JAZZ MOON: Chapter One
Harlem had been hit by a hurricane: it was raining cats and jazz. White folks called it race music. Old colored folks branded it the devil’s music because its saucy beats made men pump their hips in slow pirouettes and women lift their skirts above the knee with a sweltering look that said come and get it, papa. But, whatever you called it, it was everywhere. Gliding out of glossy nightclubs; smoking lush and torrid out of basement speakeasies; in the streets, louder than a growling subway train. And if you ventured down Lenox Avenue or 125th Street, you wouldn’t be surprised to pass a first-floor apartment, window open, and glimpse a couple dancing as jazz crackled out of a phonograph. You’d stand on that sidewalk—right outside their window—and watch them for a while, but they wouldn’t even notice you.
In 1925 the devil did his best work in Jungle Alley—a stretch of 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues splattered with glittering clubs where Duke Ellington brushstroked his jazz canvas, café au lait chorus cuties high-kicked it, and a hoofing Bojangles took and shook center stage. Clubs gorged themselves on white swells from downtown drawn to the sensual, the primitive, the exotic; who, after seeing a Cole Porter musical on Broadway or a Verdi opera at The Met, cabbed it to Harlem in droves to slum to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and romp in the jungle of their uptown backyard.
The swells paid good money to see Negroes sing and dance in supper clubs, but drew the line at sharing supper, which is why Ben and Angeline, arm in arm, half walking, half prancing up Seventh Avenue, didn’t bother with the clubs in Jungle Alley. They bypassed 133rd Street altogether and shot onto 136th instead, laughing like fools the whole time.
“You have a good time, Angel?” Ben asked.
“Ooh, baby,” Angeline said between giggles. “That party was jumping. Hot, hot, hot.”
“Yeah. Donny Boy know how to swing it.”
“Where’d he learn to cook? Them pig’s feet and blackeyed peas reminded me of back home,” Angeline said.
They rollicked down 136th. The street was besieged with people leaving rent parties, clubs, picture shows, most laughing like Ben and Angeline, some downright drunk, and you could smell reefer everywhere. An eternal line of brownstones rose above them on either side of the street, high flights of steps with black wrought iron railings ascending to stoops where people talked and drank. Folks hung out of windows or sat on fire escapes and shouted down to the people on the stoops or to passerby on the sidewalk as taxis streaked by.
And it was hot. 2:00 a.m. and the July air was so humid and thick, Ben felt he was wading through it. He was tempted to loosen his tie for some relief, but on Saturday night he wanted to shine.
“Ben, you remember where we going? What’s this lap joint called?” Angeline asked.
“Teddy’s. All the hepcats go there. Reggie told me about it. Says the band’s a killer-diller.”
“That’s great, baby, but maybe we should go on home and kill some dill in private.” They walked side by side, but she managed to nudge her breasts against him. “If you know what I mean.”
“Girl, you a mess.”
They heard the music before they even descended the short flight of steps to the basement bar. The rough, concrete floor held two dozen rickety tables crushed in close together and filled with boisterous men in tight suits and chicks in beaded dresses and pearl-studded headbands. The air was steeped in smoke from cigars, cigarettes, and reefer. The July heat made it steam. Teddy’s vibrated with the clinking of glasses and rousing conversations and torrents of laughter. At the rear of the club, a band: piano, drums, banjo, and trombone beating it out and how. A bit of light hit the stage with the rest of Teddy’s smothered in shadows.
“Hello, suckers!” the hostess greeted them, voice thundering, her abundant frame housed in a loose-fitting black dress decked with an ocean of multicolored beads and sequins. The low-cut number showed off her big breasts. A horsehair wig decorated with a red rose sat atop her head, and she carried a fluffy, red feather boa around her ample shoulders.
“Welcome to Teddy’s,” she said, “where the jazz is hot and the liquor’s bootleggin’ cold! Just y’all two tonight? Ooh, girl, where’d you find this cat? If I was you, I wouldn’t come in here. I’d take him home and blow his…top.”
“Honey, I’ma do just that!” Angeline said. “A couple of drinks and we out of here.”
Ben slung her an admonishing look. She knew he didn’t favor such graphic talk in public.
The hostess laughed. A big, robust guffaw. “Girl, I heard that! Y’all come with me.”
She got between them, hooked her arms in theirs, and guided them to a table. A woman appeared onstage just as they sat down, singing in a raspy, down-home voice, the kind that made you think she was the blues.
“My man sho ain’t lazy,
He goes all day and works downtown.
My man sho ain’t lazy,
He goes all day and works downtown.
When he comes home at night,
I make him turn my damper down.”
A waitress arrived at the table. In her sleeveless satin dress with its thigh-high hem, she looked like a chorus girl in one of those all-colored musical revues. She carried a tray with two teacups, which she placed before Ben and Angeline. They each took a big gulp of tea. It sent a shudder from their eyebrows to their toes.
Ben recovered first. “This some good damn tea.” His voice was hoarse.
“Righteous,” Angeline said. “Benny?” She tickled her knee against his under the table. “Benny,” she said again, her voice a cross between an innocent coo and a seductive purr. “Can’t wait to get you home.”
The spot where she rubbed his knee burned. Without warning, she leaned over and kissed him, rough, her tongue flicking over his lips. Ben didn’t like doing this in front of people, but had no choice but to respond in kind.
“Yeah, man!” someone behind them yelled. “You go on and kiss that chick!”
Others chimed in, cheering them on as they kissed.
“Mmm hmm. That’s his main queen. I can see that!”
“She sure is! And she a good piece of barbecue!”
“That chick sure is some fine dinner!”
The crowd whooped and applauded as if Ben and Angeline were the opening act of a floor show. He jerked away from her, leaving her reeling from the sudden stop. He was embarrassed, but intoxicated too. The gin. The crowd. The salty funk of sweat and the odor of reefer wafting through the place. And now the real show began as the hostess mounted the stage, big breasts leading the way, dress rustling as she climbed the steps.
“Hey, suckers! How y’all doing tonight? Everybody got enough tea? Glad to hear it ‘cause at Teddy’s it’s always tea time. But you know what, honey? I need me a man to pour my tea—right out of a nice, long spout. You know that’s right! If you know a man got a good spout, you send him right on over. And if he ain’t got a good spout, tell him to keep his ass home with his wife! And if anyone here tonight got a good spout, you come see me in the back room! Mmm hmm. Well, suckers, we got a good show for y’all tonight, so let’s get started. Ladies and gentlemens, Teddy’s is proud to present to y’all The Blackberry Jam featuring Sweeeeeeet Baby Back Johnston!”
The light dimmed more. The audience clapped. Ben watched as a cat with a trumpet came up onstage and began to play.
Mellow. That was the only word Ben could think of to describe Baby Back Johnston. No fanfare like Armstrong. Just a sound that was blue and smooth. One moment it floated up with the reefer smoke, the next it was low down. Baby Back took that horn through a swirling maze of rhythm as the band underscored his every lick. He caressed those flats and sharps, fondled those swinging eighth notes, fingered that melody till it cried. Yeah. Baby Back broke it up. The crowd fell out. Ben was hypnotized. Hypnotized by Baby Back’s horn. A horn attached to a face coffee-colored and soft as polish. A tall man, his broad shoulders flared down to a trim waist accentuated by his tight suit. His eyes were shut, lightly, as he blew. As he blew. That. Horn.
The lights brightened a little when Baby Back’s set ended.
Someone called out to him from far away, from the edge of someplace.
Ben bounced back to consciousness.
“What’s the matter, baby?” Angeline asked. “You clocked out for a minute. You ok?”
“Sure, Angel. Just knocked out by this band. This trumpeter is…something.”
Then the trumpeter appeared, glad-handing from table to table. “Hey, how y’all doing? Baby Back Johnston. Y’all enjoying the show? Thank you. Nice to meet you. Y’all come back to Teddy’s, hear?”
He schmoozed and joked and flirted his way through the club with a devilish smile and brilliant eyes that muted just a shade when they fell on Ben.
“Baby Back Johnston. How y’all doing?” His voice reverberated, a plush baritone.
“We’re pretty solid,” Ben said as the trumpeter clasped his hand. When Ben tried to retrieve it, Baby Back held on a second longer than he should have. “You sure can play.”
“All in a night’s work.”
“Ben Charles. My wife, Angeline.”
“My husband’s right,” Angeline said. “You can play.”
Baby Back’s eyes found Ben and clung to him. “What do you folks do?”
“Angeline does hair.”
“And sells cosmetics,” she said. “Little side business.”
“I work in a hotel. Downtown. Waiting tables,” Ben said, then lowered his head. “But I’m really a writer. Poetry.”
The devilish smile stretched Baby Back’s face till it was as broad as his shoulders. “Killer. Anything published?”
“One thing in the Crisis. And I just sent something to a new magazine called Fire that’s starting up.”
From the corner of his eye, Ben saw Angeline’s bottom lip quiver. A subtle twitch nobody but himself would notice, especially in the speakeasy’s murky light.
“Benny,” Angeline said. She scooted her chair closer and draped her arms around him. “Mr. Johnston’s a busy cat. He don’t want to hear about your poetry, even though I know he’d love it. He needs to get back to work.” She relaxed her head on Ben’s shoulder, then trained her eyes on Baby Back. “Ain’t that right, Mr. Johnston?”
Baby Back looked down at her. “Please. It’s Baby Back. And I’d love to hear about Ben’s poetry. Next time you come, recite one for me.”
All three got quiet. Angeline pulled herself closer to her husband till she was almost in his lap. Ben’s eyes alternated between Baby Back’s face and the teacup in front of him, but he knew the musician’s eyes kept steady on him.
“My next set’s about to start,” Baby Back said. “Sure was nice meeting you folks. Hope to see you again soon.”
He got back onstage. The lights dimmed again and the band flung itself into a raucous dance number, the notes from Baby Back’s trumpet ricocheting off the walls. The hostess shimmied out in front of the stage holding a tea kettle.
“All right, suckers! Party time!”
The patrons unleashed a holler and, as if on cue, stood up and let loose, kicking up the Charleston, the Mess Around, the Black Bottom, while the hostess ambled deftly through the ruckus filling teacups, her big hips swerving in rhythm like a metronome. More folks piled into Teddy’s, clowning, smoking reefer, and chugging out of teacups faster than the hostess could replenish them. Men bumped and grinded against women whose breasts were thrust forward, arms hoisted above their heads, heat sparkling in their eyes.
Ben and Angeline did not dance. Her head still snuggled against him. And his eyes stayed glued to the stage, to the trumpeter whose licks whizzed out of his horn like fireworks.