“No, no, no… you’re supposed to stay on the B 7nth chord until I come in on my solo. Now let’s try it again from the top….”
That would be the third time that Doug, our fearless leader and lead guitarist, stopped the song halfway through the chorus and sent us back to the beginning. To quote the lyrics, “The hour was getting late…”, and we were all a bit tired. This was the fourth rehearsal in 10 days, and we were all a little burnt out by now.
I’m Ralph, the sax man in the group, so thankfully, with the end of a horn stuck in my mouth, I am usually able to stay out of most of the verbal clashes that take place during the average rehearsal.
“Wait a minute!” interrupted Mary, our electric bass player. “Last time, you told me to go back to E on the bar before your solo. Make up your mind!”
From behind the drumkit, Peter came up with a better suggestion. “We’ve been playing for 2 hours; half an hour on this song alone. I think it’s time for a break. We’ll be in better shape to play this number properly after a little rest.
We all looked at each other, and realized that this was good advice. I put my sax back on its floor stand, and Mary did the same with her bass.
I have been part of the quartet for about 8 months now, and really enjoy the opportunity to unleash my creativity in this musical collaboration. But there is a tedious side to rehearsals, and it is sometimes not very much fun. I think we all share that view, but we stick with it because of the rewards. Sometimes, when we are harmonizing in just the right way, or when I nail that sax solo just the way I want to, the feeling of exhilaration and inspiration that fills my soul is incomparably delicious. And when we play a gig, and see how the crowd fills the dance floor with bodies swaying to our beat, or when the crowd applauds us with unbridled enthusiasm, the work of all those tedious rehearsals seems trivial by comparison.
The four of us moved into the next room and flopped down on the chairs and couches, somewhat exhausted by our hours of intense practice. Soon, the pipe appeared, and the sweet aroma of hashish wafted over our heads, mixing with the lingering memory of musical notes that were recently bouncing off the ceiling.
“Don’t worry; we are getting better all the time. I know I’m a perfectionist sometimes, but that’s what you have to be to make our sound really tight,” said Doug.
“I know, I know, it’s just that sometimes I feel like we are going around in circles, and not moving forward. I thought we were playing better last time we practiced,” replied Mary.
“We are making progress, it’s just hard to see that clearly when we are in the middle of it. Everyone says that our last gig was our best,” said Doug.
“Well, like the song says, ‘The Best is yet to come’,” added Peter.
With that, we all fell silent, lost for a moment in our own thoughts.
Then, without any warning, the silence was broken by the twang of the E string on the bass guitar, which was still sitting on it’s stand. We all looked up with sudden uncertainty, wondering where that note was coming from, since we were all sitting in the next room.
“That’s odd,” said Mary. “I’ve never seen my bass do that before.”
“Just a random vibration of the string when something shook the floor stand, that’s all” said Doug.
“But we were all sitting here, slouching in our chairs because we are tired,” I said. “We aren’t moving at all; so what would be shaking the guitar?”
Peter started to nod slowly, with a knowing look on his face. “Guys, it isn’t vibration. Someone is trying to speak to us from the other side. I’ve seen this kind of thing before.”
The three of us felt like we had been slapped in the face by a ghost. This was spooky, but there was a ring of truth to what Peter said.
“Let me try to talk to them. Maybe there is something they want to say,” said Peter.
“And how are they going to say it?” said Doug. “If it is a ghost, it won’t be able to speak.”
“Maybe not speak, but apparently, they can play!” said Peter. “And if they can play, they can answer questions.”
A hush fell over the room. Quietly, Peter said “Spirit, are you a woman?” Silence….
“Are you a man, then?” said Peter.
For a brief moment, there was silence. Just as I started thinking to myself “This is silly…”, there was a loud twang of the E string. I could hear Mary gasp, as she clutched Doug’s arm.
“Did you live in this house?” asked Peter. Again, silence… “Did you live in Toronto?” he asked. Once again, after a brief moment of silence, the string twanged again. Mary jumped up and ran into the kitchen; Doug got up and stood at the doorway, glancing at Mary, and then looking back at the now-quiet bass guitar.
“What did you do when you were alive?” asked Peter. I reminded him that he would have to stick to yes or no questions; he then asked, “Were you a musician?”
There was another brief pause, then a twang of the string. Mary came to stand in the doorway with Doug, and said, “I can’t go on practicing after this. We have to call it a night. How about getting together again on Thursday?” Clearly, this paranormal episode was making her nervous and somewhat distraught.
Peter said “But what about our visitor? We haven’t heard the whole story yet!”
“It will have to wait, I’m afraid,” said Mary, as she rushed into the other room, turned off the amplifier, and unplugged the bass guitar. I could see a moment’s hesitation in her fingers as she reached for the guitar, but then it was gone as she snatched it off of the stand, putting it away quickly in it’s case.
She straightened up, and looked at each of us in turn. “I think I’ve had enough spooky stuff for one evening,” she said.
We all nodded, and I began to pack up my saxophone. It was unsettling to have such a dramatic brush with the paranormal, and I think we all wanted to wrap up as soon as possible.
“OK, until Thursday, then,” said Doug. “Let’s see if our visitor wants to talk with us again then,” he said, with a sheepish grin.
Driving home from the rehearsal, I felt a cold shiver go up my spine. The visiting spirit had stirred some unsettling feelings in me. At one point, I quickly turned my head, thinking I had seen something in the back of the car, but it was empty save for the saxophone case sitting on it’s own in the middle of the seat.
That night, I tossed and turned in my bed, unable to get to sleep until the wee hours of the morning. When I did finally fall off, I had the strangest dream….
… I was walking down a hallway in what looked like the backstage area of a dance hall. I could hear a piano playing in the distance; an upbeat number with a strong left-hand stride line. In that uncanny way that happens in dreams, time seemed to be running slowly; it seemed like whole choruses of the music went by with each step.
At the end of the hallway, there was an open door. It was twilight; I could see the moon rising through a window in the hallway. Light poured out of that open door along with the musical notes; both filled the hall with a warm, glowing presence that made me smile.
Now, as I neared the door, I could hear the deep notes of an electric bass mixing in with the piano part. The sound of the bass made the walls and floor vibrate in time with the beat. I could feel the vibrations in my own belly, and I could feel myself moving with the music, my steps now springing like dance steps down the hall.
Then, the sound of a clarinet mixed in with the other instruments. Those high, sweet, slightly bent notes at the top end of the clarinet’s range made the music take on a playful, lilting tone… I was dancing faster down the hallway now…
I reached the door and walked inside the practice room. To my left, a honky-tonk upright piano stood against the wall, and on the bench was my father, his right hand merrily playing jazz riffs in counterpoint to the walking bass line of his left hand. He glanced up and smiled at me, then intently continued with his playing.
My father had passed away many years ago. He was a busy man, always rushing around taking care of business, and not giving enough attention to things that brought him joy, like playing the piano. There are only a few fragments in my early memory of him sitting at the piano, playing the old-style jazz that he loved. Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Jellyroll Morton, and Willie “The Lion” Smith were his idols, and I would hear their music playing on the radio when I visited my father at his store. He would be in his back office, hunched over a desk overflowing with paper and fabric swatches, intently working into the night. Sometimes, he would hum along with a song playing in the background, but I know his life would have been more fulfilling if he had taken more time to sit at the piano and let his creative spirit flow.
I looked to the middle of the room, and there was my late uncle Archie, wailing on the clarinet, clearly having a good time. He raised his eyebrows to acknowledge me without missing a beat in his solo. He was swaying back and forth in time with the music; he motioned with the bell of his clarinet towards the floor, and there it was: a tenor saxophone, resting on a stand, it’s golden shine gleaming like a lion’s mane under the spotlight on the ceiling. I picked it up and started to play.
For decades, Archie had been the bandleader at the Casino, a local club. During his tenure there, he got to meet many of the giants of the jazz world, when they played gigs at his club. I remember as young boy sitting with my uncle, listening intently to stories about those days, and dreaming about how, someday, I would have a chance to play with one of those legendary bands.
It was only then that I turned around and saw my cousin Freddie, Archie’s son, holding his bass guitar affectionately the way lovers hold each other. His fingers were flying up and down the fret board, in that masterful way that was unique to his playing style. He had become very successful with his exotic bass technique. At one time or another, he had played with some of the best-known jazz and pop groups in town, and had even toured with some of the famous big bands, like the Duke Ellington orchestra. At one time, he had a couple of records in the stores, but alas, they have since become discontinued.
Freddie looked up and smiled at me; our eyes met, as our fingers danced over our instruments, and I realized how much I had come to miss my musical cousin. Freddie had passed away at the very early age of 50, and it was a great loss, not only to his family, but also to the world of jazz. I suppose it was all those late nights playing in smoky clubs, all those months on the road, touring with one band or another. Freddie had always been thin, and I imagine his diet and lifestyle were not the healthiest.
Even though I had already been playing for some time, I just at that moment realized what the tune was: “When The Saints Come Marching In”. My saxophone danced with my uncle’s clarinet playing, and as my father tinkled on the ivories in harmony with both of us, my late cousin Freddie broke into a brilliant solo that made the room reverberate with our resonance…
I woke up with a smile on my face, and the certain knowledge that it had been my late cousin who had visited us at our last rehearsal.
* * * * *
Thursday night arrived. I hurried over to meet the band and tell them my news. I arrived early to find Mary sitting on a chair, her bass guitar still in its case.
“I know who was visiting us last time,” I said in a quiet voice.
“And who would that be?” asked Mary.
“It was my late cousin Freddie. I’ve told you about him before; he was a jazz bassist, and he passed away about ten years ago,” I replied.
“How do you know it was him?” asked Mary.
“I had a dream that night. I was playing with my father, my uncle, and Freddie. When he smiled at me, I knew immediately that it was he who came to visit us last time.”
“Well, that may be, but I hope he doesn’t come back for another visit. These spooky things make me very nervous,” said Mary.
Just then, Doug and Peter arrived together and started setting up. Mary told them what I had said.
“That’s very cool,” said Doug. “I remember you telling us about your cousin. I looked him up on the Internet; there were lots of sites that mentioned his name.”
“If he comes back, I have plenty of questions for him,” added Peter. “I used to have a ghost who lived in the kitchen at my last apartment. I saw him move stuff around, and heard him knocking softly on the walls sometimes. One time, he touched my girlfriend’s arm. It really freaked her out,” he said, with a curious smile on his face.
“Well, this ghost is not moving into my house,” said Mary, with a nervous laugh. “I don’t have room for poltergeists in this place.”
“I hope he comes back to visit again. I’d like to find out if it was really Freddie, and I’d like to know if he plays music with my family on the other side,” I said.
Doug and Mary looked at me with a “Yah, right” expression on their faces, but Peter took what I said seriously. “I hope he comes back, too,” said Peter. “This is really awesome.”
We started practicing, and before too long we all forgot about our visitor as we immersed ourselves in our music. After finishing the last song of our first set, we decided to take a break, and as usual, put down our instruments and moved into the next room.
For quite a while, we chatted about our music, about our next gig, and about life in general. Then Peter remembered our previous rehearsal.
“Hey, guys, do you think our visitor is around tonight?” he asked. “Spirit, if you are here, let us know.” Silence.
“You see, the spirit is gone now. We aren’t going to hear from him again,” said Mary.
“I don’t know, I think he is still hanging around. We haven’t been paying him any attention, so he is just observing us so far,” said Peter. He continued, “Spirit, do you want to talk to us tonight?” he asked.
Again, silence. We were all about to drop the subject, when suddenly, there was once again a loud twang on the bass guitar string. I could see Mary shudder, and I thought I felt a cold breeze on my back.
“Spirit, are you Freddie, Ralph’s cousin?” asked Peter.
Twang, went the string on the bass.
“This is really amazing,” I gasped. “Hi Freddie, glad you could drop by.” Silence.
“Is there something you want from us, Freddie?” asked Peter.
Silence, then a loud Twang.
“What is it?” asked Peter. I reminded him that he had to stick to yes or no questions.
“Do you just want to hang out and listen to us playing?” asked Peter.
Silence. We all waited for a sound from the bass, but clearly, this was a NO answer.
“Do you want to send a message to someone on this side?” asked Peter. Again, nothing but silence.
“Well then, what do you want? Do you want to play with us?” asked Peter. This time, there was almost no pause; the string twanged loudly.
“This is really too much,” said Mary. “I don’t think I can handle this,” she said, as she jumped up and ran into the kitchen.
“I think this is really cool,” said Doug, smiling widely as he looked at Peter and me. “I’ve never played with a ghost before,” he said. “Maybe I will write a song about it.”
Mary rushed back into the room, grabbed her bass off of its stand, and clumsily stuffed it back in the case. “Rehearsal is over, boys,” she said.
“But we haven’t practiced the second set yet,” said Doug. “The gig is tomorrow night, and we haven’t played all the way through our two sets in rehearsal since last week.”
“I don’t care, I’m too freaked out to play anymore tonight,” said Mary. “Let’s meet at the club early tomorrow, before the crowd arrives. We can practice the second set then.”
It seemed like there was no chance of convincing Mary to bring out her bass again tonight, so we all packed up and headed home. Tomorrow night was a big gig for us. We were playing at a Queen Street West club, and it was really good exposure for the band. I was a bit concerned about Mary and her ghostly distress, but there was nothing to be done about it.
The next night, we met 90 minutes before showtime at the club. Mary seemed to have calmed down considerably, and the rest of us were raring to go, so it looked like the gig would be fine. As planned, we practiced the second set, playing to an empty room. In the clubs on Queen West, the action never starts until most of the suburban people in the city have already gone to bed.
The time arrived, and we played through our first set beautifully, to enthusiastic applause after every solo and every number. There was a great crowd there that night, and we were golden as far as they were concerned. Apparently, we were the only ones who heard the occasional wrong note or discordant chord when we screwed up.
We broke for intermission, and put our instruments to rest. Then we joined the audience and ordered a few drinks. It was when we were drinking our last drinks, in preparation for the second set, that we suddenly heard the twang of the bass guitar.
“Oh shit,” exclaimed Mary. “The ghost is back!”
“It’s not just a ghost, it’s my cousin Freddie,” I reminded her.
“I don’t care if it’s the bloody Queen of England, it freaks me out,” replied Mary.
“Mary, do you think you could let Freddie play with us a bit tonight?” asked Peter quietly.
“Yah, Mary, let Freddie play a number. I think that would be so cool!” said Doug.
“Cool my ass,” said Mary. “When people come out to club, they want to hear LIVE music. I don’t think this qualifies,” she replied.
Time was up for our break, so we finished our drinks and headed back to the stage. The audience was really warmed up now, and as soon as we started to play, the dance floor filled up. We played our second number, then our third. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, and the audience loved it.
The rest of the set went by uneventfully until we got to our last number. When we started to play, I suddenly heard some funny sounds coming from the bass guitar. I could hear more than one note being played at the same time, and it sounded quite discordant.
I looked over at Mary, and saw that she was looking quite annoyed. She was grimacing each time she heard the discord that was coming out of her amplifier. I leaned over and whispered in her ear.
“Why don’t you let Freddie play this last piece? It was always one of his favorites,” I whispered.
Mary looked at me with a very bewildered expression on her face, but I could see that she was realizing that there really wasn’t any alternative. I saw her relax her hands. She was still holding them in position on her instrument, but she wasn’t moving them. The reverberant bass notes continued to stream out of her amp.
I noticed that Doug and Peter were both looking at Mary with astonishment, but it didn’t interrupt their performance. The three of us continued playing, but the audience heard four instruments coming out of the speakers. They didn’t seem to notice and continued dancing merrily throughout the number.
Doug, Peter and I played on, harmonizing with the beautiful, but ghostly, sounds of the bass guitar. Freddie played brilliantly, his notes dancing up and down the scale at lightning speed, his unique style shining through the music like a searchlight. When we finished, the crowd went wild, cheering and clapping like a thunderstorm.
The rest of the night was uneventful. We had a few drinks with our friends and fans, and then packed up and headed home. In the car, I kept hearing in my mind the amazing bass line that Freddie played that night. He really was a creative and talented musician, and his music lingered in my mind. It was so different from the usual style that Mary played.
I wanted to see if I could remember his bass line, so that I could remind Mary about it next time we practiced. Perhaps she could incorporate his themes into her performance of that song.
I was trying to figure out the notes in my head, but that is always a bit tricky for a saxophone player. The tenor sax is a Bb instrument, which means that every note that I play sounds one note lower in concert pitch, so I have to transpose to know what note a bass or piano player would play.
I remembered one passage where Freddie and I played in unison for a bar or two, so I tried to remember what notes I was playing then. It was the same four notes repeated for two bars. Now what were they? If I remembered correctly, they were E, F#, B, and then E again. So in concert pitch, that would be….D E A D.
Did I mention that Freddie also had a great sense of humour?