There’s nothing wrong with Snug Harbor. It’s a classy, dignified, and orderly place. The shows start and end right on time. But of all the jazz spots on Frenchmen Street, it’s my least favorite. It’s just a little too orderly. I like a spot with a bit of dirt under its fingernails. This was where legendary Mickey Squire was playing during likely his last swing through New Orleans, though, and I couldn’t miss seeing my old mentor.
I got a seat in the first row of the balcony, with an overhead view of the drums. As I waited for the set to begin I looked around at the audience and wondered if anyone here had ever seen me play. Probably not — it’d been over twenty years since I’d played a pro gig. When I turned forty, I decided there was a level of drumming I knew existed but couldn’t quite reach, and with a new family, I couldn’t afford to be some sort of jazz martyr. So I found a job at Tulane University: not in the Music department, but in Facilities. The pay was good, the hours easy, the benefits generous. And that’s where I’ve worked for twenty years.
Finally, the Mickey Squire Quartet emerged. First on the stage was the bassist, then a trumpeter, and finally a pianist. The three of them were, I supposed, supremely talented and dedicated, if they were sharing a stage with Mickey — who then tottered forward himself. He was exceedingly slender, his pants bunched around the waist and his shirt hanging on his shoulders as though draped over a skeleton. He’d always been older than me by a bit more than a decade, but now he looked, frankly, like an old man.
I first met Mickey in the late sixties, when I started gigging around New Orleans as a transplant from Philly. He was already a local star, headlining the cream spots and planning to go to New York to play with Coltrane, Miles, Monk. Mickey did play with them, too, all the names, and he kept on playing, even as all those names got etched into gravestones. Anyway, for some reason, Mickey took a liking to me and got me going in the scene, tossing me gigs he’d outgrown. I doubt I would’ve played as long as I had, actually, without that first push from him. But eventually the momentum died down and I became just another jazz drummer in a city full of them. Plus, after six years of barely making a living for myself, I got married and started questioning how I’d support a family with my sticks.
Then Mickey counted off a downtempo tune and the set began. His ride cymbal sizzled gorgeously, his ghosted snare taps were splendid, and his hi-hat was downright poetic. He reminded me of his gentle side, too, when the band played “My Funny Valentine” and his brushes created an entire symphony of sounds from just the head of his snare. What a master! I was up in the balcony, but it felt like the old days when I’d stare in awe at Mickey from the foot of a stage.
Then there was a brief interlude during which Mickey told a story about taking a taxi to his first paid gig — a taxi that drove away with all of his cymbals in the trunk. I laughed along with the audience, but my recollection was that it was a taxi home, from what was definitely not Mickey’s first paid gig, and he forgot the cymbals because he was dead drunk.
By the time I retired from the music scene, Mickey was long gone from New Orleans, but he came through the next spring to play Jazz Fest, and we met for a coffee and a beignet. We talked shop for a while and I explained that as much as I loved jazz drumming, it just wasn’t working out, financially, especially with a child to support. “I’m not really anything special, anyway,” I said. “Not like you.”
“Kid,” he answered, powdered sugar puffing out of his mouth, “you swung those sticks about as good as me. I was just willing to stay — well, not poor — but, you know. Kind of.” He talked about how little money he actually put in his pocket and the expense and grind of life on the road. “No shame in being comfortable,” he said, swigging down his coffee. He’d put me on the guest list for his Jazz Fest show, but between my job and the new baby, I couldn’t make it to the Fairgrounds.
Back at Snug Harbor, Mickey announced the finale, a signature drum suite called “Rat-a-tat-tat.” It was Mickey, all right. Somehow that old body of his came alive behind the kit, and his sticks were a beautiful blur. I realized my hands and feet were tapping along, and I braced myself for a long pang of regret: for taking the Tulane job and being in the audience tonight, instead of on the stage. But actually the pang came and went as quick as one of Mickey’s cymbal crashes. I’d played some drums, had some fun, and then moved on to something else so I could support my family. That’s what I’d told my daughter, too, not sure if I felt sad or relieved, when she finally picked law school over the trumpet.
I wondered if Mickey ever regretted not settling down with a family and a “real” job. Well, maybe I’d ask. I was sure he’d give me a minute or two after the set. Maybe we’d even go for a coffee and a beignet and talk about those old nights at Tip’s or the Maple Leaf, when the band was blazing and the audience hanging on every note. Those nights I felt rich as a king, even when I was barely making rent. And I’d tell Mickey that even though I’d taken the steady pay and good benefits, I had been willing, in a different way, to be kind of poor.
Marc Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His short fiction has appeared in New Pop Lit, Pif, The 3288 Review, Literary Orphans, Every Day Fiction, and elsewhere. He currently lives in New Orleans and has taught creative writing at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts.