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by Steve Day


“…he includes himself in the world around him. The important point is that Day is a real writer.” Barry McRae (Jazz Journal)

Jazz Sextet is a novel for our time. Set in Paris, London, New York and all the other sad-happy places where working jazz musicians have to ply their trade. You do not have to be a jazz-nut to read this book, though you might find yourself becoming one.

The focus is on six quite separate individuals coming together in a working band. Out of these self-contained short stories grows a complete novel as troubling as the twist of fate that cracks humanity. Like the deep vein in jazz music, it reaches out to touch the vulnerability of the human condition. The book covers a lot of ground; jazz with all its myriad methods of improvising with life, the odd friendship or two, a casual murder, sad sex, a definition of devotion, the cheap scent of racism, gender politics and personal philosophies, the tight grip loneliness can impose on a single, solitary individual. Jazz Sextet documents the power of love, wonder and despair. These separate lives become one life affirming story. Read it and take your own solos.

Like all novels which turn the reader as well as the page, the opening lines to Jazz Sextet indicate the direction in which this book is heading:

Drumming and sex resonate. When both are coming from a true spirit they become beautiful percussion.

What follows is a short synopsis of the six stories that grow into the complete novel. This book is about connections, the passing trade of relationships. As the narrator takes the reader into the performance space of each individual musician's life it gradually becomes apparent that there is a bigger story forming behind what initially seems like a group of isolated people.

1. The Drummer

Main Character: Billy 'The Kid' Hughes. A brilliant young English drummer who will eventually thread his story throughout the entire novel, he is a small-time hero inhabiting a world where everyone is more than the sum of their parts.

Main Setting: Paris; a club called La Lune Jazz owned by an American woman, Lena Kane.

Storyline: Billy Hughes is playing in a band led by Walter Rahman, an American saxophone player with a reputation for being awkward and artistic in equal measure. A picture of how the various individuals who inhabit the activities of Le Lune emerges as a silent dance to saxophones and drums, until the murder of Walter Rahman in the street outside the club. The full reason why this murder occurred does not get answered until the last of the six stories.

Incident: Billy Hughes meets by chance an elderly French woman who looks "like the actress Jeanne Moreau". The woman is feeding her poodle crepes in the Luxembourg Gardens. The dialogue between the young drummer and the older woman circles around sex and music as if flirting with harmony:

The Kid was irritated but interested. "You know many musicians?"

"I know great musicians, the genius, Erik Satie, he who wrote "Trois Gymnopedies", you know the piece?"

"Sure I know "Gymnopedies", but Satie was long...."

"Monsieur, Erik Satie died before your mother had even a virginity to lose", she giggled as if to herself, "Nevertheless I knew the maestro." She was enjoying the impression she was making. "I was a child, Monsieur, don't look so shocked, I was a child. Rock musicians think the world only began with Elvis Presley."

"I'm not a Rock musician, I play Jazz." Billy must have been in a semi-state of shock to come out with a wimp statement like that, I'm not a Rock musician, I play Jazz, it sounds like a 'I'm not red, I'm just dead' lecture to me.

"Now I understand," she said, "I see before me a truly sophisticated jazzman, we have a tradition of them here in Paris." At this point the poodle stared barking and the well creamed elderly woman, fed the animal yet another crepe. The pink dog lay on the ground licking the thing, playing with the food like the hound had hunted it down in the undergrowth. She continued, "They all came here, the American jazz artists, Bird and Dizzy, and of course the one they call Miles. I was once Miles Davis' lover's lover's lover's lover. I keep my distance, as you say."

2. The Tenor Sax Player

Main Character: Ben Samuals is a loner, as well as being a prolific composer and an extraordinarily gifted saxophone player. He is young, Jewish, kind, shy, sensitive and extremely talented.

Main Setting: Totnes, Devon is Ben's home town. Action also takes place in a small recording studio in London; Brighton and other British locations are also used.

Storyline: Ben Sumuals meets Tomi Lister a guitar player who helps him to make business connections which result in Ben's music not only being successful in a jazz context, but also gaining wider commercial success. The two men also become lovers. However a woman called Rosemary, who is a strange, fragile figure with a haunting presence, will eventually finalise this second story.

Incident: A key scene in this story is when Tomi Lister is beaten up after a gig in Brighton. The incident will have devastating consequences for Tomi himself and leave a lasting, awful impression on Ben Samuals:

"Cut your crutch, fucking poofter!" Who knows what you do in that situation? Tomi went for the guy who had Leroy. That was when they piled in. One of them smacked Leroy in both eyes. A couple of them held the blades on Ben and Charlie, and the rest took out Tomi as if he were dog. The one who did the damage was only small, but he was stocky, a tattooed shaved bonehead. Three of them held Tomi, pining his arms back. The little guy just waded into Tomi's face with both fists. The nose must have broke early because there was blood everywhere. Within an hour Tomi's face had swelled up like a purple balloon. The features had disappeared. His eyes puffed up beyond use, he was flaky meat. Once the kids had finished mashing his head they let him drop to the ground. Then came the worse part, kicking the poor sod until he spewed up, and then kicking him some more for spewing up and "making a fucking smell". Ben told me that the kicking part became the worse nightmare because it seemed to go on for such a long time, and they were laughing, trying to see who could boot the hardest. One swine took time out to use Tomi's back for trampoline practise, jumping up and down as if trying to spread it out flat on the pavement. The final act was the final act even if the end result did not come until a little while later. One of the bastards stamped on Tomi's hands. Tomi laid flat on the ground with a little brute continually stamping on the hands, bringing a stud heel down over and over again until you could see the fingers splayed, broken and shattered.

3. The Pianist

Main Character: Mercy de Bono is a Black American female pianist based in New York. Mercy is a strong individual who has had to fight her way onto a music scene that does not immediately open up to women.

Main Setting: New York; Greenwich Village and the Lower Eastside. Action takes places in various venues - Mercy's apartment, clubs, restaurants and Washington Square.

Storyline: This chapter is a portrait of a female musician determined to be noticed, both as a woman and as a jazz player. The story is centred around two parallel actions; a meeting that occurs between Mercy and Michael Ashwood, an Afro-American classical musician who has his own issues to deal with, and the formation of a new 'electric' band. Neither of these storylines resolve in ways which seem obvious to Mercy de Bono.

Incident: At the beginning of The Pianist there is a description of Mercy de Bono's upright piano arriving outside her apartment in Greenwich Village. It is a slightly humorous encounter which contrasts with the anguish later in the story:

"Henry, what the hell are you doing?" She had not actually seen Mr Horse at this point but he seemed the mostly likely source for a huge hole in the front of her home. Henry's head appeared above the window sill.

"Fixing the piano, baby", and he bobbed down again out of sight.

"Oh, that's all right then," she said. Mercy sauntered across the room in the way people do when they find themselves in these kind of situations. She looked through the hole to see that the piano had apparently been delivered that morning and left on the sidewalk. It was four steps up into the house and the guys who had brought it had obviously made no attempt to bring it any further. Already the front panel was missing.

"What's happened to the.....?"

"Don't worry about it Honey, I thought I'd try removing a few bits and pieces to see if I could ease it down the corridor. It didn't work, that's why we're going for the window." It was then that Mercy realised Henry Horse was not alone. Taylor Harrison, Shorty Mitterhoff and Jamie Mohawk were all present but not quite correct. They looked as determinedly committed to action as The Horse. Taylor and his wife Reene ran the drugstore on the corner. They were the kiss of death to depression, honest street people, newshounds the pair of them. If you needed a brief on the Village, Harrison's drugstore had the information, though they were wise enough to want to know to whom they were telling the stories. Shorty was a friend of Henry, he called himself an artist and probably was at one time. Jamie occasionally played double bass with Mercy's Trio when she could not find anyone else and the moon was in the wrong quarter. Jamie Mohawk was an okay kind of a guy but he wasn't someone with whom you would want to take on tour too often. He dabbled and paddled, these days that could be such a drag.

"Hey Horse, this is a neat trick, straight through the hole in the wall, wow! What I don't get is how you intend we give the piano sufficient height to get it up in the air so it will drop neatly through the gap."

4. The Trumpeter

Main Character: Russell Honeyman, or simply Honeyman, is a Black British trumpeter; musically he is somewhere between Miles Davis and the nerve end of Hip-Hop, sexually he is between the devil and deep blue sea. By the end of the story he is permanently in a wheel chair, yet even this outcome does not prevent music and sex totally consuming him.

Main Setting: A crashed van at the side of a motorway; Harlow, Essex is Honeyman's home town. Action takes place at Honeyman's flat, at various gigs in England as well as La Lune Jazz in Paris and on a hospital ward in England.

Storyline: This chapter, The Trumpeter, begins in a series of flashbacks. Honeyman is trapped in a crashed van on a motorway. While the trumpeter waits for the emergency services to arrive the reader discovers the circumstances which have led up to the crash. One of the key factors is the relationship between Honeyman and Mimi O'Sullivan, a journalist. The pair fall into a short sexual encounter which becomes as dark a place as it is possible to inhabit between one man and a woman. Billy Hughes, Ben Samuals and Mercy de Bono, from the previous chapters, make appearances within The Trumpeter.

Incident: The excerpt quoted below is taken from the beginning of the first meeting between Honeyman and Mimi O'Sullivan. If it seems like a difficult conversation, what will follow later is even more so:

"Let's start at the beginning."

"Sure." He took a swig from his bottle of lager, she did likewise, it was a kind of involuntary act.

There's a track on "Porgy & Bess" about the Honeyman."

"Yeah, well I don't think the Gershwins had me personally in mind."

"Shit, I thought I was onto something." She thought a little humour may have helped. Stick to the line. "Tell me Honeyman, how did you get started?"

"I guess Daddy screwed Mummy, or maybe the other way round. In those days they used to enjoy each others company. Know what I mean?"

"Your father is a dentist."

"Yeah, he likes filling holes. So do I."

"Are you going to simply give me sexual innuendo throughout this conversation? If so, it is going to make for an extremely boring interview." Honeyman was looking straight up at Mimi. "Sorry, very sorry. I'll try to make things more interesting for you and your readers. Yeah, my father's a dentist. Did you know that Miles Davis' old man pulled teeth too? It kind of gave me something to identify with."

"How far do you take this New Miles label?" This time she swigged from her bottle and he matched it.

"We all gotta do our own thing. I ain't no clone, I don't do it the same way, Davis went through all that music college shit, I didn't need to, he'd already done it. Here, in this frigging room, this is where I study, this is where it comes together." The next interchange rattled out fast like guns firing at each other.

"It comes together?"

"Yeah, my prick and pussy."

"Come on Honeyman, what inspires you?"

"My prick and pussy."

"Can't you elucidate a little more."

"Of course, but I always find elucidating too quickly spoils the fun. Especially for the woman." I think she must have laughed at this stage which was probably a mistake. She was also drinking the beer which was probably another. Mimi O'Sullivan looked down at the trumpeter laid out on the floor like a leopard. The image amused her and maintained her laughter; the idea of a leopard with a trumpet in its mouth. It was absurd, and so was the situation. He was staring at her, smiling and waiting.

5. The Bass Player

Main Character: Geoff Smith is aged somewhere around fifty. He is successful in jazz terms; he has his own home, a family, just about enough money in the bank to feel safe. He is a professional, and he has been that way for a long time.

Main Setting: Geoff Smith's home in Essex. Action also takes place at other Essex locations including the beach at Southend-On-Sea as well as the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Storyline: Geoff has returned home after a tour. He is tired, unconfident, beginning to feel like a "middling man with one great gift", playing double bass; even his ability to finger the strings is beginning to sound hollow. This story is about how Geoff Smith reconnects with himself, his family and jazz. Billy Hughes and other characters from the previous chapters merge into the storyline.

Incident: This particular story attempts to reveal how hard the "road" can be for a working jazz musician. Geoff Smith's nickname for his instrument is The Girlfriend; Debbie his wife takes on the role Personal Organiser.

Geoff Smith stood in the kitchen of his own home fidgeting like a first day teenage table clearer at a burger bar. "Deb, just give me a quick précis of my work schedule." He saw the disappointment on her face but then still added the words, "Please, Debbie."

"Look, most of it you already know, some confirmations about the Ben Samuals European tour dovetailing into the Brandeanini Autumn dates, a couple of one nighters, recording schedules which you've already got. And Derrick was badgering me last week. As usual he wants you to sit in on his trad thing up at the Carpenters Arms on Sunday. Oh yes, Julius Shaw's people have e-mailed, apparently Julius is at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival at the end of next week, plus two London gigs. Chuck Tee was going to be playing bass but he's ducked out for some reason. He's rejoining them when they get to France. They want to know whether you'll deb the British jobs." She looked at him carefully and decided to stay with the subject matter. "They've got a bloody nerve, but you've got the dates empty on the schedule; the money is standard, Billy Hughes is on drums. I said you would be probably up for it, but that you'd confirm by 5 o'clock our time today. They were cool."

"Fine. I'll do it."

"I almost forgot. Gene has faxed and phoned. Something about a trio recording he is setting up in Berlin."

"Gene? I was only with him three days ago, he didn't mention it then."

"I don't know my darling, I've left the details in the in-tray. It sounded like a one-off using up some sponsorship cash given to a German label. I think he was mumbling about the end of next month. I put the dates down. The usual airfares, hotel bills and a flat fee. You're free, but it will butt up close to your recording dates in London. Okay? Now come and sit down, tell me what's the score?"

"Does it show? That there have been own goals?"

"Just talk."

"You know, I often feel I don't exist in the same solar system as everybody else."

"Christ, Geoff, I didn't realise we were into sci-fi psychology." Debbie regretted the words as soon as she had said them. "Sorry, it's just that...., no sorry, please carry on."

6. The Sextet

Main Character: Max Gonzalez has been the narrator throughout the whole of Jazz Sextet, the reader only finds out this fact in the final story. Max is an experienced sax player, the leader of the Sextet, which also includes the five other main characters in the book.

Main Setting: La Lune Jazz in Paris.

Storyline: This is story belongs to Max Gonzalez however it also provides the stage on which to bring to a conclusion all the previous endings which have not quite ended, including the identity of who killed Walter Rahman and why. Jazz Sextet is not a 'who-done-it' murder mystery even though it contains that element within the text. The end of this book is like the last bar of a solo; finality is always relative.

Incident: The last gig at La Lune Jazz is the literally the last gig this Sextet will ever play; something else happens after everyone has packed up and left the club which will make it impossible for the band to ever play together again. This short extract comes just before that final act; it does however reveal clues if you know what you are looking for:

I sat just for a moment on the edge of the stage. They were heaving Honeyman and his wheelchair up the stairs. He was giving orders like one of those Emperors in a sedan chair, waving at the crowd. Hell, you have got to give it to the guy, he makes it look easy. I know it is not. A few people come up to me, shake my hand, tell me that my band is hot poop; yeah, yeah, we have done our night's work I guess. Geoff taps me on the shoulder, he has put the girlfriend in wraps, he will not touch her again until morning. He asks whether I want to stroll back to the Hotel de Cluney with him. I reply, I say no. It takes me a few seconds to remember why I am giving that answer. Then I see her, Lena Kane, sitting in the same spot usually occupied by her husband. Who knows where Pierre has gone? I never get to find out. Geoff says something I cannot hear, probably, goodbye, he wanders out of La Lune Jazz. Gunslinger I think, I chuckle to myself. Geoff Smith, a regular kind of guy, in normality there grows a pathetic madness, great bass player though. I did not see either The Kid or Ben leave the club. I guess The Kid's in a hurry to taste the wasted Sylvie. Strange about Ben. The irony is that he's the only celibate member of the band yet he is the one dying of Aids. Perhaps that should read, living with Aids, I doubt it. I look across at Lena again. She has got a photograph she wants to show me, so she says. I sit on the edge of the stage looking at her looking at me. What am I supposed to do, Baby? Do you expect old Max to get up and dance? That is what I think, I say nothing and neither does she. We just sit there, the late night stragglers all around us, drifting like flies. Someone show them the exit. Let us all out of here for God's sake.


Steve Day lives and works just outside of Bristol. He is a very individual writer whose cut and flow with words can be cool and invigorating, incisive and sharp. 'Jazz Sextet', his first novel, is a wonderfully original piece of writing. Just as in a film or a play, the book edits personal lives to the point where they inhabit the same space revealing a bigger picture which readers can relate to.

Steve Day has written two books, 'Ornette Coleman: Music Always' and 'Two Full Ears - Listening to Improvised Music', both published by Soundworld. He has also contributed the chapter, 'Free Jazz' to the influential 'Masters of Jazz Saxophone', edited by Dave Gelly, published by Miller Freeman Books. In 1995 he began writing extensively on jazz and improvised music for Avant magazine. He has gone on to contribute CD liner notes for specialist record labels (including Leo, FMP and Splasch) on behalf of international musicians such as Anthony Braxton (USA), Antonio Moncada (Sicily), Carlo Actis Dato (Italy), Keith Tippett (UK), Frank Gratkowski (Poland) and Mark O'Leary (Ireland). Steve Day is a published poet and is currently devising a new song-cycle of impressions of popular culture. He has been working with people with profound learning disabilities for many years and recently won the prestigious University of the West of England Disability Studies Award for 2004 with respect to his MSc dissertation, 'Cutting Up Sharks: Disability and Postmodernism.'

Despite Steve Day's background, 'Jazz Sextet' is not a specialist book. It draws on his knowledge of the jazz scene to make a deliberate crossover into a new readership. Jazz Sextet is very much a novel for our time. The focus is on six quite separate individuals coming together in a working band. Out of these self-contained short stories grows a complete novel as troubling as the twist of fate that cracks humanity. Like the deep vein in jazz music, it reaches out to touch the vulnerability of the human condition. The book covers a lot of ground; jazz with all its myriad methods of improvising with life, the odd friendship or two, a casual murder, sad sex, a definition of devotion, the cheap scent of racism, gender politics and personal philosophies, the tight grip loneliness can impose on a single, solitary individual. Jazz Sextet documents the power of love, wonder and despair. These separate lives become one life affirming story. Read it and take your own solos.


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