over and asked her if she wanted a drink. She replied ‘I want to take you home.’ Our connection then shifted from the realms of fantasy, straight into heart pounding, lunges burning reality.
May was beautiful and incredibly sexy, but she didn’t know it. In fact now, after watching endless hours of day time television, I’m quite sure she was suffering from what professionals and uneducated TV presenters alike term ‘body dismorphia’. She in fact confessed a few weeks into our relationship that the confidence needed to deliver her ‘I want to take you home’ line, was derived solely from her consumption of two double brandies just before our opening song. She was not entirely sure how she stayed awake all night; but we did!
I remember telling her that night in April, that she had met me as a musician and that she should respect my art. I made her promise she would never ask me to choose between her and the music. She never did. We both knew who would win. The music had my heart way before I’d noticed the batting of eyelashes or the rhythm in the swing of a girl’s hips.
My father introduced me to her one Sunday morning. I couldn’t understand Jazz, but it touched me somewhere deeper than any other music I had then heard. Miles Davis is one of my earliest sound memories. I remember sitting on the fluffy sheepskin rug that took its pride of place in the centre of the sitting room, amidst the other sixties home décor essentials. I must have been around nine or ten. I had heard ‘Blue in Green’ many times before then, but for some reason that Sunday morning I really listened. And as though my stillness had been an irrevocable invitation, she leapt inside and held me. The music evoked visions of fantasy lives filled with beautiful women, New York penthouses and dancing lights over Manhattan river water. I fell in love right there, at that very moment. I digress.
Seven months later May and I were married. Nothing big. The witnesses included my musician friends, who all thought I was crazy for signing up to monogamy at a such an early age, and in all honesty had just turned up to see if I’d actually go through with it. The majority of the female party were May’s nursing friends. They all thought she was insane to even consider marrying a musician, and a jazz musician at that! May decided they were just doing what good friends do, and were looking out for her. I agreed not to take it personally, but secretly decided that they were just pissed because they didn’t have me. I was such a prick! We decided we’d prove them all wrong.
May wanted to conceive on the honeymoon. The accompaniment of latex and the stern expression I had inherited from my father was enough to quell that dream. I didn’t want children. I was just getting somewhere with my music. How could I tour knowing she was at home raising our children on her own? I was sacrificing fatherhood for her, but she didn’t see it like that. We toured for ten whole years. When I was home, married life with May was amazing. We would make love over laughs and tears and intensified embraces. We discussed the Jazz greats: Monk, Coltrane, Morgan, Davis. She loved jazz almost as much as I did. One of the many things I loved about her. Everyday she would ask me to play for her; nothing too long. Just a few lines. She loved my other voice. As the years went on, the expressions of James the husband and James Phyllis, Jazz trumpeter grew more contrasted. I became more miserable with each year of unfulfilled dreams and pointless touring. By the end May stopped asking to hear my other voice.
I saw her the other day in the supermarket. My mother used to say ‘happiness can only be bought with coins of compromise’. It would seem May had spent some of her own. I saw her before she saw me in the dairy aisle. Like the bereaved at a séance, I primed my senses to spot any evidence of something I knew deep down didn’t exist. I wanted to see a kink in her armour, an inflection in her voice, a sideways glance, something that would tell me that she missed me. I saw nothing. Only two people clearly in love. Matthew is a dentist and seems to be a fine man. They have one child, a daughter, and live in nice part of the city. I’m happy for her.
Back in the here and now, Pascal signals that the glitch has been fixed. We can begin. I lick my lips. Take a deep breath. Hold my trumpet high. Very high! My shield from the crowd’s stares. You see to be honest the reason I hate looking into the audience isn’t because I’m afraid. It’s because they remind of the time a beautiful girl entered my world and stole my heart. They remind me that she no longer wants to hear my other voice. They remind me of the cruel awful truth of it all; the fact that the music is all I have, and that it was never really enough.