Swamp Music


I was born in the Northeast, but, my family moved to the South and then re-migrated northward.

My childhood was a game of hopscotch across the Mason-Dixon Line.

And, consequently, my personality can appear as the fractured quotient from an algorithm of long division.

After college, I gravitated toward the South, because my heart longed for the stories and the languid landscape; the gentle speech and the proverbial Southern Hospitality.     South of The Border Neon Signs

Plus, I loved the hell out of being called “hon” and “darling” by total strangers with syrupy accents – mostly women who worked in cafes and stores.

Even though they called everyone by terms of endearment, I secretly felt special. I felt mothered in an immediate and anonymous way.

My spirit is such a greedy little orphan, she’ll grab at any cloak of love to snuggle in!

And now, inspired by my Southern root-tendrils, here’s sharing a tale about a boy from the bayou whose hidden gift just couldn’t stay quiet .  .  .

Swamp - Foggy Day with Log Cabin

My name is Clarence Hazelwater and I play Dixieland jazz in a band that’s as old as the swamp gas. I play many instruments – the teeth of alligators, the scales of snakes sunning and draping in the bayou trees, the rippled wood of bog oak – but – my favorite musical tool is the baritone saxophone. It first caught my attention when I heard the rhyme of its name: something with melody built into its name is bound to have endless rhythm.

So, as a child, I sold crayfish to the tourists boating around the swamp. Those people with the binoculars and cameras and braying laughter like a mini burrow. You know those folk? Crazy ass rich people with nothing better to do than rent a boat and glide through the bayou at dawn. Well, these folks are good for somethin’. I saw advantage to take . . . and I did. People from the North, they want to try local foods and learn some local patois. So, I’d go down to the banks each morning with a burlap sack of fresh crayfish and summon them with a little dance. I’d find a sunspot near a gator on a knurling log, and, sure enough someone always caught my movement in their lens. They were intrigued, they’d come closer, I’d call out like a fishmonger and hop into a rowboat – meet them half way. Sure as a goose lays eggs, they’d want to buy my entire catch and talk a bit. Ask a lot of questions about life in the backwater. They’d pay me well for stories – so well, in fact, that after about a year, I had enough money to buy me a baritone saxophone at Bartle’s on Beale Street. The best music store around.

I was ten years old when I bought my first sax. She was lovely. All shiny brass and curves gleaming in the mid-day sun. Heavy, too. And tall. Almost as tall as I was. Kinda hard to carry round, in fact. So, I found a wagon in the local junk yard, padded it with a threadbare Navajo blanket and used that old, faded red wooden wagon to haul my precious piece from home to the river, where I’d blow and blow until the crows scattered for good.  Saxophone - Vintage

My tunes weren’t so good. Deep and husky, they bellowed through the Spanish moss, circled round and came back to me. I liked their depth, but, there was no rhythm in them sounds. I knew then that I needed to find me a teacher. Knew I couldn’t pay for lessons, but I needed to learn to caress this somber snake of a horn. I wanted more than anything to coax it to talk to me, to soothe my ever-loving soul, to lift me up to heaven and back and give that gift to others.

I walked back to Bartle’s and asked who the best baritone sax teacher was. The owner, Mr. Bartle hisself, wrote down a name and address on the inside of a matchstick cover. I thanked him and stuffed the wrinkled cardboard square into my back pocket. Once I was safely outside and hidden from the eyes of drifting folk, I opened the cover and read: Mr. Travis Wilson. 88 Sycamore Street.

That was a questionable part of town. Half white, half black, part rich, part wannabe artsy, part genuine creative. I wasn’t sure if I’d be welcome, but, I decided to take a risk. After all, a serious musician needs to pay his dues and my sax was worth any chance that could be taken. I needed to play that thing and make it sing. And if Mr. Wilson was the best, then I guess I owed him a visit.

I walked and walked until my feet were blistered by my old canvas sneakers. Sneakers - Old & MuddyThey were so old, I thought all their life had left them, but, they proved to have some sassy in ‘em.  I finally reached Sycamore about late afternoon. The sun was lowering in the sky but the air was still hot and moist. Sweat was beading on my forehead and I had only the back of my hand to wipe it off. I didn’t want to meet Mr. Travis Wilson looking disrespectful, so, I picked a few fresh leaves from a bougainvillea bush, wiped my brow, tucked in my checkered-cotton shirt, tied my tattered sneakers and said a little prayer.

I knocked on his front door. It was tall and wide, made of a dark mahogany with tiny sculptures of people in the center. They were all playing musical instruments – five older men and one tall woman in a long dress, her back curved like a marsh reed. I knew this was the right house, because the wooden people were inside the loops of two 8s. Like two infinity signs, holding these folks captive. If infinity can be a prison, that is. I didn’t know. If it were, though, these cats were playing and dancing and making merry. They sure could make hell look like fun.

As I stared at the carved figures, the door opened and startled me. I’d forgotten for a moment just where I was. But, I soon recovered. I smelled Mr. Wilson’s mothball-scented jacket, and I saw his dress spats glossing like gangster hair in the sunlight. The mahogany of the door continued inside. It spread out all across the floor, that dark, musky wood with a history of something. And there was music in the background. A soft jazz that soothed my jitters.

Mr. Wilson looked down at me and half-smiled: “What do you want boy?”

“Well, Mr. Travis, I’m looking for the best baritone saxophone teacher in town and Mr. Bartle gave me your name.”

“Now son, them’s mighty nice words. What’s your name?”

“Clarence Hazelwater.”

“Do you have an instrument, Clarence?”

“I do, sir. It’s back home. It’s a little heavy to carry so I pull it in my wagon. But I thought I should come alone to meet you.”

“Well, Clarence, that’s mighty respectful of you. A young man like you wanting to learn the saxophone – that’s something special. Why don’t you come on in and tell me about yourself.”

So I did. I sat in his parlor in the acorn-carved arm chair by the window. armchair I can still feel the softness of that upholstered chair. Velvet, I believe. I folded my hands in my lap as he sank down in a floral loveseat. It was room right out of the 1920s and 30s. The walls were covered with raspberry-colored, striped paper and on them hung hundreds of photographs of Mr. Wilson as a young man, as a man playing in a jazz band with a woman singing. I could hardly keep my eyes from wandering around the room. I wanted to know everything I could about this magic man who’d played in a band called The Whippoor Dixies and traveled round the world.

Mr. Wilson saw me gaping at the pictures. I’m sure that my mouth hung wide open and maybe even some drool started to dribble, because when he spoke I jolted like I’d stuck my finger in a socket. When my eyes met his, he was smiling. A soft, grandfatherly smile that relaxed my fear.

He talked kinda slowly and mellow – in something like baritone speech: “Would you like to hear the stories behind those photos, Clarence?”

“Yes, sir, I would! I mean, if you have the time, Mr. Wilson. I know you’re a busy man.”

“I was a busy man for many years. Now, I’m an old man living a simple life and sharing my love of jazz saxophone with the younger ones. Hoping that some will carry on where I left off. How about we have a little lunch, Clarence? Get to know each other. Then, we’ll schedule a time to meet next week. You bring your sax and we’ll jam a bit. Practice some basic scales. Read a little music. But mostly get acquainted with improvisation.”

“Why that’s mighty nice of you, Mr. Wilson. But, I don’t really have much money to pay you. I spent almost everything on the saxophone. I’d need to sell a lot more crayfish before I could take real lessons.”

“Clarence, you go ahead and make as much money as you like. But, as far as lessons . . . well, they’re free. You’re a resourceful young man and I appreciate that. I like your motivation, the passion I feel from your heart. So let’s just think of this friendship as one in honor of the muse of music – the beautiful, beguiling Eleanor. She’s the lady in red brocade, with the waist-length pearls, and the skin as silky as coffee and cream. She’s the lady who put words to my horn and gave them passage to the Milky Way and back. Now let’s have lunch, Clarence, and afterward, I’ll tell you a tale about how The Whippoor Dixies met each other, and, how we met Eleanor. . . the witchy woman who transformed our music, and our relationships to God and each other.”

Mr. Wilson chuckled to himself. Kinda let the sentence drift off to find a sandbar and drop an anchor. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was talking about back then. I mean, he did use a lot of big words. And I didn’t know much about women, or pearls, or the Milky Way. But, I was excited to hear stories and learn as much as I possible so I could have a muse one day.

“Thank you, Mr. Wilson. I sure do appreciate your kindness.”

“My pleasure, son.”

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