The Saxo­phonists’ Book of the Dead

Christmas, 2011 / No. 27
Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

As soon as Miss Billie Holiday turned to write on the blackboard, Lester Young whipped out his peashooter and fired a spitball right where she had written the date. The spitball rolled down into the chalk gutter, leaving a damp opalescent trail.

“Pfft,” Coleman Hawkins said, shaking his head at Lester. Before Miss Holiday turned around—she first finished writing the double bar at the end of the song—Hawk shot another spitball right at her butt. There was a rippling around the point of impact on her sleek dark skirt.

“John Coltrane,” she said looking at me. “John William Coltrane. I know you helped pioneer the use of modes in jazz and later were at the forefront of free jazz. I know you were recognized for your masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz, but you march yourself down to Principal Hodges’ office right now and I don’t mean later.”

“Yes, Miss Holiday,” I said, standing. Ben Webster looked back from the seat in front of me and mouthed Miss Holiday’s words as soon as she said them, opening his mouth wide like a satchel.

I wasn’t worried about the principal’s office. I’d been there before. My buddy Bird had taught me to play “Cherokee” in at least twenty-one keys. I could handle the principal. Before long we’d be talking about his lifetime in the Ellington band, about Harry Carney, and even about Billy Strayhorn and Mercer. And besides, what was he going to do, send me home? We all knew there was nothing beyond the classroom. At the end of the school’s linoleum, things just faded out. Nothing but the empty sky of infinite space and the chorus of stars.

I walked out of the classroom but stood for a moment outside the door, listening as Miss Holiday continued the lesson. We were learning “All the Things You Are,” even though we’d all played the song a thousand times.

“Who can tell me what happens during the bridge? ” she asked.

Eric Dolphy’s hand shot into the air. This should be good, I thought. Eric was always pushing things right to the edge.

“Yes, Eric? ” Miss Holiday said. There was something about Miss Holiday’s voice that was so fragile yet still kept us in our place. Even Lester. At recess, he would defend her when the other boys began to talk. And I wondered if he deliberately missed when he shot his spitballs. He’d get that crazy look in his eyes, twist his head funny, and shoot the peashooter at a weird angle and never get it anywhere near her. Still, a river of saliva down the board was something. Most guys, the spitball would just bounce and land on the floor with only a small dab of wet where it had hit. And there were those times when Lester would play a song with Miss Holiday. Even though his conception of rhythm and harmony were rudimentary compared to the sophistication that I felt I’d achieved especially in my later years, I couldn’t help but feel moved in a sleepy old-timey kind of way.

“Miss Holiday,” Eric began. “You know where the G-sharp melody note over the E major chord turns into an A-flat over the F minor seventh at the turnaround of the B section? ”

“Yes, Eric,” Miss Holiday said. “But please stand when you speak in class.”

“Sorry, Miss Holiday,” he said, shuffling to his feet. “In my estimation that’s a particularly striking employment of an enharmonic substitution in an American popular song, and one that facilitates the use of a chord built on every one of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale.”

“That’s an astute observation, Eric. And one that reflects your particular sensitivity to heightened chromaticism, something that is often tragically misunderstood. You may sit down.”

“Thank you, Miss Holiday,” he said. I couldn’t tell if Eric had been trying to be sarcastic. Sometimes he was very subtle. But Miss Holiday had handled him deftly, I thought.

Out of nowhere, Lester suddenly murmured, “You are the angel glow.”

“Pardon me? ” Miss Holiday said. “YATAG, ma’am.” It was Charlie Parker, slouched as always in the back row, his nose stuck deep in a book as if he wasn’t listening.

YATAG. ‘You are the angel glow.’ Some of the most beautiful lyrics of all time. In the B section, ma’am.”

My own favourite line was, “What did I long for? I never really knew.” It was in the verse, which was almost never sung.

I started walking to Principal Hodges’ office. Deep space loomed at the end of the hall, just past the pictures of the student council and the pop machine. A rich velvet darkness and the stage lights of the silver stars.

There weren’t very many rooms at the school beside our classroom: the boiler room, the office of Nurse Bessie Smith, the gym where we played basketball and performed our concerts, and, of course, the principal’s office.

The door was half open and I could see Principal Hodges in his customary ash-coloured wide-lapelled suit, chair tilted back, shiny shoes up on the desk, his eyes barely open, a haze of smoke like an interstellar dust cloud settled around him.

“Time and again I’ve longed for adventure, / Something to make my heart beat the faster,” he said through the door. “John William Coltrane,” he said. “Trane,” he said, motioning for me to enter. “How long have we known each other? ” he asked.

“A thousand years, sir,” I replied, though I didn’t really know how long, having little to measure it by.

“And here you are at my office again? I thought we’d developed an understanding.”

“It wasn’t me, sir. It was Coleman,” I said.

“That’s what you told me the last time. And before that, you said it was Lester.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and then blew it out in an extended blue sigh. “John,” he said. “John, it’s about listening. The others look up to you. It’s time to take responsibility.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, looking at the floor, the many burn marks like dark constellations in the taupe linoleum tiles. “Responsibility.”

“Now go back to class and do what’s right.”

“Yes, sir,” I nodded.

“Can you really play ‘Cherokee’ in all twelve keys? ”

“Yes, sir. Charlie taught me. And it’s at least twenty-one if you consider the enharmonic spellings.”

“Right,” he said. “But they don’t sound any different, do they? ”

“No, sir.”

“Before you return to class, John, I would like you to take a long walk around the school and think about what I’ve said.”

“Yes, Principal Hodges,” I said, knowing that what he asked was impossible, that I’d be lost in empty space like all the others.

I went back down the hall and listened again at the classroom door.

I heard the click of cases opening, a small thrumming of fingers on saxophone keys as my classmates held reeds in their mouths, saturating them with spit to prepare them for playing. I heard the small talk, the muttered jokes, the first few riffs, and the plangent vibrato of high notes. The quick whistle, the resultant shout as someone hit someone else with a spitball when they weren’t looking.

I went back into the classroom.

“O.K.,” Miss Holiday said. “John’s back. Get your tenor out, John, and let’s take it from the top.”