My daddy is a jazzman. He wears a suit that’s almost black but not quite—one button, pressed slacks, starched shirt. No tie. He wears leather shoes. One on the floor and one on the beat. They reflect the stage lights like his hollow-bodied 1980 Gibson. He wears cufflinks, he drinks club soda with lime. The tips of his fingers are callused and quick. He closes his eyes when he sings and smiles at the end of each song.
But only on Wednesdays.
Wednesday is the night my father’s bar fills with dancers. They take over the space in front of the stage in the corner, feet in comfortable shoes practicing their steps in miniature. The regulars, grungy East Atlanta hipsters, and young families out to dinner, turn around from the bar and peek out of the dark booths when the alt-rock radio fades. Three middle-aged men, one full head of hair between them, busy themselves on the worn Persian rug, positioning the mic stands and navigating the twisted topography of black cords. When the guitar is plugged in, the bass stood upright, and the lid of the old beat-up piano lifted, they are a band.
They are the Gravediggers, because the bar is The Graveyard, but the bar’s name is happenstance. The building was originally a motorcycle repair shop of the same name and my father wanted to keep the old sign. I like to think the name suits them. I’ve never met a man who digs graves for a living, but I imagine his personality would be like those of the guys in the band—reserved, deliberate, and practiced, but with a dark, crucial sense of humor. These are the kind of musicians who can hear “Stormy Monday in A flat” and then play it without hesitation, who can play every Jimmy Reed song ever written—they’re all the same, really—and who can tell you stories about the Greats as though they’ve met them or because they actually have. And yet they joke about missed notes between numbers and tease each other about their age. On slow nights, Bob, the pianist, refers to the weak, scattered applause as a “round of indifference.” They laugh, and keep playing.
My father is a businessman. Since the early ’80s he has worked as an architect and developer, and now he runs his own urban planning business. He is an excellent negotiator; he is fond of reminding me that he “plays chess while everyone else is playing checkers.” He wears a suit and tie, he checks e-mail on his phone, he flies business class. But he spent most of his young adulthood as a touring musician and a writer. He was in a band called Choo Choo Wizard; he published his first book when he was 21. I wish I could have known my father as a young man; I imagine the thrilling, mysterious life of a different version of the person I know. Long curly hair and bell-bottom jeans with holes in the knees, book in one hand and guitar in the other, library cubicle by day and dive bar stage by night. It took him six years to get his degree because he was touring to pay his way through school. He says the only things he really learned in college he learned in the hours he spent in the library reading everything he found interesting. He started out teaching himself in libraries, and ended up designing them. The few times I saw Dad on stage with his guitar when I was little were the first moments I realized I could be proud of my parents, not just the other way around. These occasions were few; his public performances were mostly as a businessman.
But at home my dad was still a musician—I often woke up on Saturday mornings to the sound of the Gibson from downstairs, Dad playing whatever was in his head. Our house was always filled with Howlin’ Wolf, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Frank Sinatra, and I fell in love with all of them. I learned to work the record player and clean vinyl when I was six. Dad taught me to play basic blues guitar when I was 12. My hands weren’t really big enough, so I had to cheat the chords.
When I was 14, Dad and I went to New York for a weekend to see Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross at the Blue Note. We sat at a little round table in the smoky darkness beside the stage, and after the show Dad suggested we go up to their dressing rooms and see if we could meet them. I didn’t know you could do things like that—these were two of the Greats, they were too big to exist off the stage. But I stumbled up the stairs in the heels I wore to pretend I was older, and knocked on Annie Ross’s door. I talked to her about singing for what I insist was half an hour but my father says was no more than five minutes. The pictures we took in the dressing room are like strange family photos—grandma in her robe and stage make-up, grandpa in his tux, Dad and daughter grinning like idiots. These musicians had a kind of power, and it seemed my dad had it too.
Choral music, I discovered in high school, had a different kind of power. The intricacies of chords and harmonies I learned from being one voice among 40 were stunning and gratifying; I sometimes had to stop singing for a few bars to grin and catch my breath. Though the method was foreign to me—I practiced at home by singing along to CDs of a grating synthesizer—there was suddenly structure and theory behind the magic of Dad placing my fingers just so on the neck of the guitar.
But Dad didn’t come to my choral concerts. I told myself it was because he didn’t like the music, but even when I joined our 12-person vocal jazz group in my junior year he was conspicuously absent. Maybe, I thought, we lack that magic that draws him to this music, the feel behind the notes. We sounded too much like the synthesizer; no amount of music theory can teach you to swing. But peering into the audience time after time and finding my mother’s face without my father’s, I wondered why he couldn’t learn to love what I loved. Halfway through “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” I was so mad I could have hurled my microphone into that empty seat in the third row. By the end of “Every Time We Say Goodbye” I was fighting back tears. It’s impossible to sing and cry at the same time, even when you’re singing the blues.
Those early Wednesday nights at the Graveyard five years ago were lonely. There were no swing dancers and few customers. Anyone who has ever tried to open a restaurant will tell you that the first three or so years are miserable, and most places don’t make it. But my father and his best friend George tried anyway; it was something they had always talked about. When Dad found the old motorcycle warehouse and redesigned it with booths and a bar and the stage in the corner, George quit his job to become the head chef. The restaurant survived the initial troubles, but their friendship didn’t. I hadn’t really thought about my father’s friendships, but suddenly it seemed that he didn’t have any. No more college bandmates, no golf buddies, no one to share a cigar with on the porch. Just business associates. It was lonely, but he adapted. The businessman negotiated and the musician improvised.
Now Wednesday nights find him sitting at a packed bar with a new band. Bob, Bill, and Jim. They joke from time to time that they only play with people with one-syllable names. Thank goodness I meet this criterion, because it means that on those Wednesdays when I’m home from the University I can pretend to be one of them. Before we play, I usually sit at a table by myself and watch. They eat alone, but they drink together. There are minutes of quiet storytelling broken by bursts of laughter, and I want to know what they talk about. I sit alone and observe them, like some rare species evolved beyond mine.
The tips of the fingers on Bill’s left hand are completely flat, like pads on frogs’ feet. I think they would stay that way even if he stopped playing the bass. Watching Bob play is like watching a bear play the piano: He hunches over and his arms move back and forth from the shoulders, his large hands seeming to pound indiscriminately on the keys, somehow producing chords. They hardly ever rehearse; they’ve had years of rehearsal. Stepping onto the stage with musicians like this is like being inducted into some exclusive club; I only pretend to belong.
The first Wednesday I got up the courage to go sit with Bob at the bar, he told me a story about the time he met Ella Fitzgerald. She was singing in some little bar in New York, and he was one of the only people in the place. She finished her set and sat at the bar, and he went to say hello. She looked around at the empty tables and said, “Well, I guess no one loves old Ella anymore.” I told Bob that was one of the saddest stories I had ever heard, and then I thought about my father. My father alone in the library, in his office, on the porch. “That’s how it is,” Bob replied. “You know, when you sing ‘Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby’ you sound like Dinah Washington.”
When they’re not telling stories about their encounters with the Greats, the old bluesmen talk about their families. When I listen to them tell me about their wives or where their daughters go to college, I think about Dad teaching me to play a Dm7 on the guitar. Dad in our kitchen making silly faces until my mom, my sister, and I laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe. Dad here in his bar with the guys, where the only empty table was the one I had just left. I’ve always been my father’s kid, but now that I’m older I also have the privilege of being his friend. We keep each other company. The music is lonely, but the musicians aren’t.
When I got home from those high-school choral concerts I would walk into the parlor and find this man with circles under his eyes, flannel socks, gray in his beard. And the Gibson. And we let the blues do the negotiating—music as mediator. This is how we reconcile. We pour the day into something melancholy and heavy and sweet, something that we make but which is separate from both of us. He sings melody, I sing harmony, I love what he loves, and we deride my choir mates for their inability to swing. Squares, man.
I’ve gotten better at pretending, at stitching myself into their scene. The seams are smoother. The swing dancers ask me to dance. I can order a beer. And I can sit at the bar with Bob, Bill, and Dad, and dish out musician attitude like the pros. Occasionally, a drummer will sit in with us, but they never last long. It’s 10 minutes until we start our set, the drummer-of-the-month is nowhere to be seen, and none of us is surprised. I mention something Chet Baker said once about how it takes a hell of a drummer to be better than no drummer at all. The guys laugh and I want more. I tell a joke Dad’s told a thousand times.
“Hey, what do you call a musician without a girlfriend?
More laughter; they are so tickled when the protégée repeats the old standards. But from my mouth the jokes sound weak and tinny like the choral synthesizer. Without years of playing to more empty tables than full ones, without aches from hauling equipment in and out of venues where there’s no guarantee you’ll get your cut of the cover charge, and watching the music you play slowly become obsolete—without these things I can never really be one of them. But I’m young and I think what they do is anything but obsolete, and that’s enough of a novelty for them to keep me around. Besides, I don’t sing like the synthesizer; I sing like Dinah Washington.
We start to move towards the stage and I ask Bob if he looked at the chords we wrote out for the new song. He smiles and puts a heavy bear hand on my shoulder. “Nope. We’ll just make it up.”
And we do.
Adaptability is what
makes jazz and blues
songs great. The stan-
dards are standards for a reason, but it takes very little to make them unique. Because they’re strong to begin with, they can bend to the musician’s will. And the best musicians know exactly how they want to bend the standards, often transforming them into completely new songs. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “My Funny Valentine,” and then listen to Chet Baker’s. Same words, same tune, but one will make you laugh and the other will make you cry.
My father knows how to bend the standards. It is astonishing how seamlessly he manages to be a developer, a musician, a restaurateur, and a dad. Each has a different walk, a different tie, even a different laugh. But I get to know all of them. The developer and the restaurateur sent me to college, the musician handed me the Gibson when I was 12, and the dad still teaches me to improvise.
There is a thing that happens when you play music with the same few people again and again. This thing is as intangible as music itself, and just as thrilling. Call it a vibe, a groove, an understanding. It’s the feeling of simultaneous safety and freedom lent by the combination of talent, practice, and guts.
Bob starts the intro, and whether we’ve done this song a hundred times or never, I can imagine I hear through the pounding of the piano and the slapping of the bass and the patter of the guitar—I am here, I am listening, you are listening. I am following you, we are following each other. Let’s go to the bridge. And if we miss a change or skip a chord we’ll come right back around. One wrong note is wrong, two wrong notes is jazz.
I wear a suit, but mine is true black. My jacket has two clasps instead of buttons. I wear leather shoes that reflect the stage lights, but mine are heels. One on the floor and one on the beat. I wear earrings, I wear stockings. My fingers have no calluses. I close my eyes when I sing and I look at my dad at the end of every song.
I leave the vibe on the stage and slip back to my table. I watch them finish the set, my feet still tapping and my cheeks flushed, and I realize I can see it. I can see them making choices about the music with no words or gestures at all. I can see them swing. It is seamless.