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The Composer


ISSUE:  Winter 2012

On the June night of Dolphy’s passing, the composer is in New York, holding forth about the size of space. An audience has gathered to hear him speak. Perhaps they recognize him, but more likely they only think they do. He is wide as a boxcar and not a little frightening, this giant of a man with a scowl across his lips. He ashes his cigar into an up-turned linen cap. Bigger than a bass clarinet, he says, but the people are unimpressed. In their mortifying ignorance, he realizes, they can’t picture that instrument. Nor can they hear it. Bigger than the sea, the composer offers, and though the image strikes him as too simple, they begin to smile, these well-mannered folks who never speak ill of others and do not abuse their loved ones and are far too polite to be interesting. They’ll never survive July, he thinks; it’s a miracle they’ve made it this far. Bigger than history, he says, expecting them to get it this time, but they’re silent, an unthinking silence; and some have wandered off by now, so he leans forward to rest his head on the bar, and then, looking down, draws a circle on the sawdust-covered floor with the toe of his leather shoe. It’s useless. There is nothing more terrifying than loneliness. He thinks: if I could jump inside this circle and vanish, I would. No one is listening now: space is the size of the sound I’d like to create. There aren’t enough musicians in all of New York to play it. Or enough paper to write down the score, or a hall big enough to withstand the noise. He’s really humming now. And that is why I fully support the race to the moon, he says, to scattered nods from those who remain, a handful of drunks and lonely hearts. Men talking to themselves. Women willing to be seduced. If only the government could understand the necessity of sending a composer into space. With, at minimum, a five piece band. He sighs. Or an octet—he says, his voice lower now, I’ve heard eight is a lucky number in China, and who could argue with more brass, more wind, more rhythm. Everyone has gone now—so much the better. They have tired of him, and the feeling is mutual. He never saw their faces. They stared at him all night, and never saw his either.

The following afternoon, he will wake to the news. The phone rings: Dolphy, dead in Berlin, a voice will say, but the composer hangs up, willing himself to disbelieve, to sleep again.


Ted fell ill in Rouen (bad cheese). Dannie was arrested in Stuttgart (marijuana). These things happen on tour. Dolphy, a diabetic, will be mistaken for a junkie, and die in a jail cell, only hours after a show.

It’s normal.

In Munich, the composer himself broke a photographer’s jaw. The police arrived, as they inevitably do, but faced with their questions, the composer said nothing, only sat stolidly smoking his pipe and refusing to speak. It wasn’t a matter of language: their English was correct, if oddly pronounced; it was something in their affect. At their core, they didn’t really want answers. Aren’t you going to say anything, the policemen pleaded, but he would not. So they left, ignoring the protests of the injured photographer, promising vaguely to be there after the show, and drag him by force before a judge. The composer had never seen cops so pliant, so uneasy with their own authority. They wouldn’t last a day in New York. The set ran extra long that night, and the police did not return.

But the photographer never left. The show was over, and he sat on a stool by the dressing room door, still looking dizzy hours later, his camera balanced precariously in his lap. His name was Ulrich. Someone had taken pity and given him a drink. He held an icy glass to his jaw and raised his head in time to see the composer rush by, muttering.

But Dolphy stopped. You’re still here, he said. Ulrich nodded.

I’ll talk to him.

In the dressing room, the composer takes off his shoes and socks. The smell is powerful. He has a theory about sweat. Another about photographers. Another about Germany. In fact, he has a theory about everything. He offers one now, in a voice loud enough that the photographer outside can hear: what point is there to a disagreement if you aren’t willing to make a scene?

You had your scene, Dolphy says. One photo.

He doesn’t argue with Dolphy. He never could. They step outside.

Quickly, says the barefoot composer. Remember: I don’t like you.

How could I forget, says Ulrich.

Smile, says Dolphy, and throws his arm around the composer. It’s their last picture together.


The riots come in mid-July, without mercy. Harlem burns for six days.

His friends are concerned. They call at all hours. Fortunately, he had a man build a machine for him, to save him from the telephone. The first of its kind in New York. He records this message on the first night of the riots:

No one gives a damn about me. The lights on my street are out. All you motherfuckers out there threatening my life, I know who you are! The city’s burning, and I’m going for a walk.

But the composer doesn’t go for a walk. He sits instead by the window, watching black smoke drift across the sky. Funeral pyres, he thinks. It had to happen. For no reason at all, he feels guilty. On the sixth day, the composer calls up his friend, the well-read one, the professor. He hasn’t used the phone in weeks. I’m looking for a word, he says.

That’s easy. Disturbance, melee, mayhem, protest, upheaval, commotion. I got words, baby.

No. Another type of word.

I’m listening, says the professor.

It’s all the composer has been able to think of these days. The looting, the gunshots, the fires—none of it matters much. He clears his throat: A word that describes the love between a composer and his virtuoso.

The professor is silent for a spell.

No such word, he says finally. I’m sorry. You should come downtown, dig? Safer down here, cooler.

I’m fine, the composer says.

The next week the city charters buses to take the children of Harlem to the beach, the mayor’s latest strategy to save the city: cool them off and calm them down before they burn every last block to ashes. The buses leave from the corner of 125th and St. Nicholas, and the response is overwhelming. The line stretches for two blocks, then three, then five, hundreds of overheated city youth waiting patiently for promise of the sea. The composer joins the line, too, in his flip- flops and bathing trunks, a towel tossed casually over his shoulder. He’s been told to stop moping. To get out of the house. Not just by the professor, but by everyone. Here he is. The children regard him with curiosity.

How old are you, asks one boy. He’s wiry and thin, with close-set eyes and crooked front teeth.

The composer thinks: What age would I like to be?

Los Angeles, 1938. The year he and Dolphy meet.

Fifteen, he says. Almost sixteen, in fact.

The child squints at him. Are you really? Didn’t I just say so, boy?

They wait together, advancing slowly, an hour and a half. The bus driver stops him at the door. But he’s fifteen, says the boy.

My ass, says the driver. Now, are you father to any of these children?

And suddenly—that old anger.

I am father to all these children, the composer says. I fucked all their mothers. Fucked them twice. You hear that, kids? He turns to the driver: And I fucked yours too.

The press is waiting for him at the station. The bulbs flash and the cameras click. Finally, they’re looking at me. He remembers poor Ulrich, and smiles for them all. A day at the beach, the papers will say. He thinks: Let them say it. He throws his towel into the gathered crowd.

Inside, the captain allows him a phone call. The composer considers it for a moment, and then dials his learned friend once more.

I’m downtown, he says into the receiver. Splendid news. Eleven at Slug’s.

Have you thought of it yet? The word? Not yet, the professor says.

Well, keep thinking. I’ll see you later.

The captain is startled. But aren’t you going to ask him to come down? Don’t you want to make bail?

The composer takes off his flip-flops and rubs his feet. He’s been in the sun all day. The smell is powerful. He has a theory about power.

But it’s only a theory.

Why don’t you put me in a cell so I can rest?

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