Witch Jazz

A short story by Scott Thompson

Can jazz kill? I don’t mean the lifestyle, but the love of jazz? The passion. Before my second life with Wells Cunningham I would have said no, but before that I was lost. Our first life together was in the mid-1990s, our freshman year of college. Both of us were preppy jocks with scholarships and attitudes to match. The world was ours to take and we had no doubt we’d take it all. And why wouldn’t we think life was going to be easy. We were invited to the best parties. The hottest girls wanted us. Even the best grades were ours just for asking. It was a good life and Wells was rolling through it with the rest of the team until he heard Coltrane and his world changed.  Should I blame Coltrane or the coach’s wife? Someone has to take the blame. 

“What’s this?” Wells asked when the record started. The coach’s wife said something about exposing us to culture, and we snickered when the record spun and a tenor saxophone screamed from an old speaker, but Wells didn’t laugh. “Why have I never heard this before?  What the hell.” He was transfixed on the turntable and stared at it with the hunger of a dog watching his food bowl, and just like a dog he was violently protective of the music.

“What’s your deal, man? It’s just an old record,” one of our teammates said. “Please change it. Turn this old man music off.”

“No, I want this. How can two decades of my life pass without me hearing this?” Wells stretched his fingers wide and pushed them through his thick and wavy hair. “Are you not blown away? This should have been core curriculum in high school.”

“Yeah, sure. It’s great. Let’s get something to eat,” someone said.

Wells didn’t answer. In the time it took two songs to play he had transcended us. He sat next to the record until it was over and then asked for another, Herbie Hancock. The coach’s wife smiled. She couldn’t reach us all, but she did reach one. When the party was over he stayed behind and listened to every record on her shelf. At the next practice the coach made him run and gave Wells extra calisthenics for keeping him up all night. “I couldn’t do nothing to you with my wife around, but you’re gonna pay for me having to listen to all that cat killin’.”

“Coach, what’re you saying?” Wells spoke in burst between push-ups. “You can’t tell me jazz isn’t the most creative and complex music ever. It’s straight from God.”

“Boy, don’t get riled up. I’m just kidding. I don’t give a hill of beans about music one way or the other. It’s background for driving. What I care about is winning and you better get your head back in the game so we can do just that, and let me tell you what God wants. He wants a win.” The coach laughed so the rest of us laughed too.

Wells stopped and stood up. He frowned at us and we found ourselves in the unfortunate place between our teammate and our coach. “I can’t do this, Coach. I quit.”

I’d been through the ringer when I saw Wells again, years later. I’d followed all the rules of life in America. I’d finished college, married the right girl, and had been pulling 150 thousand big ones with my father-in-law with the promise of taking over his company when he retired, and that meant I would easily double my income in a few short years, but it wasn’t worth it. Something was missing. My life was empty, and I was glad when the divorce was finalized. It was my fault. I’ll admit it. Work was easy and playing golf was as much a part of the job description as billing. My wife didn’t care what I did on weekends as long as her lifestyle was maintained. She shopped. Went to lunch with her friends every day. Probably screwed the pool boy as a hobby. Whatever. I didn’t care. Our life was perfect on paper, but like I said, it was empty. It was a jail sentence. Never underestimate freedom. After that I never wanted another real job, or another wife. In my new life I was managing a used record and comic book shop in the hip area downtown and was happier than I’d been since college, the last time I’d been free.

“Hey, man, I ordered a record. It’s Eminent Jay Jay Johnson,” a man with a shaved head and a soul patch under his bottom lip said. 

“Yeah, I have it back here,” I said turning around to our special orders box. “Volume 2, Blue Note?”

“Yeah, yeah. That’s it.” The man looked over a pair of heavy black sunglasses. 

“Okay, that’s $214. You must be a fan to pay this much for old vinyl.”

“Just want to get and hold onto the pure stuff while I can.” The man stared at me and then smiled.  “You don’t remember me, do you?” The man took off his heavy framed sunglasses. It was Wells.

That night we met for drinks at one of his favorite jazz clubs where I told him how I faked life in the suburbs for 15 years and he told me what happened after he quit the team and then college. He didn’t know anything about music, or jazz, but he knew he wanted to be a part of the music he felt was bigger than him. He moved to the city and got a job as a bar back in an old jazz dive that was frequented mostly by local blacks and a few hipsters who thought they liked jazz, but usually wandered off after a few nights.  The regulars took him in and kept him fed while he took drum lessons at a music school that catered mostly to kids and stay at home mothers who paid for the right to massacre piano keys for $35 an hour. He learned the basics until he found an instructor with the wisdom of a Jedi master.   

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to make a living playing drums. I thought I had to be famous or playing for a big act to earn the coin until I met Phatts. That cat showed me the light and set me on my path.” Wells put his left hand on the back of his neck and rubbed against a grain of tiny hairs fighting through the skin of his mostly bald head. “Phatts would take me around to different record stores and show me what to buy. I didn’t have much money but I skipped meals to get what I needed. It was part of my education. My real education came after college.” 

“It freaked me out when you disappeared.”

“I’m sorry, man. That’s what I had to do. You can’t learn in school what I learned from those tunes. A pile of books and a fifty thousand dollar degree can’t teach you what a scratchy piece of vinyl can. The moment I heard Coltrane my life changed. It rebooted my soul. Everything I’d learned from my childhood. From school. Everything about  life. It all changed in one moment. Whoosh.” His arms flew up into the air. “I was different. I didn’t fit in no more. I couldn’t explain it then.”

“I wish I’d had a reboot,” I said. “I spent 15 years chasing the American dream before I learned it was wrong. I was pulling a nice salary. Had it all, people said.”

“Sorry, brother. Sorry you had to live that pain. We all got pointed the wrong way. Not sure where that started. We forgot to follow our guts. Damn, America got better and better. Equal rights and all that. Then someplace we started thinking happiness and money were the same. Started chasing the wrong stuff.”

“I’m following my gut now,” I said, “but I’m also making nine bucks and hour and live upstairs in a one room apartment. My shower only sprays cold and the best appliance I have is a forty dollar mini-fridge.” 

He laughed then said, “Yeah man, but I bet you love it.”  

He was right. I did love it. 

The doorman led me back stage an hour before the show. He told me to take a right and to knock before I entered the Blue Room, Wells’ dressing room. “He has a lady friend with him so you might have to wait. Tread lightly. Understand?” The doorman winked. I understood. 

I turned the corner and heard yelling. “Get outta here. Don’t ever come back.” Wells’ door slammed after a girl in her early twenties stumbled into the hallway. She was holding high heel shoes in one hand and her purse in the other. Her hair was disheveled. 

I stopped and waited for her to pass before proceeding. I looked at the floor, hoping the girl would walk past me, but she stopped and touched my chin. I looked up at her and forced a smile.

“You know Wells?” she asked.

“Yeah, old friends.” I looked back to the floor and shifted my weight. “Sounds like you had a fight.”

“More like a war. He’s crazy. I don’t get his music. Don’t mean I didn’t try.”

“You mean jazz?” I asked. A light bulb in the hallway buzzed and flickered.

“I dissed Coltrane and he flipped out like I just hit his mother. It’s just Coltrane.”

It seemed Wells and I had both turned into real ladies men. “Want me to talk to him for you?”

“No need, honey. We’re done. Never got started anyways.” She turned and walked down the hallway and stopped at the corner and pulled on her shoes.

I knocked and Wells yelled through the oak door. “Go away.”

“Hey dude, it’s me.”

He opened the door. “Thought you were that crazy chick coming back to give me a hard time. She said the wrong things, brother. I lost it. I’m starting to think there’s not a woman out there strong enough for me.”

“Maybe not. You can’t force that sort of thing, but what do I know. I destroyed a marriage with a trophy wife and a rich father-in-law.”

“Man, you know that wasn’t living.” Wells paused and pulled a small cloth bag from his pocket. “I got a bit o’ herb. It relaxes me before shows.” I hated the smell of weed, but it did cover up the stale smell of mildew and cheap wine that stretched through the backstage area like overgrowing ivy. 

A few minutes later the rest of the band came into the room, all of them smoking pot and nodding their heads. They were synching and I felt out of place so I wished Wells good luck and went back to the bar for drinks before the show. I found a booth when the music started and zoned into a place of peace like a bird riding airflows above a mountain ridge. A black and white picture of a jazz player from the 1970s was screwed into the wall next to my seat, and it was the last thing I studied as a sober man before I closed my eyes and let the alcohol and music flow over and through me like rain water.

Wells had found his place in the world, and his passion was so powerful it entranced the room. We all went to our own place, but not the same places. The band was flawless, but it was Wells who gave it soul. I then knew that his service to humanity was as important as a doctor or firefighter. He was making lives better. He had found a way to bring us closer to Heaven? To let us taste eternity. He’d tapped into the beyond and brought it to Earth for the rest of us.

The best year of my adult life passed with a routine that included waking up a few minutes before 10 am, taking a quick and cold shower, pulling on a t-shirt and an old pair of jeans, then talking music and comic books with fanatics — I couldn’t call it work. Then, at night, I hung out in the jazz club listening to Wells’ band. On the nights he didn’t play I listened to other bands with him. I never paid a cover and got as many free drinks as I paid for. I was loving my new life, my happy routine. But like any era in life it wouldn’t last forever. 

“I got shut out tonight. The band brought in another drummer,” Wells said. He gripped the counter tight and leaned toward me, causing a short stack of comic books to fall to the floor. “I won’t join their music union.” 

“Music union?” I asked, while I bent down to pick up the comic books.

“Yeah man, a union. These cats say it’s to protect us from out of towners coming in and stealing our work. It’s supposed to keep the best locals working, but I’m independent. Hey, and get this, they want us to give 5% of everything we make to the union, for dues. I’m not sharing my coin with anyone. I told them so. I have steady gigs anyway. Why do I need a union?” He pushed back from the counter and kicked at the floor. “I had steady gigs. Had … till this mess.”

“You’re right,” I said. ”That’s wrong, but why not join the union and be done with it? Keep working, you know.”

“Hell no, man. I’m not joining any union. What can they give me I don’t already have?”

“Work. You’d be working.”

“Maybe, but I ain’t joining. Out of principle, if nothing else. I’m a man with beliefs, and don’t believe in mafia bullies messing with my sounds. I can’t switch that shit off. God brought the music. Nothing’s higher.” 

Wells was offered membership in the union again, but resisted. The union sent a group of local jazz men to persuade him. He tried to explain his position but they didn’t understand his argument and Wells stormed out of the restaurant where they had met. The union then sent a fancy talking salesman, who was accompanied by a large bouncer the size of the Hulk. Wells saw this as a threat, and it was, and told the salesman and his bouncer that if he ever saw them again he would shoot them dead on the spot. He didn’t own a gun, but his threat was taken seriously and he was shut out with no chance to ever join.

He went to every club in town and clubs in a one hundred mile radius, but no one would hire him, and no bands would work with him. He had made a living as a musician, as Phatts had promised him he could, but that wasn’t a living that included wealth, and within a few months his savings ran out. In his anger he started telling his story via a blog. I didn’t expect much. I mean, there are 4 billion active blogs in the world. How many people would read his story? Beyond that, how many would care? 

“Let me get you something to eat,” I said.

“No way. I’m good. I want to earn my living. I have a skill. A talent. I won’t be starved into submission by thugs. This is America. People fought to make it free. Freedom’s our earned birthright. Damn, you know. You gave up the picture perfect life for freedom. You sell comic books and old records, but you’re free. You found truth. Damn, man. Jazz is truth.” Wells lowered his voice and leaned in. “It started because blacks were shut out of mainstream music. They had to invent a sound no one could copy. A sound their own. Then America came around, so how can we go backwards? This makes no sense at all. I’ll make my own way.” 

“I feel you, so move in with me, alright? You can stay for nothing. I know the owner won’t mind. It’s not much of a place, but it has heat and a cold shower.” 

He didn’t want to take anything from me, but a month later he showed up at the store with his drums in the back seat of his car and a couple of trash bags of clothes. He’d already packed his record collection and stacked the boxes in the back of the store a couple of weeks before in anticipation of being kicked out of his apartment. “It finally happened. Those bastards kicked me out. Who does that to an artist?”

Wells took full advantage of the stores 10,000 vinyl records. I was allowed to borrow any record I wanted as long as I put it back on the shelf within a few days, and I extended that privilege to Wells as my roommate. He started at the front of the jazz table and listened to record after record until he found the international music section. For a week straight he listened to Cuban music, then African, South American, and finally Indian. The regional records were labeled with faded tags and sometimes the records were misplaced until Wells listened and placed the record back where it belonged. Of all the music he listened to it was the Indian music that he kept borrowing, music with beats that grabbed his soul the same way Coltrane had years before. He was again mesmerized. 

He took his drum sticks and tapped with the tabla drum beats. The new cycles and number system was unknown to jazz and to most Western drummers. “There’s something here, brother. I can see it.”

“See it?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s right. I can see it like colors. The sound moves up and down and creates patterns. It’s mathematical. All music is, but this is beyond algebra. I’m talking trig. Ph.D. level math. God math that’s so analytical is breaks through and becomes art. Colors. You see it? Can you hear it?”

“It sounds different to me, yeah, but I don’t see it like you do.” 

“I wish you could. It’s freaking me out. Scary shit, man. Sometimes I see scary old women dancing in the colors. Like gypsies gone bad.”

“You mean witches?” I asked him.

“Witches. Witch Jazz. Yeah, that’s right. But witches too. Luminescent, hot bodied witches.” He let out a long breath like someone who was enjoying the first feelings of a drug high and said, “Witches ain’t bad man. They’re sexy. Most don’t know that.”

Wells retreated to our shared apartment for three days tapping out the new rhythms he’d learned from the Indian tabla drum players like a soldier who had switched nationalities and had to learn to march with a different army. When he was confident he understood the cadences he recorded his drumming against several old tracks from recordings. Then he uploaded his recordings to his blog that now had thousands of daily readers. His passionate posts had been picked up and shared by popular music sites and even by a grunge musician who had taken to blogging to connect with his fans. Witch jazz was born after the shortest gestation in music history. 

Living with Wells was fun, for a while. It was like having a college roommate again. We trashed the place. Drank too much. Watched sports and action movies, and never worried that we were ignoring our wives or girlfriends, because we had neither. It was as close to college as we’d known before, but this time we had no plans for the future. Freedom.

But freedom still cost money in America and that was the problem.

“I’m not taking a regular job,” Wells told me when I offered him a shift at the store.

“You’re already helping for free. You were the first person to dust the store in 20 years, and anyway, it’s not a regular job. There’s nothing further from regular work than selling comics and old vinyl.”

“It is to me. I only take pay for music. I’ll play gospel if I have to, but I’m staying with music. Nothing else will do.”

“But you have to eat,” I said, a statement I would regret.

Wells’ eyes glazed like molting snake and I knew he was constructing a plan. When a thought came to him he blocked everything out. “No, brother. No, I don’t have to eat. I’ll play with or without food. I’ll play with or without support from my jazz people. But supported or not, they can’t ignore me.”

That night he pushed his drum set near the window of our apartment on the second floor above the store and started playing. He tapped the drums until midnight and then slept. At 6:00 am the next morning he started playing again, alone, but with the drive of someone on stage in front of a 10,000 person crowd. Hours later I tried to get him to eat lunch, but he waved me away and kept playing. Then I tried to get him to eat dinner, to drink something, but he kept playing.

“Wells, you have to eat. You’ll die if you don’t,” I yelled over the repetitive tapping. He had played for twelve hours straight since waking.

“Ain’t true,” he said, his voice cracking like hot sand. “A man can live a month without food.”

“Okay, maybe, but you can’t live that long without water.” 

He slowed. I was right and he knew it. “Okay. I’ll drink.”

I worked that night. Every few hours Wells would slow down when I walked from the store to our apartment and take a cup of water from me, but he continued to tap with the other hand. He sat the cup on the floor next to him to piss in later, so he wouldn’t have to leave his drum set. When midnight came I expected him to sleep again. 

“You have to stop. I have to sleep. Even if you don’t,” I said.

“I’m sorry. Look outside. Do you see those people? They’ve come to watch me.”

I looked out the window and four high school boys were looking up at our window. The news of his struggle was spreading. “That’s great. You’ve got some attention, but they’ll have to sleep eventually too, and I need to sleep now.”

“Can’t stop. I’m not going to quit till that union breaks or I die. Whichever comes first.”

“That’s crazy, man.”

“It ain’t crazy. It’s a war. A war brought to me. I didn’t declare it. They invaded my turf.”

“It’s not a war. It’s corruption, but not war.”

“Then what is it? I’m fighting for what I believe in. For what matters. Besides, the witches are dancing.”

I threw my hands into the air and left the apartment. I walked to a cheap motel a few blocks away and rented a room for the night. On my way I was propositioned twice by hookers. It was funny and I wished Wells had been there to laugh about it. When I thought of this I realized I was losing him.

The next morning I walked back to our apartment and could hear Wells drumming from our open window before I turned the corner at the block. A dozen onlookers stood below the window. One was wearing a t-shirt with the words “Save the Wells.” 

“What’s with the t-shirt,” I asked a college aged guy with scruffy hair.  
“We’re here to support Wells. It’s un-American what they’re doing to him.”

“Great,” I mumbled. I was starting to hate his blog. I hoped Wells would wear down and give up on his crusade, but the supporters would keep him motivated. I knew he was being ostracized unfairly, but I didn’t want him to get hurt fighting for a lost cause.

Wells played throughout the day. He stopped drinking too. Between song tracks in the store I could hear his beating from our apartment. When I closed the store that night I went upstairs to find him holding onto the side of his chair with one hand and tapping with the other. His face was clammy and cold like a fish pulled from a lake. “I’m doing this for the soul of America,” he said through forced breaths.

“Did you drink anything today? Even when no one was looking?”

“No.” He spoke through cracked lips with the voice of an old man.

“Do you understand that this’ll kill you? You have to drink.”

“Give me a shot of rum, ole friend. I’ll take rum.” He laughed, but it turned into a cough.

I turned away from him and punched the wall. I stared at the fist shaped dent for a moment and gathered my breaths and thoughts before leaving for another night at the motel.

The next morning it was quiet when I ran up the stairs to our apartment. Was he finally sleeping? I found him on the floor, passed out. Why did I leave him? I knew why. I didn’t have any fight left in me. The world had taken if from me, and now I was being called upon to fight again, but I couldn’t. All I could do was call an ambulance. It would be someone else who had to save him.  

At the hospital the doctor told me Wells needed to eat, and rest.  “He can’t keep doing this,” the doctor said. “He’ll die.” I already knew that. 

The nurses had wired Wells up with a series of monitoring cords and an IV that was dripping fluids slowly back into his body with a rhythmic tapping like the drums he loved. He was still keeping the beat. I stayed with him that night and watched. While he slept he croaked snores while his arms and legs jumped from still to spasms and back to still again. He slept until his will was stronger than the weakness of his body. The next day he refused to stay longer and signed himself out of the hospital.

I helped Wells up the stairs to our apartment, and walked him toward the couch, but he pulled free from my arms and plopped into his chair in front of his drum set. The veins in my head expanded like overinflated balloons. Was he really doing this again? “What the hell? You’ve made your point,” I said before throwing a book against the wall. “What’re you accomplishing?”    

“Calm down. This ain’t your fight.”

“How can you say that? Your fight is my fight because it’s taking place in my life. I may not be wearing combat boots, but I’m dodging the bullets just the same.” I knew that wasn’t enough.

“You want me out? I’ll get out. I won’t be a burden,” he said. 

I felt terrible. He was the best friend I had in my new world. I clenched my jaw and wiped new sweat that was bleeding onto my forehead. I breathed in and then out. “I’m sorry. You’re not a burden. I like having you here, but I don’t want to see you hurt. That’s all, man.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, roomie. I can keep it up. I got something from a friend. It helps with attention problems in kids.” Wells pulled out a zip lock back of pills.

“No way, man. What’s that? You don’t take drugs. You won’t even take ibuprofen when you have a headache.”

“I don’t like it either,” he said, his face pulling tighter. “But it’s war.”

“A war where the collateral damage is your body.” 

I couldn’t stop him from taking the pills and I couldn’t stop him from playing. With the ER needle scars still fresh in his arms and wrists he took the first pill that would refocus his attention and keep him awake. Before the drug could take effect he started drumming again.

I went to work. Came home from work. Slept at the motel again, and returned in the morning to find a crowd gathered below our apartment. Tap…tap…tap,tap,tap. A cymbal rang over the crowd like a bed sheet floating to the ground. I looked up and the tapping sped up. Tap, tap, tap, tap, bang. The crowd cheered with the heavy base. He would never stop playing if the encouragement continued. The crowd should leave. They were hurting him as much as the drugs.

I knew I should have stayed with him the night before. He needed my support, but I knew my support would only encourage him more. I didn’t know how to help him, or his cause. Doing nothing was wrong. Supporting him was killing him.      

For three more days Wells drummed without stopping, and every few hours he would take another pill. At times his drumming speed increased, but at other times he slowed to a tapping like a metronome set to the slowest interval. Muscles in his arms twitched and occasionally he looked at the apartment ceiling and yelled. 

“What’re you yelling at?” I asked him.

“You can’t see it, can you? I knew you wouldn’t be able to see it. After all this and you still don’t understand.” A tear ran down his cheek.

“What?  What are you talking about?”

“The unholiest of darkness is attempting to silence me. They crawl in the shadows like spiders with twelve legs. Wait. Waiting”  His speech began to slur so he stopped and took a deep breath. “Waiting for me to sleep. They want me to sleep.”

“It’s not creatures trying to hurt you. It’s your mind slipping. You need rest. Sleep tonight and you can play again in the morning.”

“That’s not enough. If I stop they’ll win,” he said. He squirmed in his seat and jerked his neck like someone suffering from Tourette’s syndrome.

“Are you talking about the union or the monsters?” I asked.

“I’m not that gone,” he said, slurring again. Wells closed his eyes and focused his thoughts. “I think — I’m seeing — stuff, but — I know why — I’m here. It’s for all that is good, and true, and American.” I shook my head in disgust. “Stop worrying about me,” he said. “I want this. It’s what I have to do. The witch will beat what lies … in the shadows.”

Outside of our apartment the police were yelling at the increasing crowd and trying to push them from the streets. Traffic slowed and then froze like a stream in January cold snap. The vigil had turned into a party. Tents lined the sidewalks. How long did they think he could last? Wells continued to play with speeds increasing and decreasing without reason or warning. When the drumming picked up the crowd would cheer. When it slowed they sat down or gathered in groups to talk. 

I put a sign on the door of the record store that the bathroom was for customers only. The toilet was now clogged and the store was reeking of piss and excrement, and I couldn’t get a plumber willing to fight through the crowds to get to the store. After a fight in the store between a regular customer and a supporter I closed the store. I couldn’t stop the madness of the crowd, but who I could stop, I hoped, was Wells.

“You can’t keep this up, Wells. You’ve made your point, and now my boss is mad as hell.”

“I’ll stop when the union dissolves. When the shadows are pure again.” His next sentence was too slurred for me to understand.

“What if I get you on the news? There’s two different TV vans outside. They’ll interview you. Think about that.” He slowed his drumming and shook his head in agreement. He would take a break to talk to the press, but I wasn’t sure if he would make his case better or worse. His mouth hung open and a small line of spittle rolled down his face and dropped to the floor. His eyes were blood shot and surrounded by dark circles like old truck tires. His muscles ripped through his pale and rose blotched skin and the veins swelled like purple balloons filled with syrup. His body was visibly resisting his soul. 

“Okay — I, uh — think, that will be — fine. Let’s do it.”

“I’ll go and get the reporters. Take a break, alright, and rest. They’re going to share your story, so get your head together. Everyone will know now. Everyone, okay. Not just college students.”

“Don’t — diss the kids. They — uh, were the first. They were the first — to — believe in the cause, in me.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry, man.” He was right. They believed in him in ways I couldn’t. Hundreds of people who only knew him by his blog believed when I didn’t have the will to fight the battle with him. I wouldn’t deny him again. ”I’ll be back as soon as I can.” 

I pushed through the crowd, with two reporters and two cameramen in tow. I unlocked the store while repelling requests to use the bathroom from an obsessed man with a printed “Save the Wells” t-shirt. The crew followed me up stairs that usually creaked, but had gone silent with our careful and steady steps. I had told them he might be sleeping. When I pressed my ear against the apartment door to listen for tapping. It was silent. Good, he’s finally resting. 

Before I pushed the key into the lock I prepared the reporters, hoping that with understanding they would paint a favorable picture of my roommate. “He hasn’t slept in several days. He’s beat up something terrible, but he did it all for something he believes in.” I felt guilty as I spoke. I should have stayed awake with him. “He’s a good man. A really good man. He loves jazz, and all he ever wanted was to play. He’s given up what you call the American dream to live his dream.” One reporter took notes as I talked. “No wife. No kids. Very little money. Just jazz. Just music. God’s music.”  

I opened the door but didn’t see Wells at his drum set. “Maybe he’s in bed.” I walked to the bedroom but didn’t see him.

“Call an ambulance,” I heard one of the reporters yell. 

I ran to the reporters and cameramen. Wells was lying next to his drum set. In his hands he held his drum sticks. His head was turned slightly toward the Coltrane poster on the wall. His eyes were open, and I thought he was looking at the poster. Coltrane made him happy and that explained the slight smile on his mouth. I lunged to him and shook him gently. He didn’t respond, so I put my ear to his chest. Nothing. I slipped my hand behind his neck and lifted him toward me. He skin was cold and soft like a worn piece of leather. “Wells,” I said, “wake up. You’re going to be fine. The reporters are here.” He didn’t respond. My friend was dead. 

I rested his head on the floor and turned it again toward his Coltrane poster. A smile still pushed up at the corners of his mouth. He was happy. Peaceful. He died doing what he loved. 

Wells’ love of jazz, his dedication, spread throughout the music community and the city. Musicians lost their stomach for the union and it was forced out of our city, freeing jazz again. He had given his life in a war against limitations. He had found his real American dream and had given his life to protect it for others. He had died for a cause that was not lost.             


The author wishes to thank jazz musician, Chad Cooper, for his invaluable guidance on this story. His passion was the inspiration.