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Saddest Tale

Dad insisted that there were two kinds of jazz: white people’s, and the “real thing.” When he said real he’d draw the E out a good long while until it crested into a warbling falsetto. He’d retrieve an LP from the boxed anthology in the living room’s stereo corner, slap it on the turntable, yank me out of a chair, and engage in a ragtag series of gyrations he referred to as dancing. Wheeling, dipping, sliding, his English Leather aftershave mingled with the lilac scent of my closet’s shelf paper. He bellowed encouragement to each musician:

“All right now, Bessie!”

“Go to town, Louis!”

“Lionel—let it all out, my brother.”

On a first-name basis with everybody. I’d stumble and whirl in an attempt to keep pace with him. When Mr. Benny Goodman or Mr. Glenn Miller came on—Dad was not on such a casual basis with the white musicians—he’d stop cold and practically toss me into my chair. “That’s a white cut; you can’t dance to that. You’re forever trying to figure out the beat. Know why? ‘Cause there ain’t none!”

If Mom was within earshot (and Dad would rarely indulge in these tirades if she was not), she’d pass through the room with one of her nursing journals tucked beneath her arm. She went to school three nights each week, pursuing a higher level nurse certification. “Stop filling her head with that backwards logic,” she would say, fixing Dad with a scowl.

And Dad’s response would be, “Get your head out of those books and just try to dance to it. I dare you.”

I enjoyed the bantering, but couldn’t quite unpack the core of their sparring. Mom had tried to tell me the difference between hot and cool jazz, but her compare-and-contrast account left me thinking of apple pie à la mode, and what I most savored about the treat. Of course the dessert had a fabulous flavor, but nothing matched the sensuous delight of two distinct temperatures on my tongue at once: the piping hot pie and the icy vanilla cream.

“It’s what the Lord loves, isn’t it?” Dad retorted. “The truth? ‘The truth shall set thee free.’ And the truth is you can’t dance to them white cuts. Hell, the Lord ought to love me for saying it.”

“You’re a fine one to be quoting scripture,” Mom said, raising her left eyebrow. Dad didn’t accompany us to Sunday services. He said he had his own special and private religion, one with no associated church. During last summer’s family reunion, I had asked my paternal grandmother what the name of Dad’s religion was.

“Church of the Heathen,” she’d said, her jaws snapping shut in a way that suggested they wouldn’t open again unless she had a piece of ugliness to share.

“Maybe I don’t know too much about the Bible and what’s in it,” Dad countered Mom. “But I do know about music and what’s in it. And in this”—jerking his head toward Mr. Goodman or whomever—”there’s nothing even resembling soul. Even Kitten, at the ripe old age of nine, even she knows that.” He grinned at me toothily.

“As long as you’re part of the problem, you’ll never be part of the solution,” Mom muttered. Dad bobbed and smiled, leaning toward me conspiratorially. “You know what the truth is, Kitten.”

I didn’t, but I giggled, scrunching my shoulders up to stifle the sound when Mom whirled, a square, angry set to her shoulders. She marched out.

One of my favorite cuts was Dippermouth Blues. I liked the music, but was more fascinated with the song’s name. What was a dippermouth?

One day I thought I saw one.

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