Walking Into Clouds

by Rick Beck

Chapter 13

Jerome Bing Effect

In Topsy's Cody took his hands away from the piano keys. He placed Jerome Bing's hat back on top of the piano. Mr. Bing placed his trumpet horn down inside the red velvet lined case he carried it in.

Removing a pack of Marlboro cigarettes from his inside jacket pocket, he lit one with a lighter from a side pocket of his jacket.

"Have we impressed your young man, Mr. C.?" Jerome asked.

"If we haven't, I ain't got nothing else, Mr. Bing," Cody said.

Bing laughed from his belly while he enjoyed the smoke.

"We have time, Mr. C. Your young man should be impressed."

"I'm speechless. You didn't tell me you played the piano," I said.

"We're getting to know about each other. You play rugby. You asked me what I'll do. Maybe I'll play the piano. I'm not without talent. Mr. Bing is showing me how to use it," Cody said.

"Someone showed me when I was younger than you," Mr. Bing said.

"My problem isn't that I have nothing to offer. My problem is a government that says I can't do it on my own, even though I'm on my own. I've been on my own and I've managed to stay alive in spite of what politicians do to keep kids like me out of sight."

"It's hard to believe. I got to hear Jerome Bing play the trumpet live and you accompanied him and you sing too," I said amazed. "The government knows nothing about how kids grow up. They know even less about about a kids talent or potential."

I was impressed by Cody.

"I accompany Mr. C. He does the work and I've just got to toot my horn while he does it," Mr. Bing said. "It's what I do."

"Do you know who Jerome Bing is?"

"What do you mean?" Cody said. "He owns this bar. He's a great trumpet player. He has a band and they're great too."

"Which brings me to the question that I need an answer to. How does a skinny white boy know who Jerome Bing is?"

"My dad is a jazz aficionado. He has followed your trumpet playing from New York City, to Motown, to L.A., to Nashville, and to Muscle Shoals," I said. "I came along while you were in L.A. He'd tell me to listen to that trumpet. That's Jerome Bing. After Louis Armstrong, he's the greatest trumpet player to ever pick up a horn."

"Smart man, your dad. I couldn't carry Satchmo's horn. I heard him play live a bit before he died," the big man said. "They called him Pops then. I was maybe ten. I didn't know who Louis Daniel Armstrong was. I knew the name. I knew he was famous, and one night I heard that old man play, and here I am."

"I don't get it, Mr. Bing. You were in all those cities. What were you doing?" Cody asked.

"Jerome Bing is one of the best session men alive," I said. "I've been listening to his horn since I was five or six. My dad must have hundreds of jazz albums. Most don't list all the session men, but dad would say, while we listened to an album, 'That's Bing's horn. Hear those crisp clear sounds. That's Jerome all right.'"

"In Nashville I was still playing live with the country singer's band. We sat in the middle of things and I blew my horn and I listened to the other session men, the bands, but now, you go into a studio, they give you the music, you practice for as long as you like, and then you go into a recording room. You're all alone," Mr. Bing said, taking a long drag off his cigarette.

"They give you a set of headphones. That's your connection to the album being recorded. I'd listen to the piece I recorded, tell them it was the best I had. Once it was done, because I didn't know how the sound I was making would be worked into the album my trumpet was going into. It stopped being fun when I wasn't with the entire ensemble. Together, we made music. Along, I made a sound."

"That's when I decided to come back home and do my own thing, while I have time to do it. I bought Topsy's and I play the trumpet for a live audience. They seem to like it. We keep the place jumping on the nights we're open. I invite bands I like in to play. I do what I want these days, and I get a call now and then. Will I play for some artist I know and like. I go and record one more time. Most artists who want my horn on their album know that I want to sit in and jam with them. Most of them have their own sound studios these days and they call their own shots and stay in control of their music. That makes recording fun again. These musicians want to hear the whole sound while they are recording. Playing alone just isn't any fun," Mr. Bing said.

"How does Muscle Shoals fit into the picture?" I asked. "I don't remember my dad having much to say about Muscle Shoals."

"Muscle Shoals," Jerome Bing said with fondness. "I knew a girl once and she lived in Muscle Shoals.... Whenever a musicians says, 'I knew a girl once...,' you don't need to hear anymore. Men and women have been writing those stories since Adam and Eve," Mr. Bing said, taking a few drags on his Marlboro before snuffing it out.

"Needless to say, after she had my money, and I wasn't making enough to support her in the means to which she'd become accustomed, she left me for a country singer, At least that's what I heard," he said.

"I left Muscle Shoals and I went back to Nashville for a few years. The artists in Nashville were friendly and they like listening to music being made. There were a handful of folks I had an open call to play for at any time. Others I wouldn't touch. It was the South and some folks are still fighting the Civil War. It's a war I do my best to steer clear of."

"You never told me any of this, Mr. Bing," Cody said.

"And now you know why, Mr. C."

"How did you learn to play piano?" I asked Cody.

"A music teacher showed me how to play. I stayed after school and she gave me lessons. That way I didn't have to go home. My father was mean. When he drank, he got meaner. If i stayed at school to practice the piano, he could check on me and he knew I was there."

Cody pointed at the smoking man.

"He taught me to play As Time Goes By," Cody said. "He showed me how to alter my voice to make it sound more believable. I learned the piano from a music teacher, but anything I know about entertaining, Mr. Bing taught me."

"I played the song for him. I don't have sheet music. I can't read sheet music. While I played Mr. C watched my hands. He sat down and played As Time Goes By, after hearing it once. He's the most natural mimic I've ever known. Show him something once, and he can play it back for you. Mr. C is a natural recording device," Mr. Bing said. "Once he could play it and sing the theme, I thought it would be clever to teach him the lines from the movie, Dooley Wilson, Sam in the movie, played piano and sang the picture's theme song. When people hear that song, they think of the movie. All great movies have unforgettable musical scores and often a song that's identified with it. That's entertainment at its best."

"What was the movie?" I asked.

"Casablanca. It was made in a couple of weeks in 1942. It had to be made in a couple of weeks because Bogart, the star of Casablanca, was scheduled to make the Maltese Falcon," Mr. Bing said, puffing away as he told what he knew. "It was made long before I was born and I can still sit and watch it from beginning to end and be amazed. When a movie like that can stand the test of time, it becomes art."

"The Maltese Falcon made Bogart a star. It may or may not have been why Casablanca became an instant classic. Most of Bogart's movies were classics before he died in the middle 50s," he said.

"How did he die?" I asked.

"Lung cancer. He smoked too much. Everyone smoked too much in the 40s and 50s," Mr. Bing said, as he crushed out a Marlboro in an ashtray on the table beside his horn.

He immediately took the pack from his inside pocket and he lit another one, taking a long drag. He coughed, looking at the cigarette.

"Anyway, Ingrid Bergman was Ilsa. Anything she touched turned to gold and she was another reason Casablanca became an instant classic. Bogart and Bergman lit up the screen. Bogart and Bacall set it on fire through the 40s and into the 50s."

"How do you know all this stuff?" I asked.

"Dooley Wilson became famous because of his part in Casablanca. Being a black man, and being the sidekick of Richard Blaine, Bogart's character in the movie, he was immediately famous in the African-American world. He not only played and sang the theme for the movie, he wasn't subservient to Rick, his boss. He spoke his mind and he let Rick know how he felt about his boss being haunted by his one true love, Ilsa, who has just walked back into Rick's place in Casablanca," Mr. Bing said. "In the 40s a black man speaking his mind to a white man could end badly for him."

"Dooley was famous in his own right before Casablanca, but having that part in Bogart's movie is what Dooley's remembered for. It was a breakthrough in how black men were portrayed on screen. It wasn't repeated until In the Heat of the Night. Sidney Poitier's character, Mr. Tibbs, is slapped by a rich white man and Sidney hauled off and slaps him right back. 'The slap heard round the world.' It was set in Mississippi. You can imagine how a black man slapping a white man went over in the delta in 1967. But I'm getting a ways from how Mr. C. can mimic what he hears. He can watch what I do on the piano and in a time or two he can duplicate it, depending on how difficult the piece is. I've never seen it before. I've heard of natural born piano players being able to duplicate what they hear played. I've never seen it until I watched Mr. C do it."

"Now if I could play it without duplicating someone else, I'd be in business," Cody said.

After coughing some more, Mr. Bing crushed out another cigarette.

"Don't sell yourself short. I wouldn't be wasting my time with you if I didn't think you could have a future doing what you do. I don't know how to give you that future, but I'm working on it, Mr. C. There are a million ways to entertain people."

"I saw the movie. Vanilla got a copy, once I told her I could play the theme song. I studied Dooley as he played it. After that Mr. Bing talked me into trying to sing it, and how to use my voice for maximum effect, I watched that part of the movie over and over. I can imitate Dooley's voice pretty well. Not bad for a white boy."

Mr. Bing laughed and I laughed with him. It told the story in black and white.

"You taught me all I know about entertaining, Mr. Bing," Cody said. "I can't do much else."

"I haven't taught you everything I know yet. Let's hear some Boogey Woogey, Mr. C. Remember how I taught you to play it now," Mr. Bing said. "You've got to move with the music, Mr. C. You've got to feel the music. Let that sound rock you."

Cody began playing with an uptempo beat. It sounded familiar but I wasn't sure I'd heard such music before. My toe tapped and it was hard to sit still.

Jerome butted another cigarette after listening to Cody for a few minutes. He stood and moved to the piano.

"It needs a little work. Move over, Mr. C. Let me show you again. It's in how you move with the beat. You've got to feel it in your fingers. You've got small hands. Therefore you need to make them work harder to get them to move with the music," he said. "You play the left hand and I'll play the right."

Mr. Bing took up two thirds of the bench, but Cody didn't need much room. He watched the big hand pound out that bogie beat. Cody began moving his body like Mr. Bing moved his. Their entire bodies moved in unison. They became part of the music. It was exciting to hear and to see.

"Follow me, Mr. C. Make your hand do what mine does, OK? Don't worry about the difference in sound. Play it like you feel it. Feel it like you mean it. Go with it, Mr. C. Go with it. That's it. Feel it coming out of your body, down you arms. Feel it in your fingers."

I moved until I could see the entire keyboard. I watched Bing's big fingers as they danced on the keys. His fingers rocked from side to side on the keys. His fingers danced and Mr. Bing seemed to be dancing with them. The sound was electric. I felt the music running through me.

Cody watched the hand too. His hand was duplicating the music that Mr. Bing was playing. Soon Cody began to rotate his hand to allow his fingers to do what Bing's did. With a far smaller hand, Cody did his best to duplicate what Mr. Bing did.

"OK, Mr. C., give me a minute to catch you," Bing said. "Go, Go, Mr. C, go. You got it. You don't need me. I'm getting up and you take it from here. Let me hear it now. Don't back off. That's it. You got it, Mr. C. You got it."

When he got up from the piano, Mr. Bing danced out of the way, moving with the music Cody made. Mr. Bing went to his chair and his still burning cigarette. The sound from the piano had a lighter touch than what Mr. Bing banged out, but it was the same music. The sound was remarkably similar to what Mr. Bing had been playing.

Cody lost himself among the keys and his hands danced, moved, and bounced as his feet worked the peddles. This was entertainment. It sure was entertaining me. I couldn't name what he was playing but I found myself moving to it.

Mr. Bing took the trumpet and he began to play. He stood and let it rip. The piano kept up with him and the music had Topsy's jumping. I'd always love live music, but hearing it according to Jerome Bing made it close to amazing.

The trumpet was louder and more decisive this time. Cody tried to duplicate what he'd been shown but as the trumpet took on a life of its own, Cody couldn't keep up. It took more work for Cody to follow Jerome Bing but even if it wasn't the same as what Bing played, it was pretty damn good for a kid.

It made me want to stay around Cody until he became a man. I wanted to see how it turned out. He'd only get better. I felt good about knowing him before I knew he could make music too.

I remembered the saucy kid who I knocked down in the arcade. It was hard to believe the piano player was the same kid. There was so much more to Cody than I realized.

I'm sure I sat with my mouth open as the two of them boogeyed. I couldn't keep my feet still or stop my body from moving. I'd never heard music played with as much gusto before. I watched them swaying in unison. The big man and the tiny teen were a sight to see.

Cody looked tiny next to Mr. Bing.

After fifteen or twenty minutes, Bing put his trumpet down and Cody quit playing. Cody looked at me like he was embarrassed. I stared at him as he looked at Mr. Bing and gave him a big smile.

"How long have you been playing?" I asked.

"Two years with Mr. Bing. Maybe two years in elementary school. I learned about the piano in school. I learned about music from Mr. Bing. Was I fourteen the night you found me in your alley, Mr. Bing?" Cody asked.

"Fourteen. Sounds right. A long time ago. Little did I know you had talent. Makes me kind of sad I had you sweeping my floor for all those months."

"Can I tell him the story, Mr. Bing?"

"It's your story. You don't need to ask me what you want to do with it. Tell away," Mr. Bing said.

"Before I forget, Mr. Bing, You said that you met Louis Armstrong once? I'd like to hear about that. He obviously inspired you."

"Inspired me? He did something all right. Inspire might just be what it was. Pops they called him then. I didn't so much meet him as we shared the same space for a few seconds one night a long time ago. I can tell this in a few minutes if you like."

"Yes. I want to hear about it," Cody said. "I've been coming here for two years and you never told me any of this stuff."

"No I didn't and this story is about the greatest trumpet player who ever tooted a horn," the big man said. "This is the story of how I became a trumpet player and a session man. I was raised in Memphis. I was still a kid but in some of the bars along Beale hired kids to clean the floors and polish the brass. One afternoon the proprietor of the bar where I worked, Marvin Hammond, said, "Kid, you want to hear something you'll never forget, you come to the back door tonight at eleven. I'll leave it open. You don't want to miss it, Jerome,' Bing said, lighting a Marlboro. "He didn't say miss what."

"Satchmo came in the back door and walked right past me. He was a friend of Marvin from New Orleans a hundred years ago. You do know who Satch is?" Bing Asked.

"Louis Armstrong," I said.

"I don't need to explain who he was then. He was old and he didn't walk well. I don't think he played much anymore, but when he opened the case and took out that trumpet, my God he was the magic man. As bent and old as he was, he could blow that horn. I was mesmerized. I watched from the side of the stage. He blew that horn like he was at Jericho and the walls came down," Mr. Bing said. "I knew the name Louis Armstrong and I knew he was a well respected black man, but I had no idea this was the man, because they only called him Satch or Pops."

"He played the hell out of that horn. There was maybe fifty or seventy-five people in the bar. They stood and they applauded and applauded, because they knew they were hearing something special."

"Men stood at the bottom of the stairs and waited to make sure Pops didn't fall. I stood beside the stairs and when he first looked at me, he put his hand on my head to steady himself. Then, as he stepped down into the arms of the men at the bottom of the stairs, he turned his head to look at me. His eyes locked on mine and Louis Armstrong gave me the biggest smile," Mr. Bing said. "He was gone a minute later. They hustled him out to his waiting car and he was whisked away," Mr. Bing said.

"I suppose that's the night I knew I wanted to blow a horn like that old man did. I picked up piano along the way, the cornet was no challenge, and I played a little sax along the way, but I was a trumpet player through and through because when I was a little boy, I saw an old man play at the end of his life, and the sound he made could have only come from an angel, and that angel smiled at me. I caught it from him. Lord knows where I'd be if I hadn't crossed paths with Satchmo," he said.

We waited for more as Mr. Bing lit another Marlboro.

"I played on a lot of albums over the years. I even got credit for playing on some of them. I made a good living. When they wanted a good trumpet player, folks knew to call Jerome Bing. It was fun but like Satch, I'm worn out after blowing my horn for fifty years. I blow it when the mood strikes me now. I own a small bar and I have good musicians to entertain four nights a a week. When I feel like it, I play along," he said, looking at his watch.

"Speaking of which, you have just enough time to tell us the story about how we met before my musicians start showing up. I don't know where the time went. It was early a minute ago."

"My story has no similarities to Mr. Bing's," Cody said. "I was fourteen. I'd been on the street for about a year. I'd used the alley beside Topsy's a few times for guys who were in a hurry. It was far enough from the street to make it safe and when you're hungry, you learn to read people who find you interesting."

Cody looked at Mr. Bing.

"Mr. Bing caught me at it one night. When I was here, Topsy's was never open. I didn't know if it ever opened. I'd just finished with a customer and he took off when he saw, heard, Mr. Bing coming," Cody said. "He'd seen my customer dodge out of the alley zipping up his pants. I got up and brushed the dirt off my knees. He saw me. He didn't say anything."

"When he reached the stairs, he said, 'Come here, kid.' I was afraid he might hit me but if he did, I'd have been dead, but that would have solved my problems. I walked over to him. 'How old are you?' he asked. 'Fourteen,' I said. He held the door for me and i went inside not having any idea if I'd come out alive. 'You know how to sweep a floor, kid?' he asked. 'I said I did.' He reached into his pocket and he pulled out a roll of bills. He peeled off a fifty dollar bill and he handed it to me. 'You take this and you go down to Reggie's Motel. Tell him Bing said to give you a decent room. You take a shower. You go get yourself dinner. Mickey's Ribs are across from Reggie's. You can eat your fill for five bucks. You go back to your room alone and you get a good nights sleep. Tomorrow, at 5 p.m. you come to that door back there. You'll come in and clean up. I'll be here and I'll show you what I want. Can you do that? If you can't do it the way I told you, keep the fifty and don't let me catch you in my alley again. You hear what I'm saying?'" Cody said.

"I heard him all right. He was paying good money and he gave me a room with the job. I wasn't going anywhere. I hadn't even seen the piano yet, but when I worked, he kept an eye on me, especially when I was cleaning around the bar."

Mr. Bing laughed as he remembered it.

"Yes, sir. Five tomorrow afternoon. I'll be here, and that's where we started. That first day you busted my butt, but in a good way, Mr. Bing. I ain't complaining. You had me stacking those whiskey cases. I don't mind telling you, I was beat when I got back to Reggie's after that first night."

"That was the point, Mr. C. I wanted to see if you wanted to work or you just wanted to take my money. I'd just gotten rid of a black boy who done that. I made sure you knew what work was. I was trying you out. See if you wanted to earn your way. I figure no boy your age ought to be on his own. No, sir. Even when you are on your own, it don't mean you can't do honest work and have a roof over your head. I worked in a bar when I was nine. Didn't harm me none," Mr. Bing said. "You eyeballed the piano every time you walked by it. What the hell, my life was about music, I decided to see if you might have some talent in your skinny white ass. You did. That was on you. If you had a tin ear or sounded like you played with boxing gloves on, I wouldn't have wasted my time. Life is like that, Mr. C. I can call both of you that. Any how, you surprised me again. You were a white boy that didn't mind work, and you learned faster than I did when I first sat at a piano. I decided we was destined to meet in that alley. What we made of it was up to us, but you've added a little something to my life long after I give up on being surprised anymore."

"I'd learned to play piano in school. She taught me nothing about making music," Cody said. "When I heard you play. I wanted to be able to make music. I never wanted that before I met you, Mr. Bing."

"Oh, I believe that, but you watched me and you could pick up anything I showed you. I've never seen anything like it. I was more than surprised. Not only that, you remembered what you watched me do. Your hands are too small and your fingers could be longer, but you make it work, Mr. C., that's all that matters. Your hands will grow into the piano if you keep at it."

The old man put out his fifteenth or sixteenth cigarette after an hour and a half.

"We all need something we can depend on, Mr. C. I give you something and you surely give me something in return. I can't be telling no one how to live. Half of life is making mistakes. The other half is correcting them. I'm no stranger to mistakes. I'd be the last person anyone would ever tell you to be depending on, but other folks had nothing to do with you and me. I found you in my alley, and, having made as many mistakes as I made, I decided I'd try to keep someone from making so many. Really, I didn't do anything, Mr. C. You did it yourself. I merely went along with you. I've got to say I'm proud I did. I won't live to see how it turns out, but I've seen enough to know that you deserve to make it one day. Maybe you'll use a little of what I showed you, maybe you won't, but I did what I could," he said. "It's up to you to do the rest, but not right away. I still need you to sweep up now and again."

I was listening to a man who knew what he was talking about, and I watched as he took another Marlboro out of the box. He took it with his lips, deftly closed the box and he put it away while he searched himself for his lighter.

I was watching a real live character that came right out of the albums my father had me listening to for years. While I sat in his bar, I listened to him tell the tales about who he was. I believed every word he said, because Jerome Bing gave life to his words.

Cody leaned forward and removed the lighter from the case with the red velvet lining. He lit Mr. Bing's cigarette and handed him the lighter, which he put back in his side pocket this time.

"Thanks," the old man said, after taking a long life sustain drag on yet another Marlboro.

"You kids get to make your own mistakes," he said, picking up right where he left off. "Mr. C, you have natural talent. That and five bucks will get you a small cup of coffee these days. Talent isn't worth much if you don't make it work for you. I can't do that for you. No one gave it to me. I learned it from hearing an old pro playing the horn. Until that day, I didn't know I was going to blow a horn."

Mr. Bing pointed at Cody.

"People will advise you, 'you can't. You shouldn't. Don't," he said with certainty. "Anyone who spends time telling someone else, 'You can't,' is worthless. Steer clear of that fellow. What we have is nothing but our dreams, Mr. C and Mr. C. You can't live your dreams by doing what you are told. You can't do what people tell you that you should be doing. You've got to have a dream. You've got to be smart enough to follow it, until you no longer can dream or until you're too old to dream. Life is about our dreams. Give up on your dreams and you give up on life. Then you're bored and miserable. It's easy to see who is bored and miserable. Keep an eye on those folks. Is that what you want out of life? Hell no you don't. Find your dream and follow it," he said puffing away on his Marlboro.

"I ain't much to look at but I lived my dream. People said, 'That little Nigger thinks he's going to play like Satchmo. You crazy little boy.' I never thought I could play like the great man. I thought I could play like Jerome Bing, and that's what I wanted to do. It's what I did.' It may be over now, but I showed up and I followed that dream. If I hadn't, I'd have been miserable. About the only way a black man could make the living a white man made was in sports or entertainment. I knew what I was doing and I wasn't going to spend my life waiting on snooty white folks. I'd have gotten myself shot."

"A different kind of slavery," Cody said.

I cringed.

"You see the big picture. The man needs us so they don't need to clean up after themselves. Once you learn you're invisible to most people, you'll stop looking to please them and you'll please yourself, unless you like being a slave, a flunky, a gofer, and that's what I learned from blowing my horn for fifty years. I was no one's gopher. I could stand tall and hold my head high. I did what I set out to do. If someone treated me badly, I took my horn somewhere else. When you come down to it, we're all slaves to someone. The rich folks run and control everything. They get richer and richer as long as we keep working harder and harder. We've all become slaves to our wages."

"Thank you," I said. "I've never heard someone explain life in those terms. I'm not going to do what I'm told. I want to find my dream. I haven't found it yet, but I'm going to keep looking, Mr. Bing."

"It's the truth as I know it," he said. "Now go find your truth. You're at the starting gate. Go find your truth and don't take my word for it. Look around and see the people pretending they are living their lives as they want. Watch what they do and how excited they are about doing it. And you boys need to get out of here before the band shows up. I got work to do. Come back when you can. I'll see you next Tuesday," he said, pulling a roll of bills and peeling off the top bill to give to Cody. "Reggie giving you any lip, Mr. C?"

"I hardly see him, Mr. Bing. If he's out he talks for a few minutes. He seems nice enough. He's never had much to say."

"Good. We go back a long way. Reggie's OK when he ain't drunk," he said. "When I bought that motel, I had in mind to have bands come to Topsy's from all over the world. Never worked out quite like that but the motel comes in handy and Reggie's OK. When I put him in charge, I wasn't sure he could stay out of the bottle, but he's doing OK, and that's all I can ask from him. He was a musician. He toured with a band for a long time. Then the booze ruined him. He needed something steady and I gave it to him. He's OK," Mr. Bing said.

He walked us to the backdoor to unlock it and let us out.

"Goodnight Mr. C and Mr. C. After this the night will be dull."

We said our goodbyes and we walked away from Topsy's.

Mr. Bing gave me a lot to think about. No one his age had ever given me as much information about living life. I believed the things he said and I knew he told it like it was.

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