PART I – NEW YORK, SPRING 1941
1 – Shad Collins. New York City, October 19, 1972
Wrong time to be in a hurry. The man was waving his hands up and down as if he hadn’t stood in a line, as if it was not his turn to get a ride. Shad knew the type. Just out of the airport, short line, cabs aplenty, young dude has sat for a few hours in the cabin of a plane and he can’t stand still, acts as if I won’t pick him up, as if his life depends on my stopping. Short, stocky man with a funny hat, carrying a small shoulder-strapped bag. Wants to go to Rockefeller center. Hope he’s not in too much of a hurry, Shad thought.
He pressed the meter switch and pulled away. The man was already beginning to talk. The ride had just become longer. Shad didn’t like customers who couldn’t stop themselves, most of them thinking they had to make small talk as soon as they were in the car. It kept him from thinking about the things he wanted to think about. This one beginning to tell him his life story, how the plane from L.A. was late and he didn’t have time to drop by his hotel to shower and shave. Not the bad type, he was apologising about needing to get there fast.
Shad made a point of remaining a bit distant in the conversation with the fares, polite but not involved, listening more than talking. He mumbled a few words about traffic on I495. Long Island expressway always jammed at this time of day. A truck had parked in the wrong place, cars slowly crawling by, it took five minutes just to get out of the airport. By that time the man had already introduced himself. Bruce something.
Bruce was a movie man, as he made clear within the next ten minutes. Come to New York to talk with some TV people about a movie they might want to help produce. More and more these days, TV is the key, Bruce was saying. You bring them in early, it helps you later if the movie tanks at the box office.
Waking up that morning Shad had seen the first snow flakes of the season. Wouldn’t last, but that meant weather would turn bad early this year. Would make driving more of hassle. Every year in the fall he decided he would do just one more winter and call it quit. Then every spring he forgot about it, and kept on going.
Then movie man said “Orson Welles.” Shad had lost track of the conversation by then, just shaking his head from time to time to pretend he was there. But Orson… This Bruce fellow going on, “I don’t know if you’ve heard of him”…. Oh no you don’t, Shad thought, you sure don’t know.
What are the odds he’d jump into my cab just out of the terminal? Orson… I could tell you a few things, but you’re not the listening kind. Bruce kept babbling, saying how he hoped he could convince the big man to direct the movie from the script he’d come to sell to the TV bigwigs.
On top of that what are the odds little man here would come to the Big Apple to sell his own movie just a few days after that awful picture came out? Posters everywhere, like the big one we’re gonna drive by just before the Midtown tunnel, I saw it on the way in. Will point it out to him, but what would he know? He wants to do a film about the boy wonder, the doomed genius, Citizen Kane and all. Me I mostly saw the man Orson, briefly at that. And I was there when he met Billie. Truth be told, I can’t say I have any idea what happened after that. And I think no one ever knew, except Billie and him.
Poor Billie… It was as well she wasn’t around to see that thing they’d done her life. Angry as he was, Shad had had a good laugh that morning reading the paper over breakfast. The guy in the Times really let them have it. A whopper of a cliché, he wrote. Dreadful movie. Shad still thought he was too soft on Diana Ross. No way she could ever sing all these songs proper.
They also wrote in the paper about the film’s premiere. All those folks black and white who attended the fancy evening, like it was a big thing. And Duke Ellington’s wife who was there, and felt she had to like the movie. There was one fun part, one of the women who was a guest at the party kept badgering those bigwigs about dog turds. She has a thing about them, leads a whole movement to rid the streets of excrements. Dog turd. That’s what that movie is.
Shad wondered whether he’d have taken the job if they had asked him to play his horn at that party. Story said some jazz musicians had played for the guests, guys who knew Lady Day. The reporter didn’t say who they were. Didn’t bother to find out their names, but there aren’t many of us around. I haven’t touched the trumpet for so long, he thought, I think I’d have said no thanks. Would have been nice to be asked, though. It’s been more than ten years since that last gig. Teaching some kids in the neighbourhood doesn’t count. No regrets though. Driving this cab, that’s more money than I ever made as a musician. Not as much fun, but steady job.
Hollywood man keeps bitching that he’s late, and apologising for his bitching. Now starts explaining what Citizen Kane was, and why it was a good movie. Shad had to tell him he’d seen it. Oh he said. Like taxi drivers aren’t supposed to go to the movies. Or they just watch films like Shaft. Shad about to tell him that he also saw Native Son in the theatre, same year Kane came out. No way you could have seen that play, movie boy.
He wanted to ask Bruce what Orson was up to these days. At least he was still alive. Shad wouldn’t have known before movie man hopped into the cab. Funny thing, Bruce was talking as if Orson was long gone, always referring to the past. The Martians, and Kane which he’d made at 27, and his fight with the studios over money, and never finishing anything else that was worth much.
Don’t know if that’s true, Shad thought, but Orson sure had something that Hollywood misses. They don’t make them like him anymore. Anyway I hope he’s still fighting, and won’t let those guys boss him around.
The ride was smooth after the tunnel, traffic fluid up 3rd avenue, sailing past Grand Central, left on 49th, they shot that Godfather movie down the street last year I remember that one. Bruce was thanking him as he rushed out the car, leaving him a tenner as a tip. He put the meter on the off switch and drove away.
Thinking about Lady Day… Here was that poster again, on the façade of the Loew’s Orpheum. Can’t even believe how tacky it is. That tasteless blue, and the name of Diana Ross above Billie’s… As if they could ever be compared … Not in the same league, never will be.
First time Shad saw Orson was the first time Billie saw him too. At Canada Lee’s restaurant up in Harlem, where they’d all gone after the premiere. I still wonder how they could fit some many people in his Chicken Coop, he thought. On west 136th street, or around there. They’d cut four tracks backing up Lady Day, with Eddie Heywood’s band, a few days before. They’d done All of Me, maybe Georgia on My Mind, too. Romance in the Dark, for sure. A flame grew from just a spark. When I found romance in the dark with you…
It was up at 52nd and 7th. They still have the Columbia studio there, use it to record all kinds of artists. Billie had bought some food and groceries before the session. She liked to cook and she was good at it, used to put all those things on the stove, chicken and spices and vegetables and all, so they had something to eat when they were done. Cooked a lot for them on the road back in the thirties, touring with the Basie band.
Lester was there, of course. After just a few weeks he’d already broken up the first band he’d ever set up and led on his own. Shad on the trumpet. They’d been playing at Kelly’s Stables on 51st street, things were going OK. Then one day it was all over. Lester had decided he didn’t like the manager. Saying it was all because the man didn’t like mixing up, having both black and white folks at his place. Shad always thought instead it had a lot to do with that cute piano player Lester had taken a shinin’ to, Una Mae Carlisle. Mixed-blood girl, black and Indian, but so light-skinned she could have passed for white. It was obvious the manager didn’t care much for Lester’s interest in her. They’d cut a few sides with her that month for Bluebird, a couple of weeks before they recorded with Billie.
That session with Lady Day for Okeh was almost cancelled. She and Lester had smoked so much dope… Then some executive from the record company came into the studio just before they started, sniffed the air, and made a big fuss about it. Everyone was doing pot, but Lady and Prez were really serious about it. Lester though didn’t follow her when she got into the harder stuff, mainlining and everything. To begin with, the man was afraid of needles, doctors, drugstores, you name it, anything having to do with medicine. No needle dancing for me, he used to say. He just stuck to muggles. Also whisky and vodka and gin, but that’s different.
Finally they played. And right after that session, as they were all eating the chicken stew she’d prepared, Lady Day said she wanted to go and see Canada Lee play Bigger Thomas in Native Son. The play had been delayed twice already, and she could get tickets for the premiere that next Monday. Lester didn’t want to go, he wasn’t one for going out much. But Kenny Clarke who was on drums that day said he’d go, and Shad wanted too. So did Clyde Hart, who was the piano player on those sessions. Came and brought Una Mae along with him. Shad knew that Lester wouldn’t like that, but not sure Clyde asked for permission either…
Native Son was something. Two hours, no intermission, scenes coming one after the other. Shad hadn’t read the book then. Only took to Richard Wright later. First time he’d gone to the theatre since school plays, back in Elizabeth, so many years ago. Was right after World War one, schools didn’t have much money then, mothers used to sew the dresses, everyone had a sewing machine at home courtesy of the Singer company factory right outside of town. And the teachers had to go around and borrow the instruments whenever they staged a musical.
Right after the play, Billie had asked Shad to take her to the Chicken Coop. She wanted to tell Canada how much she’d liked the show, and him in it. He’d seen her tears in the dark, at the end, when Bigger tells Max, the lawyer who’s a bit of a communist, that he ain’t sorry the girl is dead after all. Killing gave him some sense of control over his life, he says. “I’m more alive now than I’ve ever been in my whole life, and they’re gonna kill me”. Shad still remembered the words. He’d felt his heart stop, his lips dry, when Bigger grabbed the prison bars, knowing he would die, looking straight out. Then dark, it was over. He’d seen how shaken Billie was, and he was too.
Canada’s joint was packed. And for once the Coop was making money. Shad had jammed with Canada there a couple of times. The man was a bit of a musician, played the fiddle. Wasn’t bad at it, he’d even led his own band at some point. Everybody knew he had a hard times simply trying to keep the place going. Looking for loans all over the place, not easy to come by, the banks not friendly with him. How could he make money? The man was always inviting people over, and didn’t let them pay. Everything he’d made from his boxing days had gone into the Coop. That night of the party, no one could use the phone because it had been cut off by the company. For want of 66 dollars… Quite a sum in those days, meant a lot of speaking to his ladies, or whomever. But the place was nice. Good food, too. Southern-style dried chicken, collard greens, sweet potatoes, those kind of things.
That night for the first time Shad had seen so many different people packed in the same place, to simply relax and have fun. At least in America. Paris was different. But at Canada’s joint, they had blacks and whites, and maybe not rich and poor, because the poor didn’t go much to the theatre, but you could clearly see there were some rich white guys, patron-of-the-arts types, and others who were more Canada’s crew, or the likes. Artists as well, writers, painters, that crowd.
Billie and Shad had gone there right after the show, along with everybody else. It was quite a way from the St James on 44th, the cab ride took a while. The Coop was just off Lenox. It didn’t last long after that night, Canada closed down the restaurant a few months later. Much later they destroyed the building, built a negro branch of the public library right on the same spot. But that night, you couldn’t have told that the joint was struggling. Beautiful people, swinging cats, they were all there. Some of them who couldn’t get in waiting outside in the chilly weather.
The cast arrived a little while later. By then everyone was in a good mood, fuelled by bourbon and beer. Canada looked surprised by the cheering and clapping when he came in. Then everybody seemed to want to have a piece of him. He hardly seemed to remember anyone’s face. Other cast members were with him. They said Orson Welles had been delayed by some reporters asking questions about Citizen Kane and his problems to release it. He hadn’t been able to attend the official projection of the movie a few weeks before in Hollywood, because of the play rehearsals.
Canada came over to their table and chatted for few minutes. He seemed to like Billie a lot, although they barely knew each other. She told him how moved she’d been. She wondered how the critics would like it. Everyone was waiting for the reviews, due later in the evening.
Canada told Billie about the rat. He’d almost fainted at rehearsal when Orson had insisted on his using a real animal instead of a prop. So he’d given Canada one without warning him. A dead one, but a rat nonetheless. Canada had almost quit, even though Orson was trying to shame him about his fear. Then people who visited the set, including children, started touching the dead rat and playing with it, so he didn’t want to pass for the last coward. Billie laughed, and then she told him that he had that in common with Lester. A few years back, Prez had seen a rat in his hotel and had left the place in a hurry. Came to live with Billie and her mother Sadie for a while. Never set foot in that place again.
Canada also told them about the sled. Said it was Orson’s personal reference to Citizen Kane. In the movie the sled gives one of the keys to the man’s mystery. Kane wasn’t out yet. Bille and Shad didn’t understand what exactly he was talking about.
Billie asked him about the restaurant business. She knew a little a bit about it. When the first success came and she had enough money from her royalties, she’d set her mother up in a restaurant of her own. Right near the place they lived at, on 99th street.
They talked about the war. Things were heating up over in Europe, the Brits had bombed Berlin again. The Krauts’ submarines were sinking His Majesty’s ships all over the ocean. Billie wondered whether Roosevelt would send “all her men” away to the war, as she put it. Shad was sure as hell they would draft all the Negroes they could find, and send them over there. Keep them segregated just as in the first war. They’d even set up an all-Negro flying brigade down in Alabama and selected the first men. So they’d be all ready to go when the shit happened.
Canada had introduced them to two of his white lady friends. One of them a bit older, she must have been 50 or more, and he called her “special”. The other was more of Canada’s age, or Shad’s. Her name was Anaïs, not a common name. She had heard of Billie, was all excited about jazz, telling them how she used to go to all those clubs when she lived in Paris. Shad told her about the time he was there, back in 1937, playing with Bill Coleman and Django Reinhardt, the French gypsy guitarist who was really the baddest mother-fucker. Man had been badly burnt in a trailer fire, hands all crooked by the scars, could barely move his fingers. Had only two remaining on his left hand anyway, and he sounded like he had twenty. Shad had never heard such incredible solos, lightning fast, swingissimo. Man could do things with his guitar that just left you speechless.
Anais was looking at Shad with these large big eyes, like he was the most important man she’d ever talked to, but the names didn’t ring her bell. She didn’t seem to know much about the music she said she liked. And of course she had never heard the tunes he’d cut playing with Django in Paris.
He’d been lucky to get on that trip. He owed it to the all that fuss with Dizzy when they were in Teddy Hill’s band. Some famous French jazz critic had wanted to cut a record in Paris with Dicky Wells and Bill Coleman. He thought Dicky’s trombone and Bill’s trumpet would go well together. There was just one spot for another trumpet. Dicky hated Dizzy, so there was no way he could have come along. So all his life, Dizzy felt sorry he didn’t get to play with Django. Really bitter about it. Later on, he accused Shad of stealing a riff of his and taking it to the Basie band. That’s the only tune he’d ever had his name on, Rock’a Bye Basie, and Dizzy saying he stole it. That’s not why Basie fired him though. Shad never knew why he’d been dropped from the band.
Canada’s older friend also had a name you couldn’t forget – Caresse. She was a bit more distant, quiet. She’d met Canada a four or five years before, after she’d gone to see a play he was in. They’d been “close friend” ever since, she said. Shad wasn’t sure what she meant by that. Only understood later. In any case, by that time they’d already begun to drift apart, although remaining good friends. The funny part is that that very evening, Shad introduced Canada to Una Mae Carlisle, and saw right away that they hit it off. Canada was a bit of a ladies man, and Una Mae was smitten. When Native Son went on the road she used to visit him in places like Detroit or Cleveland. She had some health problems, Shad remembered her as a sweet girl, had spent a few years in Europe. London, Paris. Started out in the business as a Fats Waller protégée.
After a while some of the people began to leave, the rest just having a happy time, smoking and drinking and talking and laughing. Then at some point, it must have been quite late, the door opened, they felt the cold air from outside, and Orson stepped in. The man was tall but not a giant, maybe 6 foot something, but in life he looked much more impressive than that. He had a big black overcoat, with a fur collar, and he made a grand entrance, smiling a “hello everybody” with that big booming voice of his.
Manhattan traffic jams now. Still cruising, and looking for customers at 62. A lot of other empty cabs, pedestrians rushing along the avenues, no one stepping to the curb as far as he could see. Not the best season, getting cold already. And the cab company pressuring him, hinting he didn’t work hard enough. Shad had always played by the rules. Didn’t stretch the hood, didn’t smuggle, didn’t deflect. No wildcatting, no ghost riding, no clicking of the mic. If I’d been told back then that I’d be driving a cab in New York at this age, he thought. The dreams we had, when I was the king of the high notes. It used to be, you drove a taxi when you were young, part of the odd jobs you had to take while were trying to make it as a jazzman. Me, I’m the jazzman who became a cab driver.
Now Dizzy that old rascal is everywhere, celebrated all over the world, getting the Duke Ellington medal at Yale, as he’d seen in the paper the week before. Playing in jam sessions all over the place, receiving awards and medals and stuff. The mayor had said Dizzy was “a musical legend in his own time”. The man even has his own government-sponsored band he takes all over the world, paid for by Uncle Sam. Can you imagine that? No way he’ll ever ask Shad to join. What a clown. Last year he even said he would run for president, as a joke. As if you want to joke when that racist Richard Nixon dude is going to be reelected for another four years so he can send even more boys to Vietnam. Even after that burglary last June in D.C., and all these revelations that his men had ordered all that spying and sabotage against the Democrats.
Billie was something else. Shad loved her, as a best friend. Used to call him Lester junior, even though she didn’t call the other Lester Lester. Prez was what she always called him. But Shad was born Lester Rallington Collins after all, didn’t even remember where the Shad came from except that Lester – Prez – had been the first to call him that, when he’d joined the Basie band and they became buddies. Had stuck ever since. Prez, that’s a man who would have done anything for Billie. Shad never knew whether they’d had a fling, never dared to ask. They weren’t the kind of people you’d question about it. Probably not. Once, as the band was chilling after a concert at Kelly’s Stable, one of the boys had tried to make a joke about it. Prez was cleaning his horn, shot him a glance you’d never forget. Silenced the dude right there and then.
Prez hadn’t come with them that night at the Coop, and Shad had always wondered what would have happened if he’d met Orson, who had just arrived. What you’d call a grand entrance. The man had style. He was late, probably because he’d wanted to wait for the reviews. Now they had come out and the papers were gloating, except of course the ones that belonged to the man who’d been a model for Kane. Within seconds the whole room gravitated around Orson. He started going from one group to another, his big open coat flying like a cape, kissing the women, hugging the men, all the while making small talk that wasn’t that small, because everyone could hear. Asking everyone whether they’d liked the play. Of course everyone had. With that crowd of progressive whites and negro artists, how else could it be?
So he was going around the room and you could see that some of those people, he’d be glad to be rid of, barely listening to them. Finally he approached the table where Lady Day and Shad were sitting. Stopped right there, and the look on his face Shad could still remember. A look of wonder and awe, the look of a man who’s been struck by lightning, his whirlwind around the room stopped right in its tracks. Then as if he’d wanted to shake that first impression, getting back into the Orson Welles character and, rather quietly for him: “Oh miss Holiday, what an honour it is”. He put a knee on the ground, took her hand and kissed it, like the French counts do in the movies they have over there.
Billie smiled her shy smile and said nice to meet you or something. She introduced Shad as a member of the Lester Young crew, the trumpet player who’d just cut some tracks with her. Orson looked interested, briefly. Then the urned to Billie and asked how she’d liked Native Son. Shad saw right away that he wasn’t interested in the other people at the party, all the folks who were coming up to cheer and congratulate him. It looked like he and Billie had known each other for years. She asked how tough it had been to make a play out of the book, and admitted she hadn’t read it.
Shad of course had heard about Richard Wright the new Negro writer. The man had given an interview to one of the papers at the time. They described him as a cool cat and a sharp dresser, wearing stuff like tweed trousers, bright green socks matched by a green tie, a gold watch chain and everything. Sure made it in the world.
While Billie and Orson were talking and flirting, a musician whose name Shad had forgotten came up to say hello. They barely noticed him. The guy kept talking and Shad felt he had to pretend listening. When he left at last, Billie turned to Shad and told him “Shad, Mr Welles here wants to make a movie about jazz, isn’t that cool?” Orson explained that he wanted musicians to both act in the movie and play the soundtrack. He was looking for a composer. After what he’d seen that night, Shad would have done anything in a picture that man was making. “Don’t say that, young man, don’t say that. A lot have come to regret it”, Orson laughed. He was all of 30 maybe then, four or five years younger than Shad.
After taking a couple up to 125th in Harlem, Shad had turned around and was heading south on Park. Entire blocs without a living soul. Hands hurting with the first days of damp, cold weather. Sore back. I need a walk badly, stretch the legs, have a drink.
He didn’t remember much else about that night. While Orson and Billie were still talking, he excused himself, said goodbye and went straight to his place up in the Bronx. All he remembered was the two of them looking at each other, smiling and joking as if to avoid talking about more serious matters.
A couple of weeks after that night, Prez told him he was leaving for Los Angeles. He wanted to live there, set up a band with his brother. But then, just a bit later, he was drafted, and all those terrible things happened to him in the army. Racism, punishments, even jail. Having to conform, obey orders, standing at attention, marching, learn about guns. The idiocy, the brutality of it all. He couldn’t stand it, and it broke him.
Later that year Shad had joined Cab Calloway’s band. Stayed with them pretty much throughout the war. Funny thing, he replaced Dizzy there. The man had gotten into an ugly fight with Cab over his be-bopping. Even took out a knife one day after Cab accused him of throwing spitballs during a concert. Cab got one on the neck, and he fired Dizzy right on the spot. And Shad had taken his place. Things come around. But look where I am now, he thought, and look where Dizzy is.
A light rain had begun to fall. Must remember to replace that wiper. People now hurrying on the sidewalks. He took right on 60th, headed for Central Park. Top of the trees shaken by the wind, he’d drive down 5th and see what happened. Rain meant business.
That night at the Chicken Coop was the last night Shad saw people black and white mixing up together and having a good time. Before the war, it was terrible in the South. Basie didn’t even want to tour there. It was a little better in places like New York or Chicago or L.A. But after the war, it all went downhill, fast. Things turned real ugly, almost everywhere.
Canada and Caresse didn’t have it easy in the 1930’s. Mixed couples were illegal in most of the country. They called it the miscegenation laws. No black man with a white woman, nor the other way around. In most states you’d go to jail for this. In the South of course, but also throughout the West, all the way to California. Not in New York, but most places were segregated here anyway. Much later, when he’d got to know Canada better, the man had told him a little bit about his life. He and Caresse had to go to Frank’s, up on 125th in Harlem, so they could dine together. And even Frank’s didn’t integrate until rather late. And even then, they only accepted Blacks if they were famous and light-skinned. Joe Louis knocked them down proper the day he just called and said he was coming down with a large party. He’d just won his fight at the Polo Grounds against Billy Conn, so nobody was going to stop him doing as he pleased. That was just a few months after that Native Son party at the Chicken Coop.
In those days, the only truly integrated place in New York was the Café Society down in Greenwich Village. That’s thanks to Barney Josephson, its owner. The man was something. A Latvian jew from New Jersey. He’d started in his brother’s shoe business, was a jazz fan and borrowed some dough to open his own club in a basement on Sheridan Square. Not only did he insist on strict integration. But he ordered his waiters to kick out any one making a racist remark. Thanks to him, Strange Fruit became Lady Day’s signature song. He’s the one insisted she sang it, every night. Ordered the lights dimmed. Ruled there would be no encore. He also discovered Lena Horn. She and Billie alternated there. Some tension between them at the beginning, they weren’t twin souls. Only became friends, sort of, later on.
Yes, Café Society was nice. But all these other places… all segregated. Not the Savoy Ballroom, of course, the place had been built for the brothers to begin with. Always some white folks there, mixed dancing and all. But hard to remember that at Loew’s Victoria theater, up in Harlem on 125th, the Negroes had to sit on the balcony. Even when they had the premiere of a movie with a black actor in it, they couldn’t sit down there. And the department stores…. At Blumstein’s, right in the heart of Harlem, black girl wasn’t allowed to try on a dress on in the store. Of course any white woman could.
Now Shad was thinking about the one place that he’d found truly, seriously segregated. He’d gone a few times. Joint was called the Daisy Chain, up on 141st between Lenox and 7th. Owner was a woman named Hazel Valentine. You couldn’t get in if they didn’t know you, or you had to be with someone who was a regular, preferably a girl. They called that a buffet flat. They opened every night with sex shows, in different rooms. Then as the night went on it became quite simple. You’d get stark naked and join the fun. And boy, there was lots of it. Men doing things to women, women doing things to men, and men to men and women to women, and sometimes three or four doing stuff to each other. Joints being passed around. Blacks and whites all mixed up. You were in for a really good time. With some pretty colourful characters too. Shad remembered that woman, kind of fat and on the mature side. Everyone called her Sewing Machine Bertha. She seemed to want to go down on every woman who came through the door on any given night. Was always around. Foul-mouthed woman, never drank though, just fucked her brains out, women only was her rep. Never men. There was always that huge guy who dressed as a woman, had even grown real breasts. Queen called Clarenz. That place wasn’t for regular folks though, mostly show business people. Some politicians, and athletes, baseball players and the like. Those were the days back then in Harlem. Never a dull day. Billie had told Shad that she’d gone to the Daisy Chain. Just once, she said. And only watched, because she was curious that’s all. At least that’s what she’d told Shad.
Nothing of the sort at Café Society. Shad and Lester used to play there from time to time, or sometimes just joined the house band after their own gigs in town. Everyone liked Barney, he wasn’t like the other white club owners. He’s the one said that in most clubs, Duke Ellington’s mother wouldn’t be admitted to see her son play. Unless she was part of the band… And he was right. Even in the so-called black clubs up in Harlem the brothers had to sit in the back, behind the columns, while the white folks sat up in front.
Barney paid dearly for his convictions, sure did. His brother was hunted down after the war because he was a communist and refused to answer questions. They turned on the club, spreading all kinds of rumours and pretty much blacklisted it. Barney had to close it down. A few years later he opened a restaurant here in New York. The Cookery, a joint making hamburgers and omelettes. And before you know it, Mary Lou Williams asks him whether she can put a piano in the corner, and he’s in the jazz business again… Shad hadn’t seen Barney in ages now, they probably wouldn’t recognize each other.
On Orson and Billie, the real gossip only started years later, after she published her book. Well, her book… The one she put her name on, along with that of the real writer. Lots of fiction there. There’s a page or two where she says that when she was in Los Angeles, she hung out with Orson, she took him to Central Avenue, to the joints and places that were real hot at the time. Says she was bored, but that Orson couldn’t get enough. And then she says she started getting phone calls at her hotel to tell her to stop hanging out with him, that it would be bad for her career and for his. Billie doesn’t say who called. Shad had read her book when it came out. What was it? Fifteen, sixteen years ago? But he’d decided that he couldn’t trust it anymore than the rest of the phoney anecdotes.
In the book she said she only met Orson when she got to L.A., but Shad knew better. He didn’t know what happened to Orson and Billie in L.A. in 1942, what they did. But he knew that she went there first in the fall of 1941, only stayed for a few weeks for a gig at the Café Society, for some reason it didn’t go down well. If that’s when she met Orson, as she said in her book, I don’t see how he could have been up to his ears making Citizen Kane, because the movie had finally come out in May or June. He’d even seen it in New York. They have her write that she saw the movie nine times before it even played in theatres, that Orson arranged for her to see it. But there’s something wrong in the dates and all.
Whatever it is that happened between those two, it all started at the Chicken Coop. Shad had often wondered why Billie didn’t mention that night in her book. Maybe she’d forgotten about it, and didn’t tell the man who wrote the book? Or was it he who decided that it didn’t fit the story he wanted to write? Else the publisher took it out because they preferred the Hollywood story? Orson and Billie prowling Central Avenue at night, and those anonymous phone calls, made for a better story. Maybe. Maybe.
By the time she started telling her life stories to that man Dufty, she may have had things in her head a bit mixed up, Shad thought. He knew for sure that she got hooked on the hard stuff that very same year 1941, the year of Kane and Native Son and their recordings in New York. She was like everybody else before, smoked reefers, drank a lot. She liked gin and port wine together in her glass. Then Prez, who would never put a needle in his arm, because that freaked him out, told Shad just before leaving for California that the monkey had jumped on Lady Day’s back. He said she was already mainlining, but maybe that only came a bit later.
Hard to tell who turned her on. It all came by stages. First they outlawed weed throughout the country. So the only way to get it was to find it, if you know what I’m saying. Prices doubled overnight. You had to go look for the man, and he’d try to suggest something stronger because he made more money on it. So they got exposed to that other stuff, whatever it was. There was a lot of snortin’ in the Basie band, the Count included. Happy Dust every night. And my man Dicky Wells was an expert at fixing opium. He knew how to use it three times. You just cook the ashes again in alcohool. But that was still just smoking. Billie started on heroin big time right away. 1941-1942. Before it all went downhill, after the war, when everybody started using. And turning on friends and other people, which you’d never see back in the thirties. You just never saw that.
Shad was feeling tired, muscles aching, needing a walk. A lot of them have gone now but thirty years later he was amazed by how many of them were still around. Dicky Wells still kicking, must be 65. They were three years apart. The Duke and the Count still have their bands, having grown into legends now, big stars, touring all over the place, Japan and everywhere. Dizzy of course, clowning as he can do…
That summer of 1941, Shad was working with the Buddy Johnson band, just before he joined Cab, when he heard that Billie had gotten married. No one expected this. The man was Jimmy Monroe. They all knew him, more or less. The brother of a club manager. Good-looking fellow, dressed sharp, in a pimpy kind of way. Some said he was the one turned Billie on to the hard stuff. Shad didn’t think so, but that man sure was no good. They started living with Billie’s mother, although she hated Monroe. Quite a few of Billie’s friends didn’t like that marriage, but it was nothing compared to the men she hooked up with afterwards. Lots of them much worse than Jimmy the pimp. At least he was good to her, in his own way. Not much of a man though, Shad thought. Blind to her many lovers. And he simply vanished when John Levy showed up. Husband number two. Real bad dude, that one.
Shad had to drive up to Columbia now. They’d set up a taxi service for students and teachers after the murder on Amsterdam a few days before. Not much money in it, but better than nothing. Crime was getting worse. The day before they’d found a gypsy cab driver shot in his cab. Car was crashed under a bridge in Brooklyn. But he had been careful for some time, always taking a good look at the customer before he stopped. He knew he had a good feel for trouble makers.
So many things had changed in those thirty years. Yet so few as well. He wondered whether Billie would be happier today. There’s been some progress I guess, things aren’t as brutal for us as they used to. But look at what they did to those guys down in North Carolina yesterday, Ben Chavis and the others getting twenty years or more after the troubles in Wilmington. Trumped up charges, for sure. Still so hard to simply get what’s ours. Fight goes on.
As for Billie, you want to see a summary of her life you just look at the picture Milt Hinton took of her at her last recording session, just before she died in 1959. Shad had long been sure she’d been killed by the police, who got her to go cold turkey. On Milt’s picture she’s got a drink in her hands. She’s looking down, like she knows it’s the end, and she’s resigned. Milt’s a good guy, he had taken nice shots of Shad and Jonah Jones when they were down in Louisiana back in 1941 with Cab’s band. That same year again. He still had the pictures somewhere, hadn’t looked at them in a while. Too hard, remembering those times they had. Funny the good and the bad, they leave such good memories. Such unbearable sadness as well…
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