Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dean of Jazz

Here's an excerpt from my novel Candy from Strangers, published in 2006:
The old black man reclining on the leather Barcalounger in the middle of the room grinned hugely. His left pant leg was empty from the knee down and a shiny plastic prosthesis—dressed in a black wingtip of its own—was resting against the chair. “What are you babbling about now, boy?” he asked. “Did you bring my medal?”

I held up the gold, plaque-mounted medal that I had brought from downtown. The inscription said the medal came from the president’s office of San Francisco State University and was awarded to “Victor Lane, ‘Dean of Jazz,’ for his long-lasting, widespread contributions to SFSU and the city of San Francisco.” Since Victor had been too ill to attend the award ceremony he had asked me to go in his place and give his acceptance speech.

I passed the plaque over to him and he beamed down at it. “Ain’t that fine.”

“I don’t know where we’re going to put it,” said Hilma, who had settled herself on the plaid sofa. “There isn’t a square inch of wall that isn’t covered with a picture or a medal or playbill or some damn thing.”

I knew without checking that she was right. Victor had been a fixture in San Francisco’s jazz scene since the 1930s and had played bass with Basie, Ellington and Gillespie among many others. He had autographed pictures from all of them, and as I glanced across to the fireplace mantel, I could see a photo of Billie Holiday adorned with a still bright-red lipstick kiss. Holiday had written, “Lover man, oh, where can you be?” beside it.

“We’ll find a place for it,” said Victor, and looked up to eye me skeptically. “I suppose you ruined my speech.”

“How could I ruin it? I told them they could all kiss your ass—just like you said.”

Victor laughed and leaned down to pick up his artificial leg. He waggled the foot in my direction. “Not my ass,” he said. “My big toe.”

“Guess I didn’t bring the right props.”

Hilma stood up with a grunt and snatched the leg out of his hands. “It’s bad enough you won’t wear the damn thing, Victor, but I will not have you roughhousing with it in the living room.” She returned it to its place beside Victor’s chair. “You know he ruined Thanksgiving at our daughter’s house. Used the damn leg to bat dinner rolls across the table.”

Victor winked at me. He had a been a big man once—over six feet and nearly 200 pounds—but time and a medical almanac of diseases had shrunk him to the point where a wink made him look like a naughty elf. “Lucky I didn’t end up with a broken-bat single,” he said, “the way Martha cooks.”
In the book, Vic Lane is a friend of my PI protagonist August Riordan and Hilma is Lane's wife.

In real life, Lane had a counterpart named Vernon Alley, who was the real San Francisco Dean of Jazz. You can read about him in this San Francisco Chronicle article by Joel Selvin, which is part of a series the paper is doing for Black History Month.


At 3:30 AM, Blogger Drue Kataoka said...

Spot on.
Beautiful passage.
Your Holiday detail started traces of "These foolish things'"
"spinning 'round in my brain"

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Birgitte Necessary said...

Lovely passage. Found your blog accidentally because I was researching black jazz players for my own book. :) Promise to make them quite different!


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