The first time I seen him was on 8th Avenue, that must have been around early ’51. I mean he was a street man and all, so he played his music a little, he begged for a few cents, and above all, he survived.
I remember the first time I spoke to him, I bought him a steaming cup of java coffee, and he just smiled, licked his lips and played a tune to thank me. ‘Man that felt good’, he said to me – I was thinking just the same thing about his playing.
He had journeyed up from Biloxi at the end of the war and had wanted to join a jazz band up in Harlem – but when he got there, the streets were full of sharp suits and trumpets, seems everyone wanted a piece of the action. So he did what he always did, he took his chances elsewhere – and this time he put down in mid-town Manhattan.
The trumpet he carried was real old and had a huge dent on one side. He told me that he’d taken it with him when he went to fight old Hitler and a bullet had hit his trumpet (instead of him) and that was why he was standing in front of me today playing one of his beautiful tunes.
I just believed him – I mean what was the point of saying it wasn’t so?
I never knew where he lived or laid his head, seems that I never got around to asking. Sometimes he’d be playing and sometimes he’d be flapping his gums about some point or another with the folks who took time to talk to him.
Some days, he’d be sitting in that old coffee bar – the one that used to stand on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen. I’d nod and he’d call me over and introduce me to his latest friend. Sometimes, it was a writer called Jack Kerouac, or a strange little man out of Wyoming, name of Jackson Pollock.
One night, my friend, the man who played the trumpet on 8th Avenue, took me to a night club just north of Central Park. I can’t recall who was playing but as we sat down at a table, my bud introduced me to Miles Davis. Man I had always wanted to meet this cat, but the soul who sat in front of me was drained of life, he was solid gone. This genius was as low as anyone could be. He kept trying to find anyone in the club who could provide him with a little something to get him back on his feet. It was only later I realised that he meant drugs.
The Christmas of 1951 was a real freezer as I recall. The snow just lay on the streets and folks dealt with it best they could. My youngest, Albert, slid while trying to cross a street and a bus ran over his leg. I had only turned my back to see where my daughter was, when the accident happened.
My boy had struck his head on the way down, and things didn’t look good. Not good at all. The doctor said that we should prepare for the worst. How your life can change in an instant – I mean, you got to hold on to everything and enjoy it.
At the hospital I walked to the window to get some air, and as I opened it I could hear the sweet sound of a trumpet’s notes floating in the night. Sure enough, across the street, was my pal playing for my son and my family. His way of saying ‘I’m here for you, buddy’.
Jeez, I ain’t one for letting the tears run down my face but between the trouble with my boy and the kindness of my friend, I felt real churned up inside – all sad like.
The last time I saw my pal was in the summer of 1952. Albert had made a full recovery and we’d gone for a walk in Central Park. I remember that day so well as it was over a 100 degrees and folks were falling down all over the place.
Me and Albert had been sitting up on one of the rocks when I could just make out a tune that my bud was known to play on the avenue. I knew it had to be him and I wanted to find my friend and show him how well Albert had done in recovering.
“Albert, this is my pal who played the night you had your accident.”
The two of them shook hands, and Albert said a funny thing. He said that he had remembered the tune and that he could hear it even although he was in a coma.
“I kept reaching for the tune, guess that’s what brought me around,” and with that Albert smiled.
My pal told me he was leaving New York and was glad we had met that day. He was going back down to the City of Biloxi and see what life had to offer down there.
I hugged my pal and promised I’d look him up whenever I was down that way.
We never did meet again, but one day in the post a package turned up addressed to Albert. It was a trumpet, left to my son in a will, from a man in Biloxi.
bobby stevenson 2017