FICTION: Music Is a Verb by Matty Bannond

Art Blakey: Music washes away the dust of everyday life.

Watery blood probes the collar of Jenny’s t-shirt and ranges down her back like a trail of termites. “They can’t stop, Jenny. They’ve got to do triage before they can help anyone. The first paramedics have to do this – it’s triage.” She lifts her face away from her mum’s shoulder and sees a row of people alongside them, leaning against metal railings. A man in his early twenties scratches grit away from open wounds that stretch from his wrists to his elbows, sighing red bubbles over a busted lip. “It’s triage, Jenny. The first one can’t stop.”

An hour earlier, Jenny was hiding. It was her latest trick: Making the boredom that hung across her four-year-old shoulders vanish and watching it rematerialise as scorching anger on her mum’s heavily make-upped face. She’d squeezed herself into the centre of a circular clothing rack, tugging at garish orange shirt sleeves until she was completely concealed. Voices began calling her name. Then something changed. Screams. Her name was being bellowed, the voices became fewer and louder until her mum hoisted her up, threw her over a greasy shoulder and rushed out into streets. Manchester was deserted, banners promoting the Euro 96 football tournament trapped streaks of glare from the mid-morning sun. “Fucking hell, Jenny. Fucking hell.”

They shuffle along the metal railings and around a corner, taking shelter from the blazing sun, as well as from the clouds of dust and pretty diamonds of glass that are still gliding around the city. Alarms – so many alarms – clash and howl into the cloudless sky. Jenny raises her head again, dry tears itch in the corners of her eyes. Shop dummies swing below the raw brickwork of the building opposite, loose limbs strewn below them like saplings. She watches them sway and is briefly transported to the landscape from a TV advert, women in bikinis sweeping in out and of focus as they press chocolate bars past their gleaming lips, hammocks rocking gorgeously. Her shoulders tremble.

* * * * *

The front door crunches against its frame and then slams shut at the second attempt. Voices bubble in the kitchen. “Jenny, come here for a minute, please.”

A dull trace of pork chops and mashed potatoes mingles with her mum’s perfume. Warm rain flops onto the grass outside. Her dad is sitting at the little table in the corner of the room, her mum stands by the kettle, straightening a tea towel hanging from one of the cupboard handles. Jenny drags a chair towards her and sits down slowly.

“You’re going to learn a musical instrument. It will encourage you to express yourself.” Her mum straightens her back. Eyes fixed on Jenny’s. “What do you want to play? Flute? Piano? Saxophone?”

Jenny looks at her dad. He grins. “Won’t it be nice for us to have a musician in the family?” he says, the pink bulb on the end of his nose quivering. “Great fun. Imagine it, Jenny: Fantastic.”

Her mum continues, irritated and solemn. “Lessons take place every Monday lunchtime, starting on the first day of term. The school lets instrument teachers use the classrooms while the kids are having lunch. You’re very lucky to have this opportunity, Jenny. Lots of grown-ups wish they could play an instrument – you’re not even eight until next month. What do you want to play?”

Silence.

“Jennifer.”

Silence.

Jennifer.”

“Saxophone?”

“Right.”

Her mum leaves the house after breakfast the following Saturday. She returns with a brown leather suitcase and a bright orange book, and carries them up the stairs and into Jenny’s bedroom. Her elaborate nest of brown hair glows, back-lit by the windows on the landing. “We’ve paid the teacher until Christmas. Take this seriously, Jenny.”

When she’s gone, Jenny picks up Abracadabra Saxophone and flicks through the pages. A future self takes shape in her mind, transforming ink into song, skipping from note to note, nonchalantly skilful. That night, after her mum turns the landing light off, she opens the case and smiles as her reading lamp scatters golden shards across the keys, levers and body.

Miles Davis: Do not fear mistakes. There are none.

For six years, Jenny plays before and after school, obsessed. She spends damp Sunday afternoons transferring vinyl records onto cassette at her granddad’s house, plucking antique spoons out of a display case above the worn couch and using them to tap out rhythms on the carpet. Then other things begin to matter more, until nothing matters at all. “Surely you don’t want to miss performing on that big stage again next summer? You looked like a real star, standing up there with the others. A knockout for the boys – wow.”

Her dad tries to persuade her to keep playing, but he fails. Her mum shakes her head. She nearly shakes it clean off her shoulders a few years later, when Jenny drops out of university halfway through her first year.

African proverb: When the music changes, so does the dance.

A shower of old cassettes clatter past Jenny’s head and onto the concrete floor as she reaches for a cardboard box on a high shelf in the garage. The words scribbled along the labels stir half-remembered tunes around her mind. A rush of bright nostalgia pulls her into the house and up the stairs. She carries her saxophone case down from her bedroom, loads it into the packed car, and drives to her shared flat in Salford. A young Croatian woman called Vesna has the other room. She loves video games. “If you want quiet, I can place headphones. Ask me and I place them. If you play also, we can be maybe friends.”

Her dad sends a link to a job advert and she is offered the position after a long interview. The company makes lubricants for industrial machinery. Jenny has to fill out questionnaires about carbon dioxide emissions. Often, she says she has a meeting and goes to the toilet, reading online forums on her phone until her thighs shiver.

She begins listening to the old cassettes in the evening, downloading albums when an artist or song moves her. She buys biographies: music isn’t enough, she wants to know the performers as people, to understand the messages they’re sending. She reads the books after work while gunfire thunders in the other bedroom.

John Coltrane: You’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.

Listening to each performer again, placed in context, is like switching from black-and-white to technicolour. Instruments stand between the mind of the musician and the mind of the listener, utensils defined by function. She looks at her saxophone resting in its case. An Allen key or a spatula. Sandpaper. A mallet. A pen. A megaphone.

On Facebook, a jazz club on Tib Street advertises a jam session held on the second Monday of every month. People complain in the comments: Professional musicians arrive after their gigs have finished, intimidating amateurs from stepping onto the stage. One user writes: “This music wouldn’t exist without late night jam sessions. To hear it in our city is a privilege.”

Jenny decides to attend the next session.

Joe Zawinul: You’ve got to always be prepared – without trying to.

Very quickly, she becomes consumed. She wakes before dawn, brushes her teeth and goes down six flights of stairs to the cellar to play without disturbing the other residents. She plays after work too, for as long as she can before the muscles on her face slacken, the tone begins to waver, and a film of saliva sprays from the corners of her mouth.

She plays standard jazz songs and improvises using the notes in the scale of each chord – but harmonic structures are a restriction. She changes her approach. She starts learning the tune by heart and then throwing the sheet music away, ignoring the chord changes. She improvises with total and bewildering freedom, repeating each interval between two notes all the way up and down the register, using vibrato, staccato, overtones, bending and slurring notes, biting the reed until it lies flat against the mouthpiece and the tone flickers and squawks. Sound flies, violent and howling.

 

Charlie Parker: If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.

Every time she practises, Jenny props an old mirror up against a shelf in the cellar to observe her finger position and posture. The night before the jam session she sits in front of it and looks at her saxophone resting behind her, its body smudged with trails of saliva that have been dried by dust. Its pearl keys match the whites of her eyeballs. Her black hair has grown past to her shoulders, greasy and spotted with dandruff. Her face is thin and blanched. She smiles. The story I will tell them through my saxophone will be a kaleidoscope of voices, familiar and foreign at the same time. It will set us all free.

Thelonious Monk: It must be always night, otherwise they wouldn’t need the lights.

Instrument cases line a red brick wall on one side of the club. Names of bands and musicians are written on the wall in large, black letters. Jenny goes to the bar and orders a glass of tap water: Sugary drinks make the pads beneath the keys sticky, holding them closed.

The small, round tables are nearly all full. She sits opposite a large man in his sixties, and he pulls his phone out of his pocket before walking to the bar and hopping onto a high stool. A few minutes later, a woman wearing a loose blue dress covered in vast orange flowers sits next to Jenny and offers her hand. “Madeleine,” she says, and smiles. She’s around ten years older than Jenny. “I play the drums. I’m based in Manchester but I’m almost never at home – touring. Have you been to this session before? Do you play for a living?”

“I play as a hobby,” Jenny says. “Alto saxophone.”

“There are great people here, really wonderful people,” Madeleine’s face is like a nectarine, red and plump. “Have you got your sax? Are you going up? Let’s go up together, we’ll do whatever song you want, in whatever key you want, at whatever tempo you want.”

Ornette Coleman: Music is a verb.

Jenny explains that she doesn’t want to be one of the first people to perform. She wants to get a feel for the place, enjoy the music for a while. Madeleine suggests songs for them to play together: On Green Dolphin Street, Footprints. They agree to play Black Orpheus, a bossa nova in A minor.

Jenny unpacks her instrument and moistens a reed in her mouth, before securing it onto the mouthpiece. Standing in a corner with her back to the room, she blows a couple of practice notes and listens to the reflected sound hitting her from the front, just as the audience will hear it. She nods to Madeleine, who leaps to her feet, grinning, and begins negotiating with a small group standing beside the stage.

Madeleine convinces a middle-aged woman with taut neck muscles to play bass guitar. A grey-haired man volunteers to join them on the piano, but he says he doesn’t know the song well enough to improvise a solo. The people on stage finish playing and file down the steps clutching their instruments. Jenny leads the group onto the bandstand.

Jaco Pistorius: When you play, you play life.

The bass player and the piano player agree a tempo with Madeleine. “I’m going to play mostly clicks and a bit of snare – I can’t use the bass drum too much,” she tells them, placing her hand on her belly. “She starts kicking like crazy when she feels it!”

The piano player and bassist laugh. Jenny feels the sections of her brain interlinking and overlapping, waxy and viscous.

As an intro, they vamp the first two bars. The pianist’s rhythm is more like swing than bossa nova, but Madeleine brings him closer to the Latin feel with a few well-placed accents. Jenny plants her feet and begins playing the tune, sad melodic runs cascading deeper and deeper with each bar. The melody finishes. She steps closer to the microphone stand and starts her solo.

Charles Mingus: I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. It’s difficult because I’m changing all the time.

She begins by playing breathy, sobbed ascending lines that invert the feel of the song. Gradually her runs lengthen and she increases the harmonic distances between notes, growing louder. Madeleine fills more space, beginning to use the crash cymbal. The piano and bass respond.

Jenny’s mind conjures an image of Madeleine’s unborn daughter, luminous and pulsating. She speaks to her through the saxophone and the child replies with waves of outrageous, blistering electricity. The image of her expands, colossal, enchanted. Jenny feels like she’s drawing air from the ground, through the veins in her feet, around her body and into the mouthpiece. She plays faster, pronouncing each tone crisply, the phrases bubble and pop. Madeleine’s child is enormous, the band, the club and the city are absorbed and resonating, writhing and throbbing with each beat.

Jenny draws the saxophone away from her mouth and the rest of the band begin vamping the first two bars, waiting for her to play the melody again. She turns to Madeleine and shakes her head. The other musicians close the song with a dragging ritardando ending. The audience applauds. Jenny stands on the edge of the stage with one hand on the neck of her saxophone and one over her mouth, breathing hot air through cold fingers.

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Matty Bannond

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Matty Bannond is a writer from Manchester, UK. He is thirty-two years old and lives in Germany. His short stories have appeared in Open Pen magazine, the Cabinet of Heed and also in Selcouth Station, as well as on the Obliterati Press website and in the Audio Arcadia anthology An Eclectic Mix Volume 7. Alongside writing fiction, he plays the tenor saxophone in a six-piece jazz and funk band. He is currently working on a novel.

If you enjoyed ‘Music is a Verb’ leave a comment and let Matty know.

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