GET YOUR COAT, GRAB YOUR HAT
On Thursday, Feb 25th, 2016, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Joe Thaler’s eyes opened, or half-opened, at 9:42 AM. Not all that late actually, seeing that last night he was the guest at the jam session at Soda Bar on Vanderbilt and had stayed out (according to his Uber app) until 2:15 AM. He’d played a set with the regular house rhythm section, then he hung out; drinking, sitting in occasionally, talking to the cats, being a part of the night. At 32 years old, he was two to ten years older than almost everyone at the session. But Joe was ok with that. What he was less ok with was the mild-to-medium headache he had, due, obviously, to, let’s see, one, actually two beers, and then, huh, tequila, two tequila shots, plus another beer, and then one last beer, over the course of about 5 hours, maybe less, plus food…..
And there was the mental fatigue. Underneath all the laughter and friendship of the musicians sitting in and hanging out was a wildly negative undercurrent stemming from chronic musical unemployment, under-employment, frustrated hopes, dashed dreams, or dreams diverted. It all came out in the music and the hanging, the talking. Joe had an exhausting tendency to take it all on himself, and echoes of the conversations bounced around his head. Out of bed, jeans on, t shirt and hoodie on, socks unnecessary, into the kitchen he went.
Bean grinder, water in the tea kettle, two eggs, toast, butter, plate, eggshells, French press, seat at table, quick trip to the bathroom for some nature and ibuprofen, seated again, food, news on phone, food, conclusion. He sat and thought, ruminated actually. What was last night all about? He had spent so much energy, and for what? It had been fun, but now he felt lousy, he’d spent more on booze, food, and a cab than he’d made on the gig, and whatever it was he wanted to achieve musically, it wasn’t at all clear that last night was helping him achieve it.
To the keyboard he went, experiencing the subtle, gooey high of an ibuprofenly receding headache. He played a D major chord and improvised around in that key for a few minutes. About an hour later, he had four lines of staff paper containing something like a melody, something like the beginning of a brand new tune.
Joe was delighted, if still hungover. The melody (it was only a melody) had no fixed identity, no future, no past. It was a captured moment, as innocent as a litter of puppies, with about as much utility.
With the ghosts of the melody still in his head, and in a slight euphoria mixed with creeping anxiety about his career and the after-school saxophone lessons he had to give later that afternoon, he grabbed his laptop and went to the kitchen to send emails and stay in touch with the world.
He wrote to the booker at Cornelia St Cafe, he sent an email to the owner of Barbes, he agreed to a gig with the Loser’s Lounge, he looked to see who was playing where, felt the up-and-down of jealousy and envy and resignation, seeing all the cool gigs happening that he wasn’t a part of, looked at Facebook for 10 minutes before waves of revulsion overwhelmed him, and finished his half-hour of “work” by watching a video of Illinois Jacquet playing with Jo Jones and Milt Buckner playing “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”, in Paris in 1975.
Watching the video of those men, hearing their music, Joe felt embarrassed- for the smallness of his ambitions, the narrowness of the world he moved in. He was ashamed of his self-pity, the privilege of his daily existential crises. Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones, and Milt Buckner were making joyous music, survivor’s music, living music, and here was Joe Thaler, worrying about his life, worried that he wasn’t yet famous.
The song ended, and Joe looked up from his laptop. He looked at his shabby kitchen- cracked, uneven floor, water damaged ceiling, an oven to be avoided, his roommate’s unread New Yorkers piled up by the microwave. He looked at his dishes, at his tablecloth- he’d played or taught music to get the money to buy those things. In fact it was music, playing it, teaching it, being around it whenever he could that provided what little money he had, and therefore provided him with life. That was something.
At 2:18, that something was pushing him out the door to get to the West Village by 3:30 PM to teach a pile of 10-to-12 year-olds whatever they’d like to learn about whatever woodwind they walked into his room with. He got his coat and grabbed his hat and made his way down the stairs, out the door, on the sidewalk, right turn on 4th Ave, headed to the 53rd St R station, thinking of his family, letting him skip out on lawn mowing and other chores to practice and jam with friends. He thought of his private teacher from childhood and teen years, a serious and generous man, and how Joe hoped to be half the teacher that man was. He thought of Illinois Jacquet, Papa Jo Jones, and Milt Buckner, men he’d never met, whose music had made life different today, and had made his life possible.
He walked down the stairs, slightly out of breath, and the R train screeched into the station. The train chimed, the doors opened. Joe stepped on, and went into the world.