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Lonesome Blues

[final draft from Long Days Short Nights ms., summer or fall, 1963]

by Paul A. Greenberg

Dear Boss,

I am tired of prophylactic assignments. Mo Bartel is dead and every newspaper will have the facts. LITTLE MO BARTEL JAZZ LEGEND DIES IN CHICAGO HOTEL ROOM. Or maybe another hipper headline will read LAST BLUE NOTE FOR MO BARTEL. The story will be the same. They will say he was only 37 years old no one knew he was sick that he left a wife and two children and 300 records behind. They will find out he was broke and remember he was the first whiteman to tour with Prince Kingsley. They will remember that he got loaded sometimes and told audiences to shut up. Somebody will run a benefit and that will be that.

I don’t want the assignment. I wrote the Mo Bartel story 10 years ago and you didn’t print it. Enclosed is the carbon copy of the story filed with you then. Print it and buy all of his records with my check otherwise forget it. I won’t interview his wife or any of the guys he played with. Fire me—get a new Jazz Critic for our lousy magazine but I won’t do that kind of story.

I wrote the enclosed 10 years ago with a hangover. Mo was on his way to Chicago I was on the same train and we got loaded together in the clubcar. Mo had just quit The Prince after he refused to stay home while the band went south. You remember the time he was busted in Mississippi and you wrote a discretion is better than valor editorial saying his timing was bad.

Well we were commiserating—me with his jail pallor—he with the son of a bitch boss that I work for. I got loaded enough to ask a stupid question and hit the jackpot. I asked him when it all started that is the music. The elusive, non-personal blues wailer hero Mo Bartel told me and I wrote it down and sent it to you. You said it was too personal, too psychological and too dirty for our magazine or any other magazine and that was that except Little Mo is dead and I want you to print it now and make what amends possible to your own soul if you have one.

                                                      Your (ex?) Jazz critic?

Notes from the childhood of a drunk jazz musician artist hero as remembered by a scurvy critic.

At 15 I was a quiet, skinny, intense and scared kid. My father had split 5 years earlier and my mother wanted me to grow up to make a lot of money and take care of her. She didn’t know what went wrong in her life and tried to compound the same stupidity into my life. I didn’t rebel I withdrew.

We lived in Boston and I worked at a drugstore to help pay the rent and cheated my mother out of tips so that I could go to Boston Symphony Concerts.

The job was fine because I thought people noticed me. That is at first. I liked it when some asked me “please give me a coke” or “may I please have a drink of water.” They were asking me. I was their agent for receiving pleasure and I hoped the girls would notice me. They did and I didn’t like it because I was JewBoy.

The other live factor in my life was basketball. I was going to show them that a Jew could be as tough as anyone. I made the team by determination rather than skill. Years later I asked Tony Nucola, who was our coach, why he put me on his squad and he told me that any one who fought that hard to play was worth having on the team. I don’t know whether he did me a favor or not. I was always playing 9 men. The opposing 5 and our other 4. Except when Keefe Riley played he was human.

Do you remember my Tuesday to Saturday Blues? That's what it was all about. Keefe invited me on Tuesday and I had to wait until Saturday. I went and didn't over and over. I was sure they were putting me on. I would flunk the test and be the laughing stock of the school. They would remember I was Jewish and ask me to leave. One country indivisible with liberty and justice for all that crap and they would call me Jewboy and I would start a fight. I wouldn't know what to say. I hated popular music.

On Saturday I walked up the hill to Keefe's house like a car with a couple of spark plugs out. By the time I got there I was shaking, inside my stomach felt like mush. Mrs. Riley, pretty, friendly, lovely Mrs. Riley answered the door and told me "the boys are down in the basement."

Eight boys looked like an army and sounded like two. I was trapped. Eight enemies of my privacy were looking at me, surveying me. I was searching for something to say when Keefe made it easy—easy like scaling Everest easy like dying. "Hi Mo. Guys this is the clary man I told you about Mo Bartel. Mo did you bring any sides?"

"Yeah, two my left and right." I made it. I was in and still breathing.

Someone shoved a coke in my hand and I was able to ward off questions about how long I was playing or who my teacher is when Keefe shouted above the din "let's get organized and start spinning some sides first one for Mo, Pops Armstrong's Lonesome Blues featuring Johnny Dodds on clarinet."

Love on first sound? Three minutes on another planet. I mean it hit me like where have you been all my painful life. This was what I felt. The truth head on. It cried without the tears showing, it screamed pain without being sent to the nuthouse. It was all about being alone, alone, alone.

After it finished I got up walked upstairs and out down the hill and with tears in my eyes I ran down the hill my clarinet case in front of me covering the fact that I had an erection.

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