Music As Sweet As a Honeysuckle Rose
by Sherman Smith
Part 1 appears in this issue.
Stella studied the black man. He was tall, thin and had an intelligent face. Why would he come in? she thought. Is he looking for trouble? Perhaps. But she doubted it. She tapped Ivory on the shoulder, curling a finger for him to follow her. Ivory was becoming their bouncer, their tough guy, if and when they needed one.
Thaddeus, the hotel’s manager, spotted the stranger tucked away in the back of the room. To him a colored on the premises meant trouble. Perhaps, the boy was just looking for a few minutes out of the cold, but that wasn’t his problem. If he stayed, there would be problems. There always were, when you let the colored step above their place.
Look at what had happened to the Fillmore District after the blacks moved off the Southern dirt farms to find work in the shipyards during the war. They had turned it into a black ghetto. Especially now that the shipyards were no longer running and there were so many unemployed.
They had earned good wages at the shipyards, the working conditions and the dough far better than working in the tobacco or cotton fields south of the Mason-Dixon. Most opted to stay, unemployed or not. They had community.
Thaddeus had never liked confrontation; he was a gentleman hotelier, not a bouncer, but someone needed to get this man’s black ass out of here. It was important for the hotel to keep up appearances, not just anyone could come in. He paused for just a moment as he looked across the room at the two Jap musicians. You make one exception and the whole world thinks they got rights.
Stella caught Thaddeus’s angst, giving him that look that only a woman can give that says: Don’t make an ass of yourself, there is no problem here a woman can’t handle. She nudged Ivory forward, and she was two steps behind.
Les Moore slowly stood as they approached. He had a habit of always taking his trombone out of its case any time he was around music. It wasn’t a conscious thing. He just never knew when an opportunity to play might come up. He started to put it back in the case when the woman stepped in front of the white man.
Stella smiled and took a careful but measured look at the human being before her. She could see that while he tried not to show he was scared. He hadn’t come in to make trouble, perhaps to avoid some.
Ivory wasn’t helping the matter any. He was on the tipping point, ready to call on the Sarge. Ready to explode. After five years of imprisonment and abuse as a Japanese POW, his emotional threshold was practically non-existent. It had been Earl, Stella, and Henry that had given him back his will to live, and like an over-abused pit bull, he was loyal and protective of them to a fault.
The problem was that he couldn’t find his own value. He could play a guitar, but he was a lousy musician at best. Music had been the tonic he had needed to heal physically, but he had no real music in him, at least when it came down to the talent of his adopted family here at Stella’s.
He knew nothing about bartending, and one drink brought back the nightmares and ghosts, both dark and ugly. He had an artificial leg; the rest of him was the muscle and steel of a prize fighter working on a comeback.
When his temper flared he was visited by the ghost of his Marine Platoon Sergeant. Sergeant Ware, he could never forget, had given his life so Ivory could escape from the POW camp.
Their unit of China Marines had been ordered to surrender without firing a shot on December 8, 1941. Ivory was the only survivor. Now he would not cower or give quarter to anyone. Here at Stella’s, everyone had his place. Perhaps because of his war traumas, he had become their bouncer, their protective pit bull. This was probably the worst use for him, but was what it was.
It was the way the man held his horn that finally made up Stella’s mind. “Are you any good with that?” she asked with a welcoming smile.
A welcoming smile from a white woman? Les had gotten a few back in Paris, and London. but here in the States? She had to be setting him up for something.
Stella put her hand on Ivory’s elbow, telling him that he and the Sarge could stand down. “Are you any good with that?” she repeated, nodding towards his horn.
“Yes, ma’am,” Les answered, showing neither vanity nor hesitation. “I can hold my own with the best, if that is what you be asking.”
“Well then, let’s see what you’ve got.” Stella stepped aside, her arms motioning him towards the other musicians.
Ivory did not step aside.
Sweeping up his trombone Les quickly stepped past the woman seeking the quickest exit. “Sorry, ma’am; gotta go.”
“Wait a moment, please. Wait.” Her voice was kind and reassuring. “I’m Stella, and this is my place. And my husband Earl, he’s the one on the piano. Take a good look at the guys who are playing our bass and clarinet. Here we are color blind, if your heart is in your music, then you’re with family. Please, I’d like to hear you play.”
Les hesitated. Her words were sweet — too sweet — but damned if he didn’t need a friend or two. He had never felt more lonely.
She turned towards Ivory. “Ivory, don’t forget that this is a musicians’ hotel, and Mister — I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name — from all appearances is a musician.
“Don’t worry about Ivory here, his bark falls a little short of his bite, and just as long as he doesn’t call out his old platoon sergeant, he’s harmless. I’ve been meaning to put a sign in the window, Warning, one pissed off ex-China Marine on premises.”
Ivory did not like being called on the carpet, even indirectly. He nodded towards the tall, black man but did not extend a hand of welcome or even minimal politeness. Instead, he motioned slightly, his arm weakly extended towards the musicians’ circle.
“They call me Les, Les Moore,” he answered with a pasted-on smile.
It was a good thing that Earl had ordered all of the hotel stairwell and hallways left open. The music drifted upstairs where Katie Shigano Hayashi, Yukio’s wife, and three-year old son Jake listened from where she sat on a folding chair just outside the doorway to their new home.
Jake lit up when he heard the bass. “Pop”, he laughed with an affectionate grin. He had been allowed to stay up the night before just long enough to hear his ‘Pop’ practice on the bass. “Pop... Pop,” he repeated pointing down the hallway where the music mysteriously came from.
“Ohhh, baby,” Earl crooned as he leaned back towards where Henry and Yukio played. “Where the hell did that come from?” The bass had come as a complete surprise. Henry had found it in the basement, along with the instruments for a sixteen-piece dance band.
Yukio had played before the war. While accomplished, his playing was rusty, and it would take some time to bring his repertoire up to Earl’s standard. He and Henry had practiced Honeysuckle Rose late into the night.
Les walked quietly over to where Henry stood, his eyes asking if he was welcome.
Henry nodded, just as surprised at the black musician’s appearance as Stella had been.
“Les,” he said softly as he brought up his trombone readying it to play.
“Henry,” Henry answered back. “You’ve got balls.”
“Yep, got me two. Been told Hitler only had one.”
There was someone new on stage. He overheard the comment about Hitler and knew the song.
Land of soap and water,
Hitler’s having a bath.
Churchill’s looking through the keyhole,
Having a jolly good laugh
Hitler only had one left ball,
Himmler had two but they were small,
Goring lost his in the beer hall,
And poor old Goebbels never had balls at all.
Les responded with a chuckle and an honest smile. These here folks are all right.
“Earl is my name, son. My friends have taken to calling me Mr. C. Now, since you are standing in our music circle, I’m guessing you are here to play. You got a name? What is your sound?”
“Les Moore, Mr. C., and I play the trombone.”
“As ready as breathin’ good, clean air.”
Stella lit a cigarette as the sound of laughter, music, and good times filled the room.
Earl opened the set with another rendition of Honeysuckle Rose followed by Lavender Blue, Sweet Georgia Brown, and Button and Bows, all from the latest hit parade. Earl played, but mostly he listened, bringing his piano in time with the bass. Henry slid in.
Earl didn’t know what Les could do or why he had chosen to grace their club, so he threw out a number indicating that Les was to take the lead while he sang.
Les brought his trombone up.
We meet, and the angels sing.
The angels sing the sweetest song I ever heard.
You speak, and the angels sing,
Or am I breathing music into every word
Now just the trombone...
Les’s music filled the room, swirling out into the depth of the old hotel.
Stella was enamored. “Oh yes, you can play all right. You can play.”
Earl jumped back in.
As the tune wound down, Henry joined Les in a haunting duet.
The bass plucking deep and mellow, basic notes that always sounded good, but not good enough. In practice, Yukio had to push himself to keep up with Henry’s clarinet. He was awed by Earl, who seemed to be able to take his music anywhere. This new man had just walked in off the street and, wow... oh wow.
As musicians, Les and Earl had flown. Henry, who had been comfortable in his playing, had to step it up. Which left Yukio trailing behind, playing just some basic cords that sounded good, but had little to do with the music that was actually being played.
“Son, let me shake your hand,” Earl exclaimed. “and please... please, stick around.”
Les set his trombone down, stepped forward, and took Earl’s hand. “Les Moore, pleased to meet you.” He looked at the customers sitting around the piano who were aghast at what they had just witnessed.
Earl could tell by the way Les had shaken his hand, and a faint smell in his clothes, that Les was black. That didn’t matter to him. What mattered was the way the man handled his horn. Sweet.
He chuckled at the horn player’s name. The night had started out with an empty house. Now that they had a small audience, he found their silence disturbing. “Les, you need a room for the night? Thaddeus, take care of the man. And folks, when it comes to music here at Stella’s Starlight Lounge, we are all color blind, more or less, if you get my meaning.”
Copyright © 2015 by Sherman Smith