the young man and the ( white) Billie Holiday

The young man was pretending to be in college that last fall of the 70’s.  He declared himself and elementary education major, but was having serious trouble getting up in the morning.  He was really getting into playing music, and “hanging out”.

One of these evenings, the Full Moon jazz Collective played over at the  Lake café. After their set of raucous free jazz covers, a woman with long black hair approached the young man.  “So you play piano..” she murmured in a coy voice. The young man ( who was unused to female attention) felt something stirring from deep within.

“ Uh yes. I do”, he stammered. He noticed her eyelashes looked like doe.

“ I really like Billie Holiday songs.  Do you play any of them?”

“uh, no, but I can learn pretty quickly!”

“ Maybe we could work something out”, she smiled in  low, whispery voice.  “ Why don’t you come over to my place and we could listen to some Billie ?”

The words echoed in his rattled brain.  No matter that he didn’t know a hoot about Billie Holiday.  He would find out.  He tried not to jump out of his skin.  An older woman ( maybe she was 27) was inviting him over to listen to music; practice, and maybe Something Else!  Wow. He though. Maybe I could stop being a virgin. His mind raced into the uncertain future.

“So come on over tomorrow at 8?”

“Sure! Thanks!  I’ll look at some charts?”

The young man tried to maintain contact with the ground as he packed up his gear.  The guitarist, Don Bolwes, smiled at him.  “ I saw that. Be careful now.”

“ Sure-“

“Really.  That Sonia Lafontaine has broken a lot of hearts”.

“But she smiled at me!”

Don shook his head, and walked away.

The youngman glanced at the fake book.  Those tunes didn’t look too hard. – “the man I love, god bless the child”- etc. He played through the chords, since she was a singer, he didn’t bother learning the melodies- she would sing them.  Should be a piece of cake.- Listen, rehearse, and then…. ?  The young man could hardly wait until 8.

It was a crisp October night when  the young man walked through the West Bank to her house.  Sonia lived in the upstairs apartment with her younger sister, who was vigorous, edgy, short-haired.  Mali was into punk music.  Their mother lived downstairs.

Sonia came to the door, smiling.  “ Would you like a gin and tonic?”

“ Sure”  the young man said without thinking.  He had never had one before, but hey, this was adventure.

The young man sat on the couch.  Sonia made the drinks, and brought them out, sitting in the easy chair.  He gulped it , and found it unnaturally bitter.  He decided that he should perhaps sip the next one.

“Well, let’s listen”. She put on an LP.  It was by far the saddest music he had ever heard.  The songs were delicate, melancholic at their most cheerful, and downright depressing at her average. Most were about betrayal.

“ Why are you so meaaan to me?”- The young man looked over and saw that Sonia had matched every word, every vocal nuance, started and ended each phrase with Miss Holiday.  It was eerie, and he squirmed inside.

“ Do you think we could play this song?”

“Sure. Let’s give it a try”

In the middle of his second gin and tonic, ( and feeling a little woozy) the young man walked over to the mahogany piano in the corner. Several ivories were missing, and the rest were yellowed.  He played a couple of new chords that he learned, and noticed 3 or 4 notes were missing.  Many other notes were especially sour.  The young man decided to try his best, against all odds”.

They decided to try “ the man I love”  . He counted it off at a medium tempo, and pounded out the chords.  After about 8 bars, he realized that he didn’t hear her singing. She was about halfway done, singing softly in a whispery tone, looking a bit shaken.

They tried again several times. Why was she singing so slowly?  He tried to play the melody as he hammered out the chords.  The tension in the room grew.  Sonia finally politely asked him “ Could you try it  a little slower?”  He felt sheepish, but did.  It almost sounded like music.

They tried “ all of me.”  The young man’s chart was in C,  but Billie/ Sonia sang it  lower.

“Do you know what key you sing it in?” “ Whatever key Billie sings it in”.  Billie sang it in Ab, he discovered.   He had never transposed before, and stumbled through the chords.  She smiled nervously “ Oh, I can get this if I practice” he said. Inside, the young man was being defeated.

They took a break, and he had another gin and tonic, listening to more Billie Holiday.  The songs were really depressing him.  After a bit, they tried “ God bless the child”.  The young man was a bit tipsy, and slowed down a little.  It sounded better than the other songs.  Maybe there was hope.

At about 11, her sister Mali came up the stairs. “ Man you gotta see the northern lights!”  They all went to the porch and gazed at the deep, mysterious lights.

The young man knew it was time to go home… but he wanted to linger.  He got his backpack, and Sonia gave him a hug.  “ Thanks for coming over”  She said.

Then , there was a knock on the door.  In walked a gentleman caller, who gave Sonia a hug  and a kiss.  The young man slinked out the door.

He still doesn’t care much for Billie Holiday, or gin and tonic.

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