By: Raymond Greiner
Gazing out the single window of my small apartment the view is a littered alley with overturned trashcans. Two cats feud over food scraps and a homeless man sleeps in the fetal position on a sheet of cardboard, wearing a long overcoat and stocking cap. The diffused glow of streetlights accent this dismal scene. This city typifies social shift caused by white flight seeking to escape urban decay, escalating racial division. Detroit is spiraling into a metropolitan crisis zone. The year is 1968 and the Motor City is beginning to feel the economic toll of foreign auto manufacturing competition. Last year a race riot destroyed a large segment of the inner city. I live close to downtown near the Detroit River. My apartment is adjacent to the Riverfront Bar, where I am employed.
I graduated from Michigan State earning a degree in English but my heart is in music studied as a minor. I have been a guitar student since childhood. My Mother was black and my father was a white naval officer. My only memory of my father is a photo taken of him before I was born. I have struggled with personal balance and direction my entire life. My Mother was a beautiful and gifted blues and jazz singer financing my education and influencing my musical pursuits. She also was a drug addict dying last year from cardiac arrest triggered by an overdose of heroin. My association with her musical colleagues’ inspired me to master the blues and jazz guitar becoming my passion in life. An English degree offers limited career opportunities, which is why I live and work where I do.
I am recognized as a black male; however, my light skin color blocks stereotypical ethnic identity, combining with a reticent personality yielding drift toward isolation, resulting in anxiety and despair.
The Riverfront Bar gig enables me to play jazz and blues instrumentals on Friday and Saturday night between 9:00PM and 1:00AM, but with strings attached. I am also the cleanup guy after the bar closes. The job comes with a free apartment but the pay is atrociously low. I am paid 12 dollars a day for cleanup and 75 dollars each night I perform plus tips. The bar is a dive; smoked filled and mostly unsavory types frequent the place. The regular customers have nicknamed this bar the “Sewer” because it is located near the city’s main sewer overflow dumping into the Detroit River. After a heavy rain the stench is intolerable. The bar’s owner charges a fee to selected hookers gaining access to display their wares and drug activity is commonplace. I tolerate this environment because of personal joy I receive performing and am grateful when customers offer compliments. Seeing my name on the small marquee causes my heart to race. “Jason McNeil Jazz Guitarist”
In recent months it is apparent my music is attracting different and larger crowds. One night last week it was standing room only for a while. During my performance break, a beautiful blond woman and two male companions greeted me with compliments introducing themselves as Jenny and Harold Schmidt, a brother and sister and Harold’s friend Joe. Jenny lives in California and is visiting her brother. Joe recommended my music, thus their visit to the “Sewer”. Jenny revealed she had been drawn to blues since childhood and that she also plays the guitar.
“Blues instrumentals are beyond my skill level but I have good voice range and sing folk music, which seems a better fit.”
“I enjoy folk music also. Blues is rooted in southern, slave folk music, often sung while working in the fields. Many are unaware of blue’s origin. Blues evolved extensively during the depression era escalating instrumentally. Voice and lyrics form the foundation of blues music. Instrumentalists’ apply intricate licks diverting attention from the vocalist, who remains steadfastly the dominant, important figure overall within the blues music genre. My Mother was an exemplary blues singer. My performing here as a solo instrumentalist allows me a personal outlet to mix a few blues pieces with jazz. But it’s a shallow portrayal of blues without a quality vocalist to accompany me, or more appropriately, me to accompany the vocalist. Your compliments are greatly appreciated. As a performer recognition is the ultimate reward.”
“Jason I have several thoughts I wish to share with you. I must return to California in two days and it would be my pleasure to buy you lunch tomorrow, discuss your music, especially blues relating to my recent experience in California.”
“How can I refuse? My apartment is upstairs in the adjacent building. Give me a time and I will be ready.”
“I will pick you up at noon.”
“I look forward to it.”
Jenny is a head turner, tall and elegant with vividly penetrating blue eyes forming a natural captivation. I visualize her more as an angel than a person. She arrived promptly, driving her brother’s BMW.
“You are right on time. So nice of you to offer me lunch.”
“Jason, your guitar playing is extraordinary, stimulating something I must discuss with you.”
Jenny was raised in Detroit and took me to a nice restaurant in an affluent suburban area, a stark contrast to the “Sewer”.
“I have lived in Southern California for 10 years working various jobs and singing folk music in coffee shops and a few restaurants and lounges. For the past two years I have been performing at the Blue Moon Restaurant at Redondo Beach one night a week. The owner Maurice Jackson is a blues lover and has organized a fabulous blues quartet with a lead singer that is truly out of this world; the best I have ever heard. Maurice has a fascination with folk music, which is experiencing a revival during this decade and he allows me to perform on the quartet’s night off. The quartet’s vocalist Jessie Brown has become a good friend and is encouraging me to sing blues. She tells me my voice is right and my range is ideal for blues. The complication I am coping with is blues singers are traditionally black manifesting from blue’s ethnic foundation. If I aspire to develop my blues musical skills it is unlikely I will be successful since I don’t fit the standard blues singer’s image. Jessie thinks I can transcend this and has committed to work with me to develop a personal blues style.”
“Well Jenny, much to consider. It may not be the conundrum it appears to be. Blues original lyrics reflected hardship and strife, evoking sadness, as one can imagine the pain and suffering brought forth from human enslavement. Modern blues infuses contemporary themes, displaying lyrical narrations crossing cultural boundaries. Blues offshoot is classified as ‘Rhythm and Blues’, which created its own offshoot called ‘Rock and Roll’. It’s a fascination how blues music expands into alternative, but related forms of musical expression. I am unsure I agree that race is altogether attached to blues. I read an interview with Janis Joplin a white blues singer. Janis has ventured more into a rock and roll style but her voice is pure blues. When Janis was a teenager she listened to blues recordings, especially attracted to Odetta. She went to high school in Texas, was shunned and taunted, overweight with severe acne. She carried an Autoharp wherever she went and would sing when inspired. She said she was a misfit in high school: ‘I read, I painted and I didn’t hate niggers.’ Janis listened endlessly to blues music. She blossomed and found her place in blues. I believe she is one of the best of this era. I have all her records. I saw her perform with the Cosmic Blues Band. If your friend Jessie thinks you can make the transition to blues I think you should give it a try.”
Jenny was silent for a moment, as if trying to arrange a response to my thoughts.
“You encourage me. Maurice and Jessie met with me prior to my visit. They said they would assist me if I decided to pursue blues vocals. Maurice and Jessie have many contacts in the music business. I will discuss this with them again when I return and I will also tell them I met a very gifted blues and jazz guitarist.”
I felt great attraction to Jenny. Her beauty was deep, beyond her model image of blond hair and blue eyes. I gave her my phone number and she said she would call to update me after her meeting with Maurice and Jessie.
“Hello Jason? This is Jenny. I met with Maurice and Jessie. They are excited that we met and feel our meeting represents a step forward for me. Maurice is flying to Detroit in a few days especially to meet you and will pop in the Riverfront Bar to attend your performance. He’s a very warm and caring man, successful and runs the Blue Moon with precision. I really enjoyed our lunch conversation. Our discussion added confidence concerning my potential as a blues vocalist. How are you doing?”
“Well Jenny, I am overwhelmed. It will be my great pleasure to meet Maurice. You have created positive and good feelings for me too. Life can take peculiar turns, often out of the blue. In our case out of the blues.”
“Call me after you meet with Maurice. My phone number is: 949-346-1174”
“I will definitely call you. I am so appreciative. You are fun to talk with.”
After talking with Jenny I was in a zombie state. My mind was aimlessly adrift. I’ve never had a close relationship with a woman, plagued with shyness, observing they tend to be drawn to extroverted men. Jenny erased my introversion. I felt warmth and comfort in her presence.
Friday night as I entered the bar for my performance a tall, well-dressed black man greeted me.
“Jason? I’m Maurice Jackson; I own and operate the Blue Moon restaurant and lounge at Redondo Beach, California. I have come to hear your performance recommended by Jenny Schmidt. Jenny sings folk music one night a week at the Blue Moon.”
“Such a pleasure to meet you. I am awestruck that you would take time to visit and hear my performance”
“Please don’t be. We are a close-knit group at the Blue Moon and it is impossible not to love Jenny she is pure gold and I place great value on her opinion of your musical talent. I will stay and listen for a while and am hoping we can talk more. My plane leaves tomorrow at 4PM. I would like you to join me for lunch tomorrow. I have a rental car and can pick you up at whatever time is convenient.”
“I can be ready at 11AM”
Maurice was prompt, we chatted as we drove to his hotel. Maurice displayed sincerity, no braggart talk. We discussed the city’s vivid decay and the sadness of racial separation. We sat in a quiet corner for lunch with a view of the city. Maurice began opening his thoughts.
“Jason, you are a superb player. I consider myself an expert on blues music, but it is impossible to say who is, or was the greatest blues guitarist. Styles and deliveries overlap forming musical abstractions. However, you are as good as I have heard. Jenny has a great ear for musical greatness and I knew when she described your playing my trip to Detroit would be a worthy effort.”
“I am humbled Maurice.”
“Blue’s pioneer W.C. Handy claimed blues was introduced to him by an itinerant street guitarist at the train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi in 1903. I have studied the early blues musicians. To grade or compare these greats is impossible. Blues is characterized from an overall perspective, surfacing creatively in an array of patterns and shapes like musical snowflakes.”
“Jessie and I are impressed with Jenny. Her voice and demeanor are a complete package of musical gift. Jenny feels like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole regarding her acceptance as a blues singer. Blues singers are traditionally black and as a white woman Jenny feels out of place. I sincerely feel Jenny can accomplish blues becoming accepted and admired.” “Humanity has been plagued with disharmony since inception. Racial, religious and cultural intolerance remains prominently influential. If opportunity arises to embrace cross-racial identity and acceptance it must be seized with enthusiasm. Music provides a potion, infusing tolerance. The 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi taught that music, poetry and dance expose pathways to enlightenment. In my view Jenny could not be in a better position to pursue blues and eventually I feel she will agree. My goal is to encourage Jenny to work with Jessie, gaining footing in blues, feeling her way slowly. In the meantime I will offer you an opportunity. The quartet’s lead guitarist Bill Wright is a long time friend and a superb musician. He’s 65 now and has expressed to me a desire to reduce his weekly hours. I can offer you three days a week playing with the quartet. I will sponsor you, fly you to California, help you adjust and find a suitable residence. We will move forward from this point. I can pay you 500 dollars a week. Does this offer interest you?”
“You have seen where I live and perform, a squalid section of the city. I accept with great appreciation. Music is my life and your offer is received with graciousness.”
“Jason, I believe you have a future in music. The Blue Moon’s quartet is among the best. An opportunity to play with these fine musicians will significantly enhance your repertoire.”
As Maurice drove me home my head was spinning with expectation. All I could think of was to call Jenny.
“Jenny, this is Jason. It’s like a miracle. Maurice has offered me a spot in the quartet as a fill in for his aging lead guitar player. I will play three days a week for 500 dollars a week. He will fly me to California and help find me a place to live. I am in a daze.”
“This is such wonderful news. I will meet you at the airport gate when you arrive. Your life is taking a new direction. You won’t believe how nice it is here and the quartet at the Blue Moon is the best. It’s a perfect fit.”
In a few days an envelope arrived with a plane ticket and 1000 dollars in travelers checks. I quit my job without hesitation. Landing in L.A. was exhilarating with thoughts running rampant combining joy and fear. Jenny was waiting at the gate with her stunning smile. She hugged me, draining my soul. What a grand day.
“Jason I am so excited that you will be included in the quartet. Maurice found a nice studio apartment for you at Redondo, within walking distance of the Blue Moon. The apartment is partly furnished, enough to get started. Isn’t this great? I can’t believe it is happening.”
That evening Jenny met me at the Blue Moon introducing me to members of the quartet. I can’t recall a time in my life when I felt this good. Bill Wright, expressed appreciation to have a bit more time off. Jessie explained her interest in assisting Jenny with her blues vocal development.
“Jenny’s voice is ideally suited for blues in pitch and range. Soon I will present her as our guest vocalist. We have been working on a few selected blues pieces. I am certain you will be impressed. We are looking forward to you joining us. Bill has big shoes to fill; he’s been a mainstay with us for a very long time. Maurice says you are capable.”
I began rehearsing with the quartet. It was such a joy to be included with such fine musicians and Jessie is the heart and soul of the quartet. Jenny asked me to come that evening for her folk music performance. I would not miss it for anything. She greeted me at the bar.
“Thanks for coming Jason. I have been offered to perform at a nearby coffee shop on weekends. I also have been working hard with Jessie on my blues debut. I am very nervous over this.”
“Who wouldn’t be nervous? This is a major direction change, new and challenging, also an opportunity. I hope I am playing when you make your debut.”
Watching and listening to Jenny perform was pure joy. This woman electrifies a room and her voice magnifies her beauty revealing that Maurice and Jessie have identified her correctly. Jenny is a talent with immense capacity.
I received a call from Bill Wright.
“Jason, the quartet is scheduled to rehearse with Jenny for her blues debut. I feel it’s appropriate for you to sit in on this. Jenny is your friend and it seems the right thing. The rehearsal is at 10AM tomorrow. Can you make it?”
“Thanks Bill. I sure can and I am most appreciative for your thoughtfulness. This is important to me. A great opportunity for Jenny and me.”
The quartet met the next morning at the Blue Moon. A good feeling flowed as I greeted the quartet. Jenny was talking with Jessie and waved. Then Jessie spoke to us.
“OK guys, this is a big day for Jenny. I have been working with her on ‘Go Down Sunshine’ and she’s got it together good. If things get off a bit I won’t interrupt, keep on playing and we can make adjustments afterwards. I must say this is a milestone for me also. I am Jenny’s friend and take responsibility for encouraging her to pursue blues vocals. I am so looking forward to her debut.”
Maurice and Bill Wright entered taking seats at the bar. Silence fell as we did the lead in measure for “Go Down Sunshine”.
Jenny’s voice hit dead on time with tone and depth far greater than I remembered her folk music voice. It was astonishing, overflowing with emotion, exposing her heart. If it were not for the drummer I would have surely lost beat. I was engulfed with gratitude to be sharing this moment with these musician and Jenny. I glanced at Bill Wright he nodded and smiled. He knew my feelings.
When Jenny finished Jessie was in tears hugging her friend and everyone stood, clapped and cheered. Jenny put her song out there with perfection and grace, shooting arrows in our hearts. Everyone gathered at the bar in a buzz over Jenny’s astounding performance knowing they had just witness greatness. Maurice was beaming with delight. Jessie asked for quiet.
“Now you know why I pressed Jenny to give blues music a try. Can you imagine the fun it will be to expose Jenny to the Blue Moon regulars? I want her to debut this coming Saturday night when we have our largest crowd. It will be a night to remember.”
Bill Wright altered his days allowing me to play on Jenny’s special night. I entered the Blue Moon and purposely said very little to Jenny, only telling her how incredible she looked in her black cocktail dress and hair up, assuring her that I would to give her the best accompaniment I possibly could.
The crowd filtered in filling the room with muted conversations. Jessie took the stage informing the customers that they were in for a special treat.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure I present to you Ms Jenny Schmidt making her blues debut as the Blue Moon’s guest vocalist.”
The crowd responded with polite applause.
Jenny displayed no nervousness, was solid and confident. She sang “Go Down Sunshine” giving it her all. It was a divine experience. The crowd responded with a standing ovation insisting on an encore. Jenny selected “Piece of My Heart”. I nearly fell off my chair.
The customers flocked around Jenny congratulating her with compliments coming from everywhere. As Jessie promised it was a night to remember. I couldn’t get near Jenny, but she spotted me and smiled staring into my eyes. After work I slipped out without speaking to Jenny who was engaged conversing with several new fans. Tomorrow was my day off and had some deep thinking to do.
I decided to write Jenny a letter:
“Dear Jenny, my beautiful and gifted friend. What a magnificent time this is for you. It’s now obvious that Maurice and Jessie possessed insight beyond what you or I could have imagined. It all has a feel of enchantment, impossible to describe. Last night your performance took ownership of my spirit. I have never felt such spontaneous emotion. I am familiar with the power of music to command and dominate ones feelings, but never have I experienced musically aroused emotions so instinctually. Your performance intensely magnifies your beauty, extending into a deep place within, erupting, unleashing greatness, which is now firmly attached to you forever.”
“My question to the world is: ‘How is it possible for me to not be in love with Jenny?’ So much has happened, so quickly, since that special night when we met at the Riverfront Bar. From that moment I have felt comfort in your presence. My feelings have grown since that moment to the pinnacle they are now. I feel a need to talk with you about these feelings. This may offer clarity and honesty regarding our future. I don’t have high expectations, I only know I feel extreme joy and gratitude knowing you and loving you. Jason”
Jenny called after she received my letter.
“Jason, I received your letter. Meet me at the beach pavilion near your apartment at 3PM. It’s important to me.”
“I’ll be there.”
I waited in the shade of the pavilion feeling the cool breeze off the Pacific. I was not nervous or tense, never have been around Jenny.
“Hey you, thanks for the letter, it made my day. We sure have come a long way in a short time. So much to talk about.”
“Thanks Jenny, so glad you came. It’s so nice here, such a splendid day.”
“Jason, I know I have a certain beauty, it has carried me and largely responsible for my recognition. Physical beauty has been a cultural power since the beginning of humanity. It’s a blessing.”
“I have had two serious relationships with men; both struggled understanding the proper definition of the two words, relationship and ownership. They were both unsupportive in my quest to pursue music; insecure from the attention I received. Your letter struck my heart. I also feel love for you. You are a fine musician, and I gain similar emotions when I hear you play as you do when you hear me sing blues. We should form a blues duo; seek gigs with the help of Maurice and Jessie. I feel right about this, we are cohesive, could be such a great team.”
Numbness overcame me. No words came forth. I knew I had to respond, but was so stunned, my mind froze. I looked at Jenny in silence. A long, uncomfortable time lapsed. Jenny smiled and this always melts my heart. I had to say something.
“Do you really think we can do that?”
“Of course, you are as good as any guitarist alive. I want to pursue blues, see where it can take us. I need your support as an accompanist, friend and companion. We can make this work.”
So, we became Jenny and Jason a blues duo. Maurice and Jessie were supportive. Maurice became our agent. We began as an opening act for prominent concerts. This worked well and also Maurice found selected clubs and lounges for us to perform. We eventually were overwhelmed with bookings and audiences were very responsive. Maurice convinced a record producer to cut an album of our songs. This album sold well in the US and Europe. Jenny was the center of our success, proving the power of the vocalist to occupy prominence in blues music. Her magnetism took over, as audiences often would not allow us off the stage. Maurice pushed to promote a concert in San Francisco, advertised it well and we performed our first, very own concert in a mid-sized venue. What a sensation, it was overwhelming. After our encores we retreated to backstage. An usher handed Jenny a note. She read the note; handing it to me, her face was beet red.
“Jenny and Jason: I apologize for being unable to greet you backstage, but my manager and I had to leave early to catch a plane to London. I must tell you I was completely taken by your performance. It is my sincere hope that we can meet soon and talk about blues. Maybe consider being guest performers at one of my concerts. Isn’t blues a powerful musical expression? It’s been part of my life since I was a teen. You two are magnificent. Keep up the good work. Janis Joplin”
We now share a larger apartment on Redondo Beach and each day brings challenges and opportunities. One day as I returned opening the door Jenny was on the couch crying. I was startled.
“Why are you crying?”
“Janis Joplin died last night in a motel room from a heroine overdose. She was 27 years old. I can’t get her out of my mind, remembering the note she wrote to us. It’s so horrible. I hate drugs with a passion.”
Tears formed in my eyes, it was a terrible shock to us both.
“Drugs killed my Mother too. Substances often creep into the lives of those attached to the arts. I read of an English actor who portrayed the character Sherlock Holmes so many times he became Sherlock Holmes, could not step out of character, which ultimately destroyed him as he sought drugs as an escape. Earnest Hemingway may have been the greatest writer of this century then as he aged he lost ability to organize thoughts into stories, leading to suicide fueled by alcohol. Hemingway could not live without his writing. Artistic expressions can entrap artists. I think music attaches itself in a similar fashion becoming covetous. It is so uplifting and enlightening to perform music and be recognized we must guard against becoming imprisoned by our artistic gifts. Jenny, our partnering and bonding offers us strength and support. Drugs and alcohol artificially block anxiety. Janis drove herself to the limit with her musical talent. Her intensity was displayed when she performed. She deposited her soul on the stage, and the in between times offered only hollow, dark places, a complete contrast from performing. Emptiness and loneliness overcame her. She was thrust into a void, eagerly waiting to return to the stage. She sought escape, slipped and fell down and never got up, leaving us who loved her with pain and anguish. It’s so very, very sad.”
We cancelled our performance talking late into the night discussing our future and made solemn promises to never use drugs or be consumed by substances.
When I am with Jenny I am in a higher place. She stirs my every cell, blissfully touching each day. Jenny delivers me to a zone of purity and purpose.
Gazing out the large window of our apartment the view is blue sky melding with blue water as the sun lowers into the vast expanse of the Pacific. Jenny is dozing on the balcony with two cats playing at her feet. The sunset casts diffused light accenting this mood of contentment reminding me of Jenny’s debut song “Go Down Sunshine”.
Pathways are amorphous, often coming forth unadulterated, escaping predictability. Direction and purpose can be elusive as some meander, wandering endlessly, searching. Others discover flecks of gold as they wash the sands of time in their pan of life.
Ray, loved The Blues! Like all of your writing that I have had the privilege to read, once I begin, I can’t put it down till the end! It is like you are right there in the story yourself and picture the characters, scenery, and events unfolding before your eyes! So authentic!