An Inch of Time
Lin Ming recruits Thomas Greene in Seattle
Lin was born in Suzhou, educated in Hankou, and made a man of the jazz world in Shanghai——but Seattle was his secret. He let the other agents recruit black orchestras in Los Angeles and San Francisco; they tended to bypass Seattle because it was small. Yet for that very reason, Jewish people, Japanese, Black, Filipino, Italians and Chinese were all jumbled together, and the music was always fermenting. It was cheap, too; a man could get a room at the Tokiwa Hotel for a dollar a week, though Lin Ming would never stay in any foul Japanese hotel, not even one so close to the fine jazz clubs up and down Jackson Street as the Tokiwa. He despised anything to do with Japan on principle. They had expanded into China like a cancer, taking over more and more of a once-great nation, now too weak and divided to fight them off. Infighting raged between the Nationalists and Communists, and many in Shanghai were passionately committed to one side or the other, but not Lin Ming. His stance was passivity. Anything else would eat him alive, since he was not a free man and had no power over anything. Still, he hated the invading Japanese, and would not patronize their businesses, ever, even if it meant he had to pay a little more.
So he booked another room a few blocks away, and went to call on Noodles Smith, the spider at the center of Seattle’s web. Smith owned the Black and Tan on the corner of 12th and Jackson as well as the Hill Top Tavern across the street. He had brought in Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington; he knew everyone. He knew who owned clubs and where to find the once-secret places they called ‘speaks’, and who was playing where and whether they were sweet and satiny or hot and jumpy, and what kinds of crowds they were drawing. He knew everything going on up and down Jackson Street, but he could also tell you about the music all the way up to Bothell, too, up to Everett, all the way to the border with Canada. It was a world of dark magic up there, of winter and evergreens, and he could name every roadhouse to which people came from miles around to listen to jazz. Smith’s advice was imperative.
“China Seas!” he cried. That was what he always called Lin, as if his Chinese-ness was so enormous as to block out everything else. Smith had a thunderous voice, and he never stopped working. Even standing on the sidewalk outside his club, greeting people, he was receiving messages, making decisions, giving orders.
They grasped shoulders, in the American way, and Lin said, “How is your wife, your family?”——establishing friendship first, or at least its illusion, according to Chinese custom. Manners were the essential lubricant of all transactions; they also helped him to hide his terror. If he did not get back promptly with a replacement for Augustus Jones, who had left this world without warning in the arms of a whore on Avenue Edouard VII, it wuld be safer for him not to go back at all.
“Family’s good,” Smith answered. “Pleasure to see you. Looking for a player?”
“Yes——piano player. One who can lead a group.”
The older man set his hard-cornered jaw in consideration. There were always piano players in town. The trouble was that they were booked somewhere, contracted to play until midnight or one or two. And everything changed after hours, when the pimps brought their girls out and the musicians went to different clubs and re-formed in new groups and played until sunup.
A man like Lin could not simply tap a player at will, even as desperate and time-pressed as he was now. First, he had to call on Mr. Smith.
“This group,” Smith said. “Sweet or hot?”
“Sweet, but for dancing. It’s a ballroom.”
“Not too much jump.”
“No.” Lin had heard the exuberant cries of polyphony to which he referred often enough here in the Beautiful Country, yet it had never caught on in China. Shanghai people loved the ballroom style with its tall stacks of liquid-moving chords.
“Well,” said Smith. “You got to make the rounds. I got Oscar Holden here tonight, so—” he glanced behind him at his door, which was open for a second. The sounds of laughter and clinking glass and a fluttering, warming-up bass line leaked out to the sidewalks, followed by a quick, agile figure on the piano “—be sure you come back after ten. Meanwhile, stop at Washington Hall, because they got Gene Coy and his Black Aces. Let me think who’s at the Broadway. A group up from San Francisco.”
Lin listened, concealing his anxiety. So far he had heard nothing about a player who could be plucked.
Until Smith said, “You want to meet a fellow, new in town, might be what you’re after? Go by the Blue Rose after hours. Go late. Time they close.”
“Is he playing there?”
Smith threw his head back and let out a bark of a laugh. “Playing there! No. But you go late, you’ll see him. You ask him to play for you, man. You won’t believe it.” He started to laugh to himself.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Just go, listen. And be sure you tell Big Lewis I’m the one sent you.”
Lin took buses that night, from the big ballrooms with the crowded dance floors to the small clubs thick with smoke. He counted out carfare, slid into seats at tiny rear tables, bought drinks and let them sit and sweat on the round tables in front of him. With each stop, his panic grew worse, as nowhere did he find an available piano man.
What he did find was exciting music. He would let his hands pound lightly on his Western trousers, talking to the drums, countering them. Saxophones raced in intricate runs, pleating their lines in the air; trumpets cried out in feeling. Sometimes the lines improvised so far away he thought they were lost, but they always came back to the signature, the key line, the statement. He felt a burst of joy each time the melody came home again. It was as if he himself was returning to his native place, never mind that home to him was nothing but imagination, meng huan pao ying, a dream and a bubble’s shadow. He was a slave, a creature of his master——Du Yuesheng, his natural father and the boss of the Green Gang——and he had no home. No beliefs, either; survival to Lin was to stand as passive as a rock and let events divide like water around him. Still, in that moment of the jazz melody’s return, he almost felt as if there was a true center to his life, too, and he left each club a little more exalted.
Finally he made his way to the Blue Rose on Yesler Way. It was a tiny place, two basement rooms, a couple of couches. Julian Henson had been playing piano there under long engagement; Lin could see the audience knew him and loved him. After they passed the magic hour when most tavern closed for the night, even more musicians showed up; the playing grew louder, hotter. By two-thirty every seat was filled and people stood lining the walls, while the owner, Big Lewis Richardson, sold drinks as fast as he could pour them.
Henson’s group had swelled to include two saxophones, a trumpet, a standup bass, and a guitar player. Henson himself was not a power player; his strength was intricacy. Lin noticed that the other men respected this and let their solos emphasize ornament, not flight.
People kept crowding down from the street level. The men who kept women and sold them came in, the girls young and sweeping down the rickety staircase in their high heels and gauzy stoles. They had a little hollow cat made of porcelain with glitter-painted eyes they brought for the musicians. When a soloist exceeded himself, they called out to the stage and dropped coins in it.
An hour before dawn, the show sputtered out, and he still had not seen the player described to him by Noodles Smith. I cannot fail. Now the drinkers and the music lovers and the painted sisters had trickled out and Lin was the only guest left. Still nothing. Had he come on the wrong night?
Big Lewis turned up the lights and started loading dirty glasses on trays. Behind him a sharp-shouldered fellow just a year or two younger than Lin came stooping down the steps and started folding chairs.
Was that him? He didn’t look like much, not even like one of them. He was pale, the color of tea with milk, and his pomaded hair was wavy, not woolly.
Big Lewis touched Lin’s arm. “What’s the trouble?” he said, as he packed glasses slick with liquor and lipstick-prints onto his tray. “Got no place to go?”
Lin rose to his feet and touched his breastbone in introduction. “Lin Ming, from Shanghai. I was waiting to talk to you. Noodles Smith told me to seek you out.”
“Did he, now?” Big Lewis set the tray on a table and wiped his hands on his apron.
“I’m looking for a piano player who can also lead a band. The job is far from here, in Shanghai. The right person’s not easy to find.”
“Never is,” Richardson said. Then his eyes notched to the light-skinned fellow cleaning up. “You hear this, Greene?” He turned back to Lin. “Boy can play. Play anything, just about.”
The fellow inched closer. “What salary would you be quoting for this job of yours?” he said.
“Fifty a week for the musicians in the band.” He paused, praying for the right reaction. “That’s Shanghai dollars, but it goes a long way there.” All perfectly true, though as Lin well knew, the city’s throbbing pleasure centers also drained most men of their money faster than you could turn a head. “But right now I seek a bandleader, on piano. For that,” he finished with a flourish, “one hundred a week.”
A silence followed. The young man said, “I presume there is a catch?”
What a formal way of speaking. “No catch.” Lin said it smoothly, even though he knew all life was a catch, especially any job involving the Green Gang and its all-powerful boss, Du Yuesheng. Despite the fact that Du made money from the American jazz men, he hated everything foreign, and was perennially torn between profiting from them and thinking of ways in which they could be banned forever. And then there was Japan, inching south like a lava flow. But he certainly would not say anything that might scare off this new candidate, not yet. On the ship, he could begin to reveal the situation. “All right,” he said that night, in Seattle. “Let us see if you can play.”
Photos courtesy of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, Inc.