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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Woody Reed & Turbulent Waters
I first encountered the turbulent waters while a much younger man, sitting in with a band I had never played with before that night. Now that I'm starting to tell you about my journey, I can't say for certain where I'll be when the story finishes, for I haven't arrived there yet. But you'll see what I mean, later, and you'll understand why I don't seem to know where I'm going at the moment, so bear with me, please. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll know where I'm going when I get there.
"Take it, Woody!"
Those words were music to my ears! But this gig hadn't started out so comfortably. All I have to do is close my eyes and I'm back in that moment, on stage in front of a sold-out house of 3,500 people wanting desperately to be entertained so they can put their worldly troubles aside for a few hours. As luck would have it, the band's tenor player woke up that morning with a bad case of strep throat. He couldn't even swallow, let alone blow on his sax. I got the call at three o’clock that afternoon, asking, no, begging me to sit in with the group for this show. Although I couldn't banish the recollection of Trumpet Man's story of sitting in with The Count so many years ago, I also knew that I couldn't turn down the opportunity presented to me.
I admit to being nervous when we took to the stage at 8 P.M., sharp. It's funny, but as a kid, I never got nervous about performing, or anything else, for that matter. Perhaps if I could have rehearsed with the band before stepping onto this stage, even for ten or fifteen minutes, I wouldn't have been trembling the way I was. But given the circumstances of my hiring, there was no time for rehearsal that afternoon, not even a dry run-through. I had the benefit of only the 30-minute sound check at six o’clock. If you've ever done a sound check, you know that it's not play time. No, this is the only chance the sound engineer gets to test the PA system, properly place the microphones and speakers, balance the sound both in-house and on-stage, and make sure the stage monitors are working without adding any dreaded feedback to the house mix. By 6:30, everyone else in the band was ready to chill out in the dressing room, secure in their comfort zone of camaraderie, either not realizing or not caring that I was on the verge of begging for a little rehearsal time to calm my pre-concert nerves.
Don't get me wrong. I’d sat in with Jazz groups in the past, often on short notice. But this night would be something very different, my first experience playing Big Band Jazz. My first priority that night had been to focus on accurately sight-reading the arrangements so I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. The second priority had been trying to fit in with 16 other instrumentalists who had been performing together for years, and seemed able to read each other's minds on stage. The horn section was unbelievably well rehearsed and tight. Their phrasing was so musical and right on the money, and they were careful to cue me with knowing nods whenever necessary. Once I had made it into the second set, I started to feel in synch with everything going on around me. I could tell the band was waiting for me to bust loose. They'd heard me play before, to be fair, so they certainly knew I had the chops. Once fully settled into the groove of the show, I must admit that I hadn't had this much fun in a long time! This band was a cooking little machine. But there we were, well into the final set, when the band leader took the microphone in hand to address the enthusiastic crowd.
"Heyyy, you've been a great audience tonight, and we've had a blast playin' for you! We're gonna close out the show with a tune most of you have probably never heard of, 'cause it was written way back before your grandparents were born! I guess I'm a sucker for old Jazz standards! But before we stretch this one out, put your hands together for our saxophonist for tonight's show, Woody Reed!"
Polite applause was scattered throughout the hall, understandable since I was only a stand-in who hadn't yet been offered the limelight.
"You may be wondering who this guy is," he continued. "Well, Bobby, our regular sax man, came down sick this morning, and the only guy he would let us call to take his place at the last minute was Woody, which is really saying something 'cause we all know Bobby is the best of the best."
I hadn't known Bobby had said that about me until I had just heard it with my own ears. If true, it was indeed a compliment of immense proportions. I knew Bobby, had heard him play, and he was indeed among the best around.
"Bobby told us to let Woody cut loose on this song, said he'd heard him play it before, told me to warn you to hold on to your seats. So, we're gonna feature the wood-man, here, on this old tune called . . . Lush Life."
I was in shock. Sure, I knew the song well. In fact, it's a song that held very special meaning for me. But the realization that I was about to be featured as the soloist fronting a band I'd never played with before that night got my knees knocking pretty badly. I had to remind myself that I was quite used to listening, then jumping in when ready. Even that process was different, now that I had matured musically. No longer did I need an entire chorus to hear what was happening. It was instantaneous. I could jump in as I was listening, sensing exactly where the song was going before it ever had a chance to get there. The audience seemed to sense that something special was about to take place as the arrangement built in intensity from chorus to chorus. I felt it, too, like a bolt of lightning working up its electrical charge before exploding through the ozone when its energy could no longer be held at bay. I scanned my written part to see the words Extended Tenor Solo seeming to jump off the page. Okay, here we go. This was the moment Jazz musicians spend a lifetime preparing for, the chance to step up and strut your stuff. And then I heard those words offered from behind me.
"Take it, Woody!"
Those words were music to my ears. The first few bars flowed out of my tarnished old saxophone, as if without any conscious participation on my part. I was feeling loose as a goose, as they say, and soon my thoughts were streaming out in long, mellifluous phrases that I didn't even realize were within my mind until I had played them. By then, they were already a distant memory, now the foundation for what was yet to come. Behind me, though I couldn't see them, I could feel the rhythm section building with me as I achieved an emotional outpouring which I, and everyone around me, would likely remember for years to come. My heartbeat began to quicken, as did my breathing, and my fingers soon followed, flying through patterns that I had no advance knowledge of. My eyes were closed tightly, yet I could see the pulsating red glow of the spotlights through my eyelids, and I began to experience the very strange sensation of thinking about two things simultaneously: the music I was playing, and my own reaction to the music I was playing, as if I was having a conversation with myself, within myself, without getting in the way of the emotions emanating from my horn. Strange, but as I was talking to myself about this experience, I was still building, striving, reaching, pushing, wailing to all who would listen. I had to remind myself to breathe, because unless I did, I'd surely have passed out. But the creative force within my mind had taken control, and wouldn't let the vessel of my physical body take in the life-giving fresh air. Breathe, Woody, breathe! But no breath was to be allowed, and my lungs seemed about to burst at their seams, if such seams exist. The band was right there with me, every step of the way, pushing me harder, higher, louder, frantically engulfing me within an ocean of pounding rhythm and a thunderous wave of pure adrenaline. The audience was up on its feet, jaws dropping in disbelief at what the people were seeing and hearing, urging me on to new heights. I couldn't see them, but I felt them, relishing the flood of notes cascading out of me faster than my mind could process in real time. And then … it happened.
Trying to put 'it' into words will be difficult, perhaps futile, because what I experienced next defies language. I felt myself…rising. That's the only word I can think to describe it. But I had the distinct sensation of rising above the cacophony of the live performance. All the while, I continued to play, maintaining the internal conversation with myself from above, as I viewed my physical body down below on the stage. I still hadn't taken a breath, as I knew I should, as I knew I must. And I wondered, have I passed out? Rising yet higher, I looked down as I floated over the entire concert hall. The band was still cooking with incredible intensity behind me on the stage, laser lights flashing. The crowd was up, watching in eager anticipation of who knows what. And I was up, drifting way up above it all, watching myself play, watching myself turning red from lack of breath, watching myself trying so hard to get to where I now undoubtedly was, not realizing that I had already entered The Zone. All at once I got the shivers just thinking about this out-of-body experience. After so many years of struggling to get there, I had arrived at where I thought I had wanted to be. I continued to rise, higher and yet higher, until something scared me to the core of my soul. Something . . . or someone . . . brushed against my arm. In a panic, I looked down to the stage below and saw there was no one close enough to me, no one in a position to touch me. I felt it again, this time with a whisper of cold breath in my ear as my arm was brushed a second time. Then, I heard the voice.
“Hey . . . kid . . .”
I knew that voice so well, and that's what scared me beyond salvation. It was the voice of Trumpet Man. I looked down again, and I could see and hear my physical self on stage spilling out my deepest emotions. But high above it all my spiritual self was jolted, reeling from the stabbing pain I had tried so desperately to suppress every time I thought about this moment in time that now seemed destined to escape my self-imposed confines. I was in full control of the music below, while totally out of control emotionally, above, which scared me far more than hearing his voice. In hindsight, I now know this was the very moment I first waded headlong into the waters of revelation, for Trumpet Man had indeed died in my very arms a year prior. I had been with him that night, playing yet another wedding gig. Afterwards, we were enjoying our traditional cup of coffee together at a local bistro, as had become our custom. Without warning, he abruptly closed his eyes in pain only a moment before his head fell to the table with a loud thud. I rushed over to his side, knocking my chair to the floor in the process, and cradled his head in my arms. He opened his eyes, looking up at me so helplessly as he murmured words I can never forget.
“Hey . . . kid . . . remember . . . me . . ." Those had been Trumpet Man's last words.
He died looking into my eyes, never closing his own. I sensed the people as they formed a semi-circle around our table, hesitating in that obscene moment of fear before offering help. I heard their whispers, but I was oblivious to their presence. Everything was a blur of indistinguishable sights and sounds in my mind. If only he hadn't opened his eyes before departing, maybe my life would have been different, without this story to tell. But peering directly into the eyes of someone you love as death overtakes that person is a perverted intimacy that you never can forget or overcome. I knew the moment his soul departed his body, for in that instant his eyes became clouded and unfocused. But I could do nothing but stand there, frozen, convinced that if I merely maintained eye contact he would emerge from his nightmare. After what seemed to me to be mere scant seconds in the continuum of time, the sound of the siren cut through my defenses. Then I heard the shouts.
"Give us some room, move, move aside!"
The paramedics rushed to our table. Contrary to all the stories I'd ever heard, there was no death grip to deal with. No, someone all too gently lifted Trumpet Man's right hand from my shoulder, though I couldn't remember him placing it there. The paramedics spent the better part of ten minutes desperately trying to revive him from his eyes-open sleep, to no avail. I stood there and watched, hearing nothing, seeing no one. I was hustled into the ambulance for the trip to the hospital, or perhaps the morgue, I knew not which. This was my first experience with death, you see, and I was in shock, I suppose, because I refused to believe that he had passed on, or through, or whatever the case may be. For me, he never left. To this day, I still expect he'll sashay into my next gig, trumpet in hand, eager and ready to share his own gift with me. In my dreams, I endlessly relive those final moments. I can't say that I saw fear in his eyes in those last seconds. Rather, I sensed profound confusion, as if his mind was spinning out of control with his last-second plea, smothered by lack of oxygen.
“No . . . wait . . . I'm not ready yet!”
Now, floating so high above that foreign stage, I was terrified, convinced that I was about to enter a dimension I was far too young to contemplate. So I did what I instinctively knew I had to do to save myself. I breathed. Long, deep, wrenching breaths. Instantaneously, I was back on stage, back in the moment, down on my knees, gasping for breath, soaking up the thunderous applause from the audience, sensing the shocked looks of disbelief on the faces of the musicians behind me as I turned my head to salvage my bearings. The standing ovation continued, the crowd now realizing they had witnessed something they would likely never see or hear again in this lifetime. I slowly got to my feet, exhausted beyond anything I'd ever felt before. It was all I could do to drag my battered body off-stage, where I collapsed onto the floor, barely managing to keep my horn from crushing damage. Thankfully, the curtains drew to a close, and the show was over. The other musicians came running off the stage towards me, fear in their eyes as they saw me sprawled on the floor, saxophone cradled protectively on my chest. The first to reach me was the piano player, he an ebony-skinned Jamaican named Ivory Keyes. I barely gathered enough strength to ask him what had just happened.
"Heyyyy, Woody-mon, you be wayyyy out there, somewhere none of us ever beeen, to be sure!”
Confused, I demanded, "Ivory, how long…?"
Ivory answered with a look of wide-eyed amazement. "About 20 minutes, Woody-mon!"
With that, Ivory helped me to my feet, and half-carried me into the dressing room, where I collapsed into a heap, unable to find the strength to keep my weary eyes from closing. But something else was at work here. Something I didn't understand.
© Jeff Resnick 2018
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All Rights Reserved