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Words by Raymond Greiner
Image by Claudio Parentela
Gazing from my single window in this small apartment the scene is a littered alley, with overturned trashcans. Two cats feud over food scraps, and a homeless man in a long overcoat and stocking cap sleeps in the fetal position on a sheet of cardboard. The diffused glow of streetlights accents this dismal scene. Detroit has experienced social shift, caused by “white flight”, to escape urban decay. Racial division has spiraled the city into a metropolitan crisis zone. The year is 1968, and Detroit, “The Motor City”, is feeling economic decline caused of foreign auto manufacturer’s competition. Last year race riots destroyed a large segment of the inner city. I live near the Detroit River. My apartment is adjacent to the Riverfront Bar, where I am employed.
I graduated from Michigan State with a degree in English, but my heart was 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 him was a photo taken before I was born. I have struggled with personal balance and direction my entire life. My mother was a beautiful, gifted blues and jazz singer, and she financed my education, also influenced my musical pursuits. She was a drug addict and died last year from cardiac arrest triggered by a heroin overdose. My association with her musical colleagues’ inspired me to master blues and jazz guitar. An English degree offers limited career scope, which is why I live and work where I do.
I am identified as a black male. My light skin color deflects stereotypical ethnic identity, combined with my reticent personality yields isolation, anxiety and despair.
The Riverfront Bar gig opens opportunity for me to play jazz and blues instrumentals on Friday and Saturday night, between 8:00PM and 1:00AM, but with strings attached. I also am the janitor after the bar closes. The job comes with a free apartment, but the pay is atrociously low. I am paid twelve dollars a day for cleanup, and seventy-five dollars each night I perform, plus tips. The bar is a dive; smoked filled, and mostly unsavory types frequent the place. Regular customers nicknamed this bar “The Sewer”, because it is located near the main sewer overflow, dumping into the Detroit River. After heavy rains the stench is intolerable. The bar’s owner charges a fee to selected hookers to gain 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. During my performance break, a beautiful blond woman and two male companions greeted me with compliments, and introduce 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 has been drawn to blues since childhood, and also plays the guitar.
Jenny said, “Blues instrumentals are beyond my skill level but I have good voice range and sing folk music, which seems a better fit.”
I responded, “I enjoy folk music also. Blues is rooted in southern slave folk music, often sung while working in fields. Many are unaware of blue’s origin. Blues evolved extensively in the depression era, and escalated instrumentally. Voice and lyrics are the foundation of blues music. Instrumentalists’ apply intricate licks, and divert attention from the vocalist, who remains steadfastly the primary figure within blues genre. My mother was an extraordinary blues singer. My performance as a solo instrumentalist allows me personal outlet to mix a few blues pieces with jazz. Although, 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.”
Jenny said, “Jason, I have several thoughts 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 as it relates to my recent experience in California.”
My response, “How can I refuse? My apartment is upstairs in the adjacent building. Give me a time and I will be ready.”
Jenny said, “Good, I will pick you up at noon.”
I said, “I look forward to it.”
Jenny is a head turner, tall and elegant, with radiant blue eyes, forming natural captivation.
Jenny arrived promptly, driving her brother’s BMW.
“You’re right on time. It’s so thoughtful of you to offer me lunch.”
“Jason, your guitar instrumentals’ are extraordinary, stimulating, something I must discuss with you.”
Jenny was born and raised in Detroit and took me to a high-end restaurant in an affluent suburban area, a stark contrast to the “Sewer”.
Jenny said, “I have lived in Southern California for ten 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 and lounge 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 also has a fascination with folk music, which is experiencing a revival during this decade. He pays me to perform on the quartet’s night off. The quartet’s vocalist, Jessie Brown, has become a good friend, and encourages me to sing blues. She says my voice is right, and my range is ideal for blues. The complication I am coping with is blues singers are traditionally black, influenced from blue’s music ethnic foundation. If I aspire to develop my blues musical skills it is unlikely I will be successful since I don’t fit the traditional blues singer’s profile. Jessie thinks I can rise above this, and has committed to work with me to develop a personal blues style.”
I responded, “Of course, its true, black female vocalists are dominant; however, it may not be the conundrum it appears to be. Blues original lyrics reflected strife and hardship, evoking sadness, as one can imagine the pain and suffering brought forth from human enslavement. Modern blues infuses contemporary themes, presenting lyrical narrations crossing cultural boundaries. Blues modern offshoot is classified as ‘Rhythm and Blues’, which created its own offshoot, ‘Rock and Roll’. It’s a fascination how blues music expands into alternative, but related, forms of musical expression. I disagree race alone is 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 early pursuit was blues, and her voice is pure blues. When Janis was a teenager she listened to blues recordings, especially Odetta. She went to high school in Port Arthur, Texas, was shunned and taunted, overweight with 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 sing blues you should give it a try.”
Jenny was silent for a moment.
Then said, “You encourage me. Maurice and Jessie met with me prior to my visit offering support if I decide to pursue blues. They have many contacts in the music business. I will discuss this with them when I return, and I will also tell them I met a gifted blues and jazz guitarist.”
I felt intense attraction to Jenny. Her beauty went beyond her model image. I gave her my phone number, and she promised to call after she met with Maurice and Jessie.
“Hello Jason? This is Jenny. I met with Maurice and Jessie. They are excited that we met, and feel our connection represents a step forward for me. Maurice is flying to Detroit in a few days especially to meet you, and will stop in the Riverfront Bar to attend your performance. He’s a warm, caring man, and operates the Blue Moon with precision. I enjoyed our lunch conversation, and this added confidence concerning my potential as a blues vocalist. How are you doing?”
“I’m overwhelmed. I’ll be thrilled to meet Maurice. You have inspired positive feelings for me too. Life can take peculiar turns, often out of the blue. In our case out of the blues.”
Jenny said, “Call me, after you meet with Maurice. My phone number is: 949-346-1174”
“I’ll definitely call you. I’m so appreciative. You’re fun to talk with.”
After speaking with Jenny I was like a zombie. My mind wandered aimlessly. I’ve never had a close relationship with a woman, plagued with shyness, they seem more drawn to extroverted men. I felt warmth and comfort in Jenny’s 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’ve come to hear your performance, recommended by Jenny Schmidt. Jenny sings folk music one night a week at the Blue Moon.”
I responded, “Such a pleasure to meet you. I’m awestruck that you’d take time to visit to hear my performance.”
“Please don’t be. We’re a close-knit group at the Blue Moon, and it’s impossible not to love Jenny, she is pure gold. I place great value on her opinion of your talent. I’ll stay and listen for a while and am hoping we can talk more. My plane leaves tomorrow at four PM. I’d like you to join me for lunch tomorrow. I have a rental car, and can pick you up at a time of your convenience.”
“I’ll be ready at eleven.”
Maurice was prompt, we chatted driving to his hotel. Maurice displayed sincerity, no braggart talk. We discussed Detroit’s social decay and the sadness of racial division. We sat in a quiet corner for lunch with a view of the city. Maurice opened his thoughts.
“Jason, you’re 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 are conceptual, forming musical abstraction. However, you are equal to the best. Jenny has a great ear for musical greatness, and I knew when she described your talent my trip to Detroit would prove worthy.”
“I’m humbled Maurice.”
Maurice said, “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 early blues musicians. To grade or compare these greats is impossible. Blues is characterized from an overall perspective. Creativity surfaces 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 as a blues singer. Blues singers are traditionally black, and as a white woman Jenny feels displaced. 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. If opportunity arises to transcend prejudice it should be approached enthusiastically. Music provides a potion, infusing tolerance. The 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi taught music, poetry and dance offered pathways to enlightenment. It’s my opinion that Jenny couldn’t 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 traction with blues, feeling her way slowly. In the meantime, I can offer you an opportunity. The quartet’s lead guitarist, Bill Wright, is a long time friend and a superb musician. He’s sixty-five, and has expressed desire to reduce weekly hours. I can offer you three days a week playing with the quartet. I’ll sponsor you, fly you to California, help you adjust and find suitable residence. We’ll move forward from this point. I can to pay you five hundred dollars a week. Does this offer interest you?”
My response, “You’ve 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 gratitude.”
Maurice said, “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 offered me a spot in the quartet to fill in for Bill Wright. I will play three nights a week for five hundred dollars a week. He will fly me to California and help find me a place to live. I’m in a daze.”
“This is such wonderful news. I’ll meet you at the airport gate when you arrive. Your life’s taking a new direction. You won’t believe how nice it is here, and Blue Moon quartet is a grand opportunity. It’s a perfect fit.”
In a few days an envelope arrived with a plane ticket, and a thousand dollars in travelers checks. I quit my job without hesitation. Landing in L.A. was exhilarating, as thoughts ran rampant, forming a joy-fear emotion. Jenny was waiting at the gate with her heart-melting smile. She hugged me, draining my soul. What a grand day.
“Jason, I’m so excited that you’ll be included in the quartet. Maurice found a perfect 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 and introduced me to 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 expressed her interest to assist Jenny with her blues vocal development.
Jessie said, “Jenny’s voice is ideally suited for blues in pitch and range. Soon I’ll present her as our guest vocalist. We’ve been working on a few selected blues pieces. I’m certain you will be impressed. We’re 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 pleasure to play with such quality musicians, and Jessie is the heart and soul of the group. Earlier Jenny asked me to come that evening for her folk music performance at a nearby coffee shop. I was not scheduled yet to perform with the quartet. I would not miss it for anything.
Jenny met me at the coffee shop, “Thanks for coming Jason, I’ve been working with Jessie on my blues debut, and I’m nervous over this.”
I said, “Who wouldn’t be nervous? It’s is a major change, new, and a challenge. Also an opportunity, I hope I’m playing when you make your debut.”
As I listened to Jenny perform her folk songs it was pure joy. Jenny’s voice electrified the room, and magnified her beauty, revealing Maurice and Jessie have identified her correctly. Jenny is a talent of 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. Jenny is your friend, and it seems only right. 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 powerful sensation overcame me as I greeted the quartet. Jenny was talking with Jessie and waved. Then Jessie spoke to us all.
“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 drift off a bit I won’t interrupt, keep playing, and we can make adjustments afterwards. I must say this is a milestone for me also. I’m Jenny’s friend, and take responsibility for encouraging her to pursue blues vocals. I am so looking forward to her performance.”
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 greater than I remembered her folk music voice. It was astonishing, overflowing with emotion. If it were not for the drummer I would have surely lost beat. I was engulfed with gratitude sharing this moment with these musician and Jenny. I glanced at Bill Wright he nodded and smiled. He sensed my feelings.
When Jenny finished, Jessie was in tears, hugged her friend, and everyone stood, clapped and cheered. Jenny performed her song with perfection, and grace, shooting an arrow 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 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 I would give her the best accompaniment I possibly could.
The crowd filtered in, filling the room with muted conversations. Jessie took the stage to inform customers 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, calm and confident. She sang “Go Down Sunshine”, giving it her all. It was a divine moment. The crowd responded with a standing ovation insisting on an encore. Jenny selected “Piece Of My Heart”. I nearly fell off my chair.
Customers flocked around Jenny congratulating her with compliments coming from everyone. 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 as she was engaged in conversations with her new fans. Tomorrow was my day off and had some serious 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 obvious Maurice and Jessie possessed insight beyond what we could have imagined, to bring this enchantment, which is impossible to describe. Last night your performance took ownership of my being. I have never felt such spontaneous emotion. I am familiar with the power of music to command and inspire such feelings, but never have I experienced musically aroused emotions so instinctually. Your performance intensely magnifies your beauty, extending into a deep place within, erupting and 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 to a pinnacle, exceeding expectation. I need to talk with you about these feelings. Discussing this may offer clarity regarding our future. I don’t have high expectations, I only know I feel extreme joy 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”.
As I waited in the shade of the pavilion, a cool breeze came off the Pacific. I was not nervous or tense, never have been around Jenny.
Jenny walked up, “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 happy you came. It’s 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’ve had two serious relationships with men; both struggled understanding the definition of the two words, relationship and ownership. They were both were unsupportive in my pursuit of music; insecure from the attention I received. Your letter struck my heart. I feel love for you too. You are a fine musician, and I receive the same emotions when I hear you play as you feel when you hear me perform. We can form a blues duo; seek gigs, with the help of Maurice and Jessie. I feel right about this, we are cohesive, and could be such a great team.”
Numbness overcame me. No words came forth. I knew I had to respond, but was stunned, and my mind locked up. 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 this is possible?”
“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 became overwhelmed with bookings, and audiences were very responsive. Maurice convinced a record producer to cut an album of our songs. The 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 at a mid-sized venue. What a sensation it was. 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.
The note said, “Jenny and Jason: I apologize for being unable to greet you backstage, but my manager and I were forced 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 as I opened the door and 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 frequently 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, couldn’t step out of character, which ultimately destroyed him as he sought drugs as an escape. Earnest Hemingway may have been the greatest writer of his century, and then as he aged he lost ability to organize thoughts into stories, leading to suicide fueled by alcohol. Hemingway could not live without writing. Artistic pursuits often entrap artists. I believe music attaches itself in a similar fashion, becoming covetous. It’s so powerful, and gratifying, 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 in between times exposed a hollow, dark place in complete contrast from her performances. 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 those who loved her with pain and anguish. It’s so very, very sad.”
We cancelled our performance, and talked 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 Pacific. Jenny is dozing on the balcony with two cats playing at her feet. The sunset casts diffused light, accenting this mood of contentment served a memory of Jenny’s debut as a blues singer.
Pathways in life are amorphous, and are often manifest unpredictably, but unadulterated. Direction and purpose can be elusive, meander, and wander, endlessly searching, as we discover flecks of gold washed out with the sands of time.