Dinner With Jazz Critic

James Yeh

Short Reads features fictional short stories written by some of our favorite authors and writers from around the globe.

dinner with jazz

The white-haired jazz critic had invited me to dinner at his house with him and his wife. He was retired now, he told me, but he had once worked in New York at one of the largest and most prominent newspapers in the country, reviewing albums and interviewing famous musicians, and he still wrote things every now and then and kept in touch with everybody. We had met at this big band jazz concert put on by my college in upstate South Carolina. I was the band’s guitarist, a role I was lousy at. “The guitar is the fifth wheel of the big band,” I remember the director saying. After the show the jazz critic came up to us and introduced himself to the director, who was unimpressed. The older musicians, upperclassmen, followed the example of the director. I watched the jazz critic standing off to the side in his hip black hat, hip black shirt, and hip black trousers. Out of pity, or empathy (I get the two confused sometimes, we are all so absurd and pitiable, I have found, when you get down to it), I went over to talk to him. We ate carrots from the snack plate. I don’t recall what we talked about, but he seemed nice enough and at the end of the conversation we decided to exchange emails and then, surprisingly, actually emailed.

I drove out to meet him, wearing a collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, khaki shorts, and Birkenstocks and, as I was driving, it occurred to me it was the same thing I had worn the last time I had been through that hick town, when I had been a senior in high school meeting up with an impossibly-breasted sixteen-year-old I’d met at a debate tournament. Ashley laughed a witch’s laugh, then whispered dirty things in French as I ferried us around that shitter place—identical neighborhoods, indistinguishable houses, orange-barreled construction, strip malls, Southern “heritage” shops, the whole region busting out in fast, hideous ways.

The jazz critic’s wife answered the door. She was a good deal younger than him, but still old to me. She was very tall and frail-looking.

“Welcome,” she said to me. She introduced herself with her first name, a thing that was now happening to me, I noticed, and liked.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you too, Becky,” I said. She led me inside.

Her hair was short and choppy and a dyed reddish color, a sporty, no-fuss look that reminded me of the kind of haircut a female athlete might have, although I later surmised why her hair looked the way it did. Entering the living room I found the jazz critic seated in a recliner, listening to jazz, something I hadn’t heard before but could tell immediately was quality, of a refined and sophisticated sensibility. He led me to the terrace and we each had a drink, the jazz critic, his wife, and I. White wine for the two of them, a beer for me. I don’t remember what we talked about, but it was very pleasant and I remember thinking, as we talked, that I was having “my first real beer in the company of adults.” Bottle in hand, I found myself admiring his garden and its nearly pulsating greenness, its empathic flowery life. How you could just sit there slightly drunk and warm until you were hungry and then go eat. His wife took her half-finished glass inside and we stayed out there a little while longer, before going in too.

The meal was outstanding; the conversation was pleasant. And yet there was a point where I remember wondering what he wanted from me and how I could get the most out of him, how I could get him to open up and give me things, as though he were a pirate’s chest and my answers keys that could unlock it.

Meanwhile, his questions for me were standard: what I studied at school, what I planned to do after, and I considered lying to him, saying that I was thinking about becoming a jazz critic too, or a journalist or writer, to see if he could hook me up with a job after college, or connections. Instead, what I told him was something about how I wanted to continue playing guitar in my jam band, something I was a little embarrassed to tell him, this jazz critic who had worked at one of the largest and most prominent newspapers in the country, had hung out with (“rubbed elbows with,” is how he put it) Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, had written about them, traded shots of Kentucky Bourbon and who knew what else with them. I remember his description of Monk’s body—“like a gigantic, black rectangle”—and Monk’s dancing, which was this kind of one-legged hop where he shifted his tremendous weight from side to side, like a bouncing refrigerator. For dessert we had blueberry cheesecake, which his wife had baked “especially for the occasion.” It made me feel a little uncomfortable to be the reason for such fanfare, uncomfortable but also flattered.

I remember his description of Monk’s body—“like a gigantic, black rectangle”—and Monk’s dancing, which was this kind of one-legged hop where he shifted his tremendous weight from side to side, like a bouncing refrigerator.

After we ate, his wife went to clean up and he told me more stories from his life in music journalism. It is not an exaggeration to say I enjoyed hearing him talk very much and could have stayed there listening to him the rest of the night, sitting at his table, drinking his beers, smiling broadly and excitedly. But it was getting late. I’m not as young as I used to be, he told me, laughing a little at the unoriginality of his statement. I drove home that night with my head full of the buzz of things to come.

We met again for dinner a few weeks later, this time at the Jolly Ox, one of the nicer steak restaurants in town (“My treat,” he made sure to mention). Though I hadn’t been aware of it then, the restaurant had been conceived in the style of an old English pub, like something out of Shakespeare’s time. A hostess in a peasant dress led us to a table beneath a stained-glass window.

Almost immediately the jazz critic asked if I liked beer, and I answered yes. When our beers arrived in two unexpectedly frosty mugs, the kind my father occasionally liked to have with dinner before yelling at me or my mother, I remember feeling pleased, and relieved, that I hadn’t been carded. After all, I was still underage, and looked it. Or maybe, it occurred to me, the server had thought we were gay, and didn’t want to intrude, or that the critic was my adoptive father, slipping me one. The thoughts amused me—I felt mysterious, armed with some secret power, capable of any identity and back-story.

During a lull in the conversation, I told him how much I enjoyed the dinner at his house, his wife’s cheesecake in particular, and he said he could tell and that Becky enjoyed meeting me very much and they would have to have me over again sometime before the summer was through.

We did meet up again, although not for dinner at his house. It was at a seafood restaurant, where we were among the handful of diners watching the saxophone trio set up in the corner.

As the trio played, I considered what I might say if the jazz critic asked my opinion on the music, but he didn’t end up asking. Instead he seemed as though he were someplace else, distracted, and we ate and listened to the music without talking much.

“It’s about my wife,” he finally explained, toward the end of the set.

My face must have dropped because he hurried to assure me it was nothing serious, that they were fortunate, the doctors had found it incredibly early.

“Well, that’s good,” I said.

“We’re lucky,” he said. “She still has to have the procedure, she isn’t yet in the condition to entertain.”

“Soon though,” he said, reassuringly.

I nodded, offered my sincerest condolences.

We didn’t speak of it again and when we parted that night, in the dim light outside the bar, it had the feeling of a final meeting. I knew we would see each other again, although with perhaps a larger amount of time in between, which was normal sometimes, especially if one person was busy or going through something difficult, which of course he was.

If I’m remembering it correctly we met up two more times that summer: once at a local bar to see a jazz quartet play and the other time when I invited him to see my band play at a college bar. Having him in the audience made me nervous and I think I made a conscious effort to play jazzier.

During the set break he came up to me and said we were good, but that it was too hot and crowded and that he had to go soon, and I felt embarrassed I had let him see such a ridiculous side of me. But then he stayed the whole night. As I was packing my gear, he came up to me and shook my hand and asked me if I liked a certain popular jazz singer and I said, “Sure, why?”

Well, he explained, “I’ve got all these tickets from the label. But it’s too far for me to go by myself. And, well, Becky isn’t able to go, for obvious reasons. But I want to find someone who could. Do you want them?”

“Sure,” I said, excited, and later that week I invited three friends from school to drive down to the beach with me to see the show. The other two tickets I gave to my parents, whom I thought might enjoy the singer, might appreciate their son’s maturing taste and thoughtfulness. My parents who, when later asked how they liked the show, said nothing about the music; only about how noisy the crowd was and how their knees hurt from having to stand up the whole time.

The drive back took four and a half hours. The whole time I stared at the passing trees and hills and headlights and felt indebted to my old friend, the jazz critic. I tried to figure out how I could repay his generosity. What did he do with his time? What could I offer him, he who was so different than me, forty years my senior? Four and a half hours and I couldn’t think of a single thing. And something felt wrong about it.

I must have been feeling this earlier, too, because not long after that I stopped making so much of an effort to see him and I suspect he must have caught on and reacted in turn, which is to say, without reacting, though of course there are other explanations, perhaps his wife had taken a turn for the worst, or he was just too busy and forgot and then it was too late, because things had already changed.

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