Never by Chance


Sylvia Tate, 1947, Harper and Brothers Publishers: New York, pp. 66-71

"What else do you know about Corinne that I'm going to break my neck finding out the hard way?"

"You know all I know about her."

"How did you meet her?"

"Sorry, that's a dead end. She was a wrong number, and the most persistent wrong number I ever saw. I was dialing somebody, I forget who, and she kept answering. She told me her phone number, like you do when somebody gets you by mistake, but she wouldn't tell me who she was or what her address was. I asked her to go out, and she kidded, but she wouldn't tell me who she was or where she lived or anything, just kidded with me. She didn't know I could find out."

"Yeah, how?"

"I called Ruth and had her look up the number in the cross-indexed phone directory, and that was all there was to it. So I went out to see her and took a bunch of flowers on the off-chance that she might be as cute as she sounded. You know anything about putting in pockets -or didn't you ever play Nevada?"

"What's Nevada got to do with pockets?"

"Oh, man, are they rough on pockets! Silver dollars, that's all they like to use. We really had a take on the kitty this last trip, but it's hard on the pockets. Everybody but our drummer came back with no pockets left in our suits. And that fool headed straight for the gaming room with his cash before it ever reached his pocket. He played put-and-take, and with him it was all put. We had one old guy there that would hang around up by the stand and clink silver dollars in the kitty one after another. Funny old guy, be just got in with a full poke, and he was sure out to show it off. There was another fellow, too, tossing in almost as much. The old guy wanted to hear 'Josephine' every time he fed the kitty, and the other fellow was set on 'Confessin', and for awhile there that was about all we played, with a 'Stardust' every once in a while for relief. You don't know what you're missing by not going out on the road once in a while."

"Why do you think I stay in town if I don't know what I'm missing?"

"It's not so bad. just different. Make pretty good money. Better than you can do in town."

"The ballet ran a hundred and ten pages, at five bucks a page."

"Okay, so I meant better than I can do in town. Another thing, you've got to consider how many ballets you can do. On the road you work every week."

"I've got another picture coming up, with a lot more work in it for me. I got screen credit on the ballet, so I'll get another one. And you're forgetting that I do my writing here. How much do you think it costs you to live on the road?"

"Sure it costs. But I like it. Not with this outfit; they're not the best musicians you could find, but they don't mind rehearsing, and that's what I'm looking for. I've got a couple of tunes I want to get worked up good before I wax them, and maybe I can make myself a couple there, I'm started on it. I'm finding out a lot about how you make money on tunes. My last record didn't kill anybody in the rush, but it didn't do too bad. And one of these may be hot. All I need is one hot one."

"That's all anybody needs."

"No kidding, I've got this one all lined up. I got it all figured out. It's publicity that makes a song. No matter how good it is, it won't do a thing without publicity behind it. Plugs. That's what it takes. And so that's what this one will have."

"Who's investing in all this publicity? I can't see you laying any dollars around."

"Well-not much money's been spent. The agency's not really on to how good I am yet. But I'm working on it. Right now I'm getting real good at kissing asses."

"Come around and let me help you count your first million."

"It's a date," Pete told him, "next week."

"Could be," Johnny agreed. "You got the system all right."

"A good outfit would help. But if these guys work real hard and rehearse their fool heads off, maybe they'll do. Johnny, honest to God, these guys have got four keys they can play in, and no more. My alto man is something you would have to see to believe. Drinks like a damn sponge, and whenever he drinks be cuts himself to pieces on that horn. You know how alto men are about their horns, won't raise them till they start blowing, and then they aim for their mouths and shove the horn up and hope they connect. Every time I see that-you know, where a guy blows and by the time he's got his breath out his horn's in place and playing--every time I see a guy do that it surprises me. And I don't think I ever saw a sax man start to play any other way, did you? This guy can do it pretty well when he's sober, but when he's had a few he's really a mess. And to make it worse, he plays with a lay almost as wide as Ben Webster's. Ever see Ben's lay on his horn? Like that!" He held out two fingers to show Johnny the distance he meant. "And he can really use it. He's got to open his mouth damn near all the way to get a hold on his mouthpiece, but he's got jaws that can really handle it. You know how it is if you've got control, there's nothing like a wide lay. With Ben, be can play soft or loud, and with that wide lay, man, when he wants to shout he can really shout! But this guy I've got, all he gets with the lay he uses is volume. And it makes him dangerous. You know how sharp a reed is, and if his aim's not too good, he rips his face to pieces. Talking about the devil, there's the virtuoso now, and the drummer too."

"Who've you got on piano?" Johnny watched the two men get out of the car they parked in front of his Place, and carry their instruments up to his door.

"Kid named Ray Minola. Not bad. But get this alto man, he's worth seeing."

Johnny opened the door for the two men, and Pete introduced them. "Al," he waved to the drummer, "and Harry. Meet Johnny Silescy. Johnny plays piano." Harry gave him a moonfaced grin marred by cuts and scars.

"Yeah?" Al approved of Johnny's playing piano. Al approved of anything, any time, any place.

Harry turned to Pete. "Heard how Ray is?"

Pete fidgeted with the trousers he was mending, and mumbled an answer.

"Didn't get it." Harry wanted a repeat. "Anything serious?"

"He'll be out in a day or two," Pete said, and Johnny began to see a glimmer of reason. "Ray got a rash," Pete explained, "probably from something he ate. He's in the hospital for a day or two getting patched up.

"Sure handy I got a piano," Johnny said, making sure Pete knew what he meant.

"Yeah." Pete concentrated on the pants. "Yeah, sure is."

"Why don't you ask me, instead of pulling it like a deal?"

"Well, you know how it is." Pete examined the trousers.

Harry was busy getting his horn out of the case, and Al was setting up his drums. Harry hooked the horn around his neck, and wandered around making stray tootles and honks, while Al sweated with his traps. Pete sewed quietly, and Johnny sat on the foot of the bed watching his apartment turn into a rehearsal hall.

Pete stopped working on his trousers finally, and got his trumpet out of the case. Johnny let them all get ready before he sat down at the piano. Pete had his little show be always went through, and Johnny waited for it. Pete had perfect pitch, and he'd get his horn tuned up without the piano and then casually give other people their notes. Showing off; let him.

"Okay," Pete said, "what do you guys want to warm up on?"

"Let's do 'Memories of You," Harry said, "in E flat."

Johnny grinned, because "Memories of You" was one of the two or three things he knew the alto man would choose. Six tones up for an alto, and E flat came out the key of C for him-no sharps and no flats. Fine tune for the alto.

Johnny played the introduction, and avoided looking at Pete. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see Pete take his horn out of position again, and give him a long hard stare.

"Hell," Pete said.

Johnny went on playing, through a four-bar vamp, and the alto man came in exactly as Johnny knew he would. Chaos. Complete chaos. Pete didn't even try to play along with them, and Johnny kept going. After a couple of bars the alto man dropped out, bewildered.

Harry looked at his horn, and his thinking processes were slow enough to show. "Memories of You" starts out with the first four fingers of the left hand down. He started out with the first four fingers of the left hand down.

"Something's wrong," Harry reached a conclusion.

"Piano's flat," Pete said, disgusted. "Johnny keeps it half a tone flat, so it'll hold a tuning longer. It's in tune with itself, but half a tone down."

"Want to do it in another key?" Johnny was talking to Harry.

"'Memories of You' is in E flat," Harry said, and that was that.

"Okay, you can pull the mouthpiece out, can't you?" Johnny knew while he was saying it that an alto wouldn't correct that far. A quartertone up or down was as far as it would go, not a half-tone. But he also knew that Harry wouldn't change key--he'd try to change the horn first. If he tried to change keys half a tone, he'd be playing five sharps, and that meant all kinds of side buttons. Even a good sax man would have trouble with it, and Harry wasn't a good sax man.

"Gimme an A," Harry said grimly, and he held his horn up and blew a note while he twisted the mouthpiece out with the other hand.

Johnny held the A as long as Harry wanted it, and he was still holding it after Harry had twisted the mouthpiece off the horn altogether.

"I can build it up," Harry said, and got his case out. He rummaged through it, and came up with empty bands. "Gimme some paper, will you?"

Johnny obligingly found him some paper. Harry sat on the bed and ripped strips of it carefully and laboriously, and wrapped them around the cork to form a wedge to hold the mouthpiece farther away from the horn. Then he slipped the mouthpiece back in place and tried again.

Each time he tried, he went back to the bed to tear more paper and wind more strips. Twenty minutes later, be had the mouthpiece extended so far from the horn that he had to bold it in place with stickum tape. It got the note he wanted, but it wasn't a good note. "I'll lip it down," Harry said, and they got started again on "Memories of You."

"You've got a highly individual outfit," Johnny told Pete primly.

"Nuts," Pete said. "Why'n hell don't you transpose?"

"I asked him what key he wanted it in. He said E flat. I'm giving it to him in E flat."

"You know damn good and well it's D natural if your piano's half a tone flat."

"So? Harry can play it in B natural on his horn, can't he? That's all there is to it. If I play E flat and it sounds like D natural, that's Harry's B natural-isn't it?" He turned to Harry for approval, innocence all over his face.

"That's five sharps," Harry said. "Let's try something else."

"We haven't even got to the bridge," Johnny said archly. "Don't you want to run through it at least once?"

"Fine friend," Pete said. "What a fine friend you turned out to be!"

"Okay," Johnny turned to Harry to patch it up. "What key would you like it in?"

"What keys have you got?"

"Any key," Pete told him, and it sounded like he had his teeth gritted together. "The louse can play in any key he wants to; he can accompany fine, when he's not being a stinker."

"Any key?" Harry said it as if he might ask for the autograph of a guy who could play any key he wanted. "Maybe it's different with a piano."

"While you guys are making up your mind," Johnny told them, and went into the kitchen. He pulled the door shut after him, and opened the cupboard. There were three bottles of rye on the shelf, two full and one barely half-full. He put the two full ones in the flour bin out of sight, and took the other one back with him.

"Here," he said, setting it near Harry. "I'll get glasses."

Pete got up and opened his case. He slipped his trumpet back in the plush housing and closed the lid. "Okay," he told Johnny, "you win."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Johnny said, and he sat down on the foot of the bed to wait.

"Man, that really comes in handy," Harry said, and poured one for himself and one for Al. "That never happened before when I played 'Memories of You."'

"You'll need a reference someday," Pete told Johnny, "for something. I hope they ask me."

"Want one?" Harry held out the bottle toward Pete.

"You might as well," Johnny said, "before it's gone. That's the last in the house."

Pete pursed his lips and looked at Johnny quietly. "Go ahead," he told Harry, "kill it."

It took twenty minutes for the effect to begin to show. Harry looked twice at the bottle, and then at Pete. "Wanna try anything else?" be said, making it negative.

"Run along," Pete gave his blessing, "you might as well."

"Thanks," Harry said, pulling his case open. "I got a couple of errands. Couple of stops. You know, just got back in town, things to do--"

"Sure," Pete said, "sure."

"Think I'll go along." Al stood up. "I just remembered something."

"Sure," Pete said, "sure."

He watched them go, and when the car had pulled away from the curb he had some comments to make. "You sure busted up that rehearsal fine," he said. "You knew if they had one drink they'd need two. We got half of 'Memories of You' run through twice, and it sounded like hell. I had a couple of new tunes to try out. Jesus, Johnny, the only thing those guys have got to offer is that they'll rehearse on the q.t. for free, and if they're not going to rehearse I could get musicians for what I'm paying them!"