Published in Gravel, August 2017
The funeral for Cab Calloway’s star tenorman, Roy Jefferson, was held in a gray-boarded, needle-steepled Baptist church on Marcus Avenue in Saint Louis, the city where Roy was born and baptized thirty years before. The crowd spilled out of the church into the street, perched on the steps and sidewalk and pavement like sighing, cooing pigeons, and ignored the light steady rain that fell on them. A skinny boy named Davey Chaunceret was among those shivering in the drizzle, a pale face turned to gray by the rain, nearly enveloped in the crowd of darker faces. He'd hitched his way from New Orleans to St. Louis the day and night before, after word of Roy Jefferson's death had spread southward down the Mississippi and eastward across Highway 40 to Harlem.
A man in a tan fedora told Davey that Jefferson's brethren in the Cab Calloway band were on their way to Joliet in a bus the night of the car crash. "He wouldn't have died if he'd made that bus," the man said in a high, husky voice. Pieces of the story emerged from the crowd, were passed around like sticks of gum: Roy was boozing with family members after a gig in East St. Louis and ended up talking a drunken cousin into driving him to Joliet at four AM. The first gray smudge of dawn was visible in the east when it happened. The cousin lost control, the car spun off the highway at high speed, hit a telephone pole. Roy's large head went through the windshield, followed by his large body. The cousin survived. Roy's beloved Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone survived, too, and was placed in his coffin beside him.
Much of the jazz world's royalty in that spring of 1943 attended the funeral: Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong. As they walked up the church steps, bejeweled, furred, in expensive threads, surrounded by their entourages, the crowd oohed and murmured. Davey had met most of these celebrities, though probably none remembered him, or were likely to admit it even if they did. Davey was Roy's companion and newspaper reader for more than two years, even though Davey was half-white, and, worse, looked all-white. As a rule, Roy Jefferson didn't like Caucasian boys. Nor those who wouldn't drink Bacardi rum and Coca-Cola with him nor those who didn't like fish. Both these things were true of Davey. But every morning Davey read the newspaper to Roy and Davey's soft, husky Cajun voice seemed to relax Roy for a while, until one day he apparently got tired of Davey, got rid of him by leaving him behind in a colored hotel in Madison, Wisconsin while Davey slept.
Roy was only thirty-one when he died, big and brown and sloppy, with a thickly coiled nap of rust-tinged hair and great womanly breasts, the only thing remotely feminine about him. His voice was deep and rich and rolling and when he laughed, his large body shook up and down like Santa Claus. He had an enormous gold front tooth and rings on all his fingers, including his thumbs. Most of them were of intricate design and convoluted origin. Roy liked to entertain Davey with stories about them, stories Davey never knew whether to believe. When the lights hit him on stage, his fingers flashed as they flew over the tenor keys and when he stopped and smiled, a beam of golden light shone from his mouth. It was only his tooth, of course. He was famous in the Harlem after-hours clubs for his lung power. It was said he could hold a single note for four full minutes, although Davey had only heard him do it for three and a half. "You should've known me when I was young and spry, like you, Chaunceret," he'd slur at five or six AM, before passing out at the Meadowlark Hotel in Harlem. Davey, relieved, would take off Roy's shoes and undo Roy's tie and crawl in next to him, and try to sleep before Roy started snoring.
"You don't like oysters, do you, Chaunceret?" Roy said to Davey in his booming voice one afternoon over lunch in a crowded diner in the French Quarter in New Orleans, where they'd first met. It was an accusation, like he felt both hurt and disgusted by it. "You being French, too. French are fisheaters, don't you know that? Japs, too. Fisheaters. Read me again about that Dutch freighter the Japs sank the other day. I got a kick out of that. What's a Dutch freighter doing out there in the Yellow Man's waters in the first place? They never ask that, do they, Chaunceret? Same with that Pearl Harbor mess."
Roy was playing at the Samson and Delilah restaurant on La Fontaigne, a jazz club and bordello that swung both ways. One night Roy picked out Davey and took him back to his hotel room. Afterwards, they sat in bed smoking reefer and Roy asked Davey about his life. Davey said he hadn't lived long enough to have one.
"No, I'm curious how you got started doing this."
"I don't remember. I was just a kid."
"You're still a kid."
"Because of the music. I love being around the music."
"Not for the money?"
"Yeah, okay, for the money, too."
Roy took a different boy home every night for a month. In the end, though, it was Davey he asked.
"Cause you didn't lie about the money. They all lied about that, 'cept you. Only thing is, can you read? I need someone who can read."
Traveling with him was a jittery, nerve-wracking business. Little things were liable to get him started: a surly look from a tollbooth collector in Ohio, pie a la mode without the a la mode in a diner in Indiana, Jim Crow rest rooms in Tennessee. Then there was the obit they saw on Jelly Roll Morton, dying penniless and forgotten in an asylum for the poor.
Roy and Davey were in a small coffee shop attached to their hotel in a colored section of Baltimore. Roy was perched awkwardly on a wire chair too small for him, wearing a weathered pinstriped suit and red tie, slopping coffee all over the table with a
shaking hand, his big body in constant, writhing motion as Davey read aloud about Morton's lack of birth certificate, his arrests for various crimes, his time spent in mental hospitals, his banishment from clubs and establishments up and down the East Coast. Finally, Roy smacked his cup down on his saucer as if he meant to break it, but he didn't quite.
"Don't you pay no attention to what's written about Jelly Roll," he boomed out into the sleepy, fly-ridden restaurant air, with its smells of cinnamon rolls and frying fats and burnt coffee. It was after eleven in the morning and the place was nearly empty. "The onliest one who knows the truth about ol' Jelly Roll is the Jelly Roll himself. Crazy, they called him. Crazy like a fox, is more like it. Only musical genius there ever was in jazz, although those so-called jazz experts won't never give him his rightful due. That's cause Jelly Roll wouldn't let no ofay walk all over him. Not like that Lewis."
Roy always pronounced Louis Armstrong's name "Lewis," like a disapproving parent, although Armstrong was more than ten years Roy's senior. Roy would shake his head, purse his lips, emit little sighs of disgust, and he did so again now. "Understand, Chaunceret, I ain't suggesting that Lewis ain't a great trumpet player. Just the way that Lewis smiles all the time is enough to make a dog vomit. Shucking and jiving, rolling his eyes around like that. Like he's simple in the head. White people eat it up, too. Jelly Roll had dignity, I'll grant him that.
"And Lord, could he play! I ran into him once. He didn't know me from the next nigger but I knew him. Oh yes, I surely did. They had us playing the same swank joint in DC, only he was being backed by some ofay no-accounts. I was with Wingy Manone and Barney Bigard that summer, summer of '38. Believe it or not, Wingy was the number one draw, Jelly Roll the betweener, even though Wingy never could play three notes out of five on that dinky cornet of his, being he was one-armed."
Roy paused to chuckle at the irony before he continued. "It was a big ol' ballroom, Cotillion-type, with pink bunting, Roman columns, all that square shit. The ballroom floor was filled with ofays dressed up like for the Opera, eating supper, or what passed for supper. Those tiny birds, you know, Cornish game-hens or what-all. Dog swill, if you ask me. So while the music's going on, they're chattering away, clinking the silver, sipping champagne, feeding their faces. Jelly Roll was playing on an old upright, with the guts exposed. From where I was standing, his back was to me, so as all I could see was this long, greasy mane of hair and his hands flying over the keys. He was playing like he must have always played, like a ragtimer, only he was improvising the whole time, non-stop. Both hands, mind you. None of that stiff, written-out Scott Joplin shit they pass off as ragtime today. It was wild, a wild sound. Like the way he must have played it in those N'Orleans sporting houses you grew up around, Chaunceret, just like your old alma mater, in fact." He paused to laugh again.
"Remember that piano player who wouldn't play 'Whinin' Boy Blues' lest you tipped him a quarter? That kinda sound. Only better, of course. Them ofays trying to back Jelly Roll up couldn't keep up with his left hand, let alone his right. After a while they had the sense to leave off; it was just them looking the fools.
"At the end of the set, he played 'The Pearls.' Now, I know you don't know 'The Pearls,' Chaunceret, because you was too young to remember when that tune was all the rage. Well, that night you mightn't have recognized it anyway because this was from the Master himself, you dig me? This was from the composer, so he didn't have nothing to prove to nobody about how he could play it.
"You know how you hear one of them Russian classical guys playing Chopin etudes, or Art Tatum on a night when he's had just enough gin, it sounds like two pianists at once? Well, I'm telling you, Chaunceret, Jelly Roll sounded that afternoon like three piano players were going at the same time. His bass hand was rolling along the bottom keys like the rumble of thunder, and his right hand was doing these curlicues up and down the treble keys like birds twittering. But it was the mid-range, Chaunceret. Lord, that mid-range. The chords that all landed up around middle C on the upbeat, only he was moving so fast, the chord would stay suspended in mid-air until the next one came along and snatched its place away. That's what gave the illusion I'm speaking of. Three voices, like three voices in a church choir, each singing a different tune, in a different range, but all three of them interweaving together and spreading upward through the air into a pure cloud of music. It was frightful, truly frightful.
"After his last arpeggio, I expected a huge roar from the crowd. I really did. I started to clap myself. But after a second I saw it was just me clapping. Wingy and them looked at me like I was some kind of fool. Because otherwise, there was nothing, just the same clinking and clanking and chattering and eating and drinking noises, like them people were sealed off from him in a soundproof room, walled off from all that music he was making. I tell ya, Chaunceret, I don’t know why the good Lord makes talent like that just to waste it on a world of fools."
The rain was still falling as the funeral cortege emerged through the tall front doors. The pallbearers were members of the Calloway band, young men, mostly, their faces strained from the effort of keeping the coffin horizontal down the steep steps, trying to walk slowly and with dignity, afraid to slip. They were followed by the family members dressed in black, the women weeping, the men with hats on, shading their faces with their hands. The famous musicians came out last of all.
The coffin was placed inside the back of a black hearse, idling impatiently at the curb. The other cars started up all at once with a roar and drove off behind the hearse, headlights glowing pale yellow in the rain. The crowd scattered in all directions and soon was gone, as if they'd never been. Davey and the man in the tan fedora lingered for a moment.
"He was the best there ever was or ever will be," said the man with the tan fedora. "Him, Jelly Roll, Fats. We been losin them all, one by one. These young cats, none of them know how to play and there ain't no one left to teach them." He tried to light a cigarette, but the rain was too heavy and he couldn't keep a match lit long enough. He threw away the soggy cigarette in disgust. "You play?" he said to Davey without looking at him.
"Naw, I just listen," said Davey.
"Me, too. I used to fool with the trumpet a little but nothing serious. Say, you from N'Orleans, ain't I right? I know this gumbo joint round here."
They started down the sidewalk together toward town. "I could tell from the lilt. Ain't no mistakin that N'Orleans lilt.”