Short Fiction Contest-winning story #56 — “Celestial Vagabonds” by Max Talley

March 12th, 2021

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New Short Fiction Award

Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Max Talley of Santa Barbara, California is the winner of the 56th Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on March 12, 2021.

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photo by Lee Tanner/courtesy Lisa Tanner

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Celestial Vagabonds

      by Max Talley

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…..He drove uptown on Riverside Drive, the motor noise magnificent. Traffic increased as he approached Harlem. Other drivers jostling to get ahead noticed the car first. A red Ferrari was not subtle in gray Manhattan, and the engine roared money and power and European elegance. Then neighbors would study the man in outsized sunglasses. Some recognized him, smiling or shaking their heads in disbelief. Others looked aggrieved, even outraged that a person like him could be driving a vehicle like that. Ferrari only built three-hundred of their 275 GTB.

…..He made it across the George Washington Bridge with minimal hassle, turning north on Palisades Parkway. October, 1966 felt good. No sensation of anything lancing his guts and the ache in his hip had been numbed by Percodan. Technically, he shouldn’t have been driving, but he never followed the rules.

…..A Ferrari was a caged cheetah waiting to be unleashed, not content or riding smooth until it hit at least 60 mph. He couldn’t resist gunning the engine. Like a crimson rocket, it passed cars on the two northern lanes with ease, but he cursed when a cop raced up behind, mounted lights strobing manically. He could outrun the cruiser, but instead pulled over into a rest area with a low brick building. Trees lining the Parkway were aflame in late October colors and slow boats cruised the Hudson River just beyond the Jersey cliffs. Don’t make things worse.

…..“Sir, are you aware you were going 85 in a 55 zone?” The officer showed a pink, doughy face, eyes invisible behind reflective sunglasses. “Is this your vehicle?”

…..“Yes, it is.” Always happy to admit it.

…..The cop tilted his head. “License and registration.” He studied the driver’s license, mouth drooping. Walked around the Ferrari, went back to his cruiser and called it in.

…..Eventually the officer wrote out a speeding ticket.

…..He wanted to argue, call the dude a motherfucker, but stayed zen. That incident outside Birdland seven years ago still haunted him. The nightstick, blood seeping from his head. Policemen disliked him driving a rare, expensive car like that. He felt relieved he didn’t have a white woman beside him. No, at present his problems were with black women. His wife Frances filed for a divorce, said he mistreated her, roughed her up out of jealousy. All true. But he’d met Cicely and life seemed better. It usually did at first.

…..Everything in transition. Eight months ago he’d been hospitalized for a liver infection. Serious shit. Now his health had stabilized. Doctors enabled him to stave off the pain, and he hoped he wouldn’t be around when that future bill came due. His own program added alcohol and cocaine to the prescription painkillers. Kept him energetic, yet dulled to distractions. It also messed with his moods—already mercurial.

…..Phone call on Monday from a dear friend asking, “Want to record this weekend?”

…..“With you, anytime,” he said. “Who else?” He listened without comment until the last name. “Really, he wants to do it?”

…..“Yeah, if it’s just us. No managers or producers.”

…..“Where?”

…..“Englewood Cliffs.”

…..“Okay. See you at Rudy’s.”

…..He came back to the present, the cop still hovering. Get to the session.

…..The officer’s eyes roved through the car. “Uh, sir, what’s in that bag back there?”

…..“Really? You think I’m carrying?”

…..“Mr. Davis, could you open it now?”

…..Miles undid the clasps on the case and wedged the top up. “It’s my horn, man.” He displayed the trumpet, reflecting sunlight in the late morning.

…..The cop took a nervous hand away from his holster. “Okay,” he said and stared at motorists whizzing by. “Please drive safely.”

…..Miles went the speed limit as the police car followed a distance behind. Finally, as he exited the Parkway at Englewood Cliffs, the cruiser chased after someone else.

…..Rudy Van Gelder must have heard the thrum of the Ferrari. Came outside to greet Miles when he parked by the studio structure with its peaked wooden roof. Designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright acolyte, a piece of art in itself. Rudy wore plastic gloves, a lab coat, and giant frames that looked like lab glasses.

…..Miles smiled. “You used to be an eye doctor, right?” Rudy nodded and they both laughed. “My dad was a dentist. Had his costume on when he came home sometimes.”

…..Within the large studio space, an assistant connected cables to microphones. Rudy removed his coat to reveal a formal jacket and bow-tie underneath. By the side lounge, a serious man in a brown suit stood waiting.

…..“Trane!” Miles hugged the saxophonist. “What did they feed you in Japan? You okay?”

…..John Coltrane said a quiet “Yes” and smiled shyly. “You’re pretty thin.”

…..“Yeah, but I’m in training, a welterweight.” He feinted a few jabs. “How long you been back?”

…..“A while. I’ve been fasting since I returned.”

…..“Shit, that’s terrible.” Miles tapped Coltrane’s chest. “Come by sometime. I’ll grill you up some swordfish.”

…..“I live in Long Island with Alice now.”

…..Miles frowned. He relished the company of musicians.

…..Coltrane went into the hallway and fingered the valves on his tenor sax.

…..Trane had up and left Miles dry back in 1960. It took him years to rebuild a stellar quintet, to find Wayne Shorter and get over all that. Yet he couldn’t hate Coltrane. The cat had to go his own way, was a stone-cold genius. There was envious Miles and high-minded Miles, but some serious business needed to get done this weekend. No ego bullshit allowed.

…..Behind them, Jimmy Cobb set up his drums. Miles dug him too, though they communicated in fragments: “Yeah,” or “make it mellow,” or “half-time.” He waved. They last worked together in 1962. Cobb was solid; made him feel better already. Miles didn’t know Larry Gales, removing his upright bass from its case, but you had to be sharp to play with the best, so Miles didn’t need to know.

…..“Miles, Miles, Miles,” said a man in a wool hat with scruffy facial hair. He wore a rumpled sports jacket and walked over in a zigzag line, his gait much like his music.

…..“Monk,” he said. “It’s been years.”

…..“That’s right.”

…..Thelonious and Miles had had a disagreement in the ’50s that neither could remember the cause of now. Both had lived through a bunch of the same shit, had featured Coltrane in their bands, been loved by fans, misunderstood by critics, and beaten-up by white cops.

…..Miles removed Monk’s odd hat and tried it on. “Too big for my head.”

…..“Give it back.” Monk seemed perturbed. “Keeps my brain warm.” His voice between a mutter and a cough.

…..“For real?” Miles returned it then patted his damp forehead with an orange silk scarf. “My brain runs hot. Needs an air conditioner.”

…..Monk laughed his short, percussive laugh. “I’ll remember at Christmas.”

…..Monk’s music was striking and original, but Miles remained competitive, even jealous. The guy could write jazz standards just like that. “You see my new car?”

…..“I don’t drive,” Monk said in a growl. “The Baroness gets me around.”

…..“Yeah.” Miles nodded. He knew Nica from way back. Bird—his hero and mentor—had died in her suite at the Stanhope Hotel. Nica got evicted after that incident. Monk’s wife Nellie couldn’t handle him. Too eccentric. So the Baroness served as Monk’s patron, his closest friend, advisor, and number one fan. Lived nearby in Weehawken. Every artist needed a Baroness.

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…..Coltrane had felt strange since returning from Japan. The band tour seemed a culmination, a summation of everything he’d been trying to achieve. They treated him as a superstar, a spiritual leader. Crowds awaiting him at the Tokyo airport like he was a Beatle. Interviews about music, politics, religion. “How do you feel about the Vietnam War?”

…..“I’m against it.”

…..Back in the States, Trane sank into uncertainty. His first LSD trips last year had been ecstatic, transcendent. But instead of answering questions about life and God, the following trips just filled his brain with more confusion. After his band dosed and then recorded OM in one prolonged session, Coltrane listened to the tape the next day. He begged producer Bob Thiele, “Please, never release it.” He’d been on a spiritual quest to communicate through music, to bring people love, illumination, and hope. Instead he’d added to the cacophony of screaming, violence, and agony of a world out of control.

…..“How come your song titles are religious but the music sounds so hellish?” Miles asked in his scorched rasp. Maybe that’s why Coltrane avoided contacting him. Miles hated free jazz. “Trane, you’re the baddest motherfucker on the planet, but when I heard Ascension, I scheduled dental surgery ’cause I knew that would be less painful.”

…..“I’m searching, Miles. You’ve experimented, done stuff other people didn’t get.”

…..“Yeah, I looked, but then I found it.” Miles grimaced. “What are you searching for, a sandwich? Carnegie Deli’s on 7th Avenue.” Miles’ face became serious, thoughtful. “Crescent and A Love Supreme. Solid. You went out into space, but then came back and explained it so us earthlings could understand.” They both cracked up.

…..At home in Long Island,  Alice asked, “Why are you holding your stomach all the time?” Concerned. Trane insisted it was his bad diet. He’d gained weight and needed to fast. As someone who studied religions of the world, Coltrane understood and believed in karma. His previous life of doing heroin would catch up with him someday. He’d outlived his first inspiration Charlie Parker, but getting past thirty-five was nothing to brag about. Trane turned forty in September and yet felt so much older.

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…..Miles considered their plan: for each to bring a song or an idea to record every day, then repeat the process. By Sunday they’d have nine tunes to consider. If the results were worth releasing. He knew Impulse or Columbia would jump on it regardless, so it was up to them—right there—to maintain quality control.

…..Miles tensed up. “What are we doing standing around? Shouldn’t we be playing?”

…..Monk stared at him. “Why you angry? You got everything, right?”

…..“Haven’t got the cover of Time, like you.”

…..“You care? That’s a white man’s magazine.”

…..“Sales are down. Jazz ain’t hip.” Miles scratched his neck. “Yeah, I need young white people buying my records. Pays my bills. They dig folk-rock now.”

…..“You listen to that?” Coltrane looked puzzled.

…..“I listen to everything.” Miles smirked. “Bob Dylan and The Byrds are on Columbia too. Byrds got a song about being high, miles in the sky.” Monk and Trane chuckled. “They’ve been hearing us. Can’t play shit and they’re doing extended jams, raga, modal stuff. That takes balls when you don’t have chops.” He paused. “I admire that.”

…..“Interesting.” Coltrane closed his eyes.

…..“Trane’s living in luxury on Long Island while we’re still struggling at Manhattan clubs.”

…..Monk raised the window blinds. “Yeah, you struggling and suffering, Miles.” He pointed at the red Ferrari and snuffled out some laughter.

…..Miles gripped Coltrane’s weathered jacket. “I’ll give you my tailor’s name. Downbeat says you’re the number one jazz cat now. You got money. Wear it, man.”

…..Rudy ushered them into the big performance room under its arched ceiling. Monk sat down at the grand piano and Miles looked over his shoulder. Coltrane waited, notebook in hand.

…..Monk played a sequence of blocky chords. “I got this,” he mumbled. “How ’bout you, Miles?”

…..“Yeah, yeah.” Miles had avoided songwriting lately. Too busy gigging, recording albums, boxing, cooking, collecting cars, chasing women. He could write, but his thing was themes, little riffs that spoke to him. His genius was taking songs by Wayne Shorter and others and fleshing them out, giving them a new direction, making them sing. Being a bandleader. However, when push came to shove, he could come up with something, find a melody as it evolved, then turn it into a Miles Davis song during the recording.

…..He unfolded a piece of paper with scrawled writing. “It’s a blues,” Miles said, “but I made it major and minor for you, Monk.”

…..“Standard blues changes?” Monk fidgeted with his hat, raising the brim, then tucking it down.

…..“1-4-5 in C, but once we get to G, we go sharp three times and resolve on Bb minor 7th.”

…..“Simple.” Monk nodded and glanced up at Coltrane. “Let’s start with that.”

…..Miles told the rhythm section almost nothing. The less said, the more musicians had to experiment, fill in the blanks, take risks. Miles stood by his microphone, holding his trumpet facing downward. Awaiting Rudy’s cue.

…..Monk played a chord followed by a three-note pattern in each key, oblivious to the tape rolling or not. Finally, Rudy signaled and the bass and drums kicked in behind. Miles echoed Monk’s phrase but experimented with harmonies. Immediately, the other musicians were beaming, the groove infectious, Cobb starting with just brushes.

…..Everyone happy but Miles. They were doing a variation on the Kind of Blue vibe. A seductive place to be, where Columbia promotion men would hear cash registers and imagine sales figures. Miles had done it before though. Ancient history. He hated retreads. Once he explored and cultivated something—time to move on. Still, it was all he brought today, so he went with it.

…..Coltrane stood watching for a raised eyebrow or scrunched forehead signal to solo. Miles delayed, fearing a free jazz explosion of honks and squeals. By the third time through the chords, everyone expected something, so Miles smiled evil at Trane.

…..Coltrane started slow and melodic, deep in his tenor range, playing in and around blues riffs he knew by heart, before rising gradually in pitch and speed. Marvelous. Trane followed the chord structure and seemed to time travel back to 1959. Miles got so distracted, he let him play through the changes twice before taking a trumpet solo. His health and breath power were strong. He blew soft little phrases punctuated by sudden high blasts, then a few rapid runs through scales. The others had to watch him, since he led by gesture, but they did so with extra awe today. Even Rudy wandered out to observe and that was rare as hell.

…..Monk’s piano solo sounded like a cocktail party on the sinking Titanic. The rhythm transformed, got lost, went free for a bit, then returned to a different place. Could have stretched forever, but six minutes in, Miles signaled them to a halt. He played a hushed phrase of summary before everyone returned for the hiss and sigh of a delicate ending.

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…..Monk stared at his scribbled song notes in mystification.

…..After a break, the other musicians circled around the grand piano. “Goes like this,” Monk said. He plonked out an eight-note melody line using two fingers of his right hand, with backing chords held down by his left. Inserted his trademark hesitations, then rested to allow the band to groove alone. A brief rehearsal before he asked, “Everybody ready?” If anyone replied no, they might as well pack up and hail a cab for Chicago. ‘Cause they were done in New York.

…..Monk played his theme twice, then following Jimmy Cobb’s cymbal hit, the others fell in too. Once they had run through the changes without problem, Monk relaxed and drifted off inside, where he lived.

…..Where you gonna go, Monk? Float up to the ceiling? You know it’s all about time, but Ginsberg said there is no time, just now, now, now—forever. Some Buddhist shit. Damn poets. Got to call Allen, get more psilocybin from Leary at Millbrook, clear the junk out, let me dance so beautiful with the Baroness, the colors of the patterns and sounds, no wrong notes, all right, alrighty. I’m safe up inside my hat, just keep pounding fingers and the sounds go-go-go. Where was I? They pulled us over, beat me up, searched her car, busted for narcotics. Only white cops say narcotics. Weed, man. It’s pepper on the salad, not the main course. Art Pepper’s on my salad and everything could be so wonderful if I could only have more time to ignore time. Need to go beyond keys and scales and modes to pure joy. I bring you happiness and laughter. It’s my duty. Nellie, I wish you could understand, how could she understand? No one gets me, never did. I’m the pause on high before the roller coaster crashes down. I want it honky tonk, ice skating rinky-dink, ivory tinkle and a bang-bang-bang, the velvet hammer on your head ’round midnight for all the fools who need intoxicating, they need it straight, no chaser, and you want to throw me out, press charges, have my brain examined?

…..After each musician soloed, Monk repeated his main theme, but more strident, until the horns sustained single notes and Cobb added a drum flourish.

…..“That’s right, that’s good.” Monk stood and twirled around twice. “You can play it again if you want, but wait till I leave.” The others smiled or laughed at his antics. Only Miles worked his lips together with dissatisfaction. Monk didn’t care.

…..Rudy rushed out. “What’s that one called, Thelonious?”

…..“It’s celestial,” he muttered.

…..“What?” Rudy asked.

…..“Celestial Vagabond…”

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…..They played Coltrane’s haunting ballad last. Miles felt pleased it wasn’t a breakneck speed number over droning chords. However, he suspected Trane had planned it. Everyone wanted Miles to play ballads. Musicians, women, promoters, managers, record company executives. Especially his ’50s material. That’s why he didn’t. They recorded the short piece three times and each take improved, Miles and Coltrane finding the heart of the song, their solos restrained and soulful. The beautiful sadness palpable. A hush filled the studio when it ended, as if any talking or sound would be jive after that.

…..At sunset, Coltrane left for Long Island, and Monk sat out in his car. Miles found the Baroness inside the control room, wearing her fur coat and holding a lit cigarette. Eyes closed, her head moved slightly while listening to Monk’s song. “Miles,” she said, not in greeting but recognition.

…..“It sounds like a New York subway dancing a jig.” Miles meant it as a compliment.

…..The Baroness frowned. “You could never write anything like that.”

…..Not the time to argue. Miles did melancholy things, angry or forthright tunes, meditative pieces. He did not write jaunty songs like Monk.

…..“You didn’t play much on the track.” Direct stare, unafraid.

…..“I was listening. Finding my place.”

…..“Yes, of course…” The Baroness tamped out her cigarette and departed.

…..“Rudy,” Miles said. “I need to borrow the tape overnight. I’ll figure out how to play on Monk’s tune.”

…..“You want a copy?”

…..“No time, I got to split.” Miles tried his schoolboy face. “I’ll bring it back first thing tomorrow.”

…..With no Trane or Monk around to disagree, Rudy carefully packaged the master reel-to-reel tape. “Be here by eleven.”

…..Miles drove home to Manhattan and stayed up playing along with the track. He solved it, as he always did. Two or three-note fills at full lung power in the piano pauses Monk left. Pow-pow! Single-note high blast. Like his idol Sugar Ray did in the ring. Let everyone else sweat and just come in with decisive blows. Then a knockout punch. By 3 a.m. Miles drifted off to sleep satisfied.

…..In his dark, insulated cave bedroom, he woke up late. Miles took his pills, showered, and ate a light breakfast. By the time he raced back to New Jersey it was 1 p.m.

…..Coltrane looked downcast in the lounge. Rudy rushed over, hair askew. “The Baroness was furious,” he whispered as if she still lingered. “They waited ninety minutes for you. I tried to call; no answer.”

…..“I turn my phone off when I sleep.” Miles felt annoyed. “Well, they live nearby…”

…..“Not coming back. Monk was wandering around, manic, confused.” Rudy wiped condensation off his glasses. “Baroness took him on a drive upstate to calm him down.”

…..“Shit.” Miles took a deep breath. “Yeah, okay.”

…..They decided to record as a quartet. Coltrane began alone, his tone solemn, almost dirge-like. He tapped his foot and the drums took off, Larry Gales’ walking bass reaching a sprint velocity. Trane soloed through numerous scales at super-speed, then started honking, until finally overblowing—atonal screams. Miles followed with the most volume he could muster, and peppered his trumpet runs with shrieks. Rudy pulled an expensive Neumann U 48 microphone back from their fury.

…..Finally, the song hurtled to an ending. Miles dabbed sweat off his brow, unhappy. “Try one without me.” He trudged to his Ferrari, swallowed another Percodan and washed it down with Cognac. Reclining, Miles dozed off.

…..When he awoke, the parking lot had emptied and he heard brittle fall leaves scattering in a late afternoon wind. Inside, Rudy was apologetic. “They’re gone. We got three keepers yesterday, maybe three more tracks tomorrow.” He smiled. “Please, Miles…”

…..“I’ll be here at eleven.”

…..On Sunday, Miles arrived only fifteen minutes late. Coltrane sat holding his stomach. “I feel sick. Can’t play today. Drove over to tell you.”

…..“You should have just called.”

…..“Tried. You only answer after dark.” Trane winced. “Let’s book another weekend.”

…..“Where’s Monk?”

…..“They went to Philadelphia out of the blue,” Rudy said. “Has some dates coming up. He said it wasn’t happening here.”

…..“Let’s plan something before Christmas.” Miles started to leave.

…..“The master tape, Miles?” Rudy asked, his face anxious.

…..“Forgot it at home. I’ll bring it to the next session in December. Promise.”

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…..The December dates never happened. Coltrane was laying low, and performed only once during fall. Miles listened to their tape, hating his song and playing more and more each time, pissed at Monk for ditching the session, at himself for being late, and with the Baroness for not recognizing genius in him. Miles’ Gemini thing kicked in, first up, then way down.

…..On a wintry night while too drunk and too high on coke, he drove toward the City’s western edge. Miles took a frigid walk along the Hudson River—cursing aloud—and  finally hurled the master tape into the river.

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July, 1967

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…..He sat in a back row at the funeral and departed early. Miles couldn’t stand Albert Ayler’s haunted dissonant playing and didn’t want to suffer Ornette Coleman later on. The “New Thing” was not his thing. As he walked out of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church into the swelter of Manhattan summer, he felt cheated. Trane had left the station too soon. The cat had so many more places to go, an untethered astronaut who could roam the cosmos. Miles regretted not telling him. Of all the legends he’d gigged with, all the talents he’d recorded with, Miles only displayed two framed photos of jazz musicians in his brownstone: Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.

…..“Miles?” A music critic attending the funeral followed after him on Lexington Avenue.   “I heard this crazy rumor you recorded with Coltrane last fall. When someone also mentioned Thelonious Monk, I just couldn’t believe it.”

…..Quoting a Monk standard, Miles said, “Well, you needn’t…”

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Max Talley was born in New York City and lives in California. His writing has appeared in Vol.1 Brooklyn, Atticus Review, Entropy, Bridge Eight, Santa Fe Literary Review, and Litro. Talley’s novel was published in 2014 and his anthology, Delirium Corridor, was released in December, 2020. He plays guitar, paints, and is associate editor for Santa Barbara Literary Journal.  www.maxdevoetalley.com

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Photo of Miles Davis by Lee Tanner, published courtesy of Lisa Tanner

Lee Tanner began using a camera as a teenager in New York City. An avid jazz fan from the age of eight and inspired by the jazz photography of Gjon Mili, Bill Claxton, Herb Snitzer, and Herman Leonard, he turned to documenting the jazz scene with a love for the music comparable only to his creative drive for visual expression.

For a complete biography and to see examples of his award-winning photography, visit his website by clicking here.

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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