Miles Dewey Davis the Third – Chapter 1
Louie Armstrong. Lester Young.
The gallery of their framed and autographed photos arranged on the wall that Mr. Selby’s staircase climbs from the living room where he teaches trumpet to the rooms upstairs. Along the way you’ve heard there’s something wrong with them. Sometimes in the questions your father answers like you’ve asked him something else. And sometimes just this sense, at church, there among your father’s army, this sense of something silent shared, not like knowing two plus two is four, but more like this rock hard silent understanding at the heart of some necessary mystery.
Cootie Williams. Charlie Parker. Coleman Hawkins.
There’s the lesson you know is coming down the road where you’ll hear how the story goes from its beginning to what its end will someday be. The official version. The version you’ll accept as the word of God. The closest anyone’s come to saying anything about it for real is your buddy Zesiger. There was the speech in the General Priesthood Session where the Second Counselor to the President of the Church talked in these broken angry rambling pieces Zesiger had to show you how to fit together. If they talk about Cain, he said, they mean niggers. Or who gets to have the Priesthood and who don’t. They mean niggers. Or not everyone being equal or from the same estate or having the same intelligence. They mean niggers. Or passing the Priesthood from father to son. They mean niggers. Because if one nigger got it, pretty soon they’d all have it, because they’re all related.
John Coltrane. Red Garland.
He didn’t mean the word niggers bad. He was just telling you. Cain. The first of them. Who all the rest of them came from. Fence Sitters. Spirits who didn’t fight in some big war in Heaven before Adam or Eve or anyone came to Earth. Spirits who sat on some fence instead. You’ve remembered the fence you sat on in La Sal, the weathered velvet of the top log, you and Jimmy Dennison and David White watching the cowboys cut cattle into the chute, the sheepherders cut sheep, calves get branded, and every Saturday morning waiting with your carved spears while a steer got shot and then hung upside down and gutted.
Ahmad Jamal. Art Farmer.
Their record albums. Albums Mr. Selby lets you take home in your leather pouch to set on your portable record player in the garage. Albums you learn how to play along with. In the ceiling of the closed garage the bare bulb is frosted with smoking dust. Its light reflects in a thin spear of bright fire along the gold brass pipe out toward the dented bell of your trumpet. Dizzy Gillespie. Bud Powell. Some reason deep in their bones why they can’t have the Priesthood. Why you could have its power starting when you first turned twelve and they could live to be a thousand and still not be close to having it. The men who taught you everything you know about the way you play.
Sometimes you’ve wondered if you’re one of them. A white nigger. A white nigger kid with his white nigger band. Eddie and Jimmy and Robbie. If that’s what your father sees when he comes home from work and finds you standing there.
Clifford Brown. Sonny Rollins.
There was the photo in the National Geographic that Greenwell showed you. The Negro girl with the high school face and the big bundle on her head and her naked breasts out there for anyone to look at. You could tell she was high school because if her breasts were white they were the breasts you imagined high school breasts would look like. Who her mother was. Motherless Child. A slave song. Your father’s favorite song.
Dexter Gordon. Thelonius Monk.
Men you’ve never met except in the stories Mr. Selby tells you. Men who were always there. Before you heard that sound on the radio in the cattle truck. Before Mr. Hinkle and then Mrs. Harding. Sometimes you’ve wondered if they were there through that secret winter in the sandpit in the hills behind your house, when you had to play alone through all the questions, when all the questions tore through you like wind and went away unanswered. Giants in the sky around you watching over you. If they took the shapes of clouds. If the hard bright points of the early stars as the sunset lost its color into night were their eyes or the diamond rings some of them wore in Mr. Selby’s photos. If you could have seen them in the constellations. But you didn’t know them then. That they were even there for you to look for. Before Mr. Selby. Sometimes when he’s in the kitchen getting milk and cookies, when he’s in the bathroom, you’ll stand in front of the wall and look at them. Duke Ellington. Count Basie. But in the end they’re men you only know through sound, like someone blind, the sound the needle lifts off the grooves of their albums. Men you play with deep inside their songs. Men from whose solos you lift and give flight to your own. Not so they know. But there you are. There where they stand like giants around you and back away to give your solos room to fly.
Eubie Blake. Fats Waller. Eric Dolphy.
Fence Sitters. Sometimes shame makes you look away from the blind way they look at you out of the sightless eyes of their photographs. Sometimes shame makes you glad you’re blind yourself while you play along with them in the garage. Roy Eldridge. Stanley Turrentine. Buck Clayton. They came to Earth with skin that looked like it had been baked pitch brown in the ovens of Hell. They came to Earth as Negroes. So they could be recognized. So you’d know who they were. So you could pity them. So you wouldn’t give them the Priesthood by mistake. So you wouldn’t lie down with one of their girls, or marry one, because if you did, even by accident, you’d be struck dead on the spot. She only had to have one drop of Negro blood to draw lightning down.
Wayne Shorter. Clark Terry. Ornette Coleman.
All of them. Spirits who came to Earth as Negroes. Negroes who came to America as slaves to write and sing their slave songs. The pretty Negro girl in the National Geographic. You could look at the photo of her face, and even touch the photo where her breasts were, but you couldn’t see or touch her real ones.
Oscar Peterson. Cannonball Adderley.
Somewhere along the way you’ve heard they’re not responsible enough to know how to handle the sacred power of the Priesthood. You’ve wondered what that means. You’ve wondered what they’d do with it. Drive it like a runaway train off a railroad bridge. Set fire like gasoline to their houses. Use it to make their heads explode. You’ve heard the time will come when God will decide they’re finally responsible enough to hold it. You’ve wondered when. What they’ll need to do to prove themselves. If all of them will become responsible together, at the same time, in the same hour or day or year, like a kind of graduation. If you can touch a Negro girl then and not be killed. All you know for sure is that when that time arrives, when God decides, he’ll tell the Prophet of the Church through a revelation.
In a few weeks, when you turn sixteen, your father will advance you from the rank of Teacher to the rank of Priest. Your new power will authorize you to bestow the Aaronic Priesthood on those who are worthy of its power. You’ll have your buddies to help. Have one of them hold his trumpet. They’ll all be Priests this summer too. You’ll move back the metal folding chairs and leave one chair in the clearing in the center of a vacant classroom. You’ll have him sit down. You’ll take your place behind him. Derby and West and Baty and Rasmussen and Flowers and Zesiger will form the rest of the circle around him the way your father’s friends did you. You’ll put your hands on his head and look for traction on his short thick hair. Your buddies will sandwich their hands on top of yours. And then, unable to see the proud black unforgiving fierceness concentrated in his face, you’ll be ready to do the ordaining prayer the way your father did for you.
You start with his name.
“Miles Dewey Davis the Third.”
Because that’s what Mr. Selby said his whole name was.