The Lost Solo of Sonny Boyette
FAST FORWARD>> Roppongi, Japan. August 23, 2027. Sassy Club 186, 2:04 am.
Locked in the underground sanctum of his nightclub, jazz extremist, Haru Watanabe, slips on white cotton gloves and threads a 64-year-old audiotape through the heads of his vintage reel-to-reel player. He handles the magnetic material cautiously. He knows that if the tape snaps, or is eaten by the machine, one of the legendary solos in jazz will be silenced.
REWIND<< Chicago, Illinois. June 17, 1963. Shantelle’s Trois Nightspot. 12:37 am.
Opaque smoke lufts under the stage lights like a layer of blue smog. A crowd of drunken jazz fans pound back last-call liquor and waits for an encore. Glasses tinkle. Lighters click. Feedback shrieks from a stage mic. Razzy Upton spread wide on the black tufted bench of a Steinway, shuffles through charts. Giles Johnson adjusts his upright bass while Simpson Cooke wipes sweat from the skin of his snare with a paisley handkerchief.
A juiced-up pimp in a red suit and plumed hat shouts across the room.
“Boyette! Blow, Laura.”
Boyette leans in the murky breach of the hallway; all lank, all cool, all beat, bringing the crowd to a fever while he taps a smoke from a box of menthols. “Laura” is Bird’s territory, he believes, the wee hours deserve his own. He strikes a match. The cigarette flares and ignites the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses. Boyette takes a long, satisfying drag and emerges out of the dark, a tall, thin Iowa farm boy in a black suit and tie with skin as fair as a sow’s ear. Applause and adulation. Nods and thank yous. The young jazzman situates before a microphone, tarnished tenor in hand, and pinches the butt of his cigarette into the horn’s neckpiece.
RECORD * Minutes later
From behind the bar, club owner Shantelle Williams views the performers in the filigree-lined mirrors and toggles the record lever on her finicky Playvox tape machine. For the first time this evening, the tape spits a loop, snaps against the record heads and comes to speed.
“A wonderful song from Jerome Star,” Boyette says into the mic, his voice dusky and subdued, “Maybe you know it. It’s called, September Calls.” Boyette nods to Upton. Upton wades into the ballad on his piano with minor chords. Giles Johnson waits two bars and drops lingering flats on his bass accompanying the slow circling hiss of Cooke’s brushes. The first notes of Boyette’s tenor weep like a pining lover.
RECORD * Roppongi. Sassy Club 186, 2:06 am.
Watanabe thumbs the play lever on the AudioPlex, recalling his trip to Paris and the rush of disbelief when he uncovered the recording in a used record store. He remembers how he hurried nervously down Rue Monge to his hotel, eyes buried in the rain-wet cobblestones, shoulders hunched with his secret cleaved in the lining of his camel overcoat.
For actors, the great one lived in the persona of stage actress Cora Duncan, a venerated, yet little-known thespian whose dead-natural delivery was committed to film but once in a Hollywood screen test. For jazz players, whether Coltrane or Miles, Dexter Gordon or Lester Young, one name invoked the same reverence: Sonny Boyette.
Watanabe feels the metronome of his heart, his breath going shallow as the tape wows and eeps to speed. The song’s analog data is transferred via Khrushchev-era vacuum tube amplification to a Sony hyper-bit digital recorder. At first, he is tentative, checking and double-checking the movement of the record heads. Satisfied all is well, Watanabe fires up a cigarette. He leans his head back into the headrest of his leather recliner, and surrenders to the music, letting the notes flow through his ears in long warm waves.
PLAY> Shantelle’s Trois.
In the gin-white spotlight, Boyette is electric. The pads of his tenor toggle effortlessly, flawlessly, as if the instrument is an appendage. His solo is dark and sorrowful, heartbreaking as a mother mourning a lost child. Boyette channels the notes as if the gods of jazz are speaking through him. He is not in the club it seems, but in some far-off musical dimension. In his muse, he has no recollections of skipped rent or memories of his schizophrenic mother or a father who he had never come to know. Fans sit spellbound. The room does not hold a whisper, the clink of a glass, or the movement of a chair, only the gravity of Boyette’s acoustic pain.
PAUSE II. Sassy Club 186, 2:17 am.
The tape runs out and laps the machine head. Weighted by what he’s just heard, Watanabe lies motionless in his chair, the ash of his cigarette long and teetering. After a moment, he reaches over, clicks off the AudioPlex, and taps out his smoke. He checks the digital transfer—success.
His research discovered that there is no estate for Boyette, no last of kin, no record company contracts (this he is sure of). Watanabe is the sole owner.
He vows to give back.
He declares himself a musical ambassador and promises not to profit from the masterpiece. The world is an open source community, a great sharing society. He will resurrect Boyette’s spirit through the WiFi networks and broadband cables, satellites, fiber optics, and radio waves for all to hear. And after, he will donate the tape to the archives at the Tokyo Jazz Museum. No, he decides, he’ll return it to its rightful home at the Music Conservatory of the Chicago College of Performing Arts. He’ll even lobby to include a sub-master copy in the time capsule slated for the first international manned space mission to Mars.
REWIND<< Shantelle’s Trois. The upstairs office. 4:21 am.
Shantelle locks the door and saunters to Sonny with sex in her eyes. He takes a drag off his cigarette. A silver helix rises in the street-lit room. Shantelle kisses him deeply and aggressively trading smoke into her soft full lips. Boyette pulls away gently.
“Hold up, baby,” he says and grinds the fag into a glass ashtray. Shantelle slides his coat off and undoes his tie. He feels her heat, the call in her brown eyes and the silk of her dark skin when his hands glide under her blouse, and up the halves of her back. Their tongues meet. She retreats, leans her head back, and stares at the ceiling, momentarily, anticipating.
Then, like a viper, she strikes her teeth into Boyette’s lip.
“That’s for the ho you been fuckin behind my back,” she sneers.
“Christ!” Boyette cries.
Blood courses down Boyette’s neck. His shirt turns scarlet. Shantelle tastes blood on her lips and breaks into tears. Boyette ricochets around the office with his shirttail pressed to his mouth, eyes burning, searching for a reflective surface. He rifles through Shantelle’s purse and draws a compact. In the small mirror, he sees the wound: a ragged radial bite flowing with blood. His stomach sinks. Shantelle is balled in the corner of the room, wailing. Boyette shatters the compact against the wall and takes two big, angry steps to Shantelle. He grabs her neck. Her eyes go wide.
“You’re dead,” he hisses, raising his fist to destroy her. But instead, he loosens his grip, glares, and storms out the door.
FAST FORWARD>> Sassy Club 186, 2:38 am.
Deep in his office, Watanabe holds the metal reel and trips his finger over the brittle masking tape that bears a date and Boyette’s name in faded blue ink. He punches the digital code on his safe. Just then, the office door yawns open. “It was locked?” he thinks. “I’m sure of it?”
Watanabe treads anxiously towards it. He swings the door wide to see a slight man with a goatee and modern clothes of a beatnik scuttle back into the shadows of the club. In Watanabe’s haste, the reel plinks off the doorknob and rolls across the club’s floor on its edge, unraveling and teetering in circles before it settles with a thin, hollow ring.
Seconds later, his bartender, Shinichi, emerges from the darkness with a bin of dirty glasses. He slides it onto a nearby table, leans over and retrieves the reel from the floor. He offers it to his employer, bowing low, extending the reel with outstretched arms.
Watanabe eyes him suspiciously. He walks over and stands steadfast.
“You are here late,” he says.
“Hai, Watanabe san,” Shinichi says, staring at his boss’s shoes. “There is much to do.”
Watanabe does not take the tape, but rather, interrogates Shinichi with silence.
“Dōzo,” Shinichi says, proffering the reel. “Hai, Dōzo.”
Watanabe waits until he sees Shinichi quiver and then snatches the reel.
“Be sure to restock the whiskey,” Watanabe says and retreats to his office, the tape flittering behind him as he slips through the door.
PAUSE II. Shantelle’s Trois.
Fan backlash crushes Shantelle’s Trois. Musicians Boycott. Bookings cease. The club sits empty, windows are in soap swirls, chains strapping the door. Shantelle hits the streets, whoring to survive.
Boyette is taken in by fellow musicians. Try as his might, his lip is crippled, and he can only manage a squeak from his horn. He wanders through many odd jobs: a short order cook, a roofer, an assembly line worker stuffing cotton into toy bears. He is fired from each one.
Consumed with pity, he amps his heroin habit, stealing money from friends to satisfy his fix. Needle marks dot the insides of his toes. His face shrinks in on itself. He meanders the streets, homeless, taking refuge in the busted-out heroin dens of Chicago’s south side. In an act of desperation, he hocks his horn at a pawn shop: a move that nets him a two-day fix.
PLAY> Sassy Club 186. Weeks later.
Rumors of the solo clog social feeds. Sites go up. Blogs state their demands. Digital communities raise speculation. Watanabe is convinced that it is Shinichi who has betrayed him.
On a cloudy October night, the mid-rise buildings along the street come alive with psychedelic neon. Watanabe stands high on a bamboo planter box outside his club before a gaggle of demonstrating jazz extremists. They don 1960s-cool garb and arm themselves with pails of rancid fish guts. The leader, a hep cat with a goatee and beret, slides his alto sax around his back and raises a bullhorn. Bo-yette! Bo-yette! Bo-yette! he chants.
Watanabe bats his hands to calm the crowd.
“I have heard these rumors,” he says, pleading his case. “I too would give my club to hear it. But I do not have such a recording. If there is anyone here who knows its whereabouts, I will reward them with three million yen.”
The amount is substantial. The crowd deliberates. Two policemen clatter up the sidewalk half a block away. Watanabe takes comfort.
“Reward?” the leader says to the group, “Who offers a reward for something he does not have? Watanabe lies!”
The crowd erupts. A young girl stomps her go-go boots.
“Liar!” she cries and then scoops a slab of stinking whale blubber, and pelts Watanabe in the chest.
Watanabe flinches. The extremists charge. He leaps from the planter box and hurries down the stairs into his club below the street, locking the door behind him. He wipes whale fat from his coat and eyes Shinichi with contempt. If the rumor is out there, Watanabe concludes, he will reveal it on his terms, not Shinichi’s.
Later that night, Watanabe observes Shinichi’s every move from a lone stool at the end of the bar. Shinichi pours whiskeys, enjoys small talk with patrons, and lights cigarettes amid the vinyl hiss and pop of Coleman Hawkins’s sax. He glances at his boss, occasionally, timid, an air of guilt laden in his moves. There are inquiries from patrons, which Watanabe plays off with free drinks.
Tonight he will fire Shinichi, disgrace him, but first—revenge.
After closing, Watanabe summons Shinichi to his office. He spins the reel on his finger at its center and lets the tape ribbon to the floor. Watanabe balls it up and shoves it at Shinichi.
“Hai!” he commands. Shinichi hesitates. “Hai!”
Shinichi opens his hand reluctantly. Watanabe grabs his wrist and slaps the mess into his palm. He fumbles a cigarette lighter from his pocket and puts it in Shinichi’s face.
“Hai!” he commands, gripping Shinichi’s wrist.
Shinichi stares sheepishly. Watanabe shouts.
Watanabe forces the lighter into Shinichi’s free hand. Shinichi resists. Watanabe balls Shinichi’s knuckles and clicks the lighter, pushing, struggling until the flame catches and smoke unfurls in thin, toxic threads.
“Enjoy your treasure,” Watanabe says.
Watanabe loosens his grip, and the charred remains float to the floor.
STOP . < Chicago’s South Side “L.” October 25, 1967. 11:49 pm.
A teenage kid, anxious to pilfer cash, searches several cars for victims. The train clanks. Street lights strobe past the windows. In the third car up, he spots a thin man in a tattered wool coat, and thick glasses slumped against the bulkhead. He is alone, asleep, he presumes. The boy lowers his ski mask and draws a stiletto from his jean jacket. He sticks the blade in the vagrant’s throat.
“Gimme yo money, Jim,” he says.
The man does not respond.
“I said, gimme yo money or I put another scar on yo lip.”
The man does not move.
“Cash now!” he shouts.
He does not move.
The boy leans in and taps the man’s glasses and notices lifeless gray eyes. He lifts his mask and rifles through the vagrant’s pockets and finds forty-three cents in change and a used syringe. He takes the coins and proceeds to the next car.
That morning, the city authorities transport the body to the Chicago City morgue and toe-tag it as John Doe. An autopsy determines the cause of death to be a heroin overdose.
Weeks go by.
Then, on a November Monday, the morgue comes alive, if not barely, with the shattered, paper machete version of Shantelle. She ticks and trembles in a mangy fake mink, hair stringy, her face as bleak as the winter day. The chef-fat coroner rolls back the white shroud quickly and waits as if he has a train to catch. The body lies with rigor mortis, emaciated and blue.
“That’s him,” she says, her voice a whisper, “That’s Clarence Boyette.”
STOP . < PLAY >
Rumors of Shinichi’s rift travels among jazz extremists. Watanabe is vilified on social networks and chastised on the street where he is occasionally excoriated with rat shit. Patronage dwindles. Revenue drains from the club. Watanabe is forced to negotiate its sale to a small retailer of cameras and home appliances. He shakes his head and watches two workers in white jumpsuits, and hard hats remove the Sassy Club 186 neon sign from the crest of the building. Movers trolley 51 boxes of vinyl and digital jazz recordings to a cube truck at the edge of the curb. His sound system follows. Speakers, amps, soundboard, and the Audioplex wrapped in a furniture blanket all pass by in a mocking parade.
Dusk falls. Neon signs bloom on mid-rise buildings along the street. Across the way in an open-air cafe, a small group of jazz extremists sip dark coffee and heckle Watanabe, signing off each taunt with a bongo riff. He scorns them with a dismissive wave. The quarter-size digital master rests like a tiny heart in the secret pocket of his coat.
He vows never to give back.
Watanabe leaves Tokyo for a cottage on a small, unpopulated island in Japan’s inland sea. Fishing vessels peruse the harbor. White cranes paraglide in the feudal sky. Once a year, on the date that he acquired the recording, he rolls back the Tibetan rug and lifts the sawed-out opening in the floorboards. He unlocks his safe and retrieves the fine, rare wine of Boyette’s recording.
His leather recliner waits for him, an old friend beckoning in a wedge of moonlight. Town lights waver outside the window. Mountains rise like black cutouts above the platinum harbor. He checks his watch. At 2:00 am, like a century’s old ritual, he slides on a set of hyper-def headphones and lights a cigarette. The feeling is always the same: At first there is a tick of paranoia, a rush in his heart, and a nervous beat as he inserts the digital wafer into the sound deck. All at once he feels alone, desperate with anticipation as if a soft knock on the door has just announced the arrival of a young and beautiful mistress. He takes a slow, soothing draw on his cigarette.
Waits a moment.
And then he hits play.