Rooms, Walls, Duke Ellington and Me

Until then, most of my life seemed to happen in rooms. My new friend Kenny and I, with a bunch of his friends, traipsed into the Brass Rail Tavern to see Duke Ellington. I’d met Kenny in a bar where artists hung out. At the time, I was taking a leave from college, being an art student in Toronto, and trying to be a Bohemian. A month before that, I’d been in an English Lit classroom, looking out the window at spring arriving, thinking how much I didn’t want to be there.

Smoke in the murky light made it difficult to see the stage. As the drummer and the bass player walked onto the stage and took their seats, the babble stopped. The overhead lights went out. One spotlight lit the piano. Ellington walked on stage, smiled and sat down. As his fingers stroked the keyboard, his music seduced the crowd through the smoke. I drank a beer, not knowing how special it was to be sitting so close to a jazz legend. I was  very young and uncomfortable because the bass player was leering down at me, running his tongue across his big lips. I looked away, wishing I was back at my gay friend Eric’s house, lying on his rug, listening to the record. It became just another room.

Afterward, we went to the Park Plaza hotel for a party with the Duke. That room was a large suite overlooking the city. People were talking, smoking and drinking. I was standing by the window, wondering when I could leave. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have anything to say. Some of the men stared at me. I felt like a minnow in a shark tank. Room Service brought sandwiches, cocktail sausages, coffee and sodas. I was too nervous to eat.

Kenny and his girlfriends, he always had two or three with him, went away when I was in the bathroom. Someone said he had gone to buy more booze. I sat on the couch. More people left while I waited for Kenny to come back. I went back to the bathroom and washed my face. When I came out, there was nobody there but the Duke.

He looked at me and asked me if I wanted a drink. I said no, thank you. He smiled. He sat down at the piano and began to play. “You don’t mind if I practice a little?” he asked. I sat back down on the couch and tried to smile.

He played jazz like I’d never heard it before. Then he played Chopin and Mozart. I watched rain falling past the windows and got lost in the music. I wasn’t drunk and I hadn’t smoked any of the pot that was offered. I was flown out of that room by an old man at his piano who conjured a universe of melody and peace. The walls couldn’t hold us.

When he was done, he quietly got up from the piano bench and said he would call me a cab. I thanked him and he helped me put on my coat. He smiled, kissed me on the cheek and said, “Tell Kenny thanks, but I have grand-kids older than you.”

It wasn’t until later, riding home in the cab, that I realized Kenny had set me up as the girl for the Duke to sleep with that night. I didn’t care; I was lost in the magic of that moment when the walls in a room gave way to creative genius, in a life-changing realization that I could imagine my way out of any room.

I didn’t see Kenny again until years later, after Duke Ellington died. He was walking down Yonge Street with a girl on his arm. In the sunlight, he looked old and tired; she looked like his grand-daughter. We chatted about nothing for a moment and then I walked on, wondering if the girl was as trusting and naïve as I had been. I never did get the Bohemian thing down.

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copyright: Susannah Morgan 2010-2012. Edited from the Feb/10 blog


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