Two weeks ago on a Saturday: I answer the phone after two rings. It's His Lordship the Editor. In his deep-but-lively Lurch-as-Talk-Show-Host voice he says, "Guy over on Longest Avenue. Trance channeler. Says he's picking up strands of Charlie Parker's soul. Asked if I knew anyone interested in doing a story on it. I said you'd be over tonight."
He must've mistaken my "Whatthehell?" as "Why me?" because he barged right into, "Because this sounds weird enough that you'd like it. Plus you need a column idea for June. Plus you're freshly divorced and need the pocket money."
I was insulted. I already had a column idea for June.
His Lordship gave me the man's name. I recognized the address. It was a house one block over from the one where my Grandma had lived. An hour later I was on the front porch of a trim, modified shotgun house, lawn freshly cut. I used a brass knocker on the door to announce my arrival.
I expected to be greeted by a skinny man with monk-cropped hair, a goatee, shoeless, wearing something baggy and silky. Instead, the man who opened the door was in a white Polo shirt, khaki shorts, sockless in top-siders, and a cotton cap embroidered with Valhalla – 1996 PGA. His face was pink from the sun.
"Hi, you're Tim?" he said in a pinched voice. I nodded and he waved me in and gave my hand a firm shake. I smelled steak being broiled. "I'm Jax. Thanks for coming by."
He walked back toward the kitchen. "I hope you don't mind if I have a bite to eat before we talked. I spent most of the afternoon on the course up at Cherokee. You golf?"
"No." I tried not to let anything slip by me. "You're a Trance Channeler?"
"Yeah," he called from the kitchen. "Just once or twice a week. And just for laughs. I'm a CPA. You want a beer or something?"
"Not right now. So how do you know it's Bird?"
"He told me so," Jax said, entering the living room munching on a large hoagie roll dripping with steak juice "Love steak sandwiches. Lemme finish this then I'll let you speak to Bird."
Less than five minutes later, after Jax swallowed a long pull from a bottle of Michelob, he sat, lotus position, in front of his couch, took three long breaths, belched, fluttered his eyelids. I sat in a hardwood chair across from him. He coughed roughly, grunted. And an exhausted, time-worn voice whispered, "Who's there, man."
Jax's lips barely moved. An icy pizza cutter rolled up my spine.
I swallowed dry. "My name's Tim. I write about jazz in Louisville."
"Fine city, man. Like Louisville a lot."
I was surprised and sized on what I just heard. I pulled my notepad from my back pocket. My original column idea for June was washed aside. "So you were in Louisville?"
"Prob'bly. Don't remember."
That sudden idea got washed aside, too.
But after a few seconds Bird said, "Who's playin' down there now?"
I'm a writer. I can use any resource to make a good transition. Even if it meant wrapping my June subject matter around a whopper of a tale about a trance channeling accountant. Most of which is true.
"Oh, Bird, we gotta guy down here you'd really dig." I felt shallow, reverting to beatnikspeak, but went with it anyway. "Name's Ron Jones. Plays sax. Hot, wild, or mellow. He can do it all."
Bird said nothing. I began to fumble through my notes, looking for what I wrote down during the couple of times Ron and I spoke.
"Uh, he graduated from Central High School here in Louisville in 1976. Played guitar in a rock band called Any Substance. Got a degree in music education from Florida A&M. And that's one of the things he does, Bird. He educates. He has a lot of students, and a lot of former ones play professionally here in Louisville. Hopes to have his first recording released sometime this fall."
"Who's he gig with?"
"A lot of the good ones here in the city. He's a member of Soundchaser, has his own trio and quartet. He gigs off and on with some guys at the Seelbach Hotel. And he and his trio's got a standing Sunday brunch gig at a restaurant called Garrett's."
Bird exhaled sharply, cackled. "Jazz on Sunday? Mornin'?"
"Yeah, and he's smooth with it, too. Better than fudge icing. I mean, he can wail just like you and the others, Bird. But this is a guy who knows his audience. He knows what they want to hear. He knows they don't want to hear the hard stuff on Sunday morning as they eat. So he mellows out. And he can still do it with little kick behind it. He's got a guy named Sonny Stevens with him on bass and Chris Fitzgerald on keys. Together they're tight and sweet."
"Folks dig 'im, huh?"
"Yep. Especially the kids. Mancini wrote this piece called 'The Pink Panther.' Kids know it and love it, and he plays it. Oh, yeah. Here's something you'd like, Bird."
"One Sunday at Garrett's, a little eight-year-old girl comes up to him and asks him to play some Charlie Parker. So Ron's a little amused at that and plays 'Now's the Time' for her."
Bird chucked and roared.
"Hang on a minute. The girl comes up to him later and says she already knew that song. It was on a recording her grandmother gave to her."
Bird laughed harder. I continued. "And stuff like that's what's important to Ron. Reaching out to the kids. He plans to go into some schools soon and play. Its just a part of the little extra he gives to his audience."
There was silence. Jax blinked twice. "I think he's gone away," he said. softly.
I felt a sense of something unfinished. "You think he caught the last thing I said about Ron?"
Jax shook his head sadly. "Can't tell."
After long moments of silence, I shook his hand, said good-bye and thanks.
Next day was Sunday. I was watching my baby daughter, Eva, while my ex-wife went to the grocery. Eva stared up at me from her little bouncer seat with her large and curious blue eyes. I thought of Ron's story and began to bob my head gently up and down and scat-sing "Now's the Time."
She cooed and smiled. Big..
I can't wait to introduce her to Ron.
I was puzzled. I'm that way often enough, but on a warm Sunday morning in late March at Garrett's Restaurant I couldn't believe I was hearing saxophonist Ron Jones gliding through Anita Baker's "Sweet Love, " smoother than fudge frosting.
Two nights earlier, he had wailed Bird-style through a set at the Twice-Told Coffee House. He was wearing a t-shirt, damp from the sweat of full-out playing, nylon running pants, and white athletic shoes. The full crowd that night had barked frequent, wild "yeahs" and "all rights," and hammered applause after every tune. But the full crowd on Sunday at Garrett's ate their buffet food and chattered among themselves. Ron – this time in a snappy double-breasted suit - was tucked into the background.
Still, underneath the toned-down performance, was Ron Jones, jazz educator and top performer.