Muskrat Ramble ended with modest applause - out of favour and mood - there was no heir apparent as busboys clattered glasses. Snake-eyes rolled out the door as a waitress steadied a glass vase with its single plastic rose. Frosted red candlelight scattered shafts of fiery shade. Starched linen table cloths presented a canopy hiding double breasted coats and raffia skirts.
The bandleader counted in Body and Soul but from a different time. A row of tables held court to businessmen working their way through their catalogue of Soju and Johnnie Walker Blue.
The piano player takes a cursory glance at the tables. A pause mid-chord to wonder would they notice if the music stopped, for what else was there? What held the night together - the clam chowder, the mini-skirted waitresses, the Lucky Strike dart board, perhaps A Fine Romance would help. Freddie smiles as he counts in Potato Head Blues, 1-2-3-4.
He resolves again to look down and concentrate on the piano keys - the only home he has ever known - a respite from the aching in his muscles, the rent due again and the beguiling aroma of Jae-yo’s poached chicken soup.
The songs come and go - like old friends - Freddie salutes each one with his own distinctive renditions. The passing of time is ever present. There is a danger that The Silhouettes could at any moment descend into nostalgia but Freddie has taken pre-cautions, not here, not on stage - that is done at rehearsals. Baxter leans heavily on his piano player, not just the arrangements and getting the guys to focus especially after they complain that Round Midnight is as tight as they can get it. Freddie’s genius is keeping the mood fresh, treating each song as a piece of something sacred, a revered tapestry gilded from Masters past.
The house lights come on. What a Wonderful World permeates over the crowd but the resonance is lost as the background music is flattened out by the Harman-Kardon CD player and tightly tweaked JBL speakers. There is no moment of reflection…just another night with another one to come…
Out on the street it is cold and wet. Was it raining earlier? Had it rained all night? He didn’t know as he tightened his collar and watched the never ending fleet of Taxis stream by in the rain. Their golden lights ablaze, the drivers impassive as they head for Incheon Airport.
Nowhere in Seoul is more than a ten dollar taxi ride away but Ben ‘Freddie’ Thurman is headed for the green canvas tent on the corner. Inside two tiny round women display dexterity beyond belief as pork ribs catch ablaze and marinade is brushed on with small bunches of tarragon. Tiny brown potatoes that look like eggs are turned and cajoled over the charcoal inspired heat. 4000 won - after all this time he still has to convert - five bucks - buys two ribs and a cup of potatoes.
He goes to turn but the rain pelting on the canvas roof roots him to the spot. He looks at one of the cooks who has small pearls of sweat beading under a head band with smiley faces - she nods, bows and quickly turns away.
A few beer breathed men enter the carnival atmosphere - he stands witness as the hot garlic and herb encrusted potatoes warm and nourishes the ache away. The food scalds his tongue but this is trivial, meaningless, in this journey that has purged a link to whatever is possible.
With a full stomach there is no need to remain so he reluctantly moves on, he knows what is coming, the time passages spent away from the stage are necessary, but unwelcomed, there is no respite especially in the dark - the dark is no longer a constant it has become more than that - he can’t remember what Sogong-ro looks like in daylight.
Freddie doesn’t notice the Hana Bank sign anymore or the subway entrance or the Ko-Chon Chicken shop. The grandeur of Top Cloud beckons in the distance, above the other high rise buildings, like dinosaurs on a battle field, their lights promise a life worth pursuing, and under the bluey haze of an electronic Samsung sign positioned high up on the exterior of the American Express building - displaying out over the night sky - the illusion that money is life.
Namdaemun-ro turns into Myeongdong-gil as Freddie ponders the next adventure. Let’s see if we can catch up to him.
Freddie! Hold up, can we grab a minute of your time?
Sure, I was wondering when you were going to appear. Mind if we walk, what do you want to know?
Thanks, what has always intrigued me is the thought of living far from home, in another country where you can come and go as you please with no consequence of family obligations, and not living a mediocre existence, a sort of permanent vacation.
Is that how you see it? Interesting, not sure if I fully agree, but I can see what you are saying.
Well how do you see it?
Freddie absorbed what had been asked of him as if to validate its accuracy.
Music is about expressing what can’t be written down or told. It’s not about how many quarter notes you can play or how extravagant your chord shapes are. There needs to be simplicity in intent but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry influential or complex themes. The emotion used to play comes from within the person, the mechanics are motor functions but the breath before the first chord of So What stems from within Miles, a sour bitter angry man who could transcend his human foibles with a whisper of an Em7, then you had Coltrane a blissful patient loving man who could erupt with his horn so it sounded like the archangel Gabriel with a hangover. Music is not primarily concerned with communication, it is about expression. Expressing feelings between loved ones and enemies. There is of course the business side but that don’t matter, it’s like growing grapes, you got to get the wine to the table and it passes through many hands and everyone wants their cut, but when you sitting there with a crust of bread and a hunk of cheese slurping on your favourite grape juice who cares how it got there or who fucked who over in the process…thus spoke Ben ‘Freddie’ Thurman.
Street corners go by - like a trail - half opened kerb grates signal he doesn’t have to look up at the doorway of 529 Toegye-ro. He unlocks the front door hardly noticing the Porsche emblem on the key ring and bottle opener.
The door klunked shut and he is in the foyer. He notices the clock on the wall over a table that has never seen anything different. 4.33 am - a little later than usual - he blames the rain. At the top of the stairs he waits for any sound but none is forth coming. His apartment door is open - no need to lock it - he enters the room.
You can only show people a postcard of where you’ve been - he looks at the small poster above the kitchen sink. The smiling face of Dizzy looks on. He looks around the bed-sit. Eight hours ago he left the same room in the same condition. Why would he expect anything to be different?
It’s a cycle he can’t break and must be endured. What was been gained? The same songs in the same order. Some people listened, there was even applause. Hyo-jo smiled when she sold him a packet of Winston - he left her a tip.
As he looks at his room in the same way as he did the previous afternoon the humour of his situation underscores the monotony. Music hasn’t changed the world, certainly not his, did he think it would? Did Miles, Monk or Bird?
Darkness defines the edges of objects - Television, side table, bed, kitchen sink. The drying rack holds a spoon, fork and bowl. A coffee cup in the sink is filled to the brim with water.
A red light from outside frames the one window where the signs for Omuto Tomato, IBIS Ambassador and A-Shin shine and flicker like a multi-coloured beach ball. On the corner, the One Plus shop is closing, soon the red neon will flicker and disappear leaving its customary tinged silhouette for a minute or two. Time to close the curtain and seal the door with the cushion to keep the encroaching light out.
He washes his face and changes into substitute pyjamas - long socks, t-shirt and cotton pants bought at Chuncheon Nangman Market. Freddie pours a decent measure of Knob Hill - straight no chaser. His eyes feel heavy, tiredness rampant. Thoughts go unnoticed in the background of his mind - a soundtrack of his life with no encore, unrelenting till the final note.
Round Midnight was a bit heavy tonight…couldn’t concentrate…didn’t feel right…those guys in the front…distracting…Lotte food court…fried red mullet…hot potatoes…crumpled photographs…longing for…
Freddie Thurman falls asleep - his room sheltered from distractions. The red neon continues to shimmer as a thin band of navy blue light rests on the skyline. Taxis travel under the bridge and shops remain quiet as another morning arrives.
Dreams were a luxury and seldom remembered but images were forming out of the soup of indulgences…a bar of soap rested in a sink…there was music in the background - no surprises there - it could have been Lady Day. A soft haunting refrain melted in the sky. Freddie was outside, standing next to a pond feeding geese. The countryside was beautiful; blossoms were out, the smell of salt air combined with lavender and someone’s jasmine perfume all around him.
Freddie was aware of the morning going on without him. There were times he slept soundly in forty-five minute cycles, then thirty minutes or so before he trembled under the surface of being awake. Past midday he knew he wasn’t asleep.
There was cold comfort in being awake at this time of the day. For nocturnal sleepers it was like being awake at 2am waiting and hoping the dawn would stay away and sleep would come to the rescue.
Hunger was a problem, the taste of chilli sauce lingered. The thought of hash browns, bacon and maple syrup dredged from the past - Coffee Club. The sound of clip-clop shoes on the polished marble floor in Tin-Tan Palaza Emporium. Little Finger Hoi and her ample breasts seemed like a movie described by someone else. He questioned the validity and serenity those golden moments offered.
Sleep did rescue him. Another few hours - the home stretch - all the mental meanderings were placated asunder. How does tiredness dominate the mind? What is sleep? How is it defined and plotted against the landscape of the mind. Sleep seems such an impossible act, born from what circumstance. Surely evolution should have delivered a better operating model, and why for so long. To be asleep, basically out of action and vulnerable to internal and external thoughts for a third of your life - thirty years or more without any memory except for the occasional dream, and what use are they in the bigger picture.
Gods are created, wars waged and thoughts dictate all the illusion we see around us, then for it to be all dissolved and rendered meaningless by being asleep. Kings dictate and postulate then fall asleep like a child curled in a giant bed while all their subjects run amuck.
Freddie lay awake thinking these thoughts as another night lay before him. The routine thrashed itself onto the shore again. It sat patiently, the clock ticking, waiting for him to climb on board. He waited for something to create a spark that would cause him to rise, to reveal a reason to get up.
Bensta! Are you up?
The sound of the door being pummelled barely drowned out the voice of Jae-yo. For a moment he lay motionless hoping it was a one off but his experience knew otherwise.
Bennie boy! It’s me.
As if it would be anyone else - Freddie slowly extracted himself from the bedclothes. The warmth that had been contained quickly evaporated into the chill of the late afternoon air. He sat for a moment barely able to open his eyes. He slouched forward and coughed. He knew what awaited - poached chicken soup and a bottle of plum liquor.
This has got to stop, he thought. The knocking continued as it always did.
Alright I’m coming, Jesus!
Freddie reached for his dressing gown that lay limp over his chair. He placed a foot in a slipper and accidentally kicked the other one under the bed. With little energy and a stiff back he contemplated reaching for it but soon resisted the inconvenience. He got to the door realising it was unlocked - annoyed he opened it quite sharply which took Jae-yo Choi by surprise.
Bensta boy, happy Easter, I have breakfast. Too much ginseng I think, but you try before it goes cool. Jae-yo entered without invitation and placed the covered bowl on the table and opened the curtain to reveal a grey turbulent light.
Not much cloud but not raining, good huh? Jae-yo waited to be asked to sit. Through his eagerness and loud voice was still the vestige of a good upbringing in a strict household. Manners were integral to his sphere of influence.
Sit, sit, for Christ’s sake and stop fidgeting, you want coffee?
Yes, yes, I make?
No! I want to be able to taste it. Freddie went to the sink to fill the jug. He placed two coffee mugs on the sideboard and scooped several teaspoons of Lavazza - no filtering or whooshing - just straight coarse ground roasted beans.
Freddie wiped his eyes as he lifted the cloth covering the bowl. The idea of food first thing always turned his stomach but as soon as he saw the waxy film of broth with sticky rice and garlic shreds it never ceased to surprise him. The smell of samgyetang enveloped the small kitchen. As the water boiled, Jae-yo asked the same spitfire questions he had every morning.
How was your gigging?
Gig! Yo-yo, gig! Freddie had long ago dubbed his friend Yo-yo on account of his exuberance.
So sorry, how was the g-i-g? Too many people again, too noisy?
Freddie took a drag of his Winston, and sat back to watch the cloud of smoke softly rest under the lightshade. A single moment of pleasure, relief and thanksgiving passed ever so effortlessly against the grain of his hardened bullish persona. From somewhere primal and held deep in reserve he felt the tone of a chord Monk often played when frustrated with the tempo of the Minton’s house-band trying to accommodate the resistance of Round Midnight.
Few people realise how hard that song is - especially live, Freddie once said, even seasoned troupers like Miles had trouble with the changes, it was the tempo that undid people - it was slower than you first thought. Because the chords chopped and changed like ocean waves in a storm, looking for a flat spot of resolution, musicians were often confused, thinking it had to be played with a restrained be-bop kind of feel, although rooted in the very essence of be-bop and melodic craziness it was actually very much crystallised in the elegance of Duke, which not many people took the trouble to find out - Ahmad Jamal certainly did. Miles took it into ballad territory and Sun Ra laid it out giving it much respect.
And what are you doing today kim-chi-o-sabi?
Jae-yo rolled his eyes back. No matter how many times he heard the joke he laughed. He turned on the television as Freddie poured boiled water into the mugs. After respectfully receiving his mug, Jae-yo sat cross legged on the end of the bed staring at the endless array of bizarre ads.
A woman laughed at an army of blue circles with wide open smiles as they danced on her sparkling bright sheets dazzling in the sunlight. All of a sudden two impossibly adorable Korean children - looking nothing like their mother - came running through the sheets. After a momentary look of shock the kids were bundled up by the woman, who could have been no more than twenty years old, before looking playfully towards the camera as the implied father shook his head from a window above and behind them.
Have you seen Gigi today? Freddie asked.
Not yet, I think she stay out, must have been big one. Today I must talk to the superintendent about the hot water. Twice this week it runs out with no warning. I must have a bath and water my bonsai.
Freddie took a sip of his scalding hot coffee and lit another Winston. He sucked, letting a curl of rich smoke into his nostrils before exhaling hard.
I see, and what then?
Jae-yo looked surprised, shrugged then turned the channel to ESPN to watch the first round playoff between the Knicks and the Bulls.
Freddie cooled his soup. He was amazed at the spicy flavour and texture - it was the perfect way to start the day and such a part of his routine it was hard to contemplate not having it every afternoon.
Freddie contemplated the day ahead…Gig starts at 9pm…depending on the crowd…blanket of snow…troubled times ahead…picture a moment too slow for keeping up…blessed can they be that give back more than they receive…
Freddie took umbrage at being forced to work material that didn’t fit his sensibility. If he felt a lyric contrived or the melody manipulative he baulked at plying his genius like a hack plying a trade.
I’ve lived too long to take short cuts. Music isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.
Freddie often found audiences a distraction which seemed implausible. Musicians usually revel in the tension and expectation playing afforded. The whole history of his craft was dependent on finding then capturing an audience. It had practical benefits like paying rent and eating but it also offered a gateway to a lifestyle attained by a select few - a secret Club. Freddie saw the dichotomy of the audience’s expectation and his pursuit of playing without distraction - playing for the sole purpose of immersing himself in the chords.
Jae-yo stared at the screen taking in noisy scoops of soup. Occasionally he removed a string of chicken from his teeth. Freddie cooled his soup by letting it rest, content to soothe the afternoon with sips of silty coffee.
They were comfortable in each other’s silence. So much so that Freddie failed to hear Jae-yo ask; are you still free this weekend?
When he didn’t hear a reply, Jae-yo kept on staring at the television and brought the bowl to his lips to consume the spicy sediment.
I have a plan. The early train will be full, so I am going later in the morning to avoid the holiday crush. Jae-yo stood up to re-fill his bowl.
Freddie looked up to see his friend standing like that kid in the Dickens story, bowl at the ready, with a look of bewilderment but Jae-yo always looked like that.
Help yourself, there’s too much for me.
Freddie liked the idea of not having to play for a couple of nights but along with the relief of not having to be part of a tight-ship was also the feeling of not honing his craft. Even after all these years a night off let alone two felt like a slip in proceedings. Freddie smiled as he knew that he had enough credits in the bank to survive for playing the piano was like breathing and he had never gone long without breathing.
Jae-yo was unsure if he was still included in his friend’s plan. Freddie was never easy to predict. Jae-yo didn’t like matters to be unresolved. His mind resided in the future, always planning and organising events, although this habit was influential in his success at driving 12 hour shifts around the streets of Seoul it was at times less dependable when dealing with people.
Freddie was unsure what he was doing. He had another gig that night. The idea of going away was appealing, but the thought of travelling placed a stay in his enthusiasm.
Not sure Yo-yo, let’s see what happens. Freddie’s default reply was taken the way it was intended, not personally and with a tip of the hat in the direction of going with the flow.
After Jae-yo left for dilemmas unknown, Freddie surrended to the silence. Although not large even for Korean standards, Freddie liked his apartment. He had exactly enough room. His surroundings were modest, clean but efficient - the Korean way.
His bedroom had just enough space for a single bed, small drawer and a single cupboard. The other bedroom had an additional cupboard for bed linen, a chair and a Yamaha keyboard.
Freddie stood in the tiny bathroom in front of the mirror and searched his eyes. There was no visible change from the last time he checked. He opened his razor and replaced the blade, filled the sink with steaming hot water and applied shaving foam with his horse hair brush and mug.
He enjoyed the feeling of the sharp metallic double edged razor cutting through the foam on his skin. The combination of a blade dipped in hot water scratching through his bristles had Zen - a cleansing ritual of the body somehow prepared him for the day, the complete opposite for when he had a couple of days off when he liked to go unshaven although his facial hair was limited to below his lower lip and to the sides of his mouth.
As he looked at his reflection he saw a man who’d travelled his own path and taken the pitfalls and regrets as part of the equation. He showered and replaced his makeshift pyjamas with his normal ensemble of t-shirt, jeans and corduroy jacket – a hipster he was not. It was long ago since he wore a BrooksBrothers shirt with a thin tie and a double-breasted jacket turned up at the cuffs.
Freddie sensed his apartness from all things Korean - after all these years he was still very much a product of his upbringing. No matter how much Korean food he ate, how many Korean women he lusted after he was still American. He still found the language incomprehensible and he was forever asking Jae-yo the meaning of even the most basic word – Komawo Bensta, when will you ever learn?
Images of America, when captured, reminded him of remembering a movie. He was not a philosophical man with a retrospective summation of life nor was he a relaxed live-in-the-moment convert. To be fair and truthful there was not a list of adjectives that could easily or accurately encapsulate him. Freddie was more of a verb than a noun with points of view more often angular than holistic.
One thing was certain - there was another gig in a few hours - one more before the holiday weekend. It didn’t feel that long since last night’s gig but he wasn’t bored or deflated - he’d often wondered if it was sleeping during the day that made the gap between gigs seem so short.
Then he remembered the holiday weekend coming up. Jae-yo had bugged him for weeks about the upcoming Cherry Blossom Festival. There were no gigs till Tuesday night rolled around, so he contemplated catching a plane to Yangyang or that mountain retreat Jae-yo was always talking about - must remember to ask him.
He smiled as he pictured himself seated with a lined headrest protector eating steamed dumplings and shreds of beef washed down with Hite watching Korean schoolgirls giggle away on their Samsung tablets downloading Katy Perry videos.
Ugh, Freddie shivered.
One of Baxter’s songs came back…peace unwinds…troubled minds…black ash days…lonely nights…
What drivel, need to find the right minor chord, too slow on the last change, maybe lay out to the bridge before the trumpet comes back in. Baxter wanted a piano fill perhaps even a solo, but Freddie wasn’t convinced. It needed more space than notes.
As Freddie finished dressing a face loomed large. A face he hadn’t thought about for years. The last time he’d seen Drex was at the Edge of Hell restaurant. They’d shared a cab from the Charles B. Wheeler airport to W12th St. Drex lived on St Louis Ave and had invited Freddie to stay with him during their residency at the Art Ensemble Tavern in the heart of West Bottoms, Kansas City.
Amongst their luggage was an ounce of speed they were going to share over the next week. The two up-two down weather board house was a long way from their previous engagement at the Tequila sodden barn on Santa Monica Pier watching the Sun go down talking about eating peyote buttons and sucking Absinthe sugar in the French Quarter. He smiled as he recounted the series of images that felt like a Johnny Depp movie. The only thing missing was the Samoan attorney and the great red shark.
Prepared for the world again Freddie took to the streets. Although his apartment block was not central Myeong-dong it was in a quiet locale just far enough away from Eulj-ro that only the occasional blast of traffic could be heard. It also had the added advantage of being close to Chungmuro station.
The smell of open drains, kim-chi and McDonalds ravaged the senses as he delved into the Irreversible lit underpass then into the glowing light splintering excesses of the Lotte Supa Tower food court where mounds of fried fish…dried chilli…and more chilli awaited.
Not too many people in the queue…what to have?…seafood laksa…bbq pork…stir fried tofu...sounds about right…
Freddie stood back to watch culinary artistes at work. He held his bowl like Cardinal Tyner…there is no peace saith the lord, unto the wicked…at Mass and proceeded to an avowed quest for supremacy of pursuance in a queue behind several others, as he watched mostly young business types having their evening meal or perhaps a sizable snack for the train journey home.
Seoul being as big as it is has the most efficient railway network in the world. People can live 100 miles away and still commute easily each day. He pictured hundreds of couples hunched over their bowls as the Seoul urban landscape flashed by without a care in the world.
That’s it, not too much oil, spread it around quickly…cook the meat through...nothing worse than undercooked meat especially pig…oh for a pig snout sandwich from East St Louis, or a smoked catfish with hickory sauce, corn on the cob and black beans…nigga food…rich and sweet…like our women...finest pink meat…surrounded by oily brown skin…finger licking good.
Freddie’s bowl of pork, vegetable and tofu was ready to be picked up and he lashed it with sticky chilli sauce and some fiery dried flakes…then went to the bar and ordered a Hite.
Armed and ready he positioned himself on a stool to watch nubile young things wander through the mall hallways stopping at the Hermes counter or the Athlete’s Foot store to see the latest lime green fluoro Nike walkers.
As he tucked into the steaming bowl the night ahead loomed large. He carried with him an internal projection screen that played his world. Thoughts, images and feelings were re-played over and over until the right context and order of events was reached.
At some point he would have to confront Baxter over the structure of the new song. It was draining to twitch in sufferance over it, as there were so many great standards and forgotten gems that could be played over and over in so many styles and tempos…Whirly Bird, Farewell Blues, Straight Up and Down, Creole Rhapsody, Lester’s Dream, E’s Flat and La Ronde Suite…put forth or hinted at inclusion for mooted dreaming.
Such a waste of time and energy, that’s Bax all over, but being his Band, what can I do?
Freddie admired Baxter in many ways for he had the ego and confidence to pursue his dream of being a Band leader, but that was not Freddie’s style, he was an anchor meshing with the drums, holding down the percussive intention while the others frittered and jizzed away in the clouds…melodies that run amok in a secure and pressurised harmonic environment...
Freddie thought relentlessly about the shifts that may have opened up if he had strayed into the spotlight…having his own Band was an idea never realised and in a way he was thankful as it allowed him to concentrate on his journey into structure and chord variations - his enduring signature.
After dinner, Freddie wandered the laneways of Myeong-dong stopping at the occasional shop window looking at t-shirts, watches and caps - his Kangol needed replacing. His penchant for caps and hats knew no bounds. Searching for them was more satisfying than owning them. It was a constant journey of discovery and surprise however, reaching a point of accomplishment was soon dispensed with and a new search endeavoured.
The overhead lights cast a paltry glaze over the stall owners setting up camp with the shop lights ablaze from the sidelines. Freddie liked the feeling of walking through the maze of people highlighted by neon pastel blue, yellow and red.
He stopped at a cart dressed up to display watches, rings and pendants. An old Frosby pocket watch caught his eye. He looked at it carefully - its gold casing contained minute detailing of curling fronds and embossed ridges. The craftsmanship was exquisite. It had no price so after waiting to get the attention of the stall owner asked how much? 80,000 won was the reply.
Freddie thought hard, so taken was he that he studied the detail again committing to memory the placement of the cart in relation to the Benetton store and the Ko-chon chicken shop. Walking away he thought of keeping the watch in a waistcoat pocket while wearing a plaid cap and holding a silver encrusted walking stick, maybe this was the style he was looking for, and practical too if he was to venture into the countryside on the weekend.
He caught the train to Insa-dong and walked in the rain to the Second Avenue Club which was tightly nestled between Pag-o-da Gallery and Pierre Uno exports in a much more buoyant mood. The thought of approaching work always filled him with anticipation. The internal passion and drive to create music was always paramount and over-laid all other concerns. The thought of a new audience, a fresh glass of cognac and the smell of red wine and cheese plates never failed to excite. It sustained him, for this was what he was here to do.
From busking on Carvelle Boulevard, Fisherman’s Wharf and playing in the Mission Street YMCA to appearing at Barbelle’s in San Diego, Pusky’s in Kansas City and the 43rdSt. Tavern to Seoul - what a journey!
He greeted Do-hun the doorman, known as Joe.
How’s the griddle tonight?
Flaming hot Mister Freddie.
Joe held the door open for a paying customer as Freddie went round the side of the squat building on the corner of the square and down the short flight of stairs through the kitchen into the back of house where the owner and the Band hung out trying to catch a glimpse of the waitresses as they changed into their tight black skirts and shiny white blouses.
He wondered if Eun-ha was in tonight, his favourite little blossom. The excitement was beginning to blunt as he sat at the bar waiting for Sang-won the barman to hand over his Hennessy VSOP - one maybe two before the gig then a cigar and sour mash at intermission, if all floated along well customers would start placing notes or glasses of red wine on the piano lid.
A Peter Stuyvesant held in his pearl inlay cigarette holder, Freddie flicked open his gold Dunhill lighter and walked around the front of the stage noticing the waitresses placing flowers on tablecloths adjusting the lights and listening to Bud Powell over the speakers just as Hyung-won, the owner, walked in carrying a large parcel.
Whatcha’ holding Buzz? Freddie gave everyone the most bizarre nicknames - primarily for fun but also to alleviate the pressure of remembering so many Korean names.
No can do Freddiemeister, gift for Lorraine, I forgot our anniversary so had to go downtown to find this coat she wanted. If I lose this my goose is cooked, for good.
No good seeing a man in trouble like that, boy she sure must be cold, Freddie said as he drained his glass.
He had a good feeling about tonight. The mood inside the Club was simmering, staff looked relaxed, Hyung-won was otherwise occupied, the girls looked cuter than usual, the cognac tasted smooth and he was looking forward to seeing what Chef was dishing up for supper, maybe some steamed fish or those waxy noodles he liked so much.
Silence contains more than is absent. A lot can go on without the distraction of external forces. When the mind and body are in sync, the motor functions become automatic and a sense of timelessness pervades.
Freddie Thurman had experienced many such moments. The improvisation of music was a portal into a thorough experience of meditation. Not the mindless robotic repetition of chanting, for the internal chatter, no matter how crudely disguised, always pervades.
Freddie took On Green Dolphin Street across the bridge with the ghost of Bill Evans. Peace resonated across his knuckles. All those nights at the Three Deuces watching his buddy Bud Powell crystallise such intent. He went under the radar of being on a stage, in front of an audience, the only elements that he noticed outside of what he was doing with the chords was the timing of the rim shot, and the phrases of Bax’s singing.
Nearing the end of a song was like waking from a doze on a plane, there was a sense of sleep but with no filter of the other occupants in the cabin. Over the years his stamina to prolong such introspective interludes had diminished, so a less intense more sympathetic treatment of songs had emerged which had been mistaken by some audiences as indulgence a’ la Duke Ellington, whose brilliance for experimentation and ornamentation had often been mistaken for neo-romanticism and that he had an orchestra as big as a football team, lush with strings and brass, without a trained ear most people only felt the accents and not the harmonic language that was being developed.
Freddie had seen them all but that’s not to say he was brandished with the moniker of genius like Mingus, Miles or Coltrane. No he was amongst the underlings that constituted the house bands, session players and sidemen - lurking in the shadows of Bird or Dizzy, appearing only to accentuate Bean or Pres, to prolong a gap so that Lady Day could catch her breath, swig a sour mash and let those heavy weary eyes muster the strength to lament the Blues of existence.
So with such a library of sounds and colours to his musical palette, maintained over so many decades, he had found himself unwittingly in the position of being an encyclopaedic jazzbox of styles and tempos so that at the click of a finger he could switch from be-bop infused gaiety to lush harmonic waves to lashings of prankster free-form soloing, all under the banner of musicianship, for one thing he was renowned for was a total disregard for playing for himself.
It was the Band that mattered, the end product, not the audience, not the club owners - they were all secondary to the overall sound. He would rather play in a motherfucker combo - as Miles would say - in a seedy gin joint to a dozen people than doing soul less covers for a thousand people at Carnegie Hall for the intelligentsia.
Terms of trade had shaped his youth. There was never much money around the household. The neighbourhood wasn’t painted in abject poverty but brand new cars and whitegoods were a rarity. There was the occasional Buick parked on the sloping grass near the street and as kitsch as it seemed the fire hydrant on the corner was often tapped into to set a jet of water into the air on blistering hot summer days.
Aldo Thurman was away from home for weeks at a time working as a truck driver delivering building site supplies - tiles, window frames and door knobs - to development projects throughout Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey which left Ellie Thurman at home to raise three boys in a project house in Cromwell Valley.
Taking in people’s laundry and ironing meant Ellie could stay at home and contribute to the household finances. She was a stern woman with a short temper but from a musical family with artistic sensibilities.
Travis, Lionel and Benjamin spent most of their time at the end of Blanton Drive playing soldiers on the mounds of blue metal rock which were compacted down to make foundations for the railway sleepers sawn at the old Pikes Millery.
Aldo was placid, reliable and hard working with a love for major league baseball in particular the Mets who he worshipped. Travis and Lionel took after their father’s interest and reluctantly Benjamin - their youngest - would be coerced into playing third base while wishing he was inside listening to Orson Welles’ radio broadcasts of Kid Ory.
Benjamin Thurman was studious, while not being academically gifted, he preferred maths and chemistry to any other subjects but it was apparent around the age of eight he had inherited his mother’s musical talent although not with the same luxurious voice that Ellie possessed.
When Aldo arrived home from one of his trips the boys would help him unload any off cuts of wood or plastic pipe to make guns, swords and forts. After supper they would listen to his stories of life on the road. After one particular trip to New York City Benjamin sat transfixed as his father slowly retold in measured tones a visit to a Club in Harlem where black people were served drinks by waiters and listened to a trumpeter who played - with a white handkerchief - a song called West End Blues. Aldo couldn’t decide if he liked the song but as he explained to his attentive son, the musician made everyone in the Club dance like banshees and when he stopped they applauded and cheered.
So bewildered was he by his father’s story, Benjamin set about trying to find this mythical recording and was frustrated at his father’s inability to remember the trumpet player’s name.
One of the few activities the three boys did do together was visit Hank’s Malt Shop on Lexington Avenue, where they sat and drank floats which consisted of Pepsi Cola with scoops of vanilla ice-cream. One afternoon when they should have been on their way home, a truck pulled up outside Hank’s and two men in overalls delivered a box through the front door.
Hank’s son, a grumpy short order cook, took possession of the box and let it sit in the middle of the Diner for a day or so for he had no idea what was inside and was convinced he was too busy to do anything about it.
The next Sunday Benjamin rode by on the bicycle the three brothers shared and stopped outside the window to catch sight of the futuristic robotic form of the Wurlitzer. As he entered, the sound of Pennies from Heaven captured him.
Benjamin responded to the orchestration and the sensitivity of the piano playing. He walked slowly over to the contraption still in disbelief. He looked into its window to see half a dozen small black discs but what caught his attention were the number of vacant slots where no disc could be seen. Written by hand on the vertical title insert was Dave Brubeck Carnegie Hall ’63. This manifested sub-consciously as the future - of what was possible - a feeling that never left him.
Music became a passion. His brothers excelled at football, athletics and got excited when their father cut wood, sanded down the front porch or washed the car. Benjamin was more interested in staying inside to read Treasure Island or sit in front of the Radiola with his mother on a Sunday afternoon listening to Sarah Vaughan at the Audubon Music Hall or Duke Ellington at the Rochester Palladium.
Aldo, and eventually the brothers, noticed their youngest was slightly different, cut from a different cloth. At times when cajoled, Benjamin could hold his own playing stick ball in the street or climbing trees at Newbury Park, but it was merely tolerated as a condition of base level acceptance. He soon grew tired of appeasing his siblings and as he got older and more confident he spent less time with them and more in front of the radio and listening to Hank’s jukebox.
At school he tried out for the debating team and various other social clubs but it wasn’t until the fourth grade when he walked past what looked like a dis-used shed behind the science rooms and saw a man playing a piano with two or three students in attendance that he found an environment he felt comfortable in.
The music coming out of the room was soft yet melodic and the more Benjamin listened the more his mood lifted. Standing at the doorway he continued to absorb what the man was playing and even when he looked up from the piano he did not acknowledge Benjamin at all. Benjamin recognised the look on his face - one of supplication not concerned with appearances or the outside world - completely at ease with the music.
Benjamin entered a world of Armstrong, Ellington and Monk unfolding and never went back to his brother’s world of baseball fields, climbing apple trees and playing soldiers beside the railway tracks.