A Rookie in Kabuki

So there I was, crawling home through a 2AM Tokyo gridlock on a rainy Saturday night –  just a little stoned – rolling  out  Omekaido Street past one cross-street after another, a little Toyota immersed in a sea of taxi-cabs.  After a decade or so, I recognized a large intersection as – yes! my turning point.  After that it was a piece of cake.

This is where, in my cosmology, Jesus is up there negotiating with Meher Baba, who wants to slip a Japanese senior citizen under my wheels and let me writhe in hell for the rest of my life.  “Stay thy fierce wrath, Father,” says Jesus, “the boy was smoking on that horn tonight.”  Main Baba is growling,  “A son I needed to tell me what to do with some mediocre, spaced-out saxophone wannabe like this.  You should be a lawyer already with that mouth, Jesus.  A million times a day you’re interceding for these nuts, not to mention your mother, who’s just as bad as you.  An agent, Jesus.  You could have been an agent, even.”

There have been periods when I’ve maintained the sobriety most serious jazz musician practice.  Louis Armstrong on the other hand did not.  It’s said he just stayed high, on a daily basis.  And at a jazz concert, Lester Young once sat backstage and lit up a big spliff in full view of everyone.  “Mr Young, please, this is a jazz festival!” a functionary protested.

“Well then,” Pres exhaled, “Let’s be festive!”

I had gigged in Shinjuku that night with a black brother from New York with a voice like gold.  As many club acts do nowadays, we relied on pre-sequenced arrangements, so there was only a keyboardist-singer and guitarist on the set.  Joe Ruby was effortlessly tossing off everything from hard funk to Al Jarreau.  When he sang ”Me And Mrs. Jones,” his high notes were as crisp and powerful as a Clark Terry trumpet.  I slipped into the cracks between his lines, dabbing notes here and there, trying not to muck up the works.

The club’s patrons were oblivious of us, a hundred besotted salarymen packed into a big, plush hostess bar, jabbered at by the pretty young things hired to entertain them.  Shy young guys, unclear what to say or do, patiently mothered by lean-and-mean mini-skirted foxes who flitted to their tables escorted by manic, omnipresent little waiters.  Arriving, the girls kneel briefly before their clients, then snuggle in next to them.  The bow comes from geisha days, but seeing it executed in western-style clothes boggles the mind.  Hostesses get showered with everything from Gucci to sushi by customers dreaming of further intimacies.  Gifts here are against the rules, but management can’t stop it.  There are pawnshops catering to hostesses with too many designer handbags.  The ladies just offload the stuff, and it goes back into the stores again.

Crusty geezers are scattered around with more than enough cash to prove there’s no fool like an old one.  Waiters streak around the club, bellowing like fish sellers.  In Tokyo, this scene is considered stress-reduction.  It’s a party.  You’re out a big money, but you’ve spent time with this young thing, chatting about trivialities.  What’s incomprehensible to most Westerners is the final scene where they walk upstairs and the foxy lady stands there enthusiastically waving, “Bye-bye!” as the guy staggers off empty-handed and three hundred bucks short.  He thinks he’s cool.  His wife, waiting at home, does not.

What’s he been saying to the hostess?  “I had such a hard day today.  Here, I’ll buy you a drink.  You’re so sexy.  And you always listen to me – my boss doesn’t.   My wife doesn’t.  But you do.  You want a Gucci bag?”  He waxes wise, holds forth on the business world, then asks for details about her bra size as she gigglingly adjusts it for him.  Late one night I saw an exhausted salary-man passed out next to his girl.  She reached over and began absent-mindedly stroking his inner thigh.  Nothing.  His friend on the other side moved the girl’s hand up to his crotch, and maybe ten seconds later the guy snapped awake, looked down, smiled sheepishly, and faded out again.  Then his friend put his hand on the guy’s privates – in Tokyo, everything’s okay for a laugh.

But after we played our tunes, there wasn’t even a smattering of applause for vocals that would do Luther Vandross proud.  At break-time, Joe and I went to get some conveyor-belt sushi.  Joe was a little down.  His Japanese girlfriend had cut the cord, for good, it seemed, the previous Sunday.  Then on Friday after his gig, he’d walked out of the club he played in Nakano and nearly got run over by some mob punks in a minivan.  Words were exchanged, there was some shoving, next thing he knew, it didn’t matter how many good punches he’d landed: one guy had him in a headlock while two other hoods were smartly applying brass knuckles to his legs to get his ass on the ground and make it nice and kickable.  Joe managed to remain on his feet until some club people came to help.  His face was unmarked, but he hurt all over.  The club had sent him to Shinjuku till things cooled off with the yakuza.

The Tokyo night scene is a velvet glove hiding a variety of terrors.  That night, up and down Kabuki-cho’s dingy neon canyons, mini-skirted, bare-legged pretties stood holding their umbrellas against the spring rains.  Kabuki-cho is just the biggest of Tokyo’s tenderloins; other gleamy electric alleys are scattered everywhere across her sprawling landscape.  Wherever there’s a train station, there are watering holes and walk-up “snack bars,” and not too far away, a woman to soothe your blues.  At the “pink salons,” of course, they do more than that.  If you’re Japanese.

Ruby rambled on.  In New York, he revealed, his dad had been a gangster.  He recalled a night he’d seen his father approaching their Bronx apartment with a knife wound in his shoulder.  Nearby was the man who’d stabbed him, a local drug dealer his dad had tried to shoo out of the hood.  Joe rushed to back up his father, but he was told to go upstairs.   “This is my fight,” his dad admonished, “but I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.  First I’m going to put bullets into the brains of these two dogs of his that bit up my legs.  Then I’m going to put two shots into that motherfucker’s stomach so he’ll understand not to fuck with me.  Joe reluctantly went upstairs, heard shots ring out and rushed back thinking they’d killed his father.  But the dogs were dead, and the drug dealer was bent over with two bullets in his stomach.  He would survive them.  It went down in the Bronx.  There were no arrests.

Another hot, yet perfunctory set.  Another break.  We sat talking in our “dressing room,” a large closet with a cigarette machine at one end.  Waiters had to squeeze past us, scoring packs of “Peace” ciggies for their customers.  Joe was running down to me the famous bands he knew personally and the collection of keyboards he kept at home in San Diego.  Korgs and Moogs and Rolands and Yamahas, DX7’s and PR72’s, and God knows what else.  He tossed off references to recording techniques as if he weren’t talking to a ghost who’d spent the last twenty years interpreting license plates and mowing lawns.   I nodded sagely, then asked how he got started.  “I’m a programmer,” Joe explained.  “Always have been, ever since ’81.  This blind man taught me how to program.”

“Blind man?”

“Yeah, super keyboardist and singer.  Back in New York.  I used to work around the studio for him like a gofer.  One day, he’s at the keys, and he tells me to turn off the lights and says, ‘Come on over here.’  Then he puts his hand on my shoulder and I’m thinking. ‘If he’s gay, I’m in trouble.’  Dude was six foot four, and strong.  Then he says, ‘Give me a KM930 patch.’

“I can’t see anything, I say.”

“Neither can I,  he says.  So that’s how he taught me, feeling my way around the console, listening in the darkness.  Opened my ears like a motherfucker.  I stayed with him two years, he taught me everything.”  Joe turned and went out the door to get a beer.  Fifteen minutes later, he came back with four wrist watches he’d won in the UFO grabber-machine game.  He threw out his watch-laden arm in a street pose:

“What you need, man, what you need?”

At the end of the second night, I felt pretty good.  There had been moments where I’d bumped into guitarist Darnell’s lines, but what the hell, I was just learning the ropes.  As he finished the evening’s final credits, Darnell announced, “…and everywhere on sax, Aaron B!”  That sounded a little funny.  When the last notes had faded away, I tapped him on the arm and inquired, “Hey, have I been stepping on your toes?”  I might as well have stepped on a land mine.  On the now thankfully-darkened stage, Darnell was on me like Deion Sanders on an injured rookie wide-receiver.  He was about the same size as Deion, actually.

“As a matter of fact, you’ve been stepping all over my shit for two nights now.  Man, you need to lay back!”  He looked down at me from a foot over my head.  “Don’t you ever listen?  You need to lay back.  Me and Joe have been working together for two years here, we’ve developed a certain sound.   You need to respect that!”

“Yeah, well I was trying to. . . “

“Trying?  That’s hard to believe.  Man, you’re not 18 years-old, you no spring chicken, you should know better than to play all that shit.”  Joe came over to listen, and I appealed to him, “Joe, was I playing too much?”  The keyboardist nodded sadly, “Yeah, you might need to be more careful with the guitar parts, man.”  His tone was gentle, but there was no way he’d go against his regular sideman in full, flaming attack.  I mounted some half-hearted protests, but basically hung my head and took the verbal beating.  I wanted the gig.  And every musician has a different take.  Another player might feel my contributions outweighed my mis-steps.  After all, these guys play the same arrangements six nights a week; you’d think they’d welcome some fresh energy.  But it was a moot point.  I waited for the fury to subside, then made like the ozone layer and disappeared.  It was a  lonely walk to the car.

The next night, I took the stage right at 8:30, saying nothing to no one.  There was, you might say, tension in the air.  I stood in the back and kept the horn out of my mouth.  And I listened.  I noticed that without my sax, everything sounded just fine.  I noticed the interplay between keyboard and guitar, the completeness that was already in place.  I noticed all the freedom Darnell had to express himself.  But that first set, Joe threw three different solos to me, chances to acquit myself and kick out the jams, the actions of a sensitive man and an experienced leader.  I won’t forget the few seconds after Joe nodded to me to take my first solo.  I was wound pretty tight; time nearly stood still.

As the first chord of a solo approaches and then rings out, you perceive something like a wide green valley below, into which you can swoop in a variety of ways.  Especially, the very first note, if selected correctly, can be a kind of revelation.  Miles Davis was the great master of this.  That night I was filled with a largely unconscious, passionate anger Darnell’s verbal butt-kicking had engendered.  It focused me.  I waited, say, like Joe Montana would on a three-wide-out pattern, until in the last split second I heard the note I wanted and hit it.  It hung there in the air like a diamond.  It also felt a lot like a right cross landing on the side of Darnell’s head.  Then I heard the next note, and then another and I was off to the races.  That shit felt good.

After the set, I went back to the closet/dressing room and sat in there alone, nursing a beer.  Maybe 30 minutes later, Darnell came in and looked me straight in the eyes.  He was wearing this big floppy African dashiki.  “Look, man, he said softly, “I don’t want us to be enemies.  I want for us  to get along.”

I let the air out of my lungs slowly.  “Yeah, sure, I’m cool with that. “

“No man, come here,” he said, motioning me to stand up, and he threw his arms out and enfolded me in a tremendous NFL linebacker hug.  “I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry!”  He kept saying it over and over.  “I shouldn’t have said all that to you, man.”  I patted him on his invisible shoulder pads and said things like, “No, you were right, forget it,” and he said, “No, I wasn’t right,” and hugged me harder.  I decided not to argue the point.

After that, me and him were tight.  Darnell is a sweet guy 95 percent of the time, but he just goes off on people occasionally.  Joe explained it all to me later.  Me and Darnell were so tight that naturally I made sure to visit him in the hospital a couple of weeks later after he got creamed on his motorcycle  by some lady making a left turn dead into his path at 2AM on a major street.  He got off with a broken ankle, a screwed-up back, plenty of bruises, a destroyed bike, and three Japanese lawyers as dedicated to proving him in the wrong as that nice Admiral Yamamoto was to eradicating Pearl Harbor.  You know what they say about nice guys.

I found him sitting in the very same hospital that I’d once gone with an inflamed gall bladder.  An old man sat stooped over the edge of a bed adjacent to Darnell’s.  He took the couple of books I gave him to pass the time in the stuffy little room with no TV or radio.  Not that Japanese TV would have helped much.  A couple of days later he found the strength to get out of there.  A couple of months later he was back at the club.  But I wasn’t.  I was back teaching English, hoping for another gig.   But then the month after that, in Nakano, came a chance to play all week with another superb vocalist, Luther Wilson.

This club was quieter, less frantic than its Kabukicho sister-club.  I came in after a break and saw my alto leaning on the stage.  A subdued samba was drifting through the club.  How beautiful my horn looked to me!  I said as much to Spaceman, the keyboardist, another brother from the States.  “Shit, fuck your saxophone, look at all this pussy in here, man.  There’s legs, and more legs, and all of ‘em legs that won’t quit.  Look at this young thing here!”  A non-descript nightcat swept by us.  He had that tunnel-vision possessed by so many musicians, and I’m not talking trains here.

The bands played 30-minute sets, then retired to whatever squalid surroundings the management tossed at them.  In Shinjuku, it was a closet-sized storeroom with mops, stools and a cigarette machine.  In Nakano, we sat on the staircase.  This was better than it sounds, because at least there was fresh air and, more importantly, the bar girls regularly slunk or staggered past us up to the dressing room, and what a sight.  There were heated debates about the superiority of one derrière over another.  Spaceman would say, “That girl’s ass is just more articulated.”  Joe would shoot back, “Only thing more articulated about that ass is my dick inside it.”  Spaceman, “Well, you better push my dick out the way, cause I’m already in there.”

I never learned bad-ass talk in junior high school — so I brought up the Code of Hammurabi, inscribed in Akkadian script on a 4,000-year-old diorite stele, which I’d actually seen on exhibit that very day at a museum in Tokyo.  You know, the big black, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” pillar, incorporating the legal decisions of the great Sumerian king.  I mentioned Code Number 148 which, 6000 years ago, provided for a man’s right to throw his wife into the Tigris if she didn’t clean up the house properly.  There were no liberated-male protests from these men on that one.  Actually, after their blank looks faded, they were fairly positive about the law.  We moved on to Egypt and to Luther’s conviction that the pyramids were built by aliens.  Spaceman, who one might expect to be an authority in this area, demurred, but told of a time when he and his friends had put an apple under an impromptu pyramid and it hadn’t turned brown for quite a long time.  “You see,” he explained, “they didn’t have science in those days.  They went with what they felt in their bodies, deep inside themselves.”  Just then a cutie ascended the stairs.  Spaceman looked deep inside himself.  “I want to marry you, you sweet thing!”  he called out.  The lady smiled and kept on up the stairs.

Keep it light, I’m thinking.  “You know, regarding the power of pyramids,”  I commented, “maybe that’s why my people have stayed strong over the ages, what with all the work we did putting them up.” The two brothers threw me one of those sudden, empty stares that to me evokes a possible distrust the Jews.  (Spaceman’s thought-bubble: “Did this man’s ancestors run my people into Georgia on sailing ships?”)  We segued into a consideration of arcane medical practices like Chinese doctors doing brain surgery while their patients maintained normal conversations.  I pointed out that we had similar experiences in the Sixties, but we used LSD instead.  “We could feel our cortexes right through the skull.  All those little wormy indentations, right?  But you guys are too young to remember that.”

“What the hell you mean?” retorted Spaceman.  Man, I’m 49 years old.  They wanted my ass in Vietnam.  I went in to my army physical and failed the hearing test on purpose.”

“A musician failing a hearing test?”

Spaceman stared at me.  “What’s that?…Say what?…Speak up, man.”

“Well,” I reminisced, “I went down and handed out protest leaflets to the inductees.  They threw me out and said they’d make me 1-A anyway.  But then I came up number 335 in the lottery.”

“I remember that,” put in Luther.  “My older brother came up number 87.  My mother saw that on TV and fell down on the floor crying.  He went off a few months later and never really came back again.  He’s 50 now, still lives in New York.  He used to play guitar, but not after he got back from Nam.  He’s been pretty quiet since then, especially after his wife died.  He’s credited with 50 or 60 kills over there, but he says the real number’s probably over a hundred.”  Luther quoted his brother:

“Sometimes the kids jumped up on our tank, trying to get at our water canister.  Water, man, that’s life or death — they do that, you just opened the tank door and put a .45 bullet right through their heads.  I took out men, women, children.  You check out a hooch, you don’t know who they are.  They’d yell, ‘No VC, no VC!!’  but what did we know?  We’d just go poom,  poom,  poom  and take ‘em all out.  It was life or death.  Burial?  We’d put four or five bodies in a pile, then I’d take my tank and roll right over the lot of them.  Don’t need no graves, my tank buried people just fine.  Most times, we’d be up there in the tank smoking joints and listening to Jimi Hendrix.”

Spaceman cut in.  “Hell, I know a brother down in Yokohama, told me at night he’d go party with the VC.  They’d put it out over the loudspeakers every day: “You black GIs, this is a white man’s war.  Tonight – just come on down!   So they’d go over and get high.  Next day, the VC would ambush the crew and everyone would get it except the blacks.”  I blinked at Spaceman disbelievingly.

“It was cold-blooded,” added Luther.  “My brother said he had to watch his back with the white Southerners.  They’d take a dislike to some brother and frag him in a firefight.  Hell, everyone was fair game.  He told me about a captain in a chopper that directed their squad up and over a hill, saying there were minimal Charlies.  They got there and now mortar and anti-tank ordnance was raining down like crazy.  Half the squad got wiped out.  They had to run for their lives, but while they were doing that, they put a few rounds into the chopper and brought the captain’s ass down.  What the hell, friendly fire, right?”

Luther’s brother in New York has been better since he married again, but still talks about taking an AK-47 to his job someday and nailing half the people down there.  Luther pretty much keeps his distance.  He lives in Tokyo.

The break finally ended, and we stepped up onto the stage.  Walking onstage is like slipping into the cockpit of a jet fighter or into a race car.  A kind of physical arrogance washes over you – not toward people, but toward the “real” world itself.  What could be more real than this?  The slick attire, the sweet feeling when I reach down for my tenor.  Those magic seconds before the first song.  The keys of my horn tip-tapping under my fingers.  The soft multi-colored glow of the party room.  Perhaps a little smoke buzzing in my head.  I’d never played with these guys before.  I’d never played half the songs and only vaguely remembered the chords to the rest.  Playing here was like pushing carefully through jungle foliage, not sure of the next step until it is revealed, jumping on in instinct, melding with the keys, finding next notes and making them glitter.  I was moving with it now, not quite so white anymore.  Playing off Luther’s vocals I might have been in church, partaking of a gospel one part mental, one part dance, one part achy-braky heart.

I think it was when I first put my ears inside Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High,” that I first perceived this other world, a land across a leap of faith, a place of total dedication and total beauty.  Who goes there? Not couch potatoes. Not long-suffering religiosos.  Not seekers of worldly goals.  Only those who surrender their lives to the music.  I never quite could.  But the sax is so physical, infused with jungle wails and cries.  Listen to Joe Farrell on “500 Miles High,” how he surrenders body and mind until there’s nothing left to give.  You breathe in the horn as much as you breathe it out.

Back on the stairs, as we talked, the girls would pop through the door and slip self-consciously past us.  Luther explained the rules and the realities.  We were not to talk to them beyond a simple greeting (though each musician was bedding a hostess regularly).  The company policy for the girls was no sex with customers, but if, after stringing a guy out for a couple of months – or a couple of years – she serviced him a little, no federal case ensued.  The key point was for him to come back and spend money.  What kind of money?  Luther told of a friend of his that came by one night, stayed for two sets, and wound up with an eight hundred dollar tab.  And there were regulars here who showed up four or five nights a week.  The girls got a cut of each drink bought for her, so they were often quite drunk.  Why not fake the drinks?  The enforcers became furious and would slap girls in the face if they tasted her drink and discovered tea and not whiskey.  Something about not tricking the honored customer, whose fantasy was to get her drunk and so amenable to the “next step” –- one she was not supposed to take!  The power behind the scenes here demands faultless respect.  Luther told of a clubowner who went to visit another club and was denied entrance.  He was connected, so when the name he dropped made no impression, he made a phone call and support arrived.  The mob guys pushed their way in and cleared things up fast, making sure their client had a good time for free.  But the guy made a mistake: a week went by without his sending an omiage to the head yakuza to show his appreciation.  He didn’t even call the guy.

Wrong.  One night Luther was gigging there and the boys come in with a little Joe Peschi type, and quickly Mr. Clubowner is on the floor getting exhaustively pounded by those he’d not so long ago called on for help, emerging with a nice big cut over his left eye.  The customers bolt.  Then there’s a sit-down to discuss matters – that is, for Mr. C. to be loudly scolded and for him to kiss ass.  Joe Peschi is seated  next to him all fidgety and nervous, demanding more drinks.  Then he asks sympathetically if Mr. C.’s eye is okay.  The clubowner lowers the bloody towel from his face and says yes, it’s okay.  WHAM!  Joe pops him one more time in the same spot for good measure.

The singer sighed.  “I know a guy in Yokohama who told me, ‘Luther, you ever have any trouble, anywhere in Japan, you let me know.’  But I’ll never call him.  They do me a favor and next thing I have to bring in a package for them from the States – in my colon.  Fuck that.”

Each night, mid-way through the last set, Luther would turn to me and say casually, “Hey Aaron B, you wanna do something?”  By Wednesday night I figured I’d followed the New Cat Modesty Protocols long enough, laying low with jazz standards, so I handed my mini-disk to Spaceman and said, “Tokyo, track 5.”  It was “Leave Tokyo Behind,” my original tune, arranged to the hilt with horns and strings and background vocals, all to back up my lilting voice and blinding middle-aged charisma.   Luther stood behind me on stage, a black man who man teaches singing three days a week at a Tokyo college.  Who cares!  I’m out there, mike in hand, Frank Sinatra again, up on the dining room table, flying through my own dream.   It came off pretty good.  I mean, no one threw anything.  Afterward, Luther announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Aaron B, an original tune from Aaron B!”  Way in the back, one guy was making the sound.  Clap, clap, clap.   I think I got five or six of those.

Each night on the stairs with Luther and Spaceman night held reminders of the black experience, echoes of my years in Oakland.  Gospel music is a fad these days at weddings in Japan, and Luther plays them regularly.  He argued that his employers, out of their rigid hierarchies, cultural insensitivity, perhaps out of spiritual emptiness, have time and again sought to restrict the outpourings of his soul.  He tells of a Japanese agent who had seen a great, bald gospel singer and was thus convinced that anyone with hair was incapable of performing genuine gospel.  Another club owner would book black musicians only.  He had a “Motown” club and was a stickler for authenticity, which he defined strictly in racial terms.  A superb white keyboardist Luther recommended, a player who’d grown up in the New York ghetto surrounded by black music and culture, was rejected.  After several appeals, the player had to pass his severe Japanese scrutiny: was he really funky?  Grudgingly, the clubowner admitted it: “Okay, ‘Michael-san’ is berry funky.”  But it still wasn’t quite right to the clubowner.  Funky musicians have black skin.  In Japan, there are so many about the fantastical cosmos that surrounds their island.  There’s a light-skinned Afro-American Luther speaks of, another fine player and vocalist, who can’t work because his skin is too light for Japanese preconceptions.  Talk about reverse discrimination. Luther’s descriptions of this insanity were hilarious.  I often had to get up and walk halfway up the stairs, bent over, from his crazy impressions of conflicted, stressed-out Japanese.  Once, Luther spoke of a Lauryn Hill gospel rendition of the theme from Beethoven’s Ninth.  He began tossing off notes with flourishes and turns, pure gospel filling the stairwell.

Joyful, joyful, Lord we adore thee

God of glory, Lord of love

Hearts unfold like flowers before thee

Hail thee as the sun above

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness

Cast the dark of doubt away

Giver of immortal gladness

Bring us to the light of day.

Instantly, tears began welling up inside me.  So hard to comprehend such sudden emotion, but I had an eerie feeling that Jesus himself had just walked up the stairs instead of one of the girls, and said hello.  But the moment passed, and Luther continued his tale.  “So they threw this Japanese pianist chick at me, who wanted to pound the theme out like a fucking march, Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum, Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum — I’ll tell you, that was some sad shit.  I told them to forget it.  They never respect that you know your own music; they have to stick their noses in and mess it up.  If they’re doing the sound, they mess that up because they’re fiddling with the faders and changing settings, like if they don’t stay busy, they’re not doing their job.”

So there he was, working six, sometimes seven days a week, for years now.  Six nights at this club, three half-days teaching singing, two or three extra wedding gigs a week, making good money, but afflicted with bitterness, misunderstood, dispossessed of his native community.  And for all his vocal perfection, when he went back to the States, he was sobered by the overflowing young talent coming out of the black community.  Spaceman, too, told of friends in the L.A. hood grinding away at some thankless manual job.  A mechanic friend of his would sit down behind his keyboard and say, “Check this out, man,” then casually rip off chords and scales and musical ideas that staggered him.

Whaddya gonna do.  It’s a jungle out there, right?  A couple weeks later.  I got called in for a few nights in Kichijoji by Bobby Ishikawa, a drummer who books me.   That day, I’d just finished a 2-week English intensive and was packing up the books with a young woman.  She knew I was playing that night and asked, “Aaron, do you practice, or don’t you need to any more?”

“Oh, I’m so busy.  Seems like I’ve got no chance these days.”

“Well, have a nice time tonight!”

Debra Hurd at http://www.dailypainters.com/artists/artist_gallery/1747/Debra-Hurd

That night, I’m standing outside the club.  Luther comes up the street, says hello, and cruises on into the club.  Five minutes later, here comes goddamn Lester Young up the alley, a big-chested black man wearing a light sport coat and a slick, New York-in-the-30’s fedora tilted forward on his head, carrying an alto sax case in his hand.

Ishikawa had screwed up and hired two horn players.  I knew the guy.  He was Kalim, an East-coast player Joe Ruby said could advise me on new sax pads.  So I walk inside and introduced myself on the stairs.  Kalim looks me over balefully, and everyone is flustered what to do next.  Except me.  “I just want to hear Kalim blow!”  I comment enthusiastically.  But two altos and a singer?  Kalim turns and walks up the stairs to the rooftop veranda.  I was exhausted from a party with the students where I’d wound up dancing on top of a karaoke-room table shouting out the lyrics to Pink Cadillac.  So I returned to my cooling-out location on the street, thinking what to do next.  Maybe play a couple of tunes and split.

Then Charlie Parker cuts loose four floors up on the rooftop, getting his horn out of his case, and onto mine.  (“You wanna hear me play?  Here I am!”)  Classic, pure, saxophone soul exploding from the roof over a three-block radius, the neon nightclub district suddenly bombarded by jive and jazz – a be-bop Pearl Harbor.  Kalim is running all these slippery mixolydian scales at the speed of light, then a half-step up, then up another, and another.  I’m down on the street looking for a rubber band to tie around my head to close my jaw, which has dropped to somewhere around my knees. The brother knew how to warm up his horn.  When it comes to a sense of humor, God is highly underrated.  At three in the afternoon, it’s, “Aaron, do you practice, or don’t you need to any more?”  At 8 PM, you’re standing under a molten shower of notes raining down from heaven.  Who says Gabriel isn’t a reedman?  I pulled out my cellphone and listened to Ishikawa apologizing for the mistake.  “Just play the first set, you’ll get paid.”  Yeah, Bobby, sure.  I walked in the club, took my horn and packed it up.  It wasn’t about the money.  Luckily, at the last moment, Peter Montgomery, a fine local guitarist, showed up, and a normal trio was in place.  I suppressed the urge to cut and run and hung out, checking Kalim out from the back of the club, soaking up his Grover Washington-like stuff.  I grabbed a beer and waited up on the stairs for the set to end.  The big guy finally came around the corner, our eyes met, I paid him my compliments.  “You sound good, man.”

“Hey, thank you,” smiled Kalim, “but it all comes from God, you know.”

Rather than the Kansas City saxophone killer I’d imagined, here’s a friendly honey-bear witnessing for Christ.  So now there were hand-slaps and smiles, as my white-boy paranoia faded.  We spent the next thirty minutes in his horn clinic, going over everything from reeds to pad resonators.   A few nights later Kalim was sick and I got called in one last time.  At midnight, we finished in front of a thin, indifferent crowd, and I offered Spaceman a ride home.  Luther was already out the door heading for the last train.  Spaceman and I strode out of the club at about 1 AM. I was feeling good, feeling tired.  We made it past the local hit-man with the extra-flat face and the Hawaiian shirt.  “Abunai, yo!”  (“Look out”) he muttered as we passed him.  He was just warning us about a minivan zipping past us, but conjuring memories of the assault on Joe here a few weeks before.  He looked like he might have been the instigator.  At the end of the street, three street barkers stood talking in their formal black suits.  Our eyes met and I didn’t feel like blinking at their cold glares, so I called out the standard remark at workday’s end in Japan, “Thank you for your hard work.”  They nodded profoundly at me, stunned by my powerful stare.  As we turned the corner, Spaceman started cracking up.

“Man, it’s “Otsu kare sama desu,” not ”Go chi so sama desu.”  You just told them you enjoyed their delicious food.  That’s for when you’re leaving a restaurant.”

“I know what I said.  Music is like food to me, man.”

“Right.”  Spaceman wasn’t going for it.  We both started to lose it, and by the time we reached the car, our sides had just about split.  Driving home, Mr. Spaceman ran on about how every night he waited at his pad for his girlfriend, one of the pretties that worked at the club.  The relationship was, of course, in flagrante.  “She comes in, takes all her clothes off, I go crazy for about twenty minutes with her legs wrapped around my neck, then I crash.  She got sick last week – I fucked her so bad.  Girl came too much.  I drained all the energy out of her ass.”  He sighed.  “Man, I love Japan.  A man can be a man, you know?”

“You got that right,”  I agreed, teeth gritted.

But that’s another story.

We got to his corner and he got out of the car.  “You sounded good on that Luther van Dross tune man, let’s do it again tomorrow.”  I drove a couple blocks to the local Denny’s, slumped into a booth, told a pimply 18-year-old waiter to bring me some French toast and coffee and stared out window.  It had started to drizzle outside on the dirty early-morning sidewalk.

Photo: Scott Shepard http://www.scottshephard.com/2009/03/24/tokyo-street-scene/

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