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The darkened club smelled of vintage booze and tall tales from the road, or so I imagined. At only 18 years old, to me, “the road” was merely a mythical place where Robert Johnson sold his soul, and vagabond sidemen appeared on a nightly basis, proving their skills and earning a buck one note at a time.

With my gig bag hanging off my shoulder like a warrior venturing into town, I showed up at the jam session ready to show off the legacy of jazz my dad raised me with, and to shut up any naysayers who thought I didn’t have what it takes.

The aged husky bulk of a woman, shaped like a question mark, sat bent over at the piano. Her plump, yet agile fingers danced along the keys. Behind the drums sat a man half her age, with the bass player splitting the difference. Their mesmerizing final chorus of “Oleo,” stirred up a witches’ brew of notes that would make Sonny Rollins pause and smile.

Eager to leap on stage and show them what I’ve got, I unzipped my gig bag, and assembled my trombone.

I came to play.

At the tune’s end, the piano player then croaked into the microphone, “Okay, who’s first tonight?”

I looked around the room. There were a few shadowed figures with cases by their chairs, their axes remaining unpacked.

“Go on boy, I’m in no hurry,” one of them shouted out.

“C’mon baby bone, you up first,” she said with a wide, inviting smile.

I hopped up onto the small stage, occupying the nook of space between the piano and the drums.

“Whatcha wanna play, sugar?” the wrinkled piano mistress asked me.

“‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ in F minor,” I burped back. I always get nervous gas and sound like a drunk.

“Fool,” the woman says, “It’s alway in F minor. That’s where Miles wrote it.”

The bass player snickered behind his hand, covering his mouth. A bead of sweat formed in my armpit and slowly dripped down like a wet worm. I looked back as he said between chuckles, “My bad, brother. F minor it is.”

The drummer snapped a tempo faster than I ever played any tune before.

Without a chance to object or beg for mercy, the bass player started playing the famous intro and we were off.

In seven seconds, I went from confident jazz ambassador to panicked child. Blood drained from my face, moisture evaporated from my mouth, and I was about to go speeding down the bebop highway without a seatbelt or a crash helmet.

From the opening, I was desperate to keep up with the rhythm section driving the tune forward, just out of my reach. The first seven pitches of the famed uptempo-swing chart are quick, short, brisk notes, but at this rate, I’d never reach heaven because the jazz angels were leaving my ass behind.

After the intro, the interlude got me more tongue-tied than if I just shoved a spoonful of peanut butter into my mouth. I lagged behind the others, hampered by frightened technique and mush-mouth articulations.

When the first solo chorus began, I felt naked and lost.

The chord changes flew by at light speed. Every time I thought I caught up, I was still three changes behind. My vocabulary of practiced licks ended up being avoided as the piano player jumped into her solo chorus. My moment to shine was a musical skid mark.

A gratuitous drum solo, with no sense of form or phrasing, suddenly ended when the drummer called out, “One, two, three, four,” and they returned to the top of the chart for the final chorus. I jumped back in like trying to catch a moving train. And if it were real, I would’ve been decapitated.

The tune ended mercifully, yet three beats before I thought it was supposed to, leaving me on the wrong note in the wrong chord in the wrong place. In seven minutes, I went from confident gunslinger to musical roadkill.

Six polite pairs of hands granted me applause that I didn’t deserve, none of it coming from the combo onstage.

I turned to the drummer with my eyes bugged out, and shouted, “What the hell was that? Couldn’t you hear I was drowning?” He stared back at me, unimpressed with my fury, before he took a sip of his beer.

I hopped off the stage, and reached for my gig bag, ready to pack up and storm out of that shit hole.

“Don’t leave yet.”

I looked back to see the old woman piano player waving me back with the same wide smile she greeted me with. “Let’s play again.”

“That sucked,” I said. “Why should I fillet my face if the goddamn drummer’s gonna drive me off the road again like that?”

“Boy, you gonna eat that trombone if you keep talkin’ and thinkin’ like that. You wanna play big time? You gots to handle all the tempos. Ain’t no way you gonna get good at it, unless you stop being a quitter, and throw yourself back in. So… throw yourself back in.”

“Again?” I asked.

“Again,” they all said.

“Do it again,” the same shadowy figure in the dark shouted with encouragement.

The drummer snapped his fingers, again at the same tempo, again the same bass intro, and again, the same Seven Steps to Heaven.

Jay Heltzer

Jay Heltzer writes attention-challenged fiction, plays bass trombone, digs sloppy fountain pen sketches, and is in pursuit of the perfect cheeseburger.

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