N a p a l m H e a l t h S p a : R e p o r t 2 0 1 3 : S p e c i a l E d i t i o n
L o n g P o e m M a s t e r p i e c e s o f t h e P o s t b e a t s
To listen to "Searching for Big Daddy Midnight: An Ellington/Strayhorn Suite," click on the play button in the audio control bar above.
Searching for Big Daddy Midnight: An Ellington/Strayhorn Suite
In a Sentimental Mood (AABA)
Ganga closed the hospital room door,
put Ghost & Grip’s Tribute CD to Duke & Strays in the boom box,
eyed the prone, unconscious Ghost & hoped his music unlocked
some sanctified Nawlins’ mojo for ill outfoxed.
The suite opened with “In a Sentimental Mood”
& in the liner notes she read the paragraph starred
& as she shrewdly suspected his words fell right in
with the tune’s first eight bars.
Brooding on the peculiar coincidence
that on the bandstand this beat for beat connect
of his note & her lyric cast the spell
uniting them in their magic mission,
launching her from mere impersonation
to manifestation of a dead legend,
Ganga uttered his words now
as if aloud they could invoke Ghost
out from under his comatose condition:
“In a sentimental mood
angels of beatitude in Billy Strayhorn’s musicale
blow a mad blue chorus for us most medicinal:
freedom from hate that plays unconditional;
freedom from self-pity & all forms of takin’ it personal;
freedom from the fear of doing something that might help
someone else more than it may help me myself;
& freedom from the blister
that thinks I’m better than my brother & sister.
These freedoms Strays long ago wrote
shine alive in the bending of an ax’s blue note.”
Daydream (A A B A B)
“Stray beam, ‘twas in a day dream’s scene
I gleaned the crash head-on,
a pavane gone to broke down done,
my songboat hauled upriver to Dead’s Town
where nothin’ floats back from.
A chronicle of an ironical hex foretold,
there me was, Jim,
Mickey Finned & Gone Within,
compin’ to stompin’ sax lines
walkin’ the bar’s war crimes,
talkin’ feisty, greasy & funkified fried
but in the end tied less to a distressed mess
than a zombie’s mess line,
rhymin’ tin pan corn to shine
mellow & fine on hard nods,
large ‘You Send Me’ mends
now no longer maskin’ their bouts
with the bends, amen.
“Not quite baskin’ in clover,
my numb jaw kept askin’, When gig over?,
thrashin’ down stash-busted’s crash course
in pain & achin’, moanin’ almighty cash elastic
in rollin’ stone-slammin’ hospital zones,
slippin’ C notes gin-soaked in Sellin’ Hope,
how hauled afloat we owned a lone flight’s delight
of low notes bowed but so slightly. Up nightly:
a cell of terror, a ward of cancer, a bin of loony,
solitaire’s chance meeting of goon squads
in gloomy doomsday’s bare gray & blue bars.
Let’s call this last stop a humble station,
the junction of extreme unction’s kyrie eleison
or daren’t I mention obituary complication
or why Big Nursie won’t give me my medication?”
Mood Indigo (A B C D)
“An underground juke joint’s exalted reception
called me out of my no-see-‘um mausoleum
to tool a mood indigo in mad flow’s cobalt-malted heavens.
Before an encore we paused & the speak-easy’s MC
interceded me immediately sayin’,
Just ‘cause the notes once needed playin’,
the muscled & hustled think they got it made
in the shade opening for Hades’ Hit Parade
while the best of the restless know
how the homegrown gets lost or disowned
on darkening roads home.
But from the darkening crossroad
horse-backed Eleg Grip now showed,
chock full of mock laughter,
his double-mask facing my funeral march north
& south the wild parade what come after.
If it be he who’d brung me back
from the cross-haired despair
of my own truth-or-dare disaster,
it fixed me hard ‘plexed
with a deep breath
‘bout the mastery my bandleader commanded
over life & death
but as for whatever musical tests of gnosis
might come up next or go down, Moses,
in exodus, I was ready
for ever since I said to his band goodbye,
I’ve been haunted by hues of a mood indigo
so twilight spooky I thought I died
so I stood still as death now while his smile
stretched its elegant mile
from warm to wide
& soon my huckleberry friend & I
were walking together side by side.”
Bloodcount (A B A C A B)
“Blood count, in whose heart’s fount
buds the just-so amount
of red & white corpuscles whose zero sum
spells utter equilibrium?
In a fever dream I saw, torn from sundown,
Eleg Grip with the younger Grips, Baby & Junior,
hangin’ on the corner with their horns
dressed to meet Big Daddy Midnight
whom they held in scorn & rarely saw.
That old story, for sure,
but true as fever blue,
Grip stepped through the dream
& opened the way with a wave of his hand
as if to say, Good to see ya, Ghost,
‘cause we gotta get you on the bandstand, man.
“My dead head under a flooded fountain
told him I’d been drowned awhile
so I didn’t know the score,
but as he handed me the charts,
my sear-suckered memory seeped ocean-sent tentacles
for the music had loved me once, Black Butterfly,
all too Lotus Blossom completely.
Need me say tunes
like Things Ain’t What They Use to Be
stacked me up indiscreetly 96 feet
above the club on Great Jones Street
for in the old days,
hard hopped in eye drops,
we played it breakneck & reckless.
But first tune out of the gate I could see
Grip had grown up, gave it space, let it breathe.
“Blood count, his alto took aim as he opened
with a bang that shot the place in blue flame.
Cookin’ hard schnapps in Pentecost & better
without the butter, brother,
so I comped lean & clean,
but could I solo, Napoleon,
only everyone wanted to know so it seemed.
Maybe a bad note’s but what hangs up unfulfilled,
yet I too wondered could I conjure still
that sweet dissonance in my signature style?
Was I too gone to try
or just not back from the dead yet?
The tension mounted,
then hung a long while.
“Blood count, the fountain drip
of a repeating left hand riff
let my right hand unlock an unknown sky
where limbo’s children come out to play sayin’,
Hosts of white doves,
bursting from love’s most blood-effusin’,
make the Paraclete complete
& I played the ten-fingered flower runs
they sang to me in that song brook’s bower
hiding now & at the hour
of our unscheduled but nevertheless perpetual abiding.
Blood count, what if in the end
there’s nothing to attain
but to grow more humane,
circulating the heart’s open fount,
a motherlode sum of utter equilibrium?”
Upper Manhattan Medical Group (A A B A)
“Overwhelmed to find I’m the cause of the applause,
Grip failed me not.
He met me on the bridge,
soared deeply through the skyline
of the seventh heaven I’d outlined
before the Brothers Grip stretched
the sound-scape stratospheric.
Then encore shouts
& ecstatic roars of the house
& the thought What’s it all about, Alfie,
when you sort it out playing in the wrong key
or wherever destiny leads me newly,
so they sat me on the stoop
of the Upper Manhattan Medical Group
where surgeons convinced me I was alive
as the music was still breathing
through my fingertips unduly
in purely befuddled buffoon-a-rooney.”
Tell Me It’s the Truth (Three Choruses)
“Tell me it’s the truth I said
for word from Sweet Pea Street had reached us:
Big Daddy Midnight was APB
seekin’ Grip & his group out.
While Grip grabbed his horse,
the storm teeming, I sank into love’s labor lost,
a world now without meaning:
had my boss come all the way upriver,
past the realm of every lament in Dead’s Township
only to have me sit in for the evening?
“Tell me it’s the truth I said
for heart split in conflict about buyin’ the hype
into darkness I yearned to slip,
but Grip returned to gripe,
Don’t you get it, Ghost?
The shot with Midnight’s coast to coast,
not to sing it or wing it but once.
Rain on my own parade with my last breath?
Having escaped the masquerade of my own death,
I’ll let the music live on
in the mystery of who I am now
& that entity shall play it.”
Ganga looked up at the comatose Ghost
and wondered how she knew
his words & Duke’s music could bring him around.
Tell me it’s the truth she said later
when flashing lights & high-pitched alerts
burst out at the same instant
followed by a cadre of doctors caregiving,
but right now Ghost opened his eyes,
looked at Ganga and smiled,
glad once again to be back among the living.
[A free jazz trio version of “Searching for Big Daddy Midnight” premiered at Dactyl Foundation and A Gathering of the Tribes, NYC, in 2003 with bassist Peter Priore and percussionist Steve Hirsch. This MP3 version was recorded, mixed and mastered by Thomas Dyer in March, 2013. The suite was published in the inaugural issue of Mad Blood, Used by permission of the author.]
Notes on “Searching for Big Daddy Midnight: An Ellington/Strayhorn Suite
In a Sentimental Mood (D. Ellington; I. Mills; D. Katz), Duke Ellington, piano; Rex Stewart, cornet; Johnny Hodges, soprano & alto sax; Harry Carney, baritone sax; Wellman Braud, Billy Taylor, bass; recorded 1935 (spoken word solo: AABA)
Day Dream (B. Strayhorn; D. Ellington), Sonny Criss, alto sax; George Arvanitas, piano; Rene Thomas, guitar; Pierre Michelot, bass; Philippe Combelle, drums; recorded 1963 (spoken word solo: AABAB)
Mood Indigo (B. Bigard; D. Ellington; I. Mills), Johnny Hodges, alto sax; Shorty Baker, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, trombone; Arthur Clark, tenor sax; Leroy Lovett, piano; John Williams, bass; Louis Bellson, drums; recorded 1955 (spoken word solo: ABCD, ie 32 bars)
Blood Count (B. Strayhorn), Stan Getz, tenor sax; Kenny Barron, piano; Rufus Reid, bass; Victor Lewis, drums; recorded 1987 (spoken word solo: ABACAB)
Upper Manhattan Medical Group (B. Strayhorn), Claude Bolling Big Band; recorded 1985 (spoken word solo: AABA)
Tell Me It’s the Truth (D. Ellington), Duke Ellington Orchestra; recorded 1966 (spoken word solo: 3 choruses)
The Narrative Context:
At three in the morning Ganga Ghose, jazz impersonator, waits in Miami Hospital for word on Ghost Wakefield, her piano player & boyfriend, sidelined by a coma, thanks to a New Year’s Eve champagne bottle that burst through the club’s glass roof & down on his head. When she finds a CD copy of the Ellington-Strayhorn tribute he arranged & played on, the music that back in India had changed her life, she discovers that it has the power to change his life as well.