From Storyville, the voice of Billie Holiday. Good evening
everyone, this is John McClellan, speaking to you from George Weins
Storyville at the Copley Square Hotel in Boston. Tonight we bring you
the songs of Lady Day Billie Holiday, accompanied by Carl Drinkert
at the piano, Jimmy Wood on bass, and Peter Lippman at the drums. As
usual we try to bring you the artists who appear at Storyville at
their natural, relaxed best. In fact, as much as possible, unaware of
the broadcast in progress. So therell be no fancy introductions or
fanfares, just music. Wherever you are with your radio, we hope youll
imagine that youve just stepped into Storyville, youve been
seated at a table, and now youre ready to listen to Billie Holiday.
I hadnt seen her in a couple of years. I had heard
nothing but trouble about her. I didnt know shed be playing here.
A spotlight shot down on a microphone, barely throwing
light on the other musicians. The stage looked black and empty.
...And now ladies and gentlemen, the announcer
said, the very wonderful Lady Day, Miss Billie Holiday.
I headed to the mens room. I had already set up the
colognes, the towels, the combs. I checked myself in the mirror, and saw
what I expected. There were lines on my face from the drinking days and
what hair was left was gray. I took my seat. The show had just started.
Nobodyd be coming in here for a while. You had to give them time to
get some liquor down. When someone good played, I propped the door open,
just a bit, so I could listen.
The piano started out alone, some lonesome chords.Away
from the city that hurts and mocks... I knew this one. She had
always had a way with those first words. Im standing alone, by
the desolate docks. It was almost as if she spoke them, not
really singing, just saying it. She sounded rougher now, but not bad.
Shed sounded better a couple of years ago, but hell, I looked
better a couple of years ago. I didnt hear her complaining.
In those first few lines, she still had that girlish
sound in her voice, like a little girl who had seen too much and done
too much and still couldnt figure out why so much of it turned out
wrong. I wondered what kind of thoughts it took to make sounds like
that. Id done just about everything she had; and I was sitting in a
toilet in George Weins Storyville. She was on the stage. I wanted to
sneak out to see if she looked as bad as I had heard she did.
In the still and the chill of the night.
It was so offhand, but you got cold when she said it,
like a wind was blowing with no one around. I guessed you had to be
innocent, way deep down, to sound like that. Maybe that was it. I sure
as hell wasnt innocent. You had to do what came along, not even think
if it was right or wrong. I had always known what I was doing. I had
known it was good, or known it was no good; and Id done it anyway. I
had always known.
I see the horizon
The great unknown
My heart has an ache
Its as heavy as stone
Will the dawn comin on make it light?
Will the dawn comin on make it light? I liked
that one. You didnt know if she was talking about her heart or the
The door creaked open. If they came this early they
were probably drunk, drunk enough to leak all over the floor. Id have
to wipe it up. I stood slowly, a bit stooped. I looked older like that.
They liked me old. I got bigger tips that way.
How you doin, sir? I said.
Hm, the man barely replied.
A lot of them wouldnt talk, but this one looked
mad, like hed been dragged here. He wore a good suit, the kind you
saw in windows but would never be able to buy blue bright, like
the ones in the big, color movies. He wore fine shoes, too. His hair was
a little gray, just enough to show. My gray made me look scraggly. Gray
hair made this one look even richer.
The band had kicked in but the door was closed, so I
couldnt hear her sing. When he left I would listen some more.
The man left the stall still tucking himself in. Great
big ol thing too, wavin it around like a whip. I stood ready with
a clean white towel.
Enjoyin the show, sir? Great big white man.
Stood about a half a foot taller than me.
The man looked at himself in the mirror as he washed
his hands. He made faces, puffing out his cheeks, moving his lips around
to look at his teeth, tilting his head back to see the chin. What was he
He finally noticed my face next to his in the mirror.
He stopped making faces.
Lets just say, the man finally answered,
taking the towel I offered and drying his hands, its not what I
would have wanted to see.
Where are you?
Have you forgotten?
Will you return?
You dont like jazz music?
Some. Not this.
Shes almost a legend.
Thats what my wife says. Shes been reading
about her. I say she just cant sing anymore.
Had a hard life, I hear.
Im not paying good money to hear her hard life.
He handed back the towel, then dropped some change in
the tip glass.
Thank you, sir. Have a good evening.
I put the towel in the hamper. Two quarters in the tip
jar. Not bad. I walked into the stall. That man could have been wearing
dollar bills, but his eyes were just too red. And yep, he had sprayed
all over the place.
I wiped it up, went back to the sink, wiped it clean,
wiped the splashed water drops from the shiny white tiles.
I put my prop back in the door and took a seat. I sat
still to listen.
I cover the waterfront
Im watching the sea...
She sounded so different now. Two years ago she had
been here. Just two years ago.
Lester Young and Ben Webster, those guys were swing,
mellow, like they had some hurt way deep down, but they didnt think
too much about it. It was just living to them. When I got back from the
war, though, it had all changed.
Back in 41, a friend of mine
in Chicago was glad theyd bombed Pearl Harbor. He thought black folks
needed a war. Good for the colored man, he said. If the whitesve
got to fight wid im, cant look down his nose if he wanna keep on
livin. That sounded fine and dandy but I didnt want to fight
next to anyone. I didnt want to fight, and I didnt want to die.
I joined up though, right in 42.
That was all anyone was doing. I had been working since I was 16,
nothing big, no plans. The jobs just kept a roof over my head and food
in my mouth. This, this war, fighting off the Germans and the Japs, I
really thought it might get the whole world somewhere if it came out
right. I figured the only way Id get a piece of it, a piece of the
good when it was over was if I joined up. Leaving wouldnt
matter. The only thing Id miss would be the music. Me? No one would
I was young and alone, working when I could, lining up
for food in 30 like everyone else. I used to
walk by this bright shiny club and saw all these fine colored folks
going inside. Pretty women. I had never seen jewels before, but these
women had them, and I knew they were real. I could just tell. The mens
hair was shiny as their shoes. Some drove up in big, long cars. I
started hanging around, just to watch the shining people come and go,
just to know that there were folks as pretty as all that.
The big, mean-looking man at the door kept me at a
distance. One night he yelled, Come here, boy. I was scared, but I
went. Theres a man inside, he said. Hes right by the
curtains in a white jacket and black bow tie. Go run this paper to him.
I took the folded note and backed into the club,
keeping an eye on the doorman, just in case. Once inside, I turned
around and got struck blind by the lights. It was like a room full of
Christmas trees. The music was loud. Musicians sat on the stage holding
bright horns and big fiddles, and one man stood in a pool of light and
played sounds so big and round and sweet you knew that if you tasted em,
youd never go hungry again.
I just stood there and listened to that great big
sound and saw all the shining lights and knew that this was as close to
home as I would ever come. When the song ended, a yellow-skinned man in
a big white suit walked up to the microphone and thanked Johnny Hodges
on the saxophone.
I remembered the paper in my hand. I found the man in
a bow tie. He looked at me funny, so I held the paper way out toward him
to let him know I had a reason to be there. The man opened the paper and
read it and then looked at me.
You eat today? the man asked.
I shook my head up and down. Then side to side. I was
still hungry. I had stood in line that afternoon and got a little before
they ran out, but I was still hungry.
Go on straight back there. Lenny. He called to a
man passing by. Tell Ellis to get this boy some food and then get him
They needed someone to bus tables and double up on the
washing. Thats how I started back in 1930. All
through the depression I worked that club door, bouncer, waiter,
maitre d. Soon, those fine people treated me like I was one of them.
The same ones came night after night. The place was like home and they
treated me like family. Mostly we talked about the music who was on
the stand and how the sounds compared to the last time they came through
who had the sweetest horn or the most thumpin bass. Often, we
just stood and listened. Duke Ellington played there. Count Basie came
through. Art Tatum played the piano late one night and scooted over and
taught me how to pluck a little tune. I had a drink with Louis
Armstrong. Billie Holiday.
Shipping out in 1942, there were
all these guys with wives and kids, or mothers, fathers, sisters,
cousins, dogs all these folks crying and carrying on, seeing them
I wanted the music there. I wanted Lester out there
and Duke and Cootie Williams in their fine suits with their shiny gold
horns or at the piano, saying goodbye to me. Thats the way it should
They shipped me off to the Pacific. I knew there would
be real fighting. I had heard of soft duty where you clipped newspaper
stories or stapled things all day. I knew this wasnt one of those.
Some of the guys I knew looked forward to it. They sounded like they
wanted to kill something anything. Others kept their mouths shut.
Thats what I did.
I never would have imagined it. I didnt know
anyplace could be that green, or that thick, or wet, or hot. I had never
seen someplace I didnt belong to so much. There werent even paths
to walk on. The dirt and the bugs owned the whole thing. The thick trees
and bushes grew up from the ground and different ones hung down from the
trees to meet them, so thick they were like green air that you couldnt
It was so wet, everything gave off steam. The air was
so thick you felt yourself moving through it, like you should push it
aside to make the going easier. They told me in school about prehistoric
times, and how all the animals and dinosaurs ruled the earth before any
men set foot on it. They were here. There were things I had never seen
before, bugs and such flying around that got in your mouth and your
eyes, like they attacked you cause they wanted you out, or just
wanted to touch you and find out what you were.
I was wet from the day I set foot on that island until
the day I left. You dripped sweat in your eyes and couldnt see.
Nothing ever dried. Everyone smelled. The clothes on you, your hair,
sometimes even your skin, mildewed, the smell so bad it made you sick.
But you couldnt get away, not from yourself, not from your own flesh.
The stench went with you everywhere.
Some of them almost killed each other before they ever
saw a Japanese. Early on, two men got picked off by snipers, and
everyone got scared, and tense. People barely spoke to each other. Mean
fights broke out. They had been marching along, and one man just fell,
like a puppet that had its strings cut. Then another. I hadnt heard a
thing. No gunshots. Nothing. Those men died.
After you watch a couple of folks die, you get scared.
You think you know whats going to happen. They tell you what will
happen. You think you can imagine what its like, but you cant. You
dont know what its like. To see a hole in a person, something just
rip through his body like it was paper. You expect him to keep on
walking, like he ripped a shirt or something. Then you see the blood,
and if the holes big enough, you see whats inside him start
leaking out. Sometimes they just look surprised, like it didnt even
hurt. They look down at themselves like they were looking at someone
elses blood and bones. Then it hits them, like theyre gasping for
air all of a sudden.
I had seen some of them start screaming. Not screaming
at anything or anyone, just sounds, screaming, so loud and so hard you
didnt think they would ever stop, like they would just stand there
with blood pouring out of them, eyes as big as suns, screaming. When
they get that bad, they dont stop until some guys wrestle them to the
ground and a medic shoots them full of something.
Some start running, leaking blood behind them like a
hose, an arm half dangling off, running and running and you have to
chase them down because theyd run until they just couldnt run
anymore, or until they died. And, like those first with the sniper, some
just die. Quickly, looking like something blew up right inside them,
tearing them apart and throwing little pieces all over.
When youve seen that, when you have gotten their
blood on you, when you can still smell it or hear the screaming in your
head even though its stopped, when you stumble on a body that blew up
in that heat, like someone pumped air into it until it busted open, and
you watch the plants and the bugs crawling all over it, eating it,
living on it, then you get scared. When people get scared they act
crazy. I saw men ready to kill each other over shoelaces. I thought some
of them just went plumb crazy. Like the ones who climbed up on a pile of
Jap bodies, all smelling up to high heaven in that heat, things already
eating them to the bone. They crawled up on that pile and opened up the
dead bodies mouths and used their knives to knock the gold fillings
out. They cut off fingers to take gold rings, and I knew theyd just
lost their minds.
I got scared, too. But I took the music with me. Id
sit there smelling myself and dripping sweat that wouldnt dry, still
as a stone and just as quiet, holding a gun in my hand that always
seemed like it was just plopped there, like magic, one second ago it
wasnt there and now it was and I didnt know what I was supposed to
do with it. I sat there in that jungle with the music. Creole Love
Call, Cootie Williams horn riding over all the brass, like a wily
drunk walking on velvet, the beat in my head like Jimmy Blanton sat
right there thumping it. I didnt face guns I couldnt see. If I
walked through that tangle of green I would see a clearing with a
bandstand and a full brass orchestra playing just for me, Duke Ellington
in a white suit in front of it, his whole body bouncing up and down, his
toe tapping to the music he coaxed out of them. That got me through a
couple of months out there.
Over time, though, the music changed. There wasnt
the full band any more. It was just one. Ben Webster maybe, playing that
big horn so pretty it made you sigh. Ben Webster out there like he was
lost. Marching along, staring at some mans sweat-stained back, I
tried to bring the whole band back again. Only one or two made it. Duke
for a minute, at the piano, but like a ghost, not all there. Then he
Soon, the music stopped altogether. Some guys carried
crosses around their necks. They rubbed them for luck. One guy had a
baseball card in his pocket all the time. He almost killed some joker he
thought had taken it. He died. Shrapnel got him. No one said it but they
all thought it was because of the card. After that, no one told anyone
else about their charms. They kept them secret. I felt safe because mine
was in my head. No one could take that away. I never dreamt it would
leave me lost like I dropped it somewhere in that jungle and
couldnt find it again.
When that stuff chewed through me I wished it was
there. I wanted it more than I wanted the pain to go away. It wasnt
even pain any more, it hurt so bad. It was like my legs were on fire. I
didnt want to be like those others. I didnt want to be a screamer,
and I couldnt be a runner. I wanted the music so I wouldnt have to
hear the ringing in my ears. I heard the blood rushing through my veins
as clearly as water through a faucet. I didnt want to hear the dirt
and leaves and sticks crack underfoot as soldiers ran toward me. I
couldnt really hear their voices. It was just the little things I
heard, the blood in my ears, and fatigues rustling, scissors cutting the
cloth from me, the clanking and jangling of canteens and guns.
I passed out then, and had no dreams.
Waking up, I didnt open my eyes. They felt like
they had been glued shut, like it would take all my strength to raise my
eyelids. So I just lay there, staring at the nothing in my head. My
hands tingled. I was lying down. I knew that. The last thing I
remembered was walking in that jungle. Now I was lying down with my eyes
shut. When I finally forced them open, I didnt see much more than I
had with them closed.
It was night, dark out. I saw little lights here and
there. I was inside and I wasnt hot. I wasnt wet like I had been
for months. It smelled clean here.
Light streamed from a doorway, and I knew I had to be
in a hospital. I knew a nurse when I saw one. I hadnt seen a woman in
a long time, but I hadnt forgotten what one looked like. And this was
one, wearing a little white hat. She said something to me. I didnt
understand. I heard the words, sort of, but it was muddled. I could hear
her, but it was as if she spoke the words backwards, and I had to make
them straight again.
I was tired. I wanted to go to sleep and not sit here
and figure out what this nurse was saying. Thats what I did. I closed
my eyes and slept.
When I woke up again it was day. I remembered I was in
a hospital. I moved my head without even thinking about it and saw a
bunch of other beds to my right and left, and in front. Another nurse
came up to me. It might have been the same one.
Lie still, she said, and felt my wrist and
wrapped something around my arm. Later, I thought I should have asked
why I was there, but I didnt. I was just glad to be cool, and I knew
I could sleep if I wanted to. No one would kill me if I slept.
A man came by and lifted up my eyelids and shone a
light in my eyes. They pulled and tugged at me for a while and then they
left me alone. I was glad. I didnt want anyone bothering me. I wanted
to lie still, like I was, like I was half-asleep and nothing could
bother me. I breathed deeply, and closed my eyes.
Next time I woke up someone was poking at me. A nurse
and a doctor stood over me, talking at me.
We want you to swallow this.
They put something in my mouth. One of them held my
head up while they put a glass to my mouth. I drank the water, and felt
some of it spill on my chin and neck. Then they laid my head back down.
Are you hungry? the man asked.
I just looked at him. Hunger never crossed my mind. I
felt like all that was behind me, like I didnt get hungry any more.
All I did was lie here. I opened my mouth and it felt like it had been
shut for a long time. I swallowed and licked my lips.
No.., I said.
You should try to eat something, the man said.
Well bring you some soup.
Where is this hospital? I asked.
Hawaii, the nurse answered.
Howd I get all the way here, I said, not
expecting an answer.
Hows the leg feel? the doctor asked.
I hadnt thought about it since the pain stopped. I
turned my attention down there for the first time. Kinda tingles,
Just rest, the doctor said. Well bring you
some soup. He left. The nurse fluffed some pillows under my head.
What am I in here for? I looked right at her.
She looked surprised. She stopped what she was doing. She was surprised
for a minute and looked me in the eye. Then, as if she remembered she
couldnt do that, that it wasnt allowed, she went on with what she
They had to take your leg, she said, still
tucking in my sheets, not looking at me.
You rest now, she said, and walked away.
She had said They had to take your leg. Take it
where? I could feel it down there. It was sort of numb like the rest of
me, but I could feel it.
I smiled. They had to take your leg, she said.
Well bring it back goddammit. Ill have a hell of
a time tryin to walk without it. I smiled. I wondered how much of
one I had left. I wondered what happened to it. I should have asked them
what day it was and what had happened. It got shot off, or blown off,
but I didnt remember. That was good. It must have hurt like hell and
I didnt remember. Id have a little less leg. Maybe it was a small
price to pay for not remembering them blowing it off, or sawing it off
in the middle of a jungle. I wondered if I screamed. Probably screamed
my head off. I had never even broken a bone, not even a little finger. I
had never been in the hospital, no operation, nothing. I had never had
any real pain. I wondered what it felt like.
They worried about me at that hospital. They kept
waiting for me to react, to cry or yell, because they had to take my
leg. I never did. I never wanted to. They had me thinking I would. I
even waited for it. I watched myself, just like they watched me. But it
never happened. Even when I could sit up, and look down and see that the
knee wasnt there anymore, just a stump with bandages on it, it still
didnt hit me. The music had returned.
Lying there in that quiet room, like from a distance I
heard Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. And ever since then, it
had been there. I asked them for a radio but I had to be quiet in the
ward. Most of the guys in there were missing something, arms or legs. A
white boy near me always wanted to talk. He had the damndest way of
talking when the music was just hitting its stride, when I could hear
Dukes little Ha! prodding the rhythm section and Harry Carney
wailing. I ignored him.
You always look like youre thinkin about
somethin. What you thinkin?
The boy couldnt have been more than 18.
They had cut off his arm. Not just his arm. They took most of the
shoulder with it. It was like his neck went straight down into his side.
You thinkin about your girl or somethin?
He had this great big smile on his face, like some
puppydog. If he had had a tail, it would have been wagging.
My first thought was, what the fuck business is it of
yours? I looked at that great big grin and couldnt say it.
Music, I said. Thinkin about music.
OH WOW! he said. I knew
it was like that. What kind? What kinda music?
He pounded his fist on the bed and threw his head.
This boy was crazy.
I LOVE jazz, he
shouted. He started wiggling his feet to some beat in his head and
thumping his hand on the pillow.
Bix and Benny.
Just like Id thought. White guys. No man. Im
talking Ellington, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum.
Yeah, I heard some o that. But Bix man...
White folks cracked me up. They wanted everything.
You aint heard enough of it, I told him. Ive heard things
thatll put your stuff to shame.
Like what!? the boy said, like a challenge.
It was a simple question. I spent the next three years
They let me get up pretty soon for physical therapy.
It turned out this boy hadnt cried for his arm either. Doctors had us
both talk to other doctors about it, about missing something, about
knowing you would never get it back. We knew all that. It didnt
matter. It was gone.
We got our hands on a radio, and listened. I hadnt
heard new sounds in quite a while. The music was harder, faster. We got
in trouble for playing it loud. I made the boy listen to Billie sing,
and Ella. Oh, what Ella could do. We listened to broadcasts of Jazz
at the Philharmonic. Jazz at the Philharmonic. Wasnt that
something. At the Philharmonic! They played symphonies there. And now
they played jazz.
I taught that boy to listen. Taught him to listen to
every note, and then to listen again to hear everything the drummer did,
and then the bass, and then what the background horns played. They had
to teach the boy to use his left hand. He had always been right handed.
He didnt have much strength in his left hand. They taught him to move
again since so much of him was missing. He was just a kid. He got mad,
didnt stick with things, didnt have a lot of patience.
I told the boy to think about the music when he got
mad. We heard Ben Websters horn on the radio. You couldnt be mad
when you heard Ben Websters horn. That helped a little. Crutches were
nothing. Crutches were easy. I could dance on them pretty soon. The one
thing I couldnt get used to was looking at it. The other leg looked
worse really. It was chewed up, full of scars. That didnt bother me.
But looking at that stump, feeling the scarred skin on it, smooth, like
brown glass, that bothered me. I always kept it covered. I put something
like a sock on it and only took it off when I had to, and then I never
looked at it.
They treated us well, war wounded and all. They gave
us money when it was time to go, and helped us find some jobs. Everyone
just thought of me and the boy together now. He had gotten pretty good
with his other hand. He had learned a lot from the music. He started
moving differently. He didnt talk so fast. It sunk in. The slow swing
saxophone sunk in. He still got crazy when he wanted to; but there was
something else now, that the music taught him, about not taking it all
too hard. Knowing it was just living. Maybe he just got a few years
older in a couple months; I dont know.
Since we were always together, they asked us both
where we wanted to live. The boy looked at me. I let him say it. You
could see he was just busting to say it. New York! He yelled it.
New York! New York! NEW YORK! He was
bouncing up and down. When he was like that, he drained everything out
of you. He was so excited, you just smiled a little. He took all your
excitement and spread it around like you would never have dared. I didnt
mind, though. He did it for the both of us.
We got jobs in a factory outside Manhattan. We hit
town, and put our stuff in a bus station locker. We didnt even think
about a place to stay. The first thing we did was check out some clubs.
We got on the subway to Harlem and started hopping from club to club
one black man without a leg and a white one missing his arm and some of
his side. We must have looked the pair.
We heard all kinds of stuff up there, not the clean
stuff, like on the records, but real blowing, real blues, people yelling
back up at the stage, urging the players on. The boy was right up there
with them too, pumping his one arm up in the air, pounding it on the
tables. We had good times.
We found ourselves a little apartment near the job
site. The work wasnt bad, in a shipping department, a lot of numbers
and counts; things got lost or delayed, rush orders came in. I didnt
The boy worked on the scheduling, but it wasnt
working out. He didnt pay enough attention to it. He got all excited
when someone complained or something didnt go right, or someone asked
for something special. He shouldnt have been working with details and
He kept saying we should move to Manhattan and work in
clubs. No club was going to hire us, though. One leg and one arm? People
didnt want to see that. They came to forget about all that.
I thought it might have been worth losing that leg for
the one night in 1943. Carnegie Hall. I thought
jazz at the Philharmonic was something. This was Duke Ellington at Carnegie
Hall. I had been working a lot, not keeping up with what was going
on, and by the time I knew, the show was sold out. Me and the boy went
down there that night anyway. I told the girl at the window that we were
veterans. I poured it on. We had lost our limbs, and all we wanted was
to be inside there and hear Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall. That would
make it better.
She let us in. We had to stand, but she let us in.
Didnt charge us a dime either. And inside, there he was again, in
that big suit, and all of the players sitting there, just like I had
pictured them back in that foul jungle, only this time it was for real.
I would finally hear the concert that disappeared when I had needed it
so badly. It was as if all of this was just for me, so I could take the
music back inside myself. Yes, I heard it again, it played in my head
when I needed it, but it hadnt been the same since before the war.
Everything outside looked so different that the music didnt sound the
same. This would bring back the pretty people I saw in that bright,
shiny club. The drinks with Louis Armstrong.
Duke played something called Black, Brown and
Beige, and it was about colored people, about all different kinds of
them and how they came here and how they lived. There was one part that
Ben Webster played. I had never heard anything like it. God, what he
played. It was so beautiful it hurt to hear it. The kind of hurt you
want to remember. That day was like an end for me. I read a review in
the paper the next morning and it made me think the writer had been
somewhere else. The paper said it didnt work, that it didnt hold
together, that Ellington should play dance tunes. It made me mad. It was
as if they were talking about me, like they were saying bad things about
something I had done. That music was all of me, and they were
saying bad things about it.
I never heard that song again. Duke never played it. I
listened for it, waited for a record, but it never came. I thought that
song took all the music that had come before and rolled into one long,
lovely thing. No one could do more with it. They didnt understand.
After about a year, they fired the boy. They finally
got sick of him and didnt care that he was a wounded veteran. He
started working hotels, little dives. He moved out. He said it was
easier if he lived at the places he worked in.
I still went to Manhattan with him on weekends. We
heard different sounds now. The music seemed like nothing but notes,
just sounds put together. Little blurps and blasts on a fast beat. The
boy went crazy for that stuff. We hit a club on 42nd
street. These guys played like they were crazy. They didnt try to
sound like voices at all. It wasnt like Ben Webster singing a song.
These guys wrote stuff you couldnt figure. It didnt have the sass
anymore. It didnt have the swing. It wasnt stuff that taught you
how to move and how to live. This was more like they had given up on all
that. If it hadnt worked, if all the swing and joy hadnt kept
people from getting their arms and legs blown off, well, so be it. They
would just take things as they were. They would go from there and see
what came next. Since I wasnt too crazy about that music, the boy
would go out by himself. We stopped seeing so much of each other. I didnt
know why. It just happened.
The boy started looking bad. He had dark circles under
his eyes. He lost weight. There were stories that those Be-Bop
musicians, that they all shot dope, that the dope made them play like
that. I didnt believe it. That stuff had always been around, and
nobody played like that before. Folks who knew the boy brought back
stories. They said he took a lot of stuff. I didnt want to know about
it. They said I should talk to him, straighten him out. I never did. It
was none of my business. The boy was grown. He could do what he wanted.
We hadnt seen each other in a couple of months when
I got a call from the Army. It didnt surprise me. It didnt
surprise me any more than when they said I didnt have a leg. I took
to wondering what would surprise me. I wanted to get mad, or sad or
something but like the other times, I just couldnt. It was just
something else. It just happened.
It was just living.
The Army took care of the arrangements. They said the
boy didnt have any family. I didnt know. Wed never talked about
it. Mainly we talked about the music.
They buried him at Arlington National Cemetery. I didnt
go. I knew the Army would give it the works, even if no one was there.
The guys in their uniforms with the shiny buttons and swords would stand
at attention. They would parade. Theyd put up a little white stone,
with a little American flag next to it. I had seen it in pictures. That
was all you could want.
In 1950, I got myself a fake
leg. I didnt even limp that much on it. Most people never knew about
it. After I got the leg, I got more work in clubs. It was all different
now. The music was different, and you didnt have the regulars like
you did before. You didnt have the same people around you all the
time. It wasnt like it used to be.
First I moved from the door to waiting tables, but
still, there were too many people, and I didnt want to deal with all
those people. I went back to the kitchen but I didnt want to wash
dishes all the time either. I had my benefits. I didnt need much. I
came up to Boston and took this job in George Weins Storyville.
Two years ago she would have sung the song playfully.
Too Marvelous For Words. All those words just tripped off her
tongue back then and she made you smile. Now, she sounded old. That
voice cracked and she seemed to have a hard time getting the words out.
There was nothing playful left in her; she was just going through the
motions. She only did a few songs. Right before one song she talked to
the piano player. You could barely make it out. The words were drawled.
She was probably messed up. You could hear a death rattle in her. And
you know, she sounded like that was just fine with her. Like there was
nothing left to live for anyhow.
She died a couple of years later.
I Cover the Waterfront (Heyman,
Green) ©1933 Warner Bros. Inc.