“(Sonny’s Blues is) a compellingly readable evocation of a hard, unforgiving world fitfully illuminated not only by art, but also by small acts of solidarity and kindness.” – London Jazz News
In this excerpt, Sonny, who’s 50, is in a diner with his best friend, Harper, a pianist whom he’s known since childhood. They’ve played a recording session that morning, and had lunch afterwards. Harp ate, but Sonny barely touched his food. Sonny hasn’t told Harper that’s he seriously ill, but Harp knows he’s sick. After their lunch, Sonny tries to nap, in preparation for his gig at a club that same evening. (Norma is Sonny’s ex-wife.)
He tries to breathe slowly and shallowly, so his belly won’t blow up, and wonders where he’s gonna get the breath to play tonight. Well, he’s got to. He needs the money, he needs to get away from the pain. The music, it can do that, move him along like a cloud in a summer sky. Even a stormy summer sky.
He finally does fall asleep, he’s not sure when, but the alarm startles him. He rubs his eyes and shuts it off, lies there trying to figure out how his stomach is. He takes a small breath, then a slightly larger one, then a deep one. That hurts, but it’s not as bad as before he went to sleep. Pill is still workin’. And he can take another one at, what, 8:30?
He gets to the club just before 9:00. It’s busy, lots of people and noise. Harper’s at the bar, with Cole; Harp waves to Sonny who waves back but keeps going, into the dressing room. There’s a pitcher of ice water there and he pours himself a glass, takes out a pill and swallows it. His stomach is still hurtin’ but it’s nothin’ like this afternoon, and he waited so this one’d last as long as possible. He’s not supposed to take another one till 1:00, but he figures if he needs it he can take it sooner. Just so’s he can get through the night. Then he can go home, sleep some more, maybe he’ll feel better when he wakes up tomorrow.
When he comes out Harp, Alan and Cole are on the stand, jokin’ and laughin’, loose and eager. He steps onto it, one hand on the sax hangin’ from the strap. He smiles and waves at all of them.
“How you doin’?” Harp says, his eyes clear this time, sharp and focused.
“Okay” says Sonny. He blows a couple notes and does a sound check, takes the song list from his pocket and looks it over while Harp says into his mike:
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Club Riff, one of the — few — places around where you can still hear jazz the way it’s meant to be heard, intimately, played the way it’s meant to be played, right before your very ears.” The audience applauds, a little more enthusiastically than usual; most of the time it’s just polite, least till they get warmed up, lost in the music like the players do. “Thank you” Harp says and arpeggios.
“My name is Harper Howell, and tonight we got Mr. Alan Towson on the drums” — Alan riffs; the applause is polite — “Mr. Cole Amber on acoustic bass” — Cole plunks a couple bars; more polite applause — “and, on the alto saxophone, Mister, Sonny, Curtis” he says with a flourish. Sonny blows up and down a scale, nods as the applause rises. He thinks about his stomach. So far, so good.
“We’re gonna be here till three o’clock, so you just sit back, drink up so the owner’ll think you love us and he’ll pay us better” — there’s a small laugh; Harp smiles his widest smile — “and listen up, ’cause you gonna hear some great music tonight.
“We’re gonna start with a tune that features Sonny Curtis, written by another Sonny — Sonny Rollins. It’s called: ‘Sonnymoon for Two.’” He moves the mike away, says “Two, three, four” and they’re off. Sonny wets the reed again, slips it between his teeth and lips, closes his eyes and blows.
And there it is: a great skein of notes woven into a crazy quilt of such otherwise-inexpressible beauty that it can only exist because he weaves it. It wraps him and he feels warm within it. Like Norma’s hands when she loved him, like his Mama’s when he was a little boy. Like Harp’s when he put the bear-hug on this afternoon. Yeah, there’s some pain — in his gut, in his memory — but it don’t matter. He thinks of something somebody read him once, that he never forgot: The dying dream of ecstasy like the living dream of love.
Well, he’s dying. He’s entitled to dream of anything he wants.
Read the full review from the London Jazz Week here:
Sonny’s Blues, as part of the short story collection “American Blues” by Evan Guildford-Blake, is available on Amazon here:
Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a ‘recovering musician’, he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.