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Learning to Blow

Having failed in the cutthroat world of Beat poetry for fifteen years, I decided to learn how to play the saxophone. Unsure how to judge the quality of a saxophone, I simply went into a large music store and purchased the cheapest. I could always get something better, later, once I understood what better meant. The man who sold the sax to me professed to give lessons to beginners, so I made an appointment with him for next week, there in the store.

When I arrived for my lesson, he was wearing an Atlanta Falcons cap and holding a clipboard. He guided me to a spacious back room, well-lit under fluorescents, with portraits of famous jazzmen hanging on the walls. He began to speak.

"Playing the saxophone is a lot like playing football. You can't just make a run for the end zone and expect to get through. You have to feign right, then feign left, then make your approach when the sax is least expecting it."

I got up and left. When I got home, I opened the phone book and looked for music instruction. There was a huge display ad for the AMERICAN JAZZ SCHOOL. Serious Instructors. A Complete Education. Being no more able to judge saxophone instructors than saxophones themselves, I called the American Jazz School and asked for an appointment. The curt male receptionist told me that I should show up at 8am every Saturday, and that a missed appointment was grounds for dismissal.

So that Saturday morning, I found the American Jazz School in the city's warehouse district. The small parking lot was filled with cars, and several blowers of various horns were walking up to the building, perhaps from the bus stop. They came in all ages, shapes, sizes, genders and colors, but none of them were affluently dressed. I looked around at the cars pulling into the parking lot, and all of the hopeful musicians approaching the building were dressed down. In my sports coat and button-down shirt, I stood out. I removed my sports coat and left it in the car. I grabbed my saxophone case (most, but not all, of the musicians around me had cases for their instruments) and walked through the building's wide double doors.

The warehouse that was now the American Jazz School was quite dingy and poorly-lit. It was far wider than it was deep, and was bisected by a massively long table, partitioned by tiny cubicle walls, as if we were visitors in a prison, with only the tiniest shred of privacy. There was a folding metal chair at each little cubicle, and my fellow musicians each took a seat at a chair, with no apparent regard for location. So I walked to the very end of the table, and took a seat. Another musician, an older Asian man, looked at me with irritation, but didn't say anything, and took the seat next to mine. He got out his horn and held it in front of him, so I did the same. I could see a small, three-legged stool on the other side of the table, where I assumed my instructor would sit. Two sets of double doors, closed, stood on the other side of the warehouse.

At exactly 8:30 those far doors open and instructors came pouring out. Like the pupils, they were every race, shape, size, gender and age. Unlike the pupils, they carried no instruments. They further looked like they had abandoned civilized methods of dress entirely. The pupils were dressed down, and T-shirts and jeans abounded. The instructors were dressed like bums, with unwashed hair, tattered coats, and dresses from thirty years ago. There were several transgendered instructors.

A white midget with an eyepatch over his left eye approached my section of the table. He climbed on top of the stool, and stood upon it, so as to tower over my sitting frame. "What's your name?" he asked.

I told him.

"I don't have one," he said, produced a rotten grapefruit from an unseen source, and threw it at me. I instinctively blocked it with my saxophone.

"You're utterly hopeless," he said, climbed down off the stool, and left back through the double doors from which he came. When he did not return, I got up and left.

Determined to make a better go of it and not use my sax as a shield in the future, I returned at 8 the next Saturday morning. I wasn't sure that it was wise to sit in the same place, but I thought that I had better not show cowardice in front of these odd, but clearly brilliant, instructors. At 8:30, the midget returned to his stool. He saw me, and snorted with contempt. "Give me your horn," he said, and I handed him the instrument. He noodled around with it for a moment, presumably to get the feel for how it sounded. He frowned more deeply (I suspect he constantly wore at least a small frown), handed the horn back to me, and got down off his stool, returning through the double doors from which he came. After a few minutes, I got up and left.

The next Saturday I returned to the same spot. The midget came out at 8:30, and told me to seek another instructor. I looked up the length of the table. There were no vacant spots. After a moment, a young black man with a clarinet got up, about halfway down the table, looking dejected. I ran up to him and asked him if he would like to switch seats. He nodded enthusiastically, and I sat down in his now vacant chair. On the other side of the table from me was a burly Chinese man who hadn't bathed or shaved in some time. He introduced himself as Tsing Tao, which I happened to know was a brand of beer, but whatever. He was eating a whalen sandwich, and I could see the freshness of the lettuce. He had mustard on his chin.

"Play something," he commanded. I didn't know how to play anything, but I put my mouth to the mouthpiece, blew, and pressed buttons randomly on my saxophone. He nodded. After a few moments of making noise, I attempted to play the scales. He stood up and slapped me, hard, across the cheek.

"You're not to do that," he said.

"I gathered that," I replied, and began to blow again, trying to eke out a pleasing tune, based on the little information about my instrument that I was able to get from blowing into it. Tsing Tao watched me for a little while, then got up and left.

Every day that week, I spent at least two hours trying to learn to blow. It was exhausting work, and my lungs and tongue constantly felt on the verge of collapse. The next Saturday, I returned to the Jazz School and sat in Tsing Tao's cubicle. I looked around, but didn't see the young black man. Promptly at 8:30, Tsing Tao came up to his stool, sat down, and slapped me ferociously.

"I don't understand," I said.

"I just felt like slapping you," he said. "Give me your horn."

I gave him my sax. He put it up to his mouth and started blowing Beethoven's Fifth. I stared at him, open-mouthed. It sounded exactly like Beethoven's Fifth was never supposed to sound.

When he finished, the morning was mostly gone, as were most of the students and instructors. He handed me my saxophone, pulled a sandwich out of nowhere, and told me, "Play that."

I gave it my best shot. The effort required from my tired lungs forced me to close my eyes, but I got through the whole piece. When I finished, he was gone.

All week I practiced playing Beethoven's Fifth on the saxophone. When I returned the next Saturday morning, I felt vigorous and enthusiastic.

Tsing Tao sat across from me, whalen sandwich in hand, and said, "Play something different."

I was ready for that possibility, and played a noodling I had worked on over the week. It was vaguely based on the scales, but was nonetheless a new and creative competition. Tsing Tao listened to this for about five minutes, and said, "vous mangez la merde." He then left. After a few minutes, I did too.

Over the next week I practiced constantly. My lungs were no longer in such pain, and I could play for many hours at a time, and did so. The next Saturday, I sat in Tsing Tao's cubicle, waiting expectantly. But at 8:30, a different man came out; a scrawny black transvestite, perhaps in his thirties, with scars all over his face.

I told him my name. He told me he didn't give a fuck, but if I wondered, his was Voodoo Hoodoo. He handed me a bathroom key. I took it, understanding.

"It's for Folsom Station," he said. "Stay up against a wall, on a broad walkway. Close to vending machines. For God's sake, make some friends in the area. Stay well-fed and hydrated." He stepped back, and observed my frayed sports coat, stained button-down, and unkempt hair. "You look good," he said, and left.

At Folsom Station, I bought a passcard and found the vending machines. They were located near the bathrooms, how great was that? The vending machines were filled with nothing but ancient sandwiches and bottled water, and I could see the wilted lettuce and dingy mustard. It made me hungry, but one earns before one eats. I laid out my saxophone case in front of me and began to blow. I did this until I had collected a decent amount of change, then looked up. A fat, bald man was inspecting the bathroom door.

"You're Philip Whalen," I said to him, shocked.

"Yes," he smiled broadly. "Would you like a sandwich?"

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