Excerpt from “I’ll Get You My Pretty” Black Los Angeles & The Black Dahlia by award-winning novelist Pam Ward.
“Every musician has his last gig,” Joe said.
Drummer Man, the youngest of the group, polished his sticks and put them away. The other musicians zipped their cases or gathered sheets of music. Like a cigarette butt snuffed under a shoe in the street, the vibrancy they displayed on the stage was gone now. It was time to go out in the street and smoke.
Joe sat on a milk crate behind the club where Mattie worked. The air was thick with garbage. The moon reflected off a row of cans. Lots of activity filled the wet, dirty street. Cooks tossed out trash. Trucks delivered vegetables and raw meat. Chinese picked up laundry and delivered it back clean. Young boys popped wheelies or learned to roll weed. The mob used the alley as their personal street, shaking down club owners attempting to give them the slip or placing their men at back exits for protection. Alleys have always showcased a certain element of life. Homeless men raided trash bins or slept by a fence. Grown men drank or played cards and shot craps. Celebrities and the ultra rich used these thru-fares to avoid being seen, while some used these streets to make a pit stop to pee.
But tonight, this tiny alley behind Sunset and Vine, became a break room for black musicians hired to play but not allowed anywhere inside the club except on stage.
This alley was the one spot they could stand without being harassed. On the sidewalk, in front of the club, they were hassled and told to leave by police slapping batons in their palms. Cardboard boxes and several milk crates became their table and chairs. Their drinks were the flasks they kept in their jackets. The musicians who just finished held sandwiches to their lips. In order to work these long shifts, the club owner guaranteed they were fed. This was written into their contract. It was part of their negotiations for the gig. While working in white areas where it was difficult for black folks to get a meal, musicians made sure they were fed.
Out of earshot of the owner and alone with their peers, twisting the caps off their flasks or their miniature fifths of gin, the men talked freely and starting to drop their “G’s” using a special speech they spoke among themselves.
“Like I said, nigga, every musician has last gig,” Joe repeated. Taking a stolen glass from his pocket, he filled the contents with gin.
One by one, Joe looked each musician in the eye. “They may not know it. May not even realize it happened, but that last gig is waitin’ ready to leap and slash yo throat, like a piano closing down on your hands.”
“Come on, man,” Drummer Man said, lifting his flask. “Comfort why you always wanna bring a man down? You startin’ to sound just like Mingus.”
“You know,” Joe said proudly. “I taught Mingus how to play.”
“I wouldn’t claim that,” Drummer Man laughed. “Errbody know Mingus is crazy.”
“That fool stabbed a dude for hitting the wrong note one time,” the piano player said.
Joe crunched the ice from his drink with his teeth. Sticking his finger in the icy water he held it up in the air. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m feelin’ a change in the wind.”
The other musicians looked at Joe like he was crazy.
“Whenever a club opens up,” Joe said. “They’re putting a nail in Central Avenue’s coffin.”
“Come on, fool! What chu talkin about?’” Drummer Man said. “I’m working more than ever! Once they finish mixing the black and white musicians unions together, brotha, we ‘bout to get paid!” The piano player and Drummer Man smacked hands. “From here on it’s gone be gravy.”
Joe shook his head like he was talking to fools.
“Let me ‘splain something to you, junior,” Joe told the young musician. “That white union don’t give a fuck about you! You watch. Joining with them is gonna mean LESS gigs not more.” Joe took a healthy swig from his drink. “I talked to Lionel Hampton and he said we shouldn’t have merged. He said they’re penciling little circles on all the black musicians cards so they can make sure the white boys get our gigs. Listen, I’m telling you fools, our last gig is near.”
“You crazy!” Drummer Man said, “Me and Slim got good gigs startin’ next week.” Drummer Man stood up and did a dance with the trumpet player.
“Black entertainer,” Slim said, smacking Drummer Man hand.
“White audience,” Drummer Man said, smacking him back.
Both men give a two beat handshake and spin, “is how a nigga gets paid,” they say in unison.
“Well you better save up, ‘cause it may be your last,” Joe said.
All the musicians threw their arms in the air.
“There is no last gig! I’ma play forever!” Drummer Man said.
“Central Avenue ain’t going no where, man!” Slim added.
“That street will always be king,” piano player nodded. “No one can take it away.”
Joe stared down at broken pot holed street. “Jimmy Lunceford’s last gig was an old skating rink in Oregon and I’m telling you, that fool never saw it comin.”
“I played with that dude,” the trumpet player said.
“Lunceford was the baddest muthafucka there was,” Joe went on. “Came up in vaudeville so the brotha knew the meaning of ‘show.’ His band wore the coolest clothes, colorful suits that all matched and he was the first to use choreographed moves.”
“What happened to him?” Drummer Man asked.
“Same thing that happens to all of us,” Joe said. Opening his switchblade with his teeth, Joe slit the tape on a pack of Pall Malls. Next to his cigarettes was a carefully rolled marijuana cigarette. After lighting it and taking two puffs he passed it to Drummer Man’s hand. “Cornfeds got him. Just like they got our women.”
Everyone knew Joe’s ex Mattie was seeing a white boy now.
“Some of you young cats may not know it, but Lunceford was the man. Before Glen Miller could get his shorts on, before Tommy Dorsey got out of bed, Jimmy Lunceford and his Harlem Express were the most innovative orchestra that ever lived. Came threw the Cotton Club. Same place Calloway made his name. He was king between 1934 and the war. Lunceford was the only band who could compete both artistically AND financially, with Duke Ellington and Count Basie!”
“I ‘member him,” Piano Player said tapping a beat on his thighs. “He had that two-beat rhythm. I heard he made a mint for Decca.”
“Yeah,” Joe said remembering. “He was the first band who could really swing. Dorsey was so pissed he started stealing his crew. He stole Sy Oliver away in the middle of a show.
“Dayam, now you know that shit’s foul.” Drummer Man said.
“Crackers steal our shit all the time.” Joe twisted his wedding band on his hand thinking about Mattie.
“Lunceford was on the same scale of Basie?” Drummer Man asked.
“Better,” Joe answered.
“Same as the Duke?
“Not even close,” Joe said. “Ellington couldn’t hold Jimmy Lunceford’s drawls.”
“You ever see him play?”
“See him? I played with him, Junior! He made my whole wedding swing.”
As soon as he said the word wedding, Joe felt bad. Taking the rolled joint from Drummer Man he sucked the smoke in deep.
“So what happened to em?” Drummer Man asked.
“Ofays poisoned him,” Joe rasped, squinting his eyes as he exhaled.
“If I’m lying I’m flying,” Joe said. “Lunceford dropped dead while autographing his records, six months after they chopped that white chick and dumped her in the grass.”
“The Black Dahlia?”
“Yeah her. A lowlife white girl gets offed and the paper runs a Black Dahlia story every day. They never printed nothing ‘bout Lunceford. It’s like that shit didn’t happen.”
“Why she gotta be the BLACK Dahlia anyway, huh?” Drummer Man asked. “Why everything bad gotta be black.”
“Police been busting our ass ever since that shit happened,” Piano Man said. “Errbody know hacking a bitch in half is some crazy white boy shit.”
Comfort sucked the last of the reefer until its gone. “A crazy fool got Lunceford too. I’m telling you Lunceford had more soul than anyone I know. He controlled his own money, performed on another level. He did radio and toured all over Europe.”
“Sounds like you, nigga,” Drummer Man smiled at Joe.
“Naw, man. I’m tryin to tell you, Lunceford was huge! Had is own private doctor. Flew his own Cessna to all his shows. Now you tell me what negro does that shit, man?” Staring at Drummer Man, Joe sadly turned toward the moon. “But his last gig was the Bungalow, in Seaside, Oregon,” he said, “and I’m telling you he never saw it coming.” Emptying his drink, Joe wiped his lips and went on. “After playing, Jimmy and his band went to eat at a café. But dig, the owner was one of them nasty Jim Crow crackers. He told Jimmy he didn’t serve Negroes in his place. But Jimmy didn’t go for the okie-doke, okay!”
“Damn right!” Drummer Man said, giving Slim five.
“Jimmy’s played all over Europe, even did a stint for the queen. So he gets in the owner’s face and demands to be fed and after a shouting match the owner finally serves them all Chili Con Carne.”
Drummer Man, bit his sandwich and said, “See! We have to demand our rights, man!”
“Few hours later, while signing records in a store, Lunceford seizes up, starts foaming at the mouth and falls.” Joe lights a cigarette and flings the match toward the street. “They rush him to the hospital but its too late, Jimmy’s already DOA.”
“Shit!’ Drummer Man said.
“Damn,” Piano Player added.
“See, that cracker put something inside Jimmy’s food. They knew he was poisoned ‘cause all the other dudes got sick too but Jimmy was big. He ate two portions of that shit.”
“But the cold part about it was, Jimmy had the band’s pay in his pocket. Them peckerwoods took that money while Jimmy was on the gurney. So his band had to keep slaving at that funky café just to hustle enough scratch to make it back home.” Joe took his glass and smashed it in the street.
The other musicians stared down at the broken bits.
“Maybe Satchmo had it right,” Joe went on.
“Satchmo’s an Uncle Tom!” Drummer Man said.
“I don’t know,” Piano player said. “Armstrong never had no problems. He works every night. He don’t owe nothing to the mob. Satch always said to get a white boy to vouch for yo ass. He told me to get a cracker who can put his arm around you and say, ‘that’s my nigga,’ someone to protect your ass from this bullshit.”
“Listen,” Joe said sipping his gin. “If a white boy wants yo ass, he’s gonna get it.”
“I don’t know,” Drummer Man said drumming his sticks on a crate. “If you ask me, Lunceford was already DOA. Dexter Gordon is all folks talk about now. “Bebop killed Lunceford a long time ago.”
The musicians didn’t say anything for a beat.
“Well, at least you got Sinatra,” the piano player told Joe.
Joe looked inside his empty glass and smiled.
“Naw nigga, no? You didn’t fuck-up the best gig in town!”
Joe extended his glass and Drummer Man poured some gin.
“Why’d his bitch have to be so damn fine?” Joe admitted.
“You lying! Sinatra’s crazy ‘bout Ava!”
“I know. I fucked up. Sinatra kicked me off the tour.”
“Kick you off, you’re lucky that hood didn’t cut yo throat! Maybe we’re looking at this fool’s last gig,” Drummer Man nudged Piano Player’s rib.
“One monkey don’t stop no show,” Piano player said, taking a swig. “I have to admit,” Joe licked his finger. “Ava was great in the sack, oh my goodness! You know she’s black.”
“Ava Gardner’s not colored!”
Making the sign of the cross Joe said, “Swear on my Daddy’s grave. She told me she’s Melungeon, man.”
“Melungeons were a mixture of free Negros, whites and Indians who lived together in the Appalachian mountains.”
“So what happened with Ava, man,” Piano Player wanted to know.
“We got busted inside the studio. Frank caught Ave fixing up her hair. He didn’t see us but man, I could tell from his glare. “I could shoot you,” Sinatra told me, ‘but I like you, okay, but you’ll never work for me again.”
“Shit man, when you ever gonna learn.”
“I know,” Joe said wiping a lock of hair from his head. “But the stuff keeps coming my way.”
Everyone stopped talking when a gleaming limousine pulled up. The club opened and the sound of laughter filled the dark alley. Mattie wearing a dazzling evening gown exited the club. Her dress, the color of snow set off her tan skin. All the musicians turned their heads her way. A famous director was clutching her arm.
“Is that Otto Preminger with yo chick?” Drummer Man asked.
Guiding Mattie down the steps, Preminger headed toward a gleaming car.
“Mattie,” Joe said, holding his hat in his hand.
Mattie stopped but Preminger mildly tugged arm.
“Come along, darlink,” Preminger said, escorting her in the door. “Ve don’t vant to be late.”
A cop walked behind Preminger. He eyed the musicians with disgust. “Break it up, Sambos. Hurry up, go on home!”
Carrying his bass fiddle over his shoulder, Joe walked to his car. Flicking his cigarette in the Mattie’s direction, he got in and slammed the door.
“One monkey don’t stop no show,” Joe said.