by Dee Kohanna Davis
Floating above my piano, eyes closed, Eric blows a flute in a suit. Date of the photo: 1959—five years before his exit. Is he playing the melody or the solo? I imagine it whole. It’s a ballad. “Ode to Charlie Parker,” duet with Booker Little. They entwine around the melody, then disengage with a flutter that begins the complex birdsong of the flute solo.
One evening, seated at the keyboard, I look up at Eric and he’s flipped from left to right.
Eric, I say to the photo, you’re
backwards. He glances around and says, “I am?”
You are, I say.
“I’m not surprised,” he responds. “I’m trying to figure a way out of this thing. Would you be kind enough to help me? I’ve gotta get to a gig.”
I blink. Eric Dolphy. I’m talking to Eric Dolphy.
Sorry, I say, but I don’t know how to help. However you got in, that must be the way out. He sighs. Over his shoulder and into an echo he calls, “Pardon?” then turns back to face me. “Booker says he’s tired of being dead. We both are. I miss the birds. And Booker was just getting started.” He cups his hand to his ear. “Oh. He can’t get to his horn. That’s a shame.”
“You sure?” he calls into the distance. “I hate to leave him, but what can I do? Okay, well here, let me try and step out.”
I move the piano so he won’t land on it. Two long legs and arms full. He hands me the flute. He makes it out of the frame with remarkable grace. He’s got the alto and the bass clarinet and his suit is barely wrinkled.
“Mind if we walk?” he asks.
Through the streets on an autumn evening, we’re quiet until he says, “This isn’t Berlin, is it? I died in Berlin.”
I know, I say, I can hardly stand it.
“It’s done,” he shrugs, to be reassuring.
You’re in Santa Cruz, I offer.
“Hmm,” he says, “That makes sense. The air has a kind of dry bounce to it. It’s an ocean thing. There’s less sustain near the ocean.” He breathes in. “We must be close. Are we close?”
We pass under some sycamores on Cedar Street when Eric stops. He cocks his head. A smile, a sliver of a moon on his serious face, and a look of recognition. “I remember you,” he says, affectionately.
Who, I ask?
“Listen,” he whispers. “A
mockingbird. He’s calling for a mate.” Eric closes his eyes, takes it in. “There are melodies inside the melodies,” he says. He mimics the song, whistling. “Do you hear the notes between the notes?” I do; or I think I do.
I don’t know if it’s happy or sad, I say.
“It’s a threnody,” he replies, and I make a mental note to look up the word when I get home. “But it’s not sad, either. He just wants to make his case.”
Eric speaks of the layered melody as a brush painting, brisk whisks of color of varied opacities, alternately
rippling and staccato; and he taps out a rhythm against the song.
Now we’re on the sidewalk in front of Caffe Pergolesi. It’s crowded with
college students sitting out on the deck. The familiar sound of cups on saucers comingles with the more futuristic dinging and chirping of electronic devices. Like a tour guide to a world for which his music had been a harbinger, but which he didn’t live to inhabit, I try to explain
ringtones, iPods, the Internet; but it’s overwhelming, so I drop it. Technology has made for the
hyper-real, I tell him. It brings the faraway closer than your skin and keeps the near eerily remote, I say, glancing around at students transfixed by their screens.
“The world is more metallic now,” he muses.
And moving so fast we can only hang on by the tail, I reply.
He considers this. “Uh-huh,” but he’s distracted.
“What’s the name of the club?” he wants to know.
Kuumbwa, I say. You’re going to cause a commotion in there.
“No one will notice,” he says.
The small stage is jammed with musicians, some living, some dead. Eric walks up on cat feet. He’s glowing; it’s subtle, but he’s ringed by a kind of emerald fog. Five horns are up front. The tenor is soloing. He opens his left eye and tracks Eric without exactly seeing him. Eric takes a spot near the back. The room is raucous with sound, a cacophony of runaway joy. The music rushes and recedes, a robust dissonance of squeak-boops and polyrhythms washing up and over a riveted audience. Then it softens, turns elegant; black pearls on black velvet, a scattershot of opalescent stars. Eric’s alto speaks a lucid prose: fresh, startling and utterly without guile. He locks in with the drummer, who sits at his kit as if cupped in a seashell—radiant, with a pinkish glow.
To close the evening, the musicians come off the stage to form a ring around the audience. People are standing on their chairs. Two bass players are bowing a drone, a fifth apart. Two
drummers are trading rhythms across the circle. With a timbre as cool as liquid mercury, a vocalist cuts above the haze of sound. The audience is encased in vibration. Here in this room, on this night, the living and the departed hover in a middle space. The pianist steps up to the mic to thank the audience for coming.
The gig over; into the night air we go, wordless. There’s an undercurrent, a thrum from the ground beneath our feet. I’m walking with an angel and I know this moment will never come again. We stop in front of my house. There is the faintest sound of a trumpet from far off. Someone is running scales, then some phrases that loop and jump the hoop of the tonality. We both think but don’t say, Booker. “He’s stretching,” Eric says. “He’s reaching.” And he smiles but he’s no longer present. The moment is fading, I can feel it. So how to let it go without feeling sad, how to end on a grace note?
You…are…Beauty, I tell him. And it soothes me to say it.
He nods, and his aura begins to hum, as if revving its delicate motor. The emerald fog suffuses the air around him, catches a breeze, then spins and coalesces into bright sparks of green. Like fireflies, they dart impishly in an orbit around my shoulders. I feel the shiver of a laugh down my spine, a slight chill and a fizzy lightness as I watch them trail off and evanesce into the dawn.