by Bob Brill
Table of Contents
Chapter 2, part 1; part 2
appear in this issue.
|Chapter 1: 1930|
The aliens of the Continuum are trying to bring the universe into balance, but in the process they sure are causing problems for Bix and Duke, as well as their own Agent Gvedn. This tale mixes fact and fantasy to offer an alternative theory for why legendary jazz great Bix Beiderbecke died so young, while the musical genius Duke Ellington forged a glorious career that spanned more than five decades.
Bix sat in a corner of the bandstand noodling at the piano. The rest of the band had gone across the street where the drinks were cheaper and Tony Jackson was playing. Bix liked to set his cornet aside on the breaks and delve into the piano where he could explore the new harmonies he’d been hearing at concerts and on recordings of the ultra modern music of Stravinsky and Ravel. He loved the beautiful dissonances which led him as he moved from chord to chord into new melodic ideas and new avenues for modulating to other keys.
Far away, or rather very nearby but on a different plane of existence, a high-level conference was in progress. The Local Chief Adjustor was skillfully bringing the crosshairs to the target coordinates. “Have a look here,” he said to the others. They peered over his shoulder at the screen and there was Bix sipping his drink, his free hand running arpeggios along the keys.
“So what’s this?” asked the Local Continuator.
“Another temporal adjustment is required,” said the Local Chief Adjustor. “If that human you see can be brought to a certain place at a certain time, we can pull it off, but there could be a problem.”
“What sort of problem?” asked the Continuator’s assistant.
“The party in question,” replied the LCA, “has to reach the advanced age of seventy-five local years to make the rendezvous point. Given his present lifestyle, that isn’t terribly likely.”
“How do you propose to proceed?”
The LCA entered a request for a scan of all currently unassigned agents with the required skills. Several names popped up. “Oh, I think we’re in luck. The perfect candidate for the job is available.”
Bix was deep in the music. The full two-handed chords, a C major in one hand, a G major in the other, pumping in unison, followed by a spiraling arpeggio skipping along the 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of first one, then the other key.
He noticed that someone was staring at him. He looked up and saw an angel standing by the piano. No halo, no wings, actually not an angel at all, but for Bix the word angel leaped to mind. She was feminine in form and of a surpassing beauty. She stood in her glory, smiling at him with a radiance and a presence that transcended his mortal experience. His fingers froze on the keyboard, the hair rose on his scalp and a light filled his soul that made his whole body tremble.
“Play,” said the angel.
Bix could not move, could not take his eyes off her.
“Play,” she said again and this time something was released in him and his fingers continued the theme where they had left off, rising and falling in a tremendous rolling wave of sound. He was far over his head now, improvising in a domain totally unfamiliar to him, reaching and finding melodic passages that rode on the flurries of harmonic waveforms that undulated over the keys. He knew that if he tried to analyze it he would lose it. He just let it flow forth and carry him along.
The band came straggling back to the bandstand and stood around listening to Bix as he flew over the keys. The club manager came over and said, “Okay, boys, let’s get this set going. You’ve got a request for Jada.” The piano player sat down next to Bix and gave him a gentle nudge with his hip. Bix looked up, saw the band, the manager, and broke off his playing.
The angel was sitting now at a front row table. She winked at Bix. Bix smiled and slid off the piano bench and picked up his horn. He called off the tempo and they moved together into a relaxed rendition of Jada.
Bix was hooked. Women often hung around the bandstand, flirting with the musicians, and Bix had had his share of the action, but he could never get close to them. They couldn’t figure him out. He couldn’t figure them out either, didn’t even try. In fact, he never had a close relationship in his life, had never wanted one. This time it was different.
In the days and nights that followed they were constantly together, Bix feeding on the powerful energy that she poured into him. She complemented his every mood in perfect counterpoint. Whatever his thought she was there with the right word, the right gesture, and always the wholehearted approval that warmed him to the bone, that filled the void in his life that he never knew was there. She knew more about Stravinsky and Debussy than he did. She knew jazz from the Delta to the Big Apple.
One day he took her to a baseball game. He was amazed to discover that she knew the names of all the players, their batting averages, runs batted in, stolen bases, the whole story. In brief, she was too good to be true and of course she wasn’t. She just had a superlative research team on a direct brain hookup. But it had Bix fooled and for the first time in his life he was happy.
“Agent Gvedn is doing a fine job with young Bix,” said the LCA. “Six weeks and he hasn’t touched a drop. He’s playing better than ever and his life finally seems to be on track.”
“But can he be kept on track for another fifty years?” asked the Local Continuator.
“Oh, yes, it’s just a matter of getting him round a corner, establishing new habits of mind. After that it’s plain sailing as long as Agent Gvedn is there to make small corrections as needed.”
“And what if he doesn’t pan out as expected?”
“We have other options. We never let ourselves run out of options.”
Then as suddenly as it began it all collapsed. The band was playing a driving version of Goose Pimples and just rounding into the last chorus, Bix punching out the lead over the other horns and the pulsing rhythm. He was watching her swaying her hips to the beat when suddenly she disappeared. Bix froze and missed the last two bars of the number, which ended without him in a kind of soft fizzle.
“What do you mean, change of plan?” Agent Gvedn screamed at the LCA. “Are you saying that an error has been made?”
“No, no, not at all. A shortcut has been discovered, a better way has been found. Instead of taking fifty local years to put the universe back into alignment, it can be done in fifteen.”
“But you started something you can’t stop.”
“But of course we can stop and immediately switch to the new plan.”
“But what about him? You can’t just throw him away.”
The LCA regarded his agent thoughtfully and paused while he chose his words. “I understand how you feel, Agent Gvedn. It’s quite natural that you’ve become attached to him in the course of your work. But now I must ask you to remember that you are an agent of the Continuum and are engaged in the most important mission in the cosmos. If we can realign the universe thirty-five years sooner, a great deal of suffering will be avoided, a great many lives saved. Bix will have to be sacrificed.”
“But suppose,” said the agent desperately, “that the new plan is adopted and at the same time we keep Bix going, just because it’s the right thing to do. Because he’s a genius and the people of Earth will benefit from the music that is still to come from him. And because I’m willing to do it, even if it isn’t needed by the Continuum.”
“I’m afraid not,” said the LCA. “I do sympathize and I’m sorry about Bix, but the new plan requires that Bix go back to the life he was living. Besides, you cannot be spared for such a purpose. You are going to be needed for the real work of the Continuum.”
“I protest, sir, I strongly protest. It isn’t right. Let me give him ten good years.”
“I’m afraid that doesn’t compute. Bix must go down so that Duke may go up. Incidentally, the new plan requires the protection of yet another talented jazz musician, one called Duke Ellington.”
“I heard his band last week. He’s terrific. Will you give me the assignment?”
“No, Agent Gvedn, I am sending you to Yalora for a rest. There you will undergo treatment. You will forget this experience and return refreshed and ready for your next assignment.”
Bix saw his lovely angel swaying to the music and in the same instant she vanished and he saw her no more. It made no sense but Bix was no philosopher and he made no attempt to reconcile the evidence of his eyes with the demands of reason. He took once more to the bottle and continued on the downward spiral that had for a time been reversed by the advent of his angel. He fell into a funk so profound that not even his music sustained him. He stopped playing piano. His horn lay untouched.
He retreated to his shabby apartment and entered into a sickly hibernation. Food had no interest for him. He fed himself on corn whiskey and morose thoughts. He woke one morning coughing and unable to rise. He did not reach for the telephone. He did not call for help and no help came. Bix passed out of the world in the steaming hot summer of 1931.
Meanwhile the career of Duke Ellington was rapidly ascending. Already he had composed and recorded Creole Love Call, Black and Tan Fantasy, Mood Indigo and more immortal achievements were coming. At every turn the way was smoothed for him, the breaks fell out in his favor and his matchless genius went forward without hindrance from triumph to triumph throughout a long and glorious career.
At Yalora, the agent who had played an angel, had reverted to his natural non-human shape and size and lay in a pool of vapors, undergoing restorative therapy.
They played him Bix’s recording of Singing the Blues. “What do you think of it?”
“It’s crude, like the Earth-folk, but it does have a certain primitive charm.”
“That’s one of Bix’s tunes.”
“Who is Bix?”
“It’s not important. Would you like to have a new assignment?”
“Yes, I would. I’m tired of this place. Nothing ever happens here.”
Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill