By Charles E.J. Moulton
Dedicated to Hoagy Carmichael and Barney Deveraux
I'd heard the song a million times before. A million times in a million jazz bars along the famous Las Vegas Strip or in Manhattan.
I'd played it on a muffled trumpet, just like the old man wanted me to.
As a kid, I heard Hoagy Carmichael's original version of the song on a little known broken tape recorded in Hoagy's home in West Palm Beach back when he was a young lawyer, recorded before his famous Gennett Records taping of the Classic in Richmond, Indiana back in 1927.
Well, the old fruit seller, Barney, he used to sell fresh pomegranates over at North Peters Street in New Orleans, where I always passed on my way back from school, he was always humming the song.
Every day I went by there, two things were even more certain than death and taxes: Barney would hand me a fresh pomegranate and he would be singing Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" in the cracked lilt that I learned to love so. Every other day, his wife Chloé would call from the back not to hand out too many of those pomegranates, or else ...
I knew that was hogwash. Chloé was my Dad's cousin, who kept telling me to "eat another portion" at Christmas parties 'cause I was too skinny.
"Why dontcha feed that boy, George?" she would hollar, causing my father to summon all the relatives for a lecture about how I finished off an entire turkey on Thanksgiving back in 1976, the bicentennial year.
Anyway, happily ignoring that merry feud, back in the happy days down south, I bounced my way back from trumpet class one post-Christmas and pre-New-Years day in 1981, hoping to catch an episode of "The Greatest American Hero" after supper. I knew loads of relatives would be there again, devouring Dad's left-over Christmas turkey and Mom's corn-bread-stuffing, maybe even knocking back a few eggnogs or a rum. I hoped for one, as well, but I knew that was a day dream. Teenagers have to get stoned alone.
Anyway, when I turned the corner into North Peters Street that day, I saw Barney carrying boxes into his store, slowly rubbing his hands together in between carries.
He looked like a slow-motion version of himself.
Sort of like a lost puppy dog, not really resembling the fun-loving merchant I knew.
As I arrived closer, he looked up at me in a daze. Usually, he'd say something philosophical: "Make sure you practice a lot so you can play Stardust in a big band - I mean a BIG band, forty instruments minimum - with you as a soloist."
"Sunshine on your cheeks," his voice slid off, still sweetly resembling his old self, oldfashioned phrases at the ready at any time of day. Trouble was, today they seemed unreal.
"And on yours," I bowed, looking at the empty boxes. "Hey, they ransacked ya!"
He gestured at a few sad looking feeds. "They left you a banana."
He raised his eyebrows, pointing at something and looking at me as if this was the only thing positive left in the world.
"And an orange," he cackled, softly. "Whatcha wan'?"
I shook my 15-year old black afro locks, put my hand on his shoulder as he reached down to assemble the residue fruits and greens into the last carton.
"I grabbed me a corndog a block past trumpet class," I jested.
Barney stretched his head in Chloé's direction, who stood next some shelves next to the doorway, writing something down in long blue book.
"See, Honeywell," Barney croaked, "he is eating."
"Offer him an apple," Chloé smiled.
"We ain't got none lef'," Barney moaned softly.
"Whatcha prefer, kiddo?"
"Turkey," I chuckled.
Chloé saluted. "So I heard."
She walked back into the shop.
"My Mom's making eggnog," I continued, trying to keep the cheer up.
A sad smile came upon his lips.
"Lots of cardamom and cinnamon?"
I grinned, my flashy teeth sparkling.
"Yep," I said, my smile vanishing from my lips. "And left-overs."
A hint of the old Barney shone through in a soft chuckle.
"Booze is what I need, son," he moaned, bitterly. "But we'd be honored to come. Maybe it would lift my spirits a bit."
"Something happened," I said, laying my hand on his upper arm.
Barney shook his head, then, ever so carefully, a song. It was a dreamy kind of magic in his croon, years of falling in and out of love, years of booze and boots and broads and broad ways. This sound took me back, Man, back way back to the days music meant everything, everything to everybody.
"Hoagy ..." he whispered, his cracked croon sending waves of melancholy into my eardrum.
"... Carmichael?" I whispered in recognition, remembering all those old jazz vinyls my father had layed on the grammophone since my early childhood. Covers with names such as Kahn, Van Heusen, Rodgers, Porter, Waller, Morton and Basie gracing the paranthesis below the songs. Hoagy Carmichael's name seemed to me the one with the most poetry in it. Wit, sure. Romance, definately.
Barney half-smiled, bitterly, nodding. "December 27th, 1981. 10:22 A.M. at the Eisenhower Medical Centre."
The song I had constantly heard now received a closed archive stamp.
"The dreams about me returning to Carnegie Hall blew up in smoke."
He made a sad little explosive sound with his mouth, putting his hands together in a blooming clap.
I paused, waited for a smile, a jibe, anything to indicate he was joking. Apparantly, he wasn't.
The old fruit seller Barney?
"Wait a minute," I asked. "You played at Carnegie Hall?"
When Barney raised his finger, that spark was there again. That rascal.
"Radio City, Lincoln Center, Hollywood Bowl," he croaked, "all of those places."
I hesitated, wondering how much I could inquire about the secrets of his past.
"I had the Stardust Sound," he crooned. "Or so he told me."
"Hoagy told you that?"
His smile was tender, sort of like warm rain.
I knew Barney had played the trumpet. My Dad had told me he was a professional jazz-musician at some point but ... Carnegie Hall.
I thought I'd gone too far, causing him to break into fits of sweat, but instead Barney lit up, kind of like a Christmas tree.
"I never talk about those old days," he smirked, "but they were good days, all the same."
I had been all ready to wander on, going back home, still my trumpet case in my hand. Now, though, I remembered asking my folks years ago why Barney couldn't teach me to play. As far as I could recall, my Dad claimed Barney had "left all of that behind him."
Barney looked up toward those southern skies, the blues, the whites and the yellows, as if to find Hoagy's soul floating on a forgotten breeze.
"I guess I spent too many years hoping to get back to where I was," he whispered.
"Fame," I contemplated. "Gone?"
"I dunno, boy. I just dunno ..."
There was a moment's silence. A realization, more than anything. A short wondering hmm-sound. A decision. He looked at me, nodding, pursed lips, "Damn it, I'm gonna ..." in his mind.
"Come with me," he barked, a growing zest in his heart. I looked at the open door he left behind him, the one box left over outside, lifting my trumpet case and carefully taking a few steps past the box and walking into the shop I realized I never had entered before. Knick-knacks, jazz memorabilia. Bottles behind counters, fruit carts, a small corner with magazines, the coffee commercials, the Hershey Bar posters, of course, but no Barney. What really caught my eye were the photos: Barney with Satchmo, Barney with Bing, Barney and Sammy Davis and then, Barney and Hoagy with another woman, couldn't quite recognize or place who that was.
"Dinah Washington," a rich-sounding alto crooned behind me.
I looked over my shoulder, giving her a sympathetic half-smile, humming the first chorus of "What a Difference a Day Makes".
Chloé nodded, her eyelashes closing and opening almost in slow motion.
"What a Difference a Day Makes," she recognized. "Great voice, laughter like warm Kentucky rain, personality like a Lotus."
Chloé smiled, soft in its tenderness, like Californian love. "She was a phoenix, transforming on stage into this vocal wonder. She could sit next to you for an hour, not saying a word, only to magnetize you entirely with her epic musicality the next moment."
I took a lengthy visual stride from photo to photo, admiring all the celebrities Barney seemed to have known.
"How come Barney never mentions this?"
Chloé half-closed her eyes, looking down. "He seldom talks about it. Not nowadays, anyway."
I grew curious. Pity arose in my heart, too, of course.
"I think Hoagy's death brings it all back," Chloé continued.
"Hoagy meant a lot to him," I responded.
"You can bet on that," Chloé sighed.
Secretly, I wondered why Barney wasn't on the cover of a jazz mag instead of selling fruit in New Orleans.
"He played at Carnegie Hall."
Pain flickered out from beneath her eyelashes, causing her to remember. She lift her hand, flickering with her fingers, causing me to remember Barney's constant rubbing of his hands and wrists.
"He played Stardust on Christmas Eve at the Rockefeller Centre," she emphasized.
Before she could dive deeper into the subject, Barney popped his face out of the small room behind the counter. It graced the midst of the room like a jewel with that one curtain. Dizzie Gillespie decorated the orange cloth that separated the outer shop from the rectangular room leading to the back room. Now Dizzie's large trumpeter cheeks looked crumpled and shriveled in the picture on the curtain.
"Kid," he said, one old hand gesturing for me to join the knick-knacks. "Come over here ..."
I looked over Chloé, who was locking up, "You'll have to go out the back way," rolling out across her lips, me giving her a solemn nod.
"You locking me out?"
"No," she mused, "just fencing you in."
She coined a phrase and added:
"Besides, the back way's closer to home."
I saw in her face how much she hoped Barney would remember - and talk about what had happened.
My gaze turned back to where the wild things were, behind Dizzie. Or Barney, at the very least. Thinking.
He sat there, beneath books, papers and supplies, looking at one of those old two wheeler Telefunken tape recorders. Sitting with his arms hanging down between his legs, back slouched, lower lip pushed out like a cupboard drawer left open, his entire personage exuded the lost chance.
The tinkling of the ivories on that old brown tape rang out safe and true to an old man's sad ears.
I recognized the old tune on the recording, the dwindling and rising of the Stardust melody, played on a piano worthy of Tin Pan Alley: sensitive and yet brash, solemn and yet cocky, arrogant and yet modest.
The one extra wooden chair, obviously put there for me by Barney, reminded me of its presence. I sat down ever so slowly, attentively listening to that piano playing.
I recognized the classic jazz, the purple dusk of twilight time soaring into the meadow of a dreamy void and a melancholic heart, a very old recording, the piano far away from the original device, a young man singing the song. It seemed to be a try-out, an idea scribbled on some left-over sheet music.
Barney lift one trembling finger, pointing at the spinning tape.
"Hoagy made that recording at home while practicing law," Barney whispered between wheezing breaths. "I guess the youngsters call that a demo-track."
He laughed, ridicule in his left eye, nostalgia in his right, expectancy in his stare. He looked back at the recorder with a sigh.
"He made ten copies of that original take, went into the studio to record it," he nodded, looking back at me with another rascal-worthy gaze, "and the rest is history."
He looked me, a sting in his gaze. I'd never seen him staring at me with that kind of wounded pride.
"Thirty years later, on tour, Hoagy gave me one of his ten original recordings of Stardust."
"It's probably worth a fortune today," he laughed, shrugging, leaning forward, giving me a provokative cackle, "but what the heck, you know? You can't buy memories."
I shook my head. "What I meant was ... why did it end?"
"Hmm?" came a confused response. "My career?"
Suddenly, I had a really wheezy feeling of having gone too far. "I'm sorry, Mr. Deveraux, I shouldn't have ..." I stammered.
Barney lay his warm hand on my lap.
"Kiddo," he smiled, warmly, "it's okay."
He sighed, looking back at the player, listening to the recording.
"Besides, I've been hiding my head in the sand for too long. It needs to come out."
The short pause was filled with the last tinkling tones stealing high up in the sky along with Miss Nightingale, making her wonder why she spent the lonely nights dreaming of a song.
He closed his eyes.
He sighed, rubbing old hands together, letting the old home recording of Hoagy's die out like an Indian Summer in Alaska.
There was a click on the recording and only an breezy void on the tape after that.
"I was a young trumpeter back then, cruising the highways, gigging ferociously in between teaching unwilling kids how to become half-way good musicians and auditioning for bands," he began. "There was a hot jazz club in downtown Manhattan called Mitzi's Cavern. A buddy named Don Ruttles was a regular there and had heard through the grapevine that some hotshot was coming to hold auditions for a big combo. He told all the jazz musicians he knew, including me, about it. I prepared a bunch of tunes, mostly Satchmo and some jazz riffs by Ellington. Not once did Stardust come to mind."
"I remember Don," came a voice from the doorway.
I saw Chloé's old but still lucious frame leaning against the woodwork. Relief resided in her soul, it seemed. Maybe he had spoken about it before, that could be. There were bound to be questions with people like Dinah Washington hanging on the wall. I just asked myself if Barney went out out of his way to explain about the pain in his heart. And there was pain here, I could tell. Not that I knew what that pain entailed, but still ...
"It was Frank-this and Frank-that ..."
"He was an awful name-dropper," Barney filled in. "You gotta remember, kid, this was 1949, the war was just over and Rock 'n Roll still signified a toddler performing acrobatic tricks in his playpen. Sinatra was number one on every single chart and Don Ruttles, who wanted to present himself as rich and famous, was having a field-day ..."
"Besides hitting on me," Chloé crooned, sounding like Eartha Kitt, pursing her lips and giving a rather tired groan.
"He did that a lot," Barney mumbled.
There was a pause. When no one filled it with words, Barney looked back at the player as if he was reading the memories off the brown tape and continued.
"I went to Mitzi's that afternoon," Barney remembered. "About thirty trumpeters were there, about half of them silently marking Stardust on their instruments. So I asked this broad that looked like Lana Turner, the It-Girl, who we were auditioning for. She took a lengthy look at me, as if I had just come down on a flight from Mars. She put down her pad and pen and told me Hoagy Carmichael was looking for a sub-trumpeter for his band. I had played Stardust loads of times on stage and decided I had nothing to loose. All those other musicians seemed to blast that song, riffing all over the place. When I walked in, in front of Hoagy and a bunch of his associates, I went the other way, softening it up, really romantic, letting the high tones fly in the refrain."
I gazed at the empty tape, silently rolling along on a loop just like Barney's old memories. The mechanic hum of the recorder ended with the last brown tape flipping off the left wheel. Ka-chick, chick-chick-chick-chick-chick ...
He turned the player off, giving me that sparkle of life I knew so well.
"Hoagy loved me and it gave me 14 years worth of national touring. No substitute work. First damn trumpeter. The other guy I was replacing vanished. Vegas, Hollywood, Broadway, Palm Springs, even frigging Delaware," he mused, raising his one finger, "as 1st trumpeter, Man. Hoagy was kind, a smooth kind of guy. Business man. Layed back. Suave. Good guy. Even got me some shows where I conducted. Then, 1963, ..."
Barney paused, biting on his lower lip, like he was trying to digest a very bitter pill, rubbing his hands together. He shook his head, looking up at Chloé, who swallowed hard and nodded. Giving me a sad smile, Chloé went on.
"Two months before the famous shots in Dallas, Hoagy called us to a conference, telling us he would be cutting down on shows. Financial difficulties, or so he claimed. I think he had some lawsuit on his hands, but that was none of our business," she shrugged, waiting, stalling, searching for words. "Well, after JFK died, many of the younger guys in the band were called into Vietnam. The political landscape had changed. The band dissolved into thin air."
The simultaneous sigh both of them exuded sent goosebumps up my spine, causing me to see how deep this went.
"This hurts too much," Barney said standing up, wandering out toward the shop.
Chloé looked down, shaking her head, realizing that her husband again turned away, fleeing.
"What hurts most?"
I knew that by asking that question I risked his anger. I also knew, however, that he would avoid the topic for the rest of his life if someone did not force him to face what had happened, whatever it was that had happened.
Barney froze, looking like some painting by Edward Hopper: broody and mysterious, seen through the glass window of a melancholic smoke-screen.
He turned around and looked at me.
"You know," he began, "after Hoagy's band dissolved, I did my damndest to keep the level up I'd been working in for years, but I went from Hollywood Bowl to Gramma Hattie's Tea Party in no time. Sure, Chloé still sang the solos, we still had a few good venues, one or two gifted pianists, but it was nothing like before. If your name was not Basie or Ellington, you were automatically a has-been. Remember, this was the time of Flower Power and the Advent of Hard Rock."
Barney wandered in, leaning against the other doorframe, making little 15 year-old me feel like therapist, judge and jury in one.
"It was July 20th, 1969," Barney remembered, "everybody was watching Neil, Buzz and Michael land on the frigging moon. Me? I was running out of paper. I had to write that darned application for that honey suckle jazz gig agency. So, I dashed to the corner store to get myself some type writer paper, arriving at the shop just when Armstrong claimed it was a small step for man. On the frigging way back, yours frigging truly fell off the bike and broke his hand and two ribs."
There was a pause, quite painful, actually.
"Three months in hospital," Chloé continued, "and the doctor's diagnosis that Barney never would be able to be able to play the trumpet again."
Chloé cleared her throat.
"Your Dad called every real estate agent in New Orleans and asked about possible cheap shops for sale. I'd told him that if ever music did not work out for us, we'd open a fruit shop. It was originally a joke, but that's what happened. All of the money we'd stowed away from Hoagy's band went into this place. We paid in cash."
"I haven't touched the trumpet since," Barney added.
I cannot describe the awkward silence that followed, only that a few assorted phrases like "Oh, my" or "Gee, wiz" came rolling across my lips. We sat there, sitting and wondering what weird storm had blown us to smithereens, when the empty tape from Barney's old player turned itself off with a Star Wars-like whiff.
Barney nodded, exclaiming that he better finish up. I embraced both Barney and Chloé, gave them my heartfelt sympathy, made sure he knew I felt for him.
"See you soon," were my adjoining words as I, disturbed and confused, walked out on the streets back home.
My Mom yelled at me for being so late, but I just told her I had just heard Barney's life story.
I don't know what came over her, but, without one word, she served me a full plate of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and egg nog.
I ended up eating the dinner of my life in front of "The Greatest American Hero" and getting drunk for the first time in my young life, not knowing what hit me. About ten relatives, all the while, sat in our kitchen getting even more drunk than I was becoming. Acting the therapist seemed to be worth while after all, I thought to myself while drinking my forth eggnog.
The doorbell rang at round about nine p.m A rather modest and quiet Barney arrived with Chloé close at hand. What surprised me was not the "Ooh's" and "Aah's" that reverberated about the flat, but the fact that a certain familiar melody rang out played on a muffled trumpet.
Chloé, somewhere along the line, exclaimed that she knew all along, the doc had been wrong.
And it sounded good, Man.
For the first time in 12 years, Barney was playing the trumpet again, recreating his own infamous Stardust Sound.
Funny how things turn out.
Don Ruttles called Barney the next morning, telling him that he was calling old band members to play at Hoagy's funeral.
Don and Barney hooked up at the gathering afterwards, started playing together and made a go of it, actually getting to perform at Carnegie Hall during the hot Summer of 1986.
Chloé kept the shop running, but joined them as vocalist for some of the concerts.
Barney had his career, after all.
Barney Deveraux died in his sleep in a hotel in Hollywood in 1991 after ten years of modest touring, but I think he was happy to have made it anyway.
I played Stardust on my muffled trumpet at his funeral.
King Cole's Bar is full and noisy as I sit with a drink in my hand, recalling old friends.
Manhattan remains a haven for divorced men like me: booze, broads and bourbon. My kids call me every other holiday, my ex-wife doesn't bother, but Barney's soul calls me every hour, reminding me of how great it was to be young.
I play with three big bands in New York City nowadays, even at Carnegie Hall and now and then at the Rockefeller Centre. I still play solos from time to time at Mitzi's Cavern. I smile, knowing that this is where it all began, 67 years ago.
And as I slowly get drunk, a familiar melody soothes my senses, and I remember the purple dusk of twilight time and the Stardust melody that keeps haunting my reverie. And I remember Barney.
Life remains a mystery.
The song beckons, the magic remains, the answer is inconclusive, even if played on a muffled trumpet.
And somewhere in the distance, Barney hums the melody of the nightingale, knowing the solution to all our problems, telling us nothing of the true meaning of the Stardust melody.
He just listens as we beam.