Have you ever stood on a stage and stared out into a crowd of people?
There was a party this summer at Ike’s parent’s house, kind of an annual thing, we call it Redneck Fest. I have been the only non-redneck in attendance for the past four years and this year was no change. What was different this time was the presence of a live band. They were easily twice my age, a cover band with little original material on the resume. I left my house for the thirty mile drive north, only this time I packed something.
It is coated in brass, over the years it has worn off to leave a rusty coat. It is bent in places and there are more than a few dents and scratches. The felt on the inside of the case is well worn from almost 16 years of use and it smells like a sock drawer. It wasn’t expensive and it wouldn’t sell these days, but I can still play it like you wouldn’t believe.
I remember walking into that classroom when I was just a kid. Oh did I ever want to play an instrument, I just didn’t know which one. The sax was too expensive, the drums too loud and the flute too gay…I was at a crossroads of indecision.
“Which one is the easiest to learn,” I asked in my high-pitched pre-adolescent voice.
A few years later I was in high school and I hadn’t given it up, besides the case made a good weapon against the kids calling me “band geek.” I spent more time in the band room than I did in the classroom and it was paying off. I was winning awards at competitions for the improvisational skills I showcased during our jazz concerts. I would play so long my mouth bled from my braces and my arm hurt from holding the fucker up.
By the time college came along I was playing in the jazz band and occupying the top seat in my section. My friends came to see us play in the campus bar and dropped their jaws when they saw me brandishing my rusted instrument. It was a thrill I could not get enough of.
I would pound glass after glass of bourbon before our shows and normally had a Solo cup full of it the whole time I was on stage. I can’t tell you how many times I stood in front of the mic counting the bars before my solo thinking that I was about to vomit. I wobbled back and forth drunkenly before brushing the twenty or so inches of hair that constantly covered my face out of the way. But, as soon as that metal touched my lips, something changed.
There was no alcohol in my system and no problems in my mind; it was just me and the mic. There was no drunken director and there was no crowd of people, it was just me and my horn. Everything faded away and it was just me.
When the solo ends my curly blond hair covers my face once again and my lungs gasp for air. I don’t look back as I head for the bandstand but I know what just happened. I have never slept as well as I have after a three set, four hour jazz concert. It might be the amount I drank before, during and after them, but it might be because I have never put my all into anything like I have that twisted piece of metal.
Well I walked across another stage and they gave me my diploma and it was the end of my music. There was no band to practice with, no director to push me and no crowd to stun. It took a long time for me to forget the thrill that I had lost on those stages. I lost a lot of sleep over it, even tried to change it…there was just no one to play with. From then on, the horn lay locked up in my closet.
I took exit 33 and headed through the country to Ike’s house. I was nervous, not a single one of them had seen the horn in my hands and I hadn’t asked the band if I could intrude. I sat and drank until the sun went down and the band came on, pondering if I should ask them or not. Finally I had enough (to drink) and approached them.
“Well, are you any good?”
"We'll have to see, won't we?"
I took my shirt off and raised the horn to my lips, a familiar sound coming from its bell. I heard the snare count off four and I came in, from there I ceased to be me. The music flowed out of me like a piss after a long night at the bar, but I didn’t know how it sounded. My hair was short now and I could feel the sweat running down my back and forehead as my body contorted to fit the solos I was playing. The instrument reached into my chest and extracted sounds I had not heard in more than a year.
It felt incredible.
After about three hours my lungs had given up on me…fucking RJ Reynolds…and I needed a drink. I wiped the sweat off my face as Ike slapped me on the back, a look of shock in his face. I cracked a High Life and sat down in the grass, completely spent, when I heard two of my friends talking.
“Holy shit, he can do more than drink.”
“I had no fucking idea.”
I grinned, and when I thought about this story tonight I thought about something else…my newest Craigslist post.
“Trombone player. Slightly out of practice. Jazz, funk, blues, rock and ska…maybe even hip hop. Remembering the passion I had for it and looking for a band to help me find it again.”