Orleans. The name held no magic at first. I knew nothing about it, nothing other than that it was an escape. I was naïve. I was dumb. I was blind. The beat, the heat, the noise – that was all to come. Orleans, Orleans, Orleans.
I moved there from Mississippi when I was eighteen, an aspiring artist fresh out of high school. Desperate to leave the stifling monotony of my suburban home, I had applied at the recently opened University of New Orleans, packed up my things and travelled across state. I was not a rebellious or wild kid, but being on my own, being somewhere different, unleashed a certain fervour within me. Something began to pulse, under the surface.
On my first day of class the lecturer told us to go out that night and draw something, “draw anything.” I linked up with two other kids, a local girl called Judy and another newcomer, Robert, from Alabama. We strolled around the central part of town, eating po boys and searching for subject matter. The city excited me, and yet it was not so different to what I already knew.
We eventually settled in Lafeyette Square, and attempted to capture its beauty. I wasn’t ready to stop exploring, and when we were finished I suggested we head off in a different direction. Judy looked at me sharply. “Let’s not,” she said, her voice strange.
I frowned. “Why?”
“It isn’t…appropriate. Or safe.”
I looked at Robert, who shrugged, and dropped the issue.
The next night I set off in the ‘forbidden’ direction, intrigued by Judy’s insistence that we avoid it, and eager to find something worth drawing. I walked and walked, leaving the tidy townhouses and elegant eateries behind. I saw fewer and fewer people, and began passing bars that looked old and tired. Narrow, crammed shotgun houses lined the streets, and the smell of pulled pork drifted from the lunch bars I encountered. Cigar stubs littered the pavement, a myriad of browns.
When it dawned on me that the people I did see were not white, and had not been for a long time, I realised what Judy had been trying to say. I turned around and began to retrace my steps, but stopped when I heard the music.
It was a trumpet, and it was alive and angry, filling the air with a startling urgency. Enthralled, I started off in its direction. Moving down a side street, my eyes locked onto a squat brick building, with Big Al’s lit up on its front in neon green. I stumbled towards it and pushed open the door, and when I did it was as though I had stepped into another world. Everything hit me at once; the acrid stench of whisky and cigars, the haze of smoke clouding the room, the dim lights and packed tables, and above the chatter and the clinking of glass, the music.
It rose over the bustle, merging with it all to create an energy and passion that was foreign to me; the screech of the trumpet, the wild jangle of the piano, the solid beat of the drums. I was exhausted and exhilarated simultaneously, and unable to look away.
I could see the sweat on the trumpet player’s forehead, see the frown on his brow and the muscles on his forearms. The stomp of his leather shoes on the scratched wooden floor seemed to reverberate through my body, and then suddenly he stopped playing, threw back his head and howled. He began to sing, his voice rich and scratchy, not looking at the crowd but at something no one else could see. He wasn’t playing for them.
I stood in the doorway until the song ended, then staggered to the bar and took a seat. All of the warnings and the hate from my upbringing told me not to, begged me not to (this was wrong, this was sick, this was despicable), but I brushed them aside. Maybe, maybe. But at least I would know for myself, something I had never even considered trying to do, simply taking my parent’s, my teacher’s, everyone’s word without question. White people did not play music like that. White’s did not have that…that vibrancy. Maybe whites didn’t know.
“What are you doin’ here, son?”
I started from my musing and looked up. A stocky man wearing a cheese-cutter and a faded navy shirt rolled up to the elbows was eyeing me warily from across the bar.
“I’m just…” I swallowed. “Who’s that trumpet player?”
He raised an eyebrow. “That’s Willard. Why you askin’?”
“What’s your name, son?” He asked, frowning.
“Harrison, I’m Big Al.” He put a drink on the counter and pushed it towards me.
“What is it?” I asked.
I took a sip and grimaced. “It’s good.”
“Sazerac.” He stared at me. “You seem like an alright kid, Harrison, but I gotta ask why you’re here. You must know where you are. Not everyone here’s gonna welcome you, you know.”
“I know,” I said, nodding. “I’m an art student; I was looking for something to draw. I’m new in town and somehow I ended up out here, and then I heard the trumpet. It just…I just had to come in.”
“Yeah, Willard’s sure got somethin’,” he grinned. “I guess if you don’t mean any harm you’ll be alright. Just-”
‘Hey Big, come give a man a drink!”
Big Al sighed good-naturedly and left me to serve a man leaning dangerously against the counter. I saw him look at me strangely and say something to Big Al. Glancing at the stage, I saw Willard take a slurp from a whisky tumbler and laugh at the man on the drums. He waved a hand casually, then picked up his trumpet and burst into a shrieking, discordant melody, fragmented and harsh. It was perfect. Keeping my eyes fixed on the man on the stage, I picked up my pencil and began to draw.
I awoke late the next day, my head throbbing and my throat dry. Dressing quickly, I grabbed my sketchbook and headed to class. I listened absently while Professor Turner gave his lecture, focussing my attention instead on the drawing in my book. Capturing the vigour of Willard’s performance seemed to be a near impossible feat, and seeing my feeble attempt only instilled within me a greater urge to do just that. I ran my pencil around the edges of his silhouette, thinking back to the night before, to all that I had experienced.
Big Al had come back to me after serving a queue of customers, and commented on my drawing. “Not bad, son. You say you were studying the arts?”
I nodded. “That’s right.”
“And you ain’t from round here?”
“Willard might just like you fine, then.”
“I can meet him?”
“If you like. We’re old friends. The band usually hangs around here after their gigs.”
Unfortunately for me, the band did not hang around that night, but slipped out the back door while I chatted to Big Al. I told him I would come back the following evening, and he grinned at me and raised his hands. “If you think that’s a good idea, then alright.”
Whether I thought it was a good idea or not no longer mattered to me. I was already in, from the moment I stepped through the door, the moment I heard the feral cry of the trumpet. I was going back, and that was all there was to it. I had to see more; had to hear more. This world I was in today was so dull.
“Hey Harrison, what are you doing tonight?” Robert interrupted my thoughts, leaning over my desk.
“Going out…to a friends,” I replied hastily. Could I tell them? Probably not. Not Judy, anyhow. “Why’s that?”
“Judy and I were thinking we could go out for a drink, maybe catch a movie. No worries though.”
“Yeah, next time okay?” I smiled at him.
When I went back to Big Al’s that night, he greeted me warmly as I entered. “So you’re back.”
I grinned. “I’m afraid so.”
“Please.” I sat down at the bar. I had arrived earlier this time, and the place was less crowded, the stage empty. But there was still an undertone of energy simmering throughout the room, heaving expectantly. “Did anyone say anything to you about me?” I asked.
“Course they did. Nothin’ too bad, though. Mostly they’re just curious an’ wary, like I was.” He chuckled. “I told ’em you’re okay.”
“Thanks.” I took a sip from the drink he slid towards me. “Are they playing tonight?”
He jerked his head in the direction of the stage in reply, and I turned to see Willard and his band enter through a side door. They waved to Big Al, and he turned to me. “Come on.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come and meet ’em.”
Standing quickly, I followed him over to the stage, where the group were busy setting up. I felt my heart quicken and my arms prickle. I was nervous.
“Willard, boys – this is Harrison. He’s an artist, and he’s taken a fancy to your music.”
Willard stretched out his hand and grinned at me, his teeth a brilliant white. “Good to know you, Harry. This here’s Ross, our pianist, and Smokes Jo, the drummer boy.”
I shook hands with him and greeted the group.
“So you’re an artist?” Smokes asked. He was a muscular figure, with a neatly trimmed beard and enormous smile. “What do you do?”
“Drawings, mostly black and white,” I replied. “I wouldn’t say I’m an artist, though. I’ve drawn most of my life, but not…properly.”
“If you’ve drawn most ’a your life I’d say you’re an artist, boy,” laughed Willard. “But that’s interesting. You any good?”
I shrugged. “I don’t really know?”
“Maybe you should find out.”
“What are you doin’ here?” Ross asked. He was slightly built, and looked much younger than the other two, close to my own age even. His tone was distrustful, and he looked at the piano keys when he spoke.
“He was looking for things to draw, and heard ya’ll playing,” Big Al said before I had the chance. “And liked what he heard!”
“But why were you in this part of town?” Ross questioned.
“I only moved here last week,” I said. “I didn’t really know there were parts of town.”
“Where’d you move from?”
He sneered. “And you’re trying to tell us you’re here ’cause you like our music? Not ’cause you want to draw some pictures of black folks in a dirty bar, and use ’em to do good in your nice white school?”
I swallowed, taken aback. “Yes. I mean, I want to draw, but not for that reason. I want to draw something real, and…what you guys were doing was the realest thing I’ve ever witnessed.” I looked at Big Al for support. “I really do think your music is amazing.”
Ross eyed me suspiciously for a moment, but said nothing.
“Give the kid a break, Ross. Pretty brave, comin’ in here all on his own.”
“Brave! Stupid. Other way round, he wouldn’t be invited inside and introduced to anyone. Be lucky to make it out in one piece.”
“Enough, son.” Willard placed a hand on his shoulder. “They ain’t all cut from the same cloth.” He chuckled. “Just most of ’em.”
Ross grinned wryly and shook his head.
“So do we get to see this masterpiece you drew up?” Willard asked, taking his trumpet from its case, a battered mahogany box lined with faded red velvet.
“I haven’t really done much. I was hoping to draw some more tonight.” I admitted.
“Think we can allow that. If you show us after the show,” Smokes bargained.
I smiled. “Deal.”
The night passed in a blur of noise and colour and smoke, much like the previous one. I sat and listened to the band until they finished playing around one in the morning, paying little notice to the people coming and going, or staring blatantly at me from across the room. When I showed the group my sketchbook even Ross looked impressed. There were two drawings so far, both incomplete. The first was the sketch of Willard I had begun the night before, bending over his trumpet, his eyes closed and brow furrowed, the room a dusky black around him. It was very basic, but I thought you could see at least some of the passion in his performance.
The second drawing was of all three musicians, mid action. I had tried to capture the sweat on their arms and faces, and the worn wood of the floor they seemed to move with.
“These are good, Harry. Real good.” Willard looked at me. “You might just have some real talent, boy.”
I took his words home with me, and watched them circle about my head as I shuffled into bed, drained and content.
I returned to Big Al’s night after night, never losing the intrigue I had initially felt. My studies became second to my ‘forbidden’ excursions, and I felt as though I was living two lives; one of the privileged, sheltered white student, and the other the receptive, passionate free…person. I sat in class each day, drawing, listening, waiting for it to end. I saw Judy and Robert, and saw what my days could have been like had I headed Judy’s warning; saw me strolling with them after class, joking and laughing, oblivious to the real world that was out there, content in my little bubble of consumption and judgement and ignorance. When I entered the disarray of Big Al’s, I felt alive, and I knew that this was life, this was authentic and true.
It didn’t take long for me to slide into the world of the black New Orleans. I was surprised how quickly I was accepted, largely because I knew that what Ross had said in our first meeting was true – if it were the other way around, things would not be the same. Big Al made a show of treating me as his own, and I think I largely owed this acceptance to him. We developed a rapid friendship, such that he would let me stay after he had closed up, and ‘hang’ with him and the band. I loved these times almost as much as I loved listening to Willard. Even without the music and the crowds, there was still that atmosphere of vibrancy that I thrived on, and we sat around the table closest to the stage, drinking and smoking. Ross seemed to come to terms with me after the first week, and though he wasn’t friendly like the others were, he was no longer hostile. I would listen, enthralled, as the group recounted tales from their life, and laughed over shared memories. Big Al and Willard had known each other since they were kids, having both grown up in the same neighbourhood and gone to school together. They met Smokes on their first fulltime job, working construction around the city, and the three became fast friends.
“When did you open this place, Big Al?” I asked, swirling the ice around in my tumbler.
“Probably round about the same time you was born, kid!” He chuckled. “Near twenty years ago, now. My pa died and left me a bit of money, so I bought this place with that, and what I had saved up from construction.”
“Don’t let him fool you, though, he makes jack all,” Smokes said. “He only hired us ’cause he couldn’t afford any better.”
Everyone laughed, and Big Al rolled his eyes and jerked his head towards the bar. “Come an’ help me get us another round,” he said.
Ross followed them over to the counter, and I turned to Willard. “When did you start playing the trumpet?”
He whistled softly. “A long time ago. My uncle taught me when I was ’bout four years old. He took me in when my ’rents died, and showed me the magic. I grew up listenin’ to Louis, and when I started playing I knew I couldn’t go back.” He grinned. “My uncle was a drunk, but he knew how to play. I learnt a lot from him, before he passed on.”
“Is this what you do for a living?” I asked.
“If only, Harry. I’m still in the construction business; Smokes works at the docks. Ross is in his last year of school.”
“How did he become part of the band?” I asked, looking at the kid – because he was even younger than I had thought; he really was a kid – sitting atop Big Al’s bar.
“Kind ’a reminds me of you, actually,” he said. “He just wondered in here one night, came right up to the stage and asked if he could join us. Big Al told us after that he’d been hanging around for days, trying to get in.” He laughed. “Lucky for him, he had talent.”
I nodded. “Wow.”
“You ever played an instrument before, Harry?”
“Does a guitar in fifth grade count?”
“I suppose it does,” he chuckled. “Would you like to play the trumpet?”
I blinked. “Your trumpet?”
“I don’t see any others around, do you?”
“I would like to,” I said in disbelief. I watched as he drew his trumpet from the mahogany case and wiped the mouthpiece with a handkerchief. He showed me how to shape my lips and make a buzzing sound, then explained matter-of-factly how to play several notes, before handing it over for me to try.
I was terrible at first, and caused quite a raucous at the bar, but after a few tries I managed to poorly replicate Willard’s simple demonstration. He clapped me on the shoulder and grinned. “Not bad for you first try.” Taking the trumpet from me, he wiped it again and began to play, a crooning melody at first, which broke into a jerky, excited chatter. Ross leapt off the counter and sat down at the piano, tapping his fingers over the keys hastily, watching Willard. Smokes joined them on the drums, and Big Al took a seat next to me.
“Why do I bother payin’ them at all, when they just play for free like this?” He asked, and I laughed in reply, taking out my sketchpad and beginning to draw.
As I spent more and more time at Big Al’s I drifted further from my daily life. The band and the bar had become like a kind of home to me; I felt more myself there than anywhere else. I drew, and I listened, and sometimes I played. I talked, and I witnessed, and I lived.
And then one day, Willard was killed, and everything changed.
I knew something was wrong when I arrived one night and the bar was shut. When I entered through the back door, I found Big Al, Smokes and Ross sitting at the bar despondently, no one speaking a word.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s Willard?”
The energy of the room seemed dead, and I felt the aching of anxiety beginning to stir within me. Big Al was the one who told me. Willard had been working construction in a white neighbourhood on the other side of the city, one he had worked in before but not for many years. He had been stabbed three times, and his body dumped in a garbage tip in an alley.
I didn’t think it was true, because it couldn’t be true, someone couldn’t just be murdered like that for no reason. That wasn’t real, things like that didn’t happen.
I sat at the bar in silence with the three men that whole night, not a drop of liquor shared between us.
They tried to carry on, Ross and Smokes. Ross even sang a little, but it was no use. I tried to draw them, too; for weeks I tried. We didn’t really talk about it, just carried on with things, but to me the magic was lost. Willard had captured it; Willard had been it. He was the rawness of Orleans, the rawness of the world. The honesty. Without him, nothing was real. Everywhere I looked there was inauthenticity. The smiling postman, the pretty waitress in the diner down the street. The taxi drivers, the lecturers, the policemen, Robert and Judy. When I saw the rawness of Orleans taken away, taken in a careless act of mere minutes, I saw the world for the dishonest creature it was.
And so I drew, but I drew bluntly. I drew empty.
Written for a creative writing paper at The University of Auckland, 2013