Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro


th“Listen hard,” I asked all ten of them sitting around the table. “What’s the first thing you hear?”

“Guy playing the piano.” several of them said at once.

“What else? Listen again.”

This time the woman heard it. “There’s somebody on bass.” She said.

First time there had been a woman in the Wednesday night “Job Talk” group. They were all here for the weekly meal in the basement of the church.
“Job Talk” was something to do while they waited for the food.

The woman was the only one who caught the bass. Layered into the piano. As if the crystal notes came from just one instrument.

“That Bill Evans on piano?” she asked.

I tried not to let the surprise light my face. “Yep. Sure is.”

Four bars into the piece, and she says: “That’s Scott LaFaro on bass. Paul Motian on drums.”

We were in a small room off of Fellowship Hall in the basement of the church where 100 or so come inside from the streets every Wednesday night for their best, warm, good tasting and healthy meal of the week.

The people had started gathering outside in the 5:00 winter darkness. Lining up on the sidewalk in front of what used to be storefronts, but are now condos. There used to be a butcher shop right next door. The German immigrants making a go of it before the last depression in the 30’s and then the war. Building businesses. Raising kids. Now there are hungry people lined up in front of half million-dollar condominiums, waiting to get into the church basement.

The line gets longer each week. The people come in from the streets for that one meal an hour early just to stay warm. Kathy, a quiet angel who, with her husband Erwin and their son Jeff run the place. Trudi, Penny and Inge and some of the other ladies of the church serve the piping hot delicious meal at 6. Kathy makes the announcement of “Job Talk” as the clients file in from the street.

“Okay, if anybody wants to go in and do Job Talk with Roger—you’re welcome to go into the Sunday School room over here!”

“He got jobs in there?”

“No,” she answers, “just some new ways of thinking about how to get some work. Maybe sharing some stories of how you got some work.”

“Sure, why not,” says one guy.

“I did this last week,” says another.

“This dude’s alright,” I see a chin waved in my direction. “He got nothing going on either”

“No shit?”

“Yeah… he ain’t got no job either.”

First guy to sit down at the end of the table is Jobo.

Jobo, as always, is doing everything fast. Permanently bent forward as if there was always a wind blowing hard against his frame. Teeth that had never known a dentist, scraggly beard.

All the guys lived on the street, but Jobo was the one who was really making it on the street and had been for a long, long time. Animal eyes that could spot food, spare change or a warm place to stay from 100 yards away. Quick hands. Fought against everything the street had to offer. He had known the orange neon glow of the 4 a.m. sidewalks when everybody else had found their way home for the night and all the buses and trains ran empty. Known it for decades.

Whenever I asked a question to prompt the group to talk, Jobo was usually the first one who answered.

But not this time. This time it was the woman.

Her eyes like a memory of a long ago smile: “Yeah, that’s Scott LaFaro.” They played here once. Him and Bill Evans. Paul Motian. Motian was on drums.

“You all know Mary?” Jobo nodded at the woman. “She used to sing.”

That’s when I remembered her. It had been four years since she’d been around. She’d come to see a small production of Amahl and the Night Visitors put on by a bunch of folks from the church.

It was Mary; sitting there recognizing Scott La Faro’s bass on a cold winter night, which had once provided us all with a moment of true mysterious grace at that production of Amahl.

One of those moments you’ll miss if you if you blink your eyes. Here’s what happened:

A collection plate had been passed. The plate was full. It was being carried up the center aisle of the church and just as the plate – held high above the usher’s head – reached the first pew where Mary sat scrunched down on the aisle, she reached up high and gently tossed one more coin into the plate. Leaving every single soul in the room to wonder if that coin was her last.

The performers – stunned by this simplest of moves, took one more bow. I looked to the side and saw the Pastor’s jaw drop. Later he said to me, “Those are the moments that keep you going.” Then we all we all filed out into that cold winter night.

Later I learned a little more, from one of the ladies of the church, about Mary’s life as a singer. Playing the small clubs on Lincoln Avenue back in the day. She was a local favorite. Had a following. Then, when that ended, came the years sleeping in the park on Fullerton near Children’s Memorial Hospital, taking meals at the church in that part of town.

But this was over 30 years ago. A lifetime.

Now she sat here in a group of men, being the first to hear the sound of the bass.

“So why the bass? I asked the group. What could that possibly have to do with getting jobs?

Silence.

“Well, what does the bass do for the music?”

Silence.

“Let’s listen again.”

“Anyone,” I ask, “know the name of the song?”

This time Jobo spoke up: “Sure, that’s ‘My Foolish Heart.’”

Then from the corner, Tim – an ancient, plodding African American man, as deliberate and thoughtful as Jobo was quick – looked up. Tim never spoke. But Tim had made it on the streets for just as long as Jobo. He didn’t need to talk to get that across.

“One time I heard Oscar Peterson play that song. Him and Ray Brown.”

Mary just nodded and said, “Ray Brown.” Her eyes floating back to some smoky club, glasses clinking, as far away from the church basement as she could possibly be. “Ray Brown. Like Scott LaFaro. ‘Cept Ray Brown lived.”

Then I asked again: “Now, listen to the bass. What does it do for the music?”

“It’s like some sort of story it’s telling,” Jobo said.

“But it’s a story where nobody really know the words.” said Lab Tech Guy. Lab Tech Guy never wanted to tell anyone his name. Only that he had worked as a lab tech in the old Vienna sausage factory, doing quality control. So he never talked much either. But this time he said. “A story where nobody knows the words.”

“Sure,” now Jobo was on a roll. “It can help you remember the words.”

“What do you mean?” I asked the group, “How can the bass help you remember the words?”

That’s when Mary brought grace to the room one more time.

Hunched in the corner, still dressed in the heavy down parka that was her home against the wind, even though the room off the dining hall was very, very, warm…Mary, almost whispering said:

“When I can feel the bass, I remember the words to the song. Like in ‘My Foolish Heart,’ and she sang:

There’s a line between love and fascination, that is hard to miss on an evening such as this . . . .

The memory of her voice as a trained clear instrument prompted the thought, just for a moment, the winter had ended and the birds had returned. The room glowed in a deep blue holy kind of quiet for just a beat.

I then asked: “Anybody ever do something to try and get a job . . . . . . and feel like you just forgot the words? You just didn’t know what to do? What to say? Who to say it too? Feel like you were lost before you even started?”

Every single person around that table nodded their head. All eyes wide. Energy just buzzing across the room as the stories started to flow like they were all part of one giant electric grid.

“This one time? When I was standing in line for 6 hours. . . . .”

“And then she asked me how many babies I had. . . . .”

“And he told me he knew I was carrying a knife!’

Then I asked:

“So what about the bass? What can the bass do? What can listening to a bass player – dead now at the age of 25 in 1963 I think it was – how can the bass player help you with this?”

Jobo, as was usually the case, gave the room the answer.

“It’s like the street,” he said. “You can be walking down the street. Not just now when it’s cold, but summertime too. And you stop and you listen, and you just know there’s gonna be trouble on the next block. You can hear it. You don’t have to see nothing. You can hear it!”

“It’s like that bass is beating out what will happen in your head. You don’t need no words. Sometimes I can even hear a drum inside me. Beating along. Saying, ‘Watch out!’ The bass, the rhythm, helps you remember where you’re going. The rhythm, the bass, that’s the street. The floor. The part where your feet hit the street! You hear that. You keep walking.”

“That ever happen to you with a job you were trying to get, Jobo?” I asked.

“Well, you know the CITGO over on Addison and Ashland? I know those guys. Two brothers, they own that place. They own lotsa places. So I’m talking to the one guy, he’s talking about his brother and he keeps telling me how I gotta make sure to do what his brother tells me to do. He keeps saying that. He keeps telling me about his brother will be watching me real close. So the bass line I’m hearing—”

“Yeah?”

“The bass line I’m hearing is: these two brothers. They talk a good game. But they really don’t like each other very much. Now they never told me that. I just heard it in the way this one brother told the story.”

“So the bass line was…” I asked.

“The bass line was the REAL story. The truth. Didn’t matter what somebody was saying. I could hear the real story. I know it sounds like crazy talk. But when I heard the real story, I got…well…”

“Confident?” I asked.

“”I’m thinking you can’t get no more confident, Jobo!” drawled Tim, smiling for the first time. The whole table chuckled.

Jobo smiled, and then went on. “Yeah the bass line is what made it so I knew what to do.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, so just then his brother walks in and I say—for both of them: I say, so okay, every time, I finish one of the jobs I let both of you guys know?”

“So how did that help?”

“Well, then they both said, okay, we gonna pay you.”

“So you got them on the same page? Where they both wanted to pay you?”

“Yeah, the stuff the one brother was saying, it sounded alright. It was all the right words. ‘Tell this. Tell that.’ But neither of these guys trusted each other. I could hear the bass line running below all that. I could hear the real story. That’s like what you’re talking about, right?”

“”Say it one more time Jobo,” I asked.

“Following the bass line means you can follow the real story.”

With that—Kathy rang the dinner bell and they all went in to eat.

Excerpted from FINDING WORK WHEN THERE ARE NO JOBS. Think Different Press. 2013

Image: minkara.cavview.co.jp

2 Responses to “Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro”

  1. Naomi de Plume Says:

    What a magical analogy, one I would have never thought of. I shall now go dust off all my bass lines to get the true story. Beautiful, ChiGuy – I loved meeting Jobo, Mary and the group.

  2. chicagoguy12 Says:

    Thank you Naomi. They all send their regards!

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