The Best of Jackson Payne
The first time I heard Jackson play, he was doing "Taps" on the E-flat alto saxophone. It wasn't his natural instrument, but the way he played it could have raised the dead.
Behind him the drummer didn't have but a pair of marching sticks and a raggedy old practice pad. And the piano in the colored Service Club was so funky you couldn't tell where in Hell the man at the keyboard was trying to take the chords. But Jackson was in a groove, and we were right there with him. The 11th Boogie Woogie Infantry, smack in the middle of redneck Georgia, getting ready for war.
Only a few minutes before I'd been lying up in my bunk, with Jackson sitting on his footlocker, a butt in his mouth, shining up some brass. Then all of a sudden I heard the sound of the blues coming across the company square.
"Ain't bad," I said.
He didn't say it was or wasn't, but he did go with me to have a look.
The Service Club was sorry, no matter how much crepe paper the ladies from the local AME hung from the rafters. I stopped at the punch bowl for a taste of something sweet, but the brothers had already killed the Kool Aid. All that was left was a little green pool in the bottom with some butts floating in it.
The tables were pushed back and the chairs were in a basic straggle formation around the piano. Next to it a guy on an alto saxophone was doing something real basic. It wasn't much of a tune, but I noticed Jackson's fingers moving along with it on the buttons of his fatigue blouse.
"You play?" I asked.
"A little," he said.
So, just to make things interesting, I called out: "Somebody here say he can blow that thing better'n you."
"He do, do he?" says the alto player. "Who?"
"It's Payne," I say. "Jackson Payne."
"I know this man?"
All I can think of to answer with is the truth: "Nobody do."
But sure enough, the alto nods Jackson up front and lends him the horn. Then Jackson turns to the piano player and asks do he know "Taps."
And the brothers say: "Man think he got a bugle."
And: "Wake us up come morning, hear?"
The piano player don't look any too sure, so Jackson goes over and picks out a couple of the chords for him. Then he turns back to the crowd, and suddenly he's on the note as sweet as nightfall when the air begins to cool.
Gone the sun. One day over, another to come. Until all your days are done and the tune rises over your flag-draped box and some sweet thing throws the dust then pockets the insurance check. That's what he said on that old horn.
"Well lookee here," say the brothers.
"Talk to me, Jackson Payne."
Then just when it seemed the sun was gone forever, all of a sudden it's Resurrection morning, Jack. You never heard so many notes. It was like he'd inhaled the saxophone and blown it out in a million pieces like stars in the sky.
You know, I always wondered why Jackson never played that tune after Korea, when he got big.
He did at least once.
How you know a thing like that?
They say somebody sneaked a recorder into the performance.
I'd've given my one good leg.
If I ever locate the tape, I'll make a copy for you.
Where'm I gone play it in this shithole here?
Wardell Flowers, so animated only a few moments ago, now slumped in his wheelchair in the VA room equipped with nothing but an auto parts calendar and an old AM radio. His face, which had darkened to health with the telling of his tale, now seemed as gray as ash.
There's another cut I'll send. It's from Art Pepper's album recorded live at the Village Vanguard years later. He quotes Payne at the end of a tune called "Goodbye." Payne was already dead by then and Pepper wasn't long for the world himself. Day is done. It was like he was telling Payne he'd see him somewhere soon.
Art Pepper was a fucking racist.
Not his music.
You a regular expert, ain't you, the man in the wheelchair said.