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THOMPSON'S BAR, OFF TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD, LONDON 5.30 P.M. AUGUST 7TH.
'Here where it is always night
Safe from the sombre sun
I see your shadowed smile
And I am quite undone'
From: 'At Night I Burn'
'Another scotch Rocco?' asked Peter Bryant, his affected New York accent not quite able to obliterate the tony tones inculcated by ten years of expensive public school education.
The dead, Bogart eyes of the pianist, weary beyond words, lifted from the table, and looked in a suspicious, unfocussed way over to the journalist seated opposite him. Rocco looked hung-over; but then mused Bryant, Rocco always looked hung-over. Yet even Bryant couldn't remember Rocco ever looking so downcast, so downbeat. Everything about Rocco seemed beat-up, used-up…overdriven. There was less of the venom, the anger that made Rocco fizz; all Bryant saw was an old-man running on empty. Maybe after fifty years of Rocco pissing up the leg of society, society was starting to piss back. Or maybe Rocco was just running out of piss.
Rocco pushed his empty glass over the chipped and charred table towards Bryant, 'Sho', shoot de sherbert, Herbert; jus' keep 'em comin' Mr Journalist Man.' The words were slurred and that coupled with Rocco's thick Jamaican accent made him difficult to understand. Difficult to understand except for the sarcasm flavouring every word, sarcasm that made Rocco's attitude to Bryant abundantly clear: as far as Rocco was concerned Bryant was as hip as a hernia.
'What are you doing with yourself these days Rocco?' asked Bryant casually as he poured the musician a very large slug of Black Label.
Absentmindedly Rocco drew a hand across his wet mouth, the flaccid black skin of his face stretching then sliding only slowly, tiredly back into place. 'Dis'n dat,' came the enigmatic reply, 'maybe saucing a little on de much side.' Rocco laughed at his own joke as he curled a huge hand around the tumbler of scotch and raised it to his mouth. Even loaded, even hit with the blahs, Rocco's hands – those beautiful, gorgeous, octave-spanning hands – never trembled, never shook and never wavered. How many of today's piano wizards would be able to do that when they're seventy thought Bryant: seventy and tanked.
'Hear you've been backing a new girl singer.'
Ignoring the question, Rocco slurped up the scotch, a dribble of amber liquid tracking down his chin to pool on the table. Uncaringly Rocco wiped the sleeve of his suit jacket across the table to mop it up. Only when he was satisfied that the table was dry did he look up at the journalist, studying the man's long thin, pinched face and staring into his small darting eyes for several seconds before speaking. 'Hey mon, yo' trying to breath ma' air? How yo' knows ah's backing a canary?' Rocco's tone was caustic and dangerous; he might be old, he might be addled, but he was a bear of a man and vicious when riled.
'Just wanna keep up to date man, just wanna keep up to date. You know what the jazz world is like; nothing's a secret for long.' Bryant's tone was conciliatory as he poured another large shot of scotch to replace the mouthful that Rocco had just consumed, 'She any good?'
A wry laugh from Rocco, 'Any good? Dat frail's gonna be a real barnburner: great set o' pipes an' a chassis to match. Hmmm, hmmm.'
'Good looking eh?' Bryant encouraged.
'Yo' said it mon, a hum dum dinger from Dingerville. Nice as vice.'
This was always the trouble with interviewing Rocco Bryant thought as he took mental notes; everything the veteran pianist said was shrouded in a drunken slur and encoded into jive talk. But sometimes, just sometimes, hidden away in the static were real pearls of wisdom.
'I hear…' began Bryant but he was cut off by Rocco.
'Yo's hearin' too much on de much side mon. Ah tinks yo's pumpin' Rocco here fo' mo' dan gas. An' angle shooter like yo' mon, wantin' de lowdown and dirty got to make wiv de happy money.'
'Oh come on Rocco, jazz journals don't allow me any expense money,' protested Bryant contorting his face into what he hoped was an expression of hopelessness.
A snort of derision from Rocco, 'Las' time ah's hearin' mon, yo's hooked up wiv de idiot-box and dat means serious action. Bet yo's shitting sugar. Bet yo' don't come down to Thompson's Bar too offen dees days; not slick enough for a cat like yo'. Only good nuff for us musicians. I hear dey callin' yo' 'Mr Jazz' now yo' got yo' own TV show an' such. So Mr Jazz,' the sneer was heavy in Rocco's voice, he had no time for jazzers – like Bryant - who didn't play, 'yo' wanna blow heavy or yo' wan' Rocco to hit de bricks?'
Bryant smiled his best smile, the one he kept in reserve for his most difficult interviewees; amazing he thought that he should have to apply all this effort on small change like Rocco, but this story had all the makings of a real earner.
'Hey take it easy Rocco, we're friends right?'
A dismissive shrug from Rocco, 'Mother like you ain't got no friends,' he took another drink, 'but den ah suppose a mother like me ain't got no friends neither.'
Bryant smiled away his discomfort, 'OK, I might be able to pull you twenty five.'
Another snort from Rocco, 'Dat's chump change mon: a high C or fo' yo' an' me de chill is on.'
A quick look at Rocco persuaded Bryant that this time the pianist knew just how valuable his information was, and that negotiating would do nothing except waste time. 'A hundred it is then.' A nod of agreement from Rocco and Bryant dug out his wallet and handed over the cash: not too bad he thought, having budgeted a hundred and fifty, 'OK Rocco tell me about this singer. What's her name?'
'That her real name?'
'Who noes mon, ah's a pianist not a Pinkerton, you dig?'
'And where'd you meet her?'
'She sang in 'Marmalade's'…'
'That's a club in Yorkshire isn't it?'
'Too right mon. Oop where de sun never shines; where de men are men an' de sheep are nervous.' He took another pull at his Scotch, 'Anyway ah's asked to put a band together for dis chick, dat dey should be modernistic cats who ain't gonna come up weak. So ah get de best in de West mon, an' de best don't cum cheap. Mind mon, yo' wanna hear dis band, all us getting our dicks hard at de same time an' makin' sum fiiiiiine music.'
'Well they got you Rocco and you're good.'
Rocco's eyes sparked, 'Nah mon ah ain't 'good', ah's a 'great'. One of de best. Nah screw dat, ah am de best tho' dis Esborn Svensson cat ain't bad. But he's Swedish and everyone know nothing good ever come outta Sweden 'cept tall pussy.'
'What do you know about N?'
'Not much mon; she ain't no doggess dat's fo' sure, dat girl's fine as wine. Goes in an' out in all de right places; good pipes; written some good tunes…'
'Yo' bet, ol' Rocco here doin' de arranging. Real difficult stuff too, no three-chord crap. Ol' Smithy on de skins been moanin' and groanin' about de rivums. Dis girl sorta likes 6/4 time.'
'Don't know, dis music's ain't like anyting dis cat's heard; sho' ain't doin' de cruise-ship jazz like dere selling the cuffs 'n collars now. Not like Diana Krall or any of dem smooth items doin's de show tunes. Dis chick's got a brain, know's dat only dead fish swim wiv de stream. Nah, she does sort o' sexy stuff dat's heavy on de off beat. De mixing being done by some dance-music mother, one dem cats wiv de computers…'
'They're mixing it! So it's not straight acoustic jazz!'
'Nah dis is nu-jazz mon, like dem French cats wiv de weird names make.'
'Erik Truffaz and Marc Moulin?'
'Yeah, dems de cats.'
'I don't know if I really like nu-jazz,' admitted Bryant.
'You'll like dis mon, it's really heavy. Dis is 'jazz noir', dis is de next step. Yeah you'll like dis man…dat is if'n you've got the use ov de family brain-cell. Dis chick's high, fly and too wet to dry. A real mother. Gonna be a staaaaaaar!'
'You really think so?'
'Yeah, she could make it…' Rocco drifted off for a minute as though lost in contemplation. 'She's got de looks, she got de talent, she got some good tunes. Just wish ah'd met her twenty years ago, den…' He shook his head mournfully, 'Yeah she could be de wun. She could be…important. Maybe her stuff's outta left-field but she could do it. 'Another slurp of scotch and a scowl, 'Maybe she's weird 'cos…' he shut up realising he was drifting into dangerous territory.
''Cos what?' prompted Bryant.
''Cos she's a Ruski, 'cos she's a player, 'cos she likes dis cat Skryabin, 'cos she's got a brain, 'cos she's young an' cute an' got de chops an' she's singing jazz.'
'Sho' was: born in Moss-Cow, doe yo' never guess 'cos her English is lah-de-dah. She bin in livin' in de north, in Yorkshire, where all dem cats wear woad an' simlar.'
'What do you mean that her music's 'left-field'?' Bryant asked.
Rocco shrugged, 'Well she don't do Moon-In-June shit dat fo' sure. Lays it heavy on de sexual if yo' dig?'
'So she's a sexy singer.'
'Does yo' bunny chew de carrots? See dis girl do de business and yo' be red hot an' ready to moan. Sho' makes my dick itch an' wiv de mileage I got dat's sho' somethin'.'
The conversation lapsed for a moment as Rocco consumed another black cigarette.
'What's she like on stage?' This was another key question, this was why Bryant had taken the trouble to hunt down Rocco, this was the reason the story was so valuable. The rumours about what this girl did on and off stage were electric.
A large beatific smile stretched across Rocco's face and just for a moment sparks danced in his yellowed eyes. He leant back in his chair and ran his huge hands over his equally huge belly, affecting an air of contentment. 'Hmmm, hmmm, ain't dat de question mon; wot's dis chick like on stage.' Suddenly he rocked forward, his face now mere centimetres from that of the journalist's, so close that Bryant could see the pores on the musician's obsidian skin, could smell his jazz perfume – that unique blending of alcohol, cigarette smoke and sweat - could feel his hot, sweet breath on his cheek. 'Ah's tell yo' wot dis chick's like on stage: she like yo' best wet dream made flesh; she like dat first cigarette of de day; she like dat last line o'coke; she like everything yo' ever wanted and dere she be, slinking on stage, an' all yo' gotta do is reach out a hand to touch it. Mon ah's sitting behind her pumpin' de ivories, watching dat ass movin' around an' Ol' Henry here's liftin' de piano trying to sneak a peak. When dey see her everyone gonna want a piece of dat ass.'
A slow, quiet smile ghosted across Bryant's lips, that's what he'd heard and, glory be, here he was at the head of the queue.
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