Music As Sweet As a Honeysuckle Rose
by Sherman Smith
Two Blind Men and a Fool
began in issue 543.
Clang, Clang, Clang! The cable car chimed that it had just come over the hill and was headed towards Union Square. Les Moore savored the rich sound of the cable car’s chimes. The cool evening fog reminded him that he was a long way from the Louisiana heat. The heat back home had two faces: the earth and the air you breathed, and the ever-present prejudice that kept you trapped in that same poverty.
He was walking on the same side of the street as a white man who was heading in his direction. The pugnacious white man had the flushed face of a self-important cracker who always made it his business to be in everyone else’s business.
His whole life, Les had been dealt low cards by these same self-made bosses. “Boy, do this,” and “Nigger, do that,” and “Boy, don’t you get in my way.” If the boss man said that you was in his way, you was, even if you wasn’t, and he was sure to give you some grief just because he was white and you wasn’t.
Les had found that to be especially true in the Army where he found most everyone above a platoon sergeant to be color deficient: they weren’t black. Most didn’t like serving with colored soldiers. They thought that those who were colored were naturally lazy and cowardly. When a colored man stepped out of line, he caught hell for it. The officers leaned hard on the colored soldiers under their command to drive home the message that there would be no skylarking or cowards allowed.
Les could see the writing on the wall. He was in a section of San Francisco where colored folks were not supposed to be. It was night; the street lights left more than enough shadows, one of which he quickly stepped into, turning his back. Lordy be, don’t let this cracker spot a penny on the sidewalk or have a heart attack as he’s passing me by.
It had been a long hot trip from Broussard, Louisiana. Les Moore had been born and raised there, and he had barely ventured more than fifty miles away until the war broke out. He enlisted in January, 1942 and was assigned to an all-black transportation company, where he saw the world from the limited perspective of a Negro unit.
Well, almost: the senior non-coms and the officers were all white, but they mostly left you alone as long as you did your job. If they felt the need to call you on the carpet, they got on your sergeant’s case. The sergeant then ripped you a new hole where the sun don’t shine, he being madder than a mule chewing on bumblebees. Back home, if you gave cause for a cracker with officer bars to get mad, he’d just as soon hang the sergeant and make you watch.
Les Moore learned that there was a whole other world outside of the hick town he had come from. He had seen parts of North Africa, Sicily, London, France, and Germany. As the war wound down, he spent four months in a camp just outside of Paris. He learned that the world was big, the music rich; and, in a few places, you weren’t treated like a mongrel dog if you were black.
When he got home, he found that Broussard hadn’t changed much. It was small, hot, small-minded, and he still could not drink from the same water fountain as a white man. And the unemployment weighed on you like the humidity; you couldn’t get away from it.
The worst thing was that he couldn’t play his music, not the music he had learned in Paris, the music that came straight from his heart and soul. The best he could do in Broussard was The Beale Street Blues, Alexander’s Ragtime Band and The Darktown Strutter’s Ball.
Anyone with a guitar or a horn played those same tunes, and they didn’t have to be any good. You just had to sound like you was all beat down, which of course you was. Now he played because playing was the same as breathing, something you just had to do. He had heard Harry James, Stan Kenton, Shaw, and Ellington, and they all breathed the same air as he did, smelling of juleps, honey, and jazz. Sweet.
In Broussard, the air was no good. He just had to go, because playing was something he had to do, just like breathing. He had to go where his music coursed like blood through his veins. When he took in a breath, and blew it out, he became one with his trombone.
Les said goodbye to his dad, who didn’t seem to care. It hurt him to see his old man aged well beyond his years from too many years toiling in the fields. Les sought out his six brothers and three sisters, who also didn’t seem to care. He had been away for going on five years, and now that he was home he was just another mouth to feed. His mama cried, knowing she might never see her second-born child again. She’d learned that once a young’un leaves Broussard, he never looks back. There was just not much worth staying for.
He left with two changes of clothes, a bible his mama had given him, a tobacco pipe his father had carved for him when he had gone off to war, his trombone, and the last of his military pay.
He had thought about going north towards Memphis or Chicago. Instead he opted to head west where he had heard there was some new music brewing in Jazz and the Blues. They called it BeBop. Les had to play, he wanted to be better than good. He didn’t care about fame or fortune, although a little fortune he wouldn’t shy away from.
Les Moore arrived on the late afternoon train. The January fog chilled him quickly the first moment he set foot in San Francisco. Coming from the South he didn’t own a winter coat. He shivered, rubbed his hands together, looked at a map and headed off for the Fillmore. With the influx of black workers during the war, this neighborhood had become the “Harlem of the West,” with its own churches, theaters, grocery stores, restaurants, newspapers, music and nightclubs.
A porter on the train had told him, “You goin’ to Frisco, then you gotta go to Jimbo’s Waffle House, that’s where the action is. But I gotta warn you, son, you get on stage you had better be good, damned good, or they’ll kick your black ass right out of there. Those boys are the best there is and they’re writing the book that is going to take us beyond BeBop.
“Now, if you can’t get a chance to play at Jimbo’s, there’s the Plantation Club, Elsie’s Breakfast Nook, Havana Club, the Long Bar, the New Orleans Swing Club, the Blue Mirror and the Booker T. Washington Hotel, to name a few. You want to make a name in music, son, you are headed to the right place.”
That is exactly what scared Les Moore. He had come all this way, and he did not know if he was good enough. How good was good? Playing was like breathing, something you just had to do, and he did not want to have folks say, “That Les Moore, he plays like a nigger from Broussard with a bad cold.”
Maybe I should find a room and hole up for a few days, he thought, Practice a little, work up some courage. That one cracker had passed him by, but it made him nervous to be a black man alone on the wrong side of town.
He took a deep breath and caught a taste of honeysuckle-sweet music. Whoever was playing knew his way around a piano, and that voice: he man could sing. The music was coming from a hotel just across the street.
He didn’t bother asking about a room. Instead he cautiously opened the door to the lounge. A sign painted on the window read Stella’s Starlight Lounge. At first glance it appeared to be as empty as the hotel except for some idle bar staff and three musicians - two Japanese and a blind, white piano player.
Two Japs? Now this just don’t figure right. As far as he knew San Francisco was a racist city: always had been, mostly against Asians and Hispanics. It wasn’t until the war started and the shipyards needed workers that blacks had any real impact. Right across the street he had seen a “No Japs Allowed” sign in the front window of a Chinese laundry. This was 1948 and the war had ended two years ago.
This here is something I gotta see, he thought as he quietly slipped in the door. He chose a small table to the left of the doorway, the table no one ever wants because it’s got lousy lighting and is near service doors that are always getting in your way. Perfect for Les, because no one would be looking to see just who might be sitting there.
Matt, Stella, and Ivory had their eyes on Henry and Yukio as they were about to stir up Earl’s heart with a surprise of their own.
Stub, a professional bartender, was always scanning the room for an empty glass or a new customer. Through the corner of his eye, he caught the motion of the door to the hotel slide shut. A tall black man slipped into a seat at what Stub called the “grouch table.” It was the worst seat in the house, where everyone complained about almost everything.
Stub moved quietly over to Stella and whispered into her ear that they had a visitor. He did so not because it was a black man who had just come in and ought to be run out but because he was their first and only customer.
Stub didn’t care that the customer was colored. He had Tourette’s Syndrome and had learned early about the wrongs and pains of prejudice. But still, this wasn’t his place, and Stub wasn’t sure if he should serve him.
Stub was more concerned that Ivory might create a ruckus. It hadn’t taken long for Stub to learn that Ivory carried a lot of anger just under the surface. He had seen Ivory’s explosive temper. Normally Ivory was a quiet man who kept to his own business, but just below the surface a deep angered burned, which quickly changed that quiet into a sudden need to vent that volatile mixture at someone’s expense, and he didn’t care who got hurt.
Fortunately for Earl and Stella, the hotel owners, Ivory always gave a clue when he was about to go off. It wasn’t a twitch, or squared knuckles. He would call in a subliminal character from his past, “the Sarge,” and then he would start swinging.
Ivory had just closed the door to the street when it opened behind him. Stella’s eyes lit up when she saw two old friends and customers. She greeted them and guided them to the chairs surrounding Earl’s piano. She told Earl who they were and retired to the bar where she needed to make a decision regarding the colored gentleman in the back of the room.
The atmosphere in the room changed. Earl had an audience: small, but an audience. Earl sucked the energy back into what had been, for him, almost listless piano playing and began to sing:
Oh, baby, baby,
Don’t buy sugar,
You just have to touch my cup.
Oh, baby, you’re my honeysuckle rose.
A moment later, Henry’s clarinet and the bass lifted Earl’s music from magical to mystical. The bass came as a complete surprise.
The fact that a black man had come in bothered Stella initially just a little but, as a nurse, she had treated everyone equally. This was different. San Francisco had a history of racial and economic divisions. Everyone wasn’t equal, or at least that is what the minority with the wealth and power wanted as the status quo.
When she and Earl had accepted Henry, who was Nisei, not just as a friend but family, that had been out in the avenues, away from the crowd. It had been at Gibby’s little neighborhood bar where they had first mixed Earl’s piano and Henry’s clarinet.
Earl was blind. His music was color blind. The bar became a test tube where they had tested the social norms. Gibby’s son had been saved by a Nisei medic in France during the war. For all he knew it might have been Henry. Henry couldn’t say otherwise.
One gig led to another, then once a month the bar was closed to everyone but Nisei veterans, friends and family. Stella smiled as she remembered how these men enjoyed the music and the dignity of being allowed their own moment. Yes, they had tested the norms.
When Henry had introduced Yukio and family into the equation, they put the hotel, everything they had, at risk. The Honeysuckle Rose Hotel was a gamble; it was on the edge of the financial core of the city where many of the grand hotels and restaurants made the city world famous.
Walking distance to where Sinatra, Como, Doris Day, Stafford, and Dina Shore filled the clubs. Where people, white people, danced to Benny Goodman, and Woody Herman played. Where Count Basie played but was not allowed to stay.
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Copyright © 2015 by Sherman Smith