New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Yvonne McBride of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is the winner of the thirty-sixth Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on July 12, 2014.
Yvonne McBride is inspired by her love for storytelling, folklore, and the deep, rich, musical history of her hometown. She is a VONA/Voices writer, a Flight School Fellow, and a two time recipient of the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation.
“Fever” is an excerpt from her first historical fiction novel set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District during the golden era of Jazz. McBride is currently at work crafting this “soon-to-be masterpiece,” and can be found at her writing desk “crying hysterically, pulling her hair out in clumps, and arguing with the schizophrenic editing voices in my head.”
“Nightlife” by Archibald Motley
Royal had studied her from the bandstand each and every night since their first gig. Such a little thing she was. Nicely curved, tightly packaged — but such a small little thing he had a notion she would break if even his fingertips glazed her. And he had tried. To touch her. Had been trying to get close to her for the past two and all night long. She, playing the good girl from down South role he supposed, had been ignoring and evading his advances at every turn. But the need to have her came from an ache he didn’t know he had until she walked into the room and he could not shake the feeling. He supposed it was the electricity of the whole scene that ignited the spark. They had just finished a set so smoking hot the stage and the room was still ablaze.
They were booked at the Harlem Casino and it was the last set on their last night before the road trip to DC. With Brown on the sticks, Guy Hunter on alto sax, Ghost Howell strumming Cathleen, Blue on the keys and Royal’s trumpet warming his hands, he thought they could not lose. But the crowd, though attentive, was selfish in their appreciation. They had been holding back all night. They stood at the bar in the back clapping at the appropriate times and sat around the tables with the mild interest people paint on faces while being “entertained.” But that jolt. That kick. That glow in the eye when you know that they are feeling it, that your music reached down inside of them and pulled out all the buried memories and heartache, the loneliness and lovelorn ghosts of nights passed — that was missing. In its absence, a teasing, gnawing tension overtook the stage. Royal had felt it pressing down on him all night. The others had too. By two o’clock in the morning they had all had enough.
It all started with a little blue note Hunter played to warm up. A little bouncy, saucy, blue note so barely audible that like a dog whistle only the cats who were on another level, riding a higher plane could catch it.
And she was one of them.
Though she wouldn’t turn to face him, not at first. But the grin that slid across her face as she straightened her neck and turned it slightly to the right told him she had heard. Then Brown tapped his traps signaling the beginning of the first tune, Blue rode the ivories, Ghost plucked Cathleen’s strings, Royal and Hunter sounded the horns, and they were off.
Together at first. Playing, laughing, juggling the melodies with the carefree ease of children. Ghost fiddled out a few notes of A Tisket a Tasket and they played a few more radio tunes to tease the crowd a little, get them to relax their shoulders and jiggle. Then Hunter, always bored with the old stuff and anxious to leap into the new, bent over and bellowed out a riff so bad, the coal men at the bar whistled praises through sooty fingers. The women seated in the front tables stopped their gossiping and edged closer to stage. Brown found his voice on the drums and the rhythm rolled over Royal like whiskey barrels. Grumbling, warning, calling. Royal leaned his head into it allowing the beat, the spirits, the bewitching elixir wash over and lift him. It was a high better than reefer, a fix greater than horse, an affair grander than balling the baddest broad from here to the backwoods of Louisiana all the way to the sunny shores of California and back again. He had done it. Had made it to the big time. Had escaped the hell fire cauldrons of the steel mills, had avoided the back breaking, soul stealing labor work other colored men had long since settled for. He had come from blowing out crooked notes on his father’s hand-me-down bugle in the basement to sharing the stage with some of the world’s musical giants. It was all here. Royal felt there was nothing in this world he could not do. No height he could not reach. No one he could not have.
He searched for her face in the crowd.
Hunter and Blue were scaling the walls. Running, leaping, flying over each other’s notes. The horn warmed in his hands, ready to join the fun. Royal licked his lips, pulled it towards him, set his sights on her and shouted through the horn.
The horn glowed and glistened like pieces of smoldering coal when he blew into it.
“Come with meeeeeeee lady!” It shouted, “Come take this trip.”
The entire room was rocking, bursting, ready to roll. Everyone except her. Royal could feel her resistance; felt her refusing to go along for the ride. He pushed his horn away from his chest and blew.
“Tonight my love, tonight my love. Tonight. Tonight. Tonight. Come oooonnnn my love.”
The band was holding him up, filling in his love song, branching out to create versions of their own. The room was with him. He could take them anywhere he wanted to go. Pick them up and pack them in a boxcar. Take them on a train trip through jazz country. But wanting her to come along for the ride, Royal held them back. He wouldn’t leave until she came aboard. He dug down, way down into his guts and blew a tune that set the entire room down in the middle of Bourbon Street. Gave them a little Satchmo. Led them in the cathouses and juke joints of Kansas City for some Lester Young, then off to Chicago then New York, and by the time the train pulled back into Pittsburgh where Blue stunned the cats and took them way back with a few Mary Lou Williams tunes, he had her.
Two hours had passed and tiny embers were still floating through the smoke filled room. The music had mellowed and the mood had slowed to a light simmer. And her, sliding through it all with all the grace and ease of Katherine Dunham (which made all the snakes in the room arch their necks to see her coming) but without the haughtiness (which made them tip their chairs back on hind legs to watch her walk away.) She floated just above them somehow. Royal got the impression that she was being cautious — not tentative so much as selective. Like she was inhaling only the parts she wanted and throwing the rest away. As he watched her work the room the rush that accompanies wanting some tantalizing, forbidden thing coursed through his body like the excitement of that first cigarette or first shot of rye whiskey, or sliding up the ladder to peek at the Johnson sisters through their bedroom window, or balling your best friend’s lady in the backseat of your Chevy while he’s passed out cold in the front.
Wearing an ordinary long-sleeved black dress and her hair done up in Victory rolls like his little sisters back home, she didn’t look much like a witch. Nor a root or gypsy woman or any of the other things he’d heard people call her. They said she and Jim Grays were hot and heavy a few months back. That the two of them were seen arguing in outside of Kelly’s Stable one night. Said Grays woke up two days later and couldn’t play his guitar. Couldn’t remember a tune or play one. Then he was gone. No one had seen high nor hell of him since.
Royal didn’t usually put much stock in rumors. But something about the way she slid through the room reminding him of a haunting, morning mist and he wondered if she would disappear completely in the full light of day. Wondered if the other things they claimed about her were true. Could she really read minds? Would she be able to see through him? Know what he was thinking when he looked at her? He laughed to himself and hoped not. Or she would cut and run fast.
She was pretty though, not fancy compared to some of the other women in the room who were sparkling chandeliers, dripping with jewels and dressed to the nines in foxtails and silk stockings and satin gowns. Royal could — and has had — his pick of any one of them. He wondered then, what was it that pulled him to her. Wondered what spell she had cast to make him even look her way.
There! There it was. A spot at the nape of her neck. She dipped her head coyly while laughing at someone’s joke and it jumped out at him like a jackrabbit. A tender, dreamy place she massaged, gently, with her forefingers every now and then. He wanted to take the reigns and kneed it for her. Relieve her built up tension and make it loose. Soft. Like how he liked his plane rides and kisses to land. A spot, he suddenly thought, that probably held all the secrets of his life. Like had he found his place in the world? Was it in this club? Was it traveling from city to city night after night? Playing a trumpet so that loud and lusty and half-souled people would look up at him on the stage and nod prayerfully and say; “Yeah man. Yeah.” Was it this or something else? Something he had yet to taste. When his father handed him his hand-me-down bugle, did he know it then? Was his father looking down at him now? The answers, Royal was certain, rested on the back of this woman’s lovely neck. Just below her beautiful head, right between the middle of those magnificent shoulder blades. If he could just get closer to it somehow. Just a little closer. He was confident that he would be able to kiss and suck and lick and scrap and nibble away the layers and uncover, beneath the spot, all the secrets of his life. It was right there, right in front of him. All he had to do was…
“Hey girl,” He reached out. Grabbed her hand. “I heard you got hoodoo in your hips.”
She turned to look at him and that’s when he saw them. Her eyes. Black, not brown. Like wells and wells of sweet fresh water.
And Royal Lee Luke fell in.
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About the painter: Archibald John Motley, Junior (October 7, 1891, New Orleans, Louisiana – January 16, 1981, Chicago, Illinois) was an African-American painter. He studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1910s, graduating in 1918. He is most famous for his colorful chronicling of the African-American experience during the 1920s and 1930s, and is considered one of the major contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement, a time in which African American art reached new heights not just in New York but across America. He specialized in portraiture and saw it “as a means of affirming racial respect and race pride.”