The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2019

All Issues
NOV 2019 Issue


Before and After—Before
hot jazz could probably end the cold war
—Louis Armstrong 1955

After our set at the Boom-Boom Room,
after the opening-night audience clamored
for “Mack the Knife,” all I could say was
“Come back tomorrow. We’ll lay it on you.”

But this was an artistic emergency: cause I didn’t
have the sheet music. Quick. I ushered
the All-Stars around the Floating Staircase

to the Chez Bon-Bon where has-beens
slumped over cups of Black Velvet coffee.
I got a month of coins in one pocket a brick
of sheet music in my teeth. Brecht might have

only needed three pennies to write an opera;
but I needed 50 dimes to combobulate a pop
hit. (My valet Doc Pugh lost the arrangement.

Twice.) So we could transcribe that commercified,
murder melody, Trummy, Hall, Squire, Kyle,
Deems and me huddled ‘round the coffee
shop jukebox as if it were a college quarter

back who had to keep repeating the same damn
play. My gatormouth face facing me in the box’s
mirrored display and behind the juke’s glass,

pleated like a Spanish-hand fan, nothing
but hits from the hit parade. I’m worried
a Flamenco dancer might leap from that
box stomping and waving. Spotted “Mack’s”

green octagon sticker, the Coronet record
label. Dropped a dime in the slot, punched
the “E” then the “5.” ”Oh the shark has...”

Dotted quarter eighth, three halves. Glare
of the night’s footlights still needling/pricking
my eyes. Drop a dime in the juke “Pretty
teeth dear:” ditto dotted to halves. Each

All-Star copying his part. Drop a dime
in the box. “And he shows them pearly
white.” Ditto that last ditto then add

a dotted quarter, eighth whole and a half.
For starters: my voice had four measures
of rest. Drop a dime in the slot. “Just
a jackknife has Macheath dear.” Dotted

quarter eighth, three halves dittoed. Errol Garner
refused the tune saying it was just the same
eight bars over and over: “catchy pop.”

But I smiled when I heard the score.
Drop a dime in the juke. “And he keeps it
out of sight.” Dotted quarter, eighth, three
halves, two quarters, a whole and a half. Drop

a dime in the box. I recorded it because I knew
cats like Mack back in New Orleans. They’d
stick a knife in you fast as say hello.

“When the shark bites with his teeth, dear.”
Double ditto the dotted quarters to halves.
Drop a dime in the slot. We nothing but ink
and ears as the needle circles them wax

grooves so when we decorate the stage
tomorrow night our upright groove will be
tight. “Scarlet billows start to spread.” Halve

the dotted quarter to halves in half and add
a dotted quarter, eighth, a whole and a half
of High-fidelity vinyl. Drop a dime in the juke.
Some point Trummy’s inhaling eggnog bon bons.

“Fancy gloves though wears MacHeath dear.”
Dotted quarter, eighth, three halves; doubled. Drop
a dime in the box. Funny listening to my gut

bucket gravel—its corduroy gusto—over
and over. Like I was listening to someone
else, then someone else overdubbing
my singing with a trumpet obbligato.

“So there’s not a trace of red.”
Dotted quarter, eighth, three halves;
two quarters, a whole and a half.

Leaning against the juke’s marbly
plastic columns, drop a dime in
the slot. “On the sidewalk, Sunday
mornin'.” Dotted quarter, eighth

and three halves: dittoed. Drop a dime in
the juke. “Lies a body, oozin' life.”
Ditto the last (ditto) as is. Drop a dime

in the box. Loosened my black bow
tie—wish Fountainebleau would
loosen its segregated check-in. “Some
one sneakin' ‘round the corner.” Ditto

the last ditto as it is. Drop a dime in
the slot. “Is the someone, Mack the Knife?”
Ibid the last ditto in half, plus two

quarters, a whole and a half. Drop
a dime in the juke, “From a tugboat,
by the river.” Dotted quarter, eighth,
three halves; ditto it. The Seeburg

juke’s chrome and glass tubes, its teal
and peach waves and circles wamble as
the record’s playing. Drop a dime

in the box. “A cement bag's droopin’
down.” Half the last ditto then add
a dotted quarter, eighth, a whole and a half.
Drop a dime in the slot. “The cement's

just for the weight, dear.” Double ditto
the last dotted eighths to halves; drop
a dime in the juke. “Bet you Mack,

he's back in town.” Ditto needs a breather:
dotted quarter, eighth, three halves;
two quarters, a whole and a half. Drop
a dime in the box; drop a dime in

the slot; drop a dime in the juke. Done.
And pockets shed five pounds. Half
of us had to catch a cab to OverTown’s

Calverton Hotel. (We could gig
but not sleep on the gold coast.)
In the jitney, I’m thinking, we
couldn’t keep our eyes off that arm—

with a penny on top and a needle
attached to it. See, if a record was
heroin, we‘d just spent hours shooting

up a song.

Jazz Math
(after Louis Armstrong’ Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings)

4 +1 equals hot five
2 +5 equals hot 7
3+2 equals hot five

4+3 equals hot 7
1+1 = cool 2
O + keh= hot 5

Po+’boy= yummy tummy
Notes on wax=hot 7
Lil+Hardin=married to

Lil+Hardin=divorced from
Big+easy=down home
Cele+brate=warm 4

Critics+time=not 5
11 + 12=groundbreaking

Turn + over=tuned up
10 less 3 equals hot 7
Swing +swang=hot 5

Willie + Weeper=Lil Hardin
Heebie + Jeebie=Lil Hardin
6 plus 1 equal hot 7

6 less 1 equal Hot 5
Wild+Man comes up jazz knees
New+Orleans=West end

Stu+dio=scat chat
Blare+from=record stores
Lil+ Hardin=ivories

Funny+bits= hot 7
Short +shrift= hot five
So+lo= hot jive

Zu+lu= jazz mansion
trump less et=cornet
Chop+Suey=hot 5

7 less 5= not 2
Struttin with Some=Bbq

Epi+thet=not 7
Fast and slow=tempo
Weary+Blues maybe Langston

Potato+Head=hot 7
alli+gator=Big Butter

Hot+5=cooled down
Hot+7=back then

Rhythm+section= squeeze me
Cuts+numbers=jazz math

Mahogany+Stomp=hot 5
Reper+tory gotta ramble
Era+gone=cooled off

5 less hot=not 2
10 over 2 equal hot 5
Eggs over easy equals music mouth

Music minus Louie = stone cold
Pio+neer= hell’s 12
7 +5= swell 12

Sold+out= packed house
Arrange+ment=hot diggity

Louis + horn equals hot damn
Oh Yeah!

St. James Infirmary
(after Louis Armstrong’s 1920s recording)

Love is really lost if she’s six feet under
Lost is truly love when she’s six feet under
But something’s keeping the beat beneath that tombstone: it ain’t my drummer.

I heard about this drink that’s sweet, so cold and bare
Ordered a shot so sweet, so cold so bared
They keeps it refrigerated at the morgue; so you ain’t gon’ find it here.

In New Orleans, funerals been known to have a second line
In this poem, the first line’s repeated in the second line.
Death, my lady hoped to outrun you; but the one thing she ran out of was rhymes

When there’s a 20-dollar gold piece on your watch chain hold it close
If there’s a 20-dollar gold piece on your watch chain keeps it close
Cause at your lady’s funeral somebody might lift it pretending the holy ghost

I’m a sweet man straight laced as my shoes
Suga, booga daddy laced up just like my shoes.
When you passed on, baby, my dress socks got the blues.

And my boxback coat’s been moping in my closet.
You gone, and my boxback coat’s been sobbing in my closet.
I’m a reopen a graveyard savings account so I can withdraw
what them ditch diggers deposited.


David Mills

David Mills is the author of two books The Dream Detective and The Sudden Country, a Main Street Rag book-prize finalist. He has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Arts Link, Henry James Fellowship, Chicago State's Hughes/Knight Poetry Award and a BRIO award. His poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Ploughshares, Jubilat, Fence, Vermont Literary Review, Callaloo, Transitions (Harvard University), Rattapallax, Hanging Loose, Aspeers, Prairie Review and The Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2019

All Issues