From Common Meter

Excerpt from "Common Meter," 1930
by Rudolph Fisher

The ARCADIA, on HARLEM's Lenox Avenue, is the "World's Largest and Finest Ballroom--Admission Eighty-Five Cents." Jazz is its holy spirit, which moves it continuously from nine till two every night. Observe above the brilliant entrance this legend in white fire:

TWO--ORCHESTRAS--TWO

Below this in red:
FESS BAXTER'S FIREMEN

Alongside in blue:
BUS WILLIAMS' BLUE DEVILS

Still lower in gold:
HEAR THEM OUTPLAY EACH OTHER

So much outside. Inside, a blazing lobby, flanked by marble stairways. Upstairs, an enormous dance hall the length of a city block. Low ceilings blushing pink with rows of inverted dome lights. A broad dancing area, bounded on three sides by wide soft-carpeted promenade, on the fourth by an ample platform accommodating the two orchestras.

People. Flesh. A fly-thick jam of dancers on the floor, grimly jostling each other; a milling herd of thirsty-eyed boys, moving slowly, searchingly over the carpeted promenade; a congregation of languid girls, lounging in rows of easy chairs here and there, bodies and faces unconcerned, dark eyes furtively alert. A restless multitude of empty, romance-hungry lives.

* * * * * *

They had been rocked thus before, this multitude. Two hundred years ago they had swayed to that same slow fateful measure, lifting thier lamentation to heaven, pounding the earth with their feet, seeking the mercy of a new God through the medium of an old rhythm, zoom-zoom. They had rocked so a thousand years ago in a city whose walls were jungle, forfending the wrath of a terrible black God who spoke in storm and pestilence, had swayed and wailed to that same slow period, beaten on a wild boar's skin stretched over the end of a hollow tree trunk. Zoom-zoom-zoom-zoom. Not a sound but an emotion that laid hold their bodies and swung them into the past. Blues--low-down blues indeed--blues that reached their souls' depths.

But slowly the color changed. Each player allowed his heel to drop less and less softly. Solo parts faded out, and the orchestra began to gather power as a whole. The rhythm persisted, the unfaltering commom meter of blues, but the blueness itself, the sorrow, the despair, began to give way to hope. Ere long hope came to the verge of realization--mounted it--rose above it. The deep and regular impulses now vibrated like nearing thunder, a mighty, inescapable, all-embracing dominance, stressed by the contrast of wind-tone; an all-pervading atmosphere through which soared wild-winged birds. Rapturously, rhapsodically, the number rose to madness and at the height of its madness, burst into sudden silence.

Illusion broke. Dancers awoke, dropped to reality with a jolt. Suddenly the crowd appreciated that Bus Williams had returned to form, had put on a comeback, had struck off a masterpiece. And the crowd showed its appreciation. It applauded its palms sore.

* * * * * *

Fisher, Rudolph. "Common Meter." Hot and Cool: Jazz Short Stories. ed. Marcela Breton. New York: Plume, 1990. pp. 12-13, 26-27.

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