If the saxophone is the world’s sexiest instrument, the baritone sax must be its tubby sister no one wants to date. While the sax is out front getting glory, hitching itself to names like Coltrane, Parker, and Getz, the bari hangs behind, nameless and faceless. I’m one of them, the faceless ones. I ain’t nameless, though. If you come to one of my shows, you’ll hear the leader call my name out. You’ll hear it, forget it and go back to gushing over the saxophone and her boisterous cousin, the trumpet.
Mind you, I ain’t complaining. It’s the way the world works. Things have always been this way and always will be. When I was a kid in high school, my band teacher used to do a demonstration where he’d have all the bass instruments drop out in the middle of a piece, so the audience could hear how weak the music sounds without low end. Without bass, the music has not Soul, he used to say. I knew he was right about that and still do. That’s why you won’t catch me hanging out in the land of the treble too much. Someone’s got to carry that low end, baby. Might as well be me.
Got a show tonight, me and the ensemble––Jonny Ross and the Shade. Jonny leads us from the piano. The Shade is the rest of us: Bo and Isaac on horns, Felix on sax, Phil on clarinet, Lester on drums. Anchoring the low end, there’s three of us––Sammy on trombone, D with the upright bass, and me. I’m Tyrone, but that’s not the name Jonny uses when he introduces me. He calls me Ty. So does everyone else. Today happens to be my birthday. If past years are any indication, Jonny will mention this to the audience and get them to sing along to the birthday song while the group puts it to music. I wish he wouldn’t do that, but Jonny does what Jonny does.
We’re setting up to play when Lester breaks the news: Sammy ain’t gonna make it tonight, he says, Man has the Vid, he says. Well shit, I say, That cuts our bass section by thirty-three percent. Or twenty-five percent, if you count Jonny’s left piano hand, which I guess we’ll have to.
Losing the trombone is a bad deal. Sammy can rip a mean trombone solo, but that’s not what matters most. What matters is the music’s soul, the low end, like my old band teacher used to preach.
D walks on stage, dragging the big double bass on a dolly. Yo D! I say, No Sammy tonight. We’re gonna have our work cut out for us. D shrugs, which is D’s way of saying, Is what it is, and Gotta do what we gotta do.
D don’t talk much, not with words, I mean. What you probably don’t know is, D used to go by Denise. I’m not sure exactly when Denise became D; it just sorta happened. The same way Summer moves to Fall without you realizing, until one day you step outside, and there’s a chill in the air. You go back for your jacket and say to yourself, Where’d Summer go?
One day, Denise showed up with her mop of curls chopped short, wearing a checkered sport jacket two sizes too big. Yo Denise! I said, Dig the new hair style! D pushed a hand out the sleeve of that giant sport jacket and said, Call me D.
That was that. Now Denise is just D. If that’s a problem for you, I believe you’ve been spending too much time in the land of the treble. Folks’ names, what they are versus what you think they’re s’posed to be, what you should or shouldn’t be allowed to say about them––that’s all treble talk. The thing about treble talk is, it’s a lot of noise, and if you’re not careful, it drowns out your soul. Sometimes you need to dial back the treble so you can hear the bass. Bass is the sound of Soul talking back to you.
I uncase my bari, which I call Bruce, because Bruce is a bassy name, and start my breathing exercises. Gonna need a lot of breath tonight, that’s for certain. The brothers of the low end are down one brother; it’s up to D and me to keep Soul alive in this combo tonight. That’s a load of responsibility. Happy friggin’ birthday to me.
I ain’t worried about D, though. Once Lester lays a beat and the number is rolling, D becomes something else, makes the strings on that double bass dance, baby. Fearless is the best way to describe it. D’s playing is fearless. That’s good, because there ain’t no room for fear in the low end. Fear is for treble folks.
Jonny cracks his fingers over the keys, pounds out some scales, and calls us to warm up. I kiss the reed and push air through my instrument. Bruce responds with the sound I most adore. How can I describe it? It’s like the sound a big oak would make, if we had ears to hear it. The sound of tree roots gripping earth. The sound of mountains standing against the wind. The sound of Spirit hovering over water.
While Jonny Ross and the Shade run through our opening number, my mind goes where it often does when when we play together. I think of creation and the forming of the world, how it must be like the movements of a symphony or changes in a jazz piece.
People think about creation, and they think of something past, something already done. But I don’t think that’s the way it works. Creation is more like jazz. If you listen closely, you’ll hear jazz is being created as it goes. It has no beginning and no end. When our group jumps on a number, we’re not starting something; we’re picking up where we left off.
In the beginning was the Word, so the story goes. It’s a nice metaphor, but we forget that in the beginning, there were no words. We forget there was no beginning. There is only what is and what always will be––the vast, revolving, never-resolving, eternal Life song. This confuses people. Even me sometimes.
When I get confused, that’s when I know I’ve got the treble too high on the stereo box of my mind. That’s when it’s time to settle down and focus on Life’s core, the low end, the bass note that drones underneath it all.
Right now, I’m laying down that note, and D is playing fearlessly. Head bobbing, sweat flying, fingers dancing across the fingerboard, thick strings vibrating like stars in outer space. If there were words for this sound, they would be this: Let There Be, Let There Be, Let There Be.
Warm ups done, Jonny says to the group, Everybody good on the birthday song? It’s Ty’s big night. He winks at me. The band nods while I shake my head and laugh.
If there are no beginnings, there are no birthdays. I should explain this to Jonny. Maybe I’d avoid being made a spectacle tonight. But I won’t bother. People think you’re weird when you talk like that. People prefer to pretend the story is real. That’s what most of life is, when you think about it—story time. A big old game of pretend. D pretended to be Denise for awhile and now pretends to be D. Maybe one day D will walk up and say, Don’t call me nothin’ at all. And that’d be just fine. Just as long as that bass still sings—Let There Be, Let There Be, Let There Be…