Every night that October he said aloud into the dark of the pillow: If you want to make beautiful music, you must play the black and the white notes together. Till his brain had gripped the words and held them fast. Then he fell asleep at once, as if a shutter had fallen; and lay with his face turned to the piano situated underneath the arched window, glassed with boards, he could see it first thing when he woke.
It was six o’clock to the minute, every morning. Routinely he pressed down the corroding copper peg embedded into the clock, which the gloaming part of his mind had outwitted. He remained attentive all night and counting the hours as he lay relaxed in sleep, he huddled down for a last warm moment under the sheets, playing with the idea of lying abed for this once only. But he played with it for the fun of knowing that it was a weakness he could defeat without effort; just as he set the alarm each night for the delight of the moment when he woke and stretched his limbs, feeling the muscles tighten, and thought: things are not quite so simple always as black and white. I can control the darkness, every part of my form.
Luxury of warm rested body, with the arms and legs and fingers waiting like soldiers for a word of command. He had once stayed awake three nights playing a jazz melody, to prove that he could, and then worked all day, refusing to admit that he was tired; a swing rhythm that enabled him to feel. The role of the piano multifaceted, like a jewel; pure melodic and harmonic capabilities.
The man stretched his frame full- length. The wall touching at his head, his hands crunched, and the chipped wooden foot board scraping at his toes. Then he jolted to his feet, like a jack in the box springing out of its confinement. A musical crank attached to his body, and after so long of playing the song of sleep, he erupts. A feeling of blistering cold pervaded the dry air.
He always dressed with speed, like time was of the essence. He did so as to try to conserve the warmth he’d built up from night, until the sun broke from beneath the clouds that roamed the sky in Harlem. By the time he had buttoned up his coat of many colours, his fingers so cold he could nearly tie is shoe lace or open up the door.
As soon as he stepped through the wood framed passage; a wall separating comfort from reality- the sun was absorbed by his melanic skin tone. It was day: the sun basked the room- the world- with light and warmth. Each tuff of grass aside the street alike, yellowing under the sun and between each there was bare soil, baked and powdery. He perambulated down the cracked road- a combination of the same concrete tiles which wound around the city as if it were all connected. A melody curated by him- it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing- rang through his mind as he made his way to the Cotton Club located on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. A place where the finest music artists- including he- would showcase their talent; a journey to freedom.
The club was different from the others in Harlem, it catered to the higher up in the social caste. The white patrons thought so high of themselves- they the doves; a sign of purification. The black, the carrion crows.
The man six feet one inch tall made his way to the Cotton Club, where the sign arranged on the marquee read: Duke Ellington Orchestra Performs Live Tonight. He made his way to the double doors situated at the front of the large grey building. The chrome gold layer which covered the steel doors glistened in the blazing sun. Reflecting through- an image. A tall man, the colour was unclear to the door, but according to society it was evident he was black. Almost as though the building did not care about race- that for once he could belong; he could be free.
Feeling for the handle to open the heavy doors, a white man approached him. He resembled that of a businessman. Sporting a long jacket, with broad shoulders, wide lapels, and a pinched waist- he gave the silhouette of superman. The man gestured to him that he could not use the front entrance, it was for white patrons exclusively. He was directed to the back door, the service entrance. Suitable to those who are not like the others in New York, the ones who were seeking refuge and took pride in their melodies.
He took the instructions given to him, just like every other day. A composer such as he must hear his melody night, after night. The way he had done music was different than anybody before. The flesh of his soles contracted on his worn in dress shoes, and his legs began to gravitate towards the back entrance. He thought again: things aren’t quite so simple always as black and white.
Prying open the back door, he used all of his built up strength. He was a strong man. His fingers though were light, like a feather swept away by a summer breeze. The tall man made his way into the theatre and around him stood many others of his kind. His orchestra, his family. They all gathered tightly together, some white and some black, some trumpet players and some double bass players. Each one having a unique sound, but when they merge they make a rhythm, a melody.
It was half- past six, that night. The doors to the theatre were sprawled wide. Gate keepers kept close eye on the doors, though. A shame it would be to have anyone who did not pay, watch the show. Crowds came in, mostly white, seating themselves accordingly. They had come to see the tiles of the piano unite- the black and the white- in some illusion that society was the same.
He peered into the blackness that blanketed the white crowd. Almost as if for one moment he was alone. He stood sturdy, facing the blank wall. Like glass separated him from his audience. The people watched his shadow project on the screen behind him, the lights so bright. It grew quieter. The audience, like prisoners held captive by the melody, reality.
The african man sat down at the grand piano, placed his foot on the damper pedal, his delicate fingers on the keys. He began to loose himself in the melody. The notes high and low. A jazz tune that united the black and white keys. The song rang through the air. He was proud. He was in control. The vibrations sent forth from the strings reached every part of the theatre. Taken by the tune, he was lifted to a place where the colours did not matter. From the audiences perspective everything was bright, so perfect and pure. From the eye of the man, the world was black. The globe around was connected by the strings vibrating in sympathy. Each string related to its own. A harmonic relationship with a fuller, richer sound. Just like paints blending together the racism and colours became blurred and muddy.
Through the piano he felt as though society was accepting. To create the perfect noise, the whole piano worked in unity- a harmony so beautiful. Souls were lost to the music. Like a mental illness infested everyone in the room. Music, a Band-Aid on a would that will not heal. The whole theatre was alike, basking in the beauty that the orchestra had just brought. Almost as though they were sitting at a round table– all equal and free.
The song spoke of freedom, world peace and connection. But, came to an end. The vibrations which were once resonating off of one another, terminated.
He stood up, took a bow. The audience on their feet. A standing ovation. Duke took a bow and lead his choir off of the large stage.
Really, he was tired. He walked heavily, not looking where he put his feet. He left the theatre, just like any other night. When he came without sight of the Cotton Club he stopped and thought: I wish it was always as simple as black and white. He was surrounded by people of his own kind, even the shadow of day, but still managed to feel alone and rejected.
The man resembled that of shiny ebony, a chocolate brown figure that blended into the darkness through which he walked. Pain held on his shoulders, pride felt in his heart.