“The King of Jazz” — Donald Barthelme

“The King of Jazz”

by

Donald Barthelme

Well, I’m the king of jazz now, thought Hokie Mokie to himself as he oiled the slide on his trombone. Hasn’t been a ‘bone man been king of jazz for many years. But now that Spicy MacLammermoor, the old king, is dead, I guess I’m it. Maybe I better play a few notes out of this window here, to reassure myself.

“Wow!” said somebody standing on the sidewalk. “Did you hear that?”

“I did,” said his companion.

“Can you distinguish our great homemade American jazz performers, each from the other?”

“Used to could.”

“Then who was that playing?”

“Sounds like Hokie Mokie to me. Those few but perfectly selected notes have the real epiphanic glow.”

“The what?”

“The real epiphanic glow, such as is obtained only by artists of the caliber of Hokie Mokie, who’s from Pass Christian, Mississippi. He’s the king of jazz, now that Spicy MacLammermoor is gone.”

Hokie Mokie put his trombone in its case and went to a gig. At the gig everyone fell back before him, bowing.

“Hi Bucky! Hit Zoot! Hi Freddie! Hi George! Hi Thad! Hi Roy! Hi Dexter! Hi Jo! Hi Willie! Hi Greens!”

“What we gonna play, Hokie? You the king of jazz now, you gotta decide.”

“How ’bout ‘Smoke’?”

“Wow!” everybody said. “Did you hear that? Hokie Mokie can just knock a fella out, just the way he pronounces a word. What an intonation on that boy! God Almighty!”

“I don’t want to play ‘Smoke,'” somebody said.

“Would you repeat that, stranger?”

“I don’t want to play ‘Smoke.’ ‘Smoke’ is dull. I don’t like the changes. I refuse to play ‘Smoke.'”

“He refuses to play ‘Smoke’! But Hokie Mokie is the king of jazz and he says ‘Smoke’!”

“Man, you from outa town or something? What do you mean you refuse to play ‘Smoke’? How’d you get on this gig anyhow? Who hired you?”

“I am Hideo Yamaguchi, from Tokyo, Japan.”

“Oh, you’re one of those Japanese cats, eh?”

“Yes, I’m the top trombone man in all of Japan.”

“Well you’re welcome here until we hear you play. Tell me, is the Tennessee Tea Room still the top jazz place in Tokyo?”

“No, the top jazz place in Tokyo is the Square Box now.”

“That’s nice. OK, now we gonna play ‘Smoke’ just like Hokie said. You ready, Hokie? OK, give you four for nothin’. One! Two! Three! Four!”

The two men who had been standing under Hokie’s window had followed him into the club. Now they said:

“Good God!”

“Yes, that’s Hokie’s famous ‘English sunrise’ way of playing. Playing with lots of rays coming out of it, some red rays, some blue rays, some green rays, some green stemming from a violet center, some olive stemming from a tan center–“

“That young Japanese fellow is pretty good, too.”

“Yes, he is pretty good. And he holds his horn in a peculiar way. That’s frequently the mark of a superior player.”

“Bent over like that with his head between his knees–good God, he’s sensational!”

He’s sensational, Hokie thought. Maybe I ought to kill him.

But at that moment somebody came in the door pushing in front of him a four-and-one-half-octave marimba. Yes, it was Fat Man Jones, and he began to play even before he was fully in the door.

“What’re we playing?”

“‘Billie’s Bounce.'”

“That’s what I thought it was. What’re we in?”

“F”

“That’s what I thought we were in. Didn’t you use to play with Maynard?”

“Yeah I was on that band for a while until I was in the hospital.”

“What for?”

“I was tired.”

“What can we add to Hokie’s fantastic playing?”

“How ’bout some rain or stars?”

“Maybe that’s presumptuous?”

“Ask him if he’d mind.”

“You ask him, I’m scared. You don’t fool around with the king of jazz. That young Japanese guy’s pretty good, too.”

“He’s senational.”

“You think he’s playing in Japanese?”

“Well I don’t think it’s English.”

This trombone’s been makin’ my neck green for thirty-five years, Hokie thought. How come I got to stand up to yet another challenge, this late in life?

“Well, Hideo–“

“Yes, Mr. Mokie?”

“You did well on both ‘Smoke’ and ‘Billie’s Bounce.’ You’re just about as good as me, I regret to say. In fact, I’ve decided you’re better than me. It’s a hideous thing to contemplate, but there it is. I have only been the king of jazz for twenty-four hours, but the unforgiving logic of this art demands we bow to Truth, when we hear it.”

“Maybe you’re mistaken?”

“No, I got ears. I’m not mistaken. Hideo Yamaguchi is the new king of jazz.”

“You want to be king emeritus?”

“No, I’m just going to fold up my horn and steal away. This gig is yours, Hideo. You can pick the next tune.”

“How ’bout ‘Cream’?”

“OK, you heard what Hideo said, it’s ‘Cream.’ You ready, Hideo?”

“Hokie, you don’t have to leave. You can play too. Just move a little over to the side there–“

“Thank you, Hideo, that’s very gracious of you. I guess I will play a little, since I’m still here. Sotto voce, of course.”

“Hideo is wonderful on ‘Cream’!”

“Yes, I imagine it’s his best tune.”

“What’s that sound coming in from the side there?”

“Which side?”

“The left.”

“You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mt. Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer wandering a montane of the Sierra Navada? That sounds like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like witchgrass tumbling or a river meandering? That sounds like manatees munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coatimundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas? That sounds like–“

“Good God, it’s Hokie! Even with a cup mute on, he’s blowing Hideo right off the stand!”

“Hideo’s playing on his knees now! Good God, he’s reaching into his belt for a large steel sword– Stop him!”

“Wow! That was the most exciting ‘Cream’ ever played! Is Hideo all right?”

“Yes, somebody is getting him a glass of water.”

“You’re my man, Hokie! That was the dadblangedest thing I ever saw!”

“You’re the king of jazz once again!”

“Hokie Mokie is the most happening thing there is!”

“Yes, Mr. Mokie, sir, I have to admit it, you blew me right off the stand. I see I have many years of work and study before me still.”

“That’s OK, son. Don’t think a thing about it. It happens to the best of us. Or it almost happens to the best of us. Now I want everybody to have a good time because we’re gonna play ‘Flats.’ ‘Flats’ is next.”

“With your permission, sir, I will return to my hotel and pack. I am most grateful for everything I have learned here.”

“That’s OK, Hideo. Have a nice day. He-he. Now, ‘Flats.'”

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One comment

  1. randomkhaos · March 6

    Brilliantly evocative, lucid imagery, amusing, so much there.

    Like

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