When she first sees Sol, he’s telling stories at a party, a party for musicians. All the players sit in the living room, drinking beer and telling jokes. Some of them tell musical jokes, humming the punch lines from albums which appear to be sacred. They are happy people. They have shine in their eyes, they rock.
Sol is among them, a black man, at least sixty, neither heavyset nor thin. His gray afro is a small, misty nimbus. He is telling a story about an old musician who made a living by tap-dancing and singing. The man’s routine consisted of singing “Sunny Side of the Street” or some other ripe standard from the 1920s. After singing the melody (the “head,” as Sol calls it), his friend would trade solos with the drummer. The drummer would play eight measures of free improvisation, and the tap-dancer would echo — to infinite perfection — those rhythms with his feet. Sol says the man played all the clubs on the Cape, and in Nantasket; he loved beach towns.
Someone shouts out, “It’s a great way to make a living!” and everyone laughs.
She leans forward, dry and cracked wisps of words sneaking through her shyness. “Is he still alive?”
Sol looks at her. He half-grins, then makes some kind of a Chaplin gesture with his hands — gracefully brushing his hair with one hand and pulling a non-existent moustache with the other. Then he shifts his weight in the chair, and leans toward her, almost touching her arm with his. “No, he’s in that big band upstairs, now. Probably playing Dixieland.”
“Huh?” Someone turns.
“He’s dead, in heaven, man,” another musician says.
Sol turns to her again, asks if she knows a flute player who used to come around, Anna. He says he used to tease Anna: “Anna, Anna from Alabama.” He asks her if she plays out, and she switches chairs, moves closer, to hear the way he talks, the stories about long gigs up through Canada.
She flips through the torn fake book, the collection of pirated standards. “You Go to My Head,” “Stella by Starlight,” “Days of Wine and Roses.” She stops at “Stella,” picks up her guitar, runs it down again, trying to memorize the chord changes. The changes move through the melody, resolving like a wave.
She remembers Sol: Sol from the party, Sol who comes by now and then to help her. They session together, practice soloing, comping the chords in the tunes for each other. He stays for three hours, four hours at a time, patiently encouraging her when her fingers freeze, when the ideas won’t come. He’s so smooth. Effortless substitutions for easy chords flow like blue milk from his fingers. Hands stiff as mahogany roots until they ride his guitar strings. Then they move like tigers at night, or adolescents behind the wheel, cruising in silver sports cars, whistling, dreaming. How could she possibly rise to his level, the gold charge in his music?
But running down the changes to ”Stella,” she remembers Sol in a different way. She remembers yesterday’s phone call, his slurred voice coaxing her, telling her how much he wants to take her to meet his brothers, how much he likes her. How much, how much he thinks about her.
Sol, wearing that ebony hat with the silk ribbon, a black leather jacket. How he comes into the apartment, and they pick out the tunes. She likes them all, pick any one; they’re all sweet. How he pushes her, because he stays so long. And he won’t let her stop, and he won’t let her talk herself down — that gray interior voice saying, “You’re no good, you’ll never do it.” He just keeps coming, keeps springing the old juice on her. Patient, patient like an old tune you never forget, even when you’re sick, lying alone in bed in your room with the peeling green wallpaper.
Now the phone rings. The answering machine picks it up. She pushes herself to go through that series of chords again, the two/five of five: a lydian scale. If only she could get it to flow. If only she could force her fingers to dance like Wes Montgomery’s. If only Wes’s solos — the ones she painstakingly copied off old records — would blend with her pulse, her heartbeat. Charting those solos was like sailing through slicing waters. Against ice-cold wind, try it again, again and again.
Sol used to gig with a local band, and once toured with Coleman Hawkins. He tells her stories about the road, laughing. “One time we was playing down in New York City. After the gig we all went over to catch Coltrane’s last set. I tell you, man, I never heard anything like that. He was blowin’ on ‘Body and Soul’ so hard, so fast, his mouth was foamin’.” Then they play the tune, really getting down, swinging hard.
But she didn’t like the way Sol had sounded over the phone yesterday, drunk. It was as if he weren’t there, as if no one were home.
She stops playing. Lights a cigarette, goes to the window and looks down into the street. People are passing by, some in charcoal shadows, some looking up so that the streetlights reflect off their cheekbones, eyes. The footsteps create a rhythm in the street, in the alley. And in an apartment across the way, someone is playing reggae music, loud. She leans her forehead against the window, feeling the vibrations. She exhales the smoke — she’ll never stop smoking. But she’ll never stop playing, either.
Nights he comes to play, lifting his amp and old cherry guitar into her small apartment with the green rug, mattress on the floor, ashtrays everywhere, music stands with the rhinestone glint. He’s so warm. Sometimes, when she looks up, he’s watching her with that shine in his eye. Must have been a real charmer when he was younger.
Next time she sees him she’ll remind him that he called her up totally soused. He probably won’t remember. Or he’ll pretend he doesn’t to save face, half-grinning, picking out a tune as he speaks — maybe “You Go to My Head” — bringing her back to the music.
She stubs her cigarette against the window sill, turns rapidly back to the room. An image of her father comes to her. When she was a child, he’d take her by the neck, slap her, choke her. Now they barely speak, but he financed her classes at a local music school.
She picks up her guitar. It’s out of tune again. Slowly, she begins to tune it to the tuning fork. Still, it doesn’t sound quite right, quite in. The bridge is too low, needs work. If the bridge were higher, she’d be able to get more action, though it would be hard on her fingers. She’ll take it to the repairman next week. Sol is different from her father, so easy to talk to, interested in what she says, making her smile. Sometimes when he walks in, he hugs her long. He holds her with still embraces until she grows uncomfortable.
She’ll keep her distance. She doesn’t want a monkey on her back. Maybe he’s a real drinker. But think of his gentle ways, the softness in his face, gold browns in electric blue light, deep onyx eyes glistening as he pulls a Charlie Christian riff out of his starlight bag. His fingers moving — natural as grass in the wind. Each note is an old man alone looking up at stars and whistling.
The phone rings. It’s him, Sol, sober. He wants to know if he can come over tonight. Can he come over and run through a few tunes? He’ll help her practice for that little gig she has coming up next week. He has some old tricks, some knowledge about it.
She wants to say no. Somewhere in the distance her father is screaming at her, shaking her. Somewhere underneath her, in someone else’s apartment. But this is her room, her gig. Sol’s voice comes through the wires. He is there, home for her. A sweet Lester Young who has grown old, listening, picking up his horn.
“OK, you talked me into it,” she says. “I actually wouldn’t mind a little session tonight.”
The buzzer rings. The door opens, he comes in, a presence too large for her. He puts down the old cherry guitar, takes off his black leather jacket. He reaches into his bag, picks out a sheet of music. “I gotta share this chart with you, kid,” he says. “This here’s a hip arrangement of an old Ellington tune, ‘I Let a Song out of My Heart,’ you know it?”
He puts his arm around her as she scans the chord changes, his gray afro bristling in the dim fluorescence of the one-bulb room, heat rising. Someone playing a reggae downstairs. His lips are soft, old, wise, when they touch hers.