By the time he’d left Bourbon Street behind, with its bleary-eyed tourists and conventioneers, Blake’s animal appetites had awakened to dispel all considerations not strictly of the here and now. He was hungry and thirsty and his legs groaned in their joints and tendons from the day’s exertions. Foot traffic on the streets grew sparse as he wended his way to the northeast, toward Frenchmen Street. The night air was thick and redolent of honeysuckle and hyacinth, sweet cloying aromas that carried the whiff of a native exotica and a hint of narcotic menace, like the residual scent of burnt opium; its intoxicating effect lulled him into a state of lassitude and effortless surrender, warming him with a pleasurable sense of gratitude to be there.
He heard Frenchmen Street well before he saw it: a rising cacophony of people in the streets, music leaking from the bars and clubs, the bleating horns and squealing brakes of taxicabs. If the festival had been a full length play, and Bourbon Street a single act, then Frenchmen Street was but a scene, or rather, the scene. It was where the real players showed up for the festival’s curtain call, to wring from the joyous celebration of the New Orleans sound its final exultant notes. While Bourbon Street catered to the undiscriminating tastes of the rabble, with its booze and beads and bawdiness, Frenchmen Street would play host to those who had come for the sound—that crazy brew of potent jazzahol that lived on in one’s mojo long after the effects of low grade hooch had been flushed away. For one such as Blake Thomas, there was no other place to be. So he zigged and zagged his way along the crowded sidewalks, where adults stood bantering and nodding and playing it cool, and he felt no sense of unbelonging, playing it cool himself with a youthful bob and swagger in his step.
It was only upon being shown to a single vacant seat at a tableful of young people, in the nightclub he’d sought out, that he was met with an awkward sense of his relative antiquity. His arrival had seemed to exert a sobering effect over those he was seated with, and yet, as he placed his order and polished off a meal, and the replenishment of drinks stoked the goodwill of all present, he found himself being welcomed as one of the group and drawn into conversation. They were all in from Little Rock for the festival and looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties. The two girls were very pretty and more so when they smiled, which was often. Of their three male companions, one was thin and eager for the band to take the stage. He had delicate facial features and long straight brown hair, a gold band curling around an earlobe, and Blake was guessing he played in a band himself. Of the other two, one was quiet and had the corn-fed look of a farm boy, and one talked almost incessantly, the joker and most gregarious of the lot. It was he who had first acknowledged Blake, and it was he who kept them all laughing and wholly at ease. With his glib repartee, his long jaw, bug eyes and prominent nose, the kid was a born comedian. After two gin and tonics, Blake was smiling effortlessly, laughing unreservedly, and fully embracing the illusion that there was little he and his new friends did not have in common. And for the remainder of the night, it might well have been true.
The music came at length and when it did it was more than Blake had hoped it would be, a trombone and trumpet player Blake had seen perform as a prodigy yet in his teens, Trombone Shorty, who now, a mere handful of years younger than Blake, was still producing sounds and hitting notes Blake had never heard firsthand coming out of a trumpet, a powerhouse lung, lip and tongueman and a first rate showman to boot, who held a single note while taking air through his nose and sneaking it out the corners of his mouth, his cheeks ballooning fit to burst, blowing that note while the audience howled and drummer and bass player thumped right along and the waitress delivered drinks, collected the selfsame glasses as they were emptied and filled them again, and still he blew that same damn note though the audience had grown hoarse and some of its members took to resuming conversations or running to the head, and Blake stood transfixed like a man ensorcelled, insensible to the lateness of the hour and the aches in his overwrought limbs and the buffetings of the densely packed crowd, until at last Shorty relinquished the note he’d held by the throat for so long and his lank torso flopped forward, exhausted, and the crowd voiced its approval in a fierce jungle roar that transcended time and space and individual muster, a mighty Niagara of well earned devotion flooding the room, beyond the capacity of anyone present to subdue or allay except he who had called it forth and who acknowledged the ovation by lifting that golden horn yet again and leading and leading his players down from the stage and marching through the room, cleaving the crowd with the Dixieland sound, strutting and swinging in a jazz town jubilee as the line grew longer and longer until it snaked through every quarter of the room, even passing behind and along the full length of the bar and back out again, exempting no one from its joyful, unapologetic celebration of life, least of all Blake, who marched grinning with delight in the midst of his Little Rock friends, resting on the shoulders of the brown haired cat while one of the girls clutched his own hips, and feeling nothing but happy and energized and mildly drunk, but more than all this, deeply inspired by the passionate and nuanced articulations of the night to respond with what music remained in his soul, to welcome back into his life the swinging, funky, jumping, jiving, bluesy, classical jambalaya of sweet, soaring jazz, thoughts of which simmered and swirled in his mind through the remainder of the night, rose with him in the morning, and soon thereafter began taking the shape of notes and chords and keys that he scribbled on a pad while his plane rose from the Big Easy and carried him back home.
from 'The Trees in Winter' by D.E. Sievers, available now on Amazon