Monday, March 16, 2009

Music Appreciation

I'm seated at our Wurlitzer upright, staring at the sheet music for “I Can’t Get Started.” As I hesitantly ping on the keys, I attempt to sing its lyrics. In my head I’m hearing Carmen McRae’s lush vocals. In reality, my sounds are nowhere in her neighborhood. But still, I’m having a grand time.

As I shakily play and sing, “I’ve been around the world…” my mind wanders back to the first time I discovered jazz and Carmen McRae. The year is 1959, and my widowed mother and I live in a garden apartment (really a basement) on Chicago’s north side.

In this particular vision, I see the younger me lying in bed with Jeff L., a boy I dated during my college years. We were in his parents’ apartment on North Clarendon, fully clothed, when Jeff said, “I’m going to introduce you to Daddy-O Daley. You know ‘Daddio on the Raddio on WXFM.’ He invited me to his midnight show and said I could bring a friend.”

“Midnight?” I repeated. “That means we won’t get home till morning. My mom will have a conniption fit.”

“Don’t tell her,” Jeff said. He brushed my hair back from my face and smiled. Although he was handsome, in a Paul Newman-sort of way, I knew I was one of several girls he took out. No way would this sexy guy tempt me to go all the way. After all, I was a good Jewish girl and chastity ruled. If Jeff really wanted to get laid, he could turn to the easy girls at school, or to the rumored cathouses in Peoria.

“Just say we’re going out on a date. She’ll be asleep when you get home and won’t know the difference.”

I looked up into Jeff’s blue eyes, pictured myself cuddling next to him in his dad’s Chevy Impala, and shoved the image of my mother out of my head. “Okay,” I said.

That evening, after fudging about my plans, I joined Jeff. When we arrived and entered the studio, I held tightly to his hand. “Hello sweetheart,” Daddy-O said when we were introduced. Flirty, and grinning widely, “Is this guy corrupting you?”

“With my permission,” I answered, smiling back. “Thanks for letting me sit in.”

“Pretty ladies are always welcome here,” Daddy-O said. He leaned over to kiss my cheek, and I could smell his hair’s pomade and cologne.

Then, Daddy-O seated Jeff and me on two chairs outside his glass-enclosed booth. As we watched, Daddy-O played his records and purred to his radio audience as if they were next to him instead of in their homes, cars, and workplaces. I imagined his listeners – couples making love in dim-lit bedrooms, sweethearts returning home from a date, and night cleaning crews carting their portables along with a mop bucket.

That night at Daddy-O's, I learned the names and popular tunes of jazz singers and became a fan of all of them. The women: Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, and Sarah Vaughn. And the men: Joe Williams, Barry White, Johnny Hartman, Frank Sinatra, and Mel Torme.

As we listened to the recordings, Alex pulled my chair next to his and put his arm around my shoulders. From inside his booth, Daddy-O winked, as if to say, Enjoy.

“Hmm,” Jeff murmured, putting his free hand on my knee.

“Hmm,” I agreed, and put my own hand on top of his – to feel the connection, but also to impede its progress. I was grateful we were in a public place, rather than in Jeff’s bedroom, because the late-night hour, the low-pitched crooners, the syrupy songs, and Daddy-O’s thumbs up might’ve been just enough to move me from my firm position to one horizontal and compliant. Or not.

At the end of the broadcast, Daddy-O removed his headphones and emerged from the booth. Jeff’s fingers gave a final squeeze to my thigh, and then we both rose to take the disk jockey’s offered palm. Ignoring Jeff, Daddy-O turned to me and asked, “So, sweetheart, how was your jazz immersion? Do we have a fan?”

Instead of stopping at the handshake, I stood on tiptoes to kiss Daddy O’s cheek. I wasn’t sure why I added the affectionate gesture; perhaps it was the jazz music that flowed through my body and was still playing on an endless loop. Or perhaps, it was because I just felt wonderful.

After Jeff and I left the studio, we drove silently while he tried to find similar music on the car radio. When we pulled up to my building, we capped the evening by making out in the front seat. Of course, my version of making out involved kissing, but no unbuttoning or unzipping. Although the music had affected me, the drive home with the windows open, and the dashboard clock that showed the late hour, quickly rescued me from the danger zone.

“Thank you,” I told Jeff when he switched off his motor. “I’ll never forget this night. I loved every minute of it.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Jeff said. He used the back of his hand to wipe away my lipstick. When he glimpsed his wristwatch's time, he added, “Good luck with your mother.” Then, he reached across to unlock the car door and watched as I rushed to my apartment building.

I was quiet as could be when I unlocked the deadbolt to our flat. After tiptoeing down the two steps to the living room, I spotted my mother. She was in her chenille robe curled up in a corner of the couch, twisting a Kleenex in her arthritic fingers.

“Where have you been?” she asked. She used the tissue to wipe away still-flowing tears. “I’ve been worried sick. Do you know what time it is? I thought you were dead somewhere in an alley. How could you do this to me? It’s not enough your father drops dead and leaves me alone? You’re going to kill me, too.”

“Mommy, I’m sorry,” I said. I dumped my purse and jacket on the steps and rushed to her on the couch. “I went to a radio show with Jeff. I was going to call you when I saw how late it was but I didn’t want to wake you up.”

“I don’t deserve this,” my mother said, “I don’t deserve this.”

The memory of my mother’s long-ago lament woke me from my reverie. I shook away her words and instead concentrated on the tune on the songbook. “I’ve been around the world…” I sang, this time a little louder, a bit bolder, and somewhat nearer the key.