All About Jazz by Chris Green
All About Jazz tends to be quiet in the afternoon. After the lunchtime rush, things do not pick up again until the evening. We are a small establishment down a side street on the edge of town. If you were driving along the main road out of town, you might not know we were there, unless you happened to spot the sign saying All About Jazz – Open Lunchtime till Late, Live Music at Weekends. My partner, Jazmin bought the lease last year with her inheritance. She saw the advert in the local paper and liked the idea of the place because of its name. I was a little dubious about the idea, not just because of its poor location, but because I knew nothing about jazz or running a bar. My objections were ignored. In no time at all, she was arranging professional photoshoots for the publicity material.
Many of our regulars are seasoned jazz buffs. The afternoon lull gives me the chance to listen to a selection of tunes. I can study album cover notes to see which musicians play on which tunes. Jazz players are often not household names, so it seems a good idea for a rookie jazz bar proprietor to build up his knowledge. I can pick out passages that I can refer to, an improvised saxophone break, a change of time signature or perhaps a hidden piano melody. There’s not much point in claiming to be being a jazz fan if you don’t appreciate the subtle nuances of the form. You might as well listen to Olly Murs or Sam Smith.
Jazmin likes to get out in the afternoons, so I often take the opportunity to relax in a comfy chair with an iced coffee and a good book, Haruki Murakami, Philip C. Dark, that kind of thing. I like a little quirkiness. Life can be too serious. There’s nothing better than a gentle read with some old standards playing softly in the background. I am doing so when a tall man in the light-coloured suit walks in. I have not seen him before. He has a dark complexion, not black, not white, not even brown but a colour you can’t put into words. He has slicked back hair with a quiff that seems to defy gravity. He has a facial scar and a thick gold necklace. He could easily be auditioning for a David Lynch film. Louche is not quite the word I am looking for, but it is close. He orders a large Plymouth gin and bitters. He is of indeterminable race. His accent is impossible to place. For all I know, he might be from Mars.
He starts talking to me about security cameras. Although he looks nothing like a rep, it seems he might be trying to sell me a new CCTV system. Either that or he is trying to rob me. More likely he is trying to rob me. It transpires security is a random interest. A passing topic of conversation. After we have moved on to necromancy and The Twilight Zone, he takes his drink and goes over to sit at a table by the window. All the time that he is here, I feel on edge. Being a jazz bar, we get plenty of oddballs passing through, but there is something different about this one. Something unexplainable, sinister, threatening. It is not just his unusual choice of conversational topics or the spooky way he maintains eye contact yet appears to remain aloof. His demeanour carries with it an air of menace. I am not one for a lot of mumbo-jumbo, but I can detect a dark aura around him. When he is in the room, it feels like the air in the room has changed.
After he has gone, his presence oddly remains. I find myself looking around to see if he is still lurking in the bar somewhere. In one of the booths, perhaps. I check to see that he is not crouching in one of the alcoves or hiding behind the pillar. I look in the toilets, the gents and the ladies several times. I make my way outside and wander up and down the street to make sure he has really gone.
The stranger comes in again the following day at the same time and once again orders a large Plymouth gin and bitters. We speak about GCHQ, rock formations and doppelgängers before he once again takes his drink over to the table by the window. Once again, I experience the same feeling of unease while he is in the bar without being able to explain why and the same feeling that he is still present after he has gone. When Jazz comes back from the printers, she notices that something is wrong.
‘I had a strange fellow come in,’ I tell her. ‘He spooked me a bit. But it’s probably nothing to worry about.’
She tells me about an offer they have at the printers on giclée prints. ‘They can do A3 posters for us for …..’
I am no longer listening. I have drifted off.
A pattern begins to develop. The stranger comes in every day at the same time. He always wears the same light-coloured suit. At no time does he introduce himself or explain his mission. He always orders the same drink, Plymouth gin and Angostura bitters. On each visit, he guides the conversation, changing the subject at will, without warning. We speak about cave paintings, psychiatrists, and remote viewing or, string theory, hot air balloons and Don Quixote before he takes his drink over to the window. He always takes the same seat at the same table. On the first few occasions, I entertain the idea that he is waiting for someone, but no-one ever joins him. Perhaps he is looking out for someone on the street, not that many people pass this way unless they are coming into All About Jazz.
‘I can always tell something is bothering you, honey, by the music you play,’ Jazmin says, as we are locking up one night. ‘Do you realise you played Guy Bloke’s Improvisation for Balalaika, Bass Guitar and Strimmer three times tonight, all nineteen minutes of it? No wonder everyone was gone by half-past ten. What were you thinking?’
‘Did I? I must have been …. distracted,’ I tell her.
‘You’ve been ….. distracted quite a lot lately. Sometimes I think we live in separate worlds.’
The same thought has occurred to me, but I do not say so.
‘And we haven’t made love for nearly three weeks,’ she continues.
‘Is it really that long?’
‘Yes, it is that long. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think there was someone else. Look! Let me know if I’m wrong, but I think this strange mood of yours started when that weird fellow began to come in. The one you told me about who talks about NASA, Twin Peaks and rubber plants. Does he still come in every afternoon?’
‘Yes, he does, Jazz. 3:15 on the dot. But it feels like he’s here all the time, now. It’s as if he never goes away.’
‘Right! I’m going to be here tomorrow afternoon. I can easily rearrange my hair appointment and I can pick up the gilcée prints anytime.’
‘You told me he comes in every day at the same time. 3:15, you said.’
‘He has done for the last three weeks, yes.’
‘Well, my sweet, it’s half-past three, and he’s not here.’
‘Perhaps he’s been held up.’
‘Or made up. A figment of your over-active imagination.’
‘If you don’t believe me, take a look at the CCTV.’
‘I did. This morning. It wasn’t switched on.’
‘You’re probably doing something wrong. I’ll have a look at it later.’
‘But you have to admit you have been behaving rather strange lately. Perhaps you ought to see someone. There’s a new holistic ….. ‘
‘Give him a few more minutes. I’m sure he will be here.’
‘What’s his name? If you’ve been talking to him for three weeks, you must have found out something about him.’
‘He’s never mentioned his name. He talks about robotics, firecrackers and necromancy. Or …..’
‘California, cloning and black holes. I know. And you never bring any subjects of conversation up? Like, who are you? What do you do? Why do you keep coming into our bar?’
‘It doesn’t work like that. You’d have to be with him to realise how he can just take you over. He takes your will away, like a psychic vampire.’
‘Wassup,’ says a deep voice beside us.
It is N’Golo. N’Golo is an African drummer who sometimes sits in with bands here at weekends. He likes to drop by in the afternoon for a lemongrass tea. He is wearing a kaftan, brightly patterned trousers and jangling Berber jewellery.
‘Your djinn friend not here today then, bro?’ he says.
‘You mean gin, N’Golo.’
‘No. I mean djinn. Juju. The man in the white decks. That man is bad-bad.’
‘How can you tell, N’Golo?’ I say. ‘As you know, I am not one for a lot of mumbo-jumbo.’
‘I just know, bro.’
‘But how? I get a bad feeling when he’s here. In fact, even when he isn’t here. But, I can’t explain it. And Jazmin here wants to know.’
‘Hear di smell. Many ways to sense it. Everybody is different. But it’s not how or why, it just is. He’s djinn, trust me.’
I have been reading up on jazz, and it all began in New Orleans. The word comes from the Creole patois, jass, referring to sexual activity. In the late 19th century. European horns met African drums and jazz music was born. Jazz inherited all the magic of the African continent. The heart of darkness. Voodoo. Djinn. Juju. While the rest of America was stomping their feet to military marches, New Orleans started dancing to voodoo rhythms. It may be nothing. But voodoo, djinn, juju or whatever you want to call it and jazz are inextricably linked. And our bar is called All About Jazz. So, it should be all about jazz. We could educate people on the history of jazz. To the seedy jazz joints, dens of vice. To the progress of the new music through Buddy Bolden, Nick LaRocca, Jelly Roll Morton. We could hold classes, workshops. We could bring people to the town to learn about jazz. The nuts and bolts of jazz. Its cultural constituents, the brass band parades, Mardi Gras, downtown Creole, dirty music, corner saloon dances. The nitty-gritty bare-bones elements of Jazz that you do not find in the safe little bubble of Smooth Jazz. Smooth Jazz! Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Jazmin is less than enthusiastic about the idea. She thinks I’m going off on one. The Jazz that it is all about she feels is her. She wants it to stay that way. She insists it stays that way. It was her money that set us up; she says. She can be a bully at times. Oh, well! Perhaps people don’t need to know where jazz originated or if they do they can go online or read Casey Gasher’s book, Basin Street.
In moments of despair, one can fall prey to a mindset which tells you that the current set of circumstances has always been so and will always be so. But this is not the case. Things do change. As the great mystic philosopher, Lars Wimoweh was fond of saying, change is the only certainty. After a few days of the tall stranger not showing, his presence, imagined or not, begins to fade. I no longer feel distracted. Mindfulness returns. I manage not to accidentally play Guy Bloke’s Improvisation for Balalaika, Bass Guitar and Strimmer or any other jazz track featuring a strimmer. I am able to start conversations on topics that I am interested in, rhythm, harmony, syncopation. I feel the sap rising. I manage to heal the rift with Jazmin in the nicest possible way. Things go swimmingly at All About Jazz. The Simon Somerset Quintet play a spirited Saturday night set, and Giles Davis weaves his mellow magic on his muted trumpet through Sunday afternoon.
It is comforting to get a bad episode out of the way. Jazz thinks so too. She feels it is good that I’ve got a grip and pulled myself together like her holistic counsellor, Ike Murlo said I should. My difficulty was harming business; she says. Little by little, Jazz begins to trust me to hold the fort in the afternoons once more.
But although Ike Murlo tells me that the crisis has passed, that I’m over the worst, sometimes I seem to still be visited by lingering uncertainty. That nagging doubt that surrounds an unresolved mystery. I realise I should know better, but each time I am outside having a smoke, and I catch a glimpse of a tall figure in the distance. I imagine it to be the dark stranger in the light-coloured suit coming to get me. Suddenly, nearly everyone in town seems to be above average height and be dressed in light-coloured suits. Ike Murlo tells me that such a frequency illusion is quite common and even comes up with some numbers to back it up. Apparently, it is known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. It does not help to be aware of this. And sometimes even the ones who dress normally now come across as suspicious, I tell him. He assures me this will pass, but just in case, I should see him twice a week.
Jazmin has gone to pick up some posters for the summer jazz extravaganza we are planning. I did try to get her to book Guy Bloke as a headliner, but she thinks he is too avant-garde. Well, you can’t have everything. I’m sure that Guy doesn’t mind too much. He has plenty of other gigs lined up. Meanwhile, I am relaxing in the bar. Suddenly aware of someone in my space, I look up from my Philip C. Dark thriller. He is not the usual type that we get in mid-afternoon. He is wearing an oatmeal checked three-piece suit, but his coarse features do not go with the suit. They belong to someone from out of town, a long way out of town. Over the hills and far, far away. The chimerical stranger makes a remark about the music that is playing in the background, Scott Walker’s Tilt. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I realise, but I find it relaxing. He orders a pink gin.
‘That’s gin and Angostura bitters,’ he says. As if I didn’t know.
He starts talking about …… CCTV cameras. He seems to know a lot about them. I am still trying to get a grip, mumbling incoherently as the conversation moves on to necromancy and The Twilight Zone.
Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved