The French brought perfume to New Orleans and, with it, the scent known as oil of jasmine. In the brothels the whores dabbed oil of jasmine behind their ears, on the backs of their knees and wrists. “Hey, baby,” their customers chanted, “give me some of that jass.” In Storyville where Napoleon Hill once went to look for his mother, he’d heard the music they were starting to call jass. Once he heard it, he was done with ragtime. With jass he could make it up and he didn’t have to write it down. Nothing with jass was set in stone. One change led to the next. And change was what Napoleon Hill was good at, like a chameleon, he thought as he stood admiring himself in front of the mirror.
His trumpet lay polished and shiny in its case. He was getting ready to go where he’d never been and he wanted to be sure he looked right. A large man, he was squeezed between the narrow bed and the dresser, straightening his tie and talking to himself. He shared this room with Maddy Winslow, though he never actually slept with her. It had been their arrangement for years that he was crawling into bed as she was getting out.
He wished Maddy was home so he could ask her if he was doing the right thing. She was good for that. Telling him if something was right or not. She’d weigh it carefully, then shake her head or nod, and over all the years they’d lived together he’d listened to whatever she said. But today was her double shift and she wouldn’t get home until late. Napoleon played trumpet at the Red Rooster six nights a week, but he could do whatever he wanted on the seventh and that was Monday night.
So Napoleon was going to cross the river and play his horn at a white establishment on the North Side. He’d take Jonah up on his offer and stop by Chimbrova’s saloon. All summer, until that ship toppled over in the river, the boy with the black eyes and hair like coal had been coming by the Shoestring Diner for his morning coffee which he drank just as black. Jonah didn’t sleep well and he was often late for work at Western Electric where he assembled telephones.
To make ends meet Napoleon did an early morning shift at the Shoestring, bussing tables and pouring coffee, a few days a week. Those mornings he didn’t even bother going back to Maddy’s to sleep. He just went straight from his gig. By nine he was done. One morning as he was pouring steaming cups of coffee, Napoleon noticed the dark circles under the boy’s eyes. When he asked if he had trouble sleeping, Jonah told him about his drowning dreams. “I keep seeing water, coming over my head.”
“Maybe it’s your name,” Napoleon said.
Napoleon, it turned out, also had dreams of water. “I won’t go near the stuff,” he told the boy. And he believed in them. Not dreams he liked to talk about or even think about. In his dreams he wasn’t in the water, he was on it. He was in a big boat, and around him the sea was roaring and waves rising. As he struggled in his sleep, ropes burned his wrists and irons cut into his ankles. He was hungry deep in his gut and missing what he had to leave behind.
Napoleon recognized it as an ancestor dream and it had happened to someone he didn’t know but who knew him and knew where he was. Someone who wanted to warn him, he told Maddy when she held his trembling body against hers, only for the warmth, never for more. That was the way he was with everything. He had to be free, no matter what. No one – nothing, not even his horn – could hold him down.
Napoleon wasn’t his real name. It was Edgar James, but he’d been Napoleon since he could remember. Even as a boy he’d had a wrinkled brow and looked older than his years. He had small eyes and puffy cheeks like a fish, skin the color of cocoa beans, and stubby fingers with pink crescent nails. Until his first growth spurt, he was a small boy with a stubborn streak. A neighbor dubbed him Napoleon. The nickname suited him and it stuck.
Napoleon was always whistling as he poured coffee on his morning shift, and one day Jonah asked him, “What’s those songs you’re always singing?”
“Oh, it’s just little numbers I make up.”
“You make up songs?” Jonah asked and Napoleon said he did.
“All the time,” Napoleon said.
“You write them down?”
“Never write them down. Don’t know how. “ Napoleon pointed to his head. “I keep them right up here.” It came out that Napoleon played the trumpet. He had a regular gig at the Red Rooster but Napoleon’s playing didn’t earn enough to keep him in his double-breasted box suits, his strait-lace shoes and gold watch bands, the brown and gray fedoras with the black bands and what he called his Roast Beefs – the tuxedos he wore when he played special gigs. To keep up his expensive clothes habit, Napoleon worked days as a busboy and waiter at the Shoestring Diner where he’d met Jonah, then played all night at the Rooster downtown. “Most of the boys I play with don’t even know ten o’clock happens twice in the same day,” Napoleon told Jonah, “but I’ve got these expensive tastes I have to support.”
Jonah said that his family ran a small saloon where people came on the North Side and played ragtime and the blues and Napoleon said if he was welcome, he’d come by sometime. Jonah hesitated for only a moment, trying to recall if a black man had ever walked into Chimbrova’s before. But Jonah could not recall, nor did he care much about such things. “You’d be welcome anytime.” For weeks Napoleon had tried to bring himself to go. Now he felt he had to. He kept thinking about that boy with the dark circles and his fear of water who hadn’t come back to the Shoestring since the Eastland went down. He should have gone sooner, if only to see if Jonah was all right.
It was just past eight on a cool fall evening as he straightened the lapel of his gray silk suit, his rosy pink bow tie. Taking a deep breath, he adjusted his gray fedora and patted the gris gris bags he wore around his neck. The first bag his pale-skinned mother – high yellow they called her – had tied around his neck when he was six years old and left him, wailing on his grandmother’s porch. In it was a mandrake root for protection and the skin of a turtle to attract a lover when he grew older. His mother knew what he’d need in this world. She tied it solidly at his throat, kissed him on the head, and, without a glance back, drove off in a borrowed pick-up truck.
Napoleon had listened to the crunch of her tires on that dirt road as her car spewed gravel and dust. After that, his grandmother said, he always seemed to be listening. He listened to the wind blowing through the chinaberry trees, to the chickens clucking in the barnyard. He listened to the track callers joreeing as Gandy dancers drove in railroad spikes. He listened to his grandmother, singing as she did the housework. Or he stood on the porch, eyes closed, listening for that car to come back down the road.
When he wasn’t listening, he was banging on pots and pans, whistling through blades of grass. He’d take his grandmother’s washboard and thimbles and grind out a tune. He clanged on anything he could find. A neighbor who couldn’t stand the banging anymore showed him how to make a diddy-bow out of broom wire. It was quieter than the washboard. He plucked at this all day, little tunes that grew out of the sadness in his head.
His grandmother decided he needed all the help he could get. When she taught him about the bag his mother had tied around his neck, she added one of her own. This bag contained John the Conqueror. John was a trickster who crossed the ocean with the slaves. He was always playing jokes on the masters. He made cufflinks go astray and ham hocks disappear. He brought rain on days when nobody wanted to work. And sometimes a whip broke in two or a starving shackled man slipped out of his chains. When slavery ended, John thought he’d stick around in case the Africans needed him so he found a hiding place in the roots of the Tormentil plant which grew throughout the South.
From an early age Napoleon knew that there were forces the eye could not see, things beyond his control. Every morning his grandmother swept the house, the steps, the yard, and down the walk – not to keep it clean, but to sweep away whatever spells may have been cast against them in the night. She warned him against eating eggs from strangers because a root worker might serve snake eggs. Baby snakes would hatch in your stomach, slither through your veins and drive you mad.
Just before she died, when she gave him the gris gris bag with John in it, she told him, “You keep him with you; he’ll make you laugh. Everyone needs a trickster in this world.” Though he begged her not to go, he was nine when she left him. No wind shook the leaves of the chinaberry that day. There was no sound of tires and gravel. The cotton fields shimmered like a silver lake.
Napoleon wandered out of Rolling Fork, heading south. That was the way he’d seen his mother go. A few miles down the road they were laying track. Four black men stood on each end of a six-foot railroad tie as the track caller sang. At each beat the men took the nuts out of the old rail, uncoupled it, put in a new one, took the bars and coupled it back together. One rail, one minute, twenty rails, twenty minutes. They moved in perfect rhythm to the track caller’s song. They were done before the train came through.
Napoleon caught the rhythm and clapped along. The foreman saw him, skinny and forlorn by the side of the tracks and made him a water boy. All through the hot, summer months, he raced to the levee where he hauled a bucket back for the thirsty men as they toiled, lining the rails, bracing them. Driving spikes. Four to a tie, twenty-five hundred ties to a mile. It meant raising a maul sixteen hours a day.
At night they went back to the levee camp where the track caller, named Chance, played the fiddle. He played all kinds of songs – about a runaway boy whose dog went with him, about a man who convinced his wife he was blind, but he could see. Napoleon found that he liked to blow. He blew on water jugs as he carried them empty for a refill. As Chance joreed, taunting the men with his calls, telling them to line the bar, now raise it, now swing, Napoleon blew on the jugs in time. He blew on the grass reeds that swayed in the wind, during a break when he rested by the side of the road. One night as Chance fiddled, he handed Napoleon his harmonica. He showed Napoleon how to purse his lips and cup his hands.
One of the men on the line had a bugle, and he let Napoleon blow into that. Napoleon tightened his lips and made a high screech. He widened them and produced a moan. He pressed down hard and deepened the sound. As soon as he heard those blasts, there was no turning back. The owner of the instrument said, “You’ve been playing that all your life, right?”
“Nope,” Napoleon replied, “that was my first time.”
Napoleon tried to give the man back his bugle, but he wouldn’t take it. He believed Napoleon was a devourer of antelope horns and elephant tusks. “You keep it, son,” the man said, covering his face with his hands. “You’ll be the devil’s own bugle boy – of that I feel sure.”
It was the bugle that got him to New Orleans where the music came at him from every direction. It came from the brothels and bars. He raced to find it on the docks where stevedores sang Negro songs. He chased after it in the cemeteries where he slept, but whenever he got close, it eluded him and came from somewhere else. He stood on street corners, dressed in rags. He blew so well that people dropped coins into his cup. When his cup was full, he pawned the bugle and bought a trumpet. He practiced using the valves, and then went back to the street corners where people kept giving him their change. One man gave him a toilet plunger and told him to try it as a mute. Napoleon gorged on what he found in the trash, ate what he was given. If he ever made money he told himself, he’d dress like a king. He’d wear silk shirts and gold rings and eat steak all day long.
He took a job in Storyville, thinking he might find his mother there. He accompanied a piano player behind a Japanese screen so they could not see the creamy-skinned women press their nipples into the faces of white men, the girls kneeling at their feet. Though he knew the whores were white, Napoleon couldn’t help wondering if there weren’t any high yellows, passing for white. Or maybe not even bothering to pass. In every woman’s face, in her voice, he searched for the smooth-skinned woman who’d tied a bag around his neck and left him on a Delta porch.
* * * *
Napoleon had never been to the North Side. He’d never been much above 12th Street before. He stayed close to that straight line of cottages along the railroad tracks that people were starting to call the black belt. He even stayed clear of the Loop. He’d been to that five and dime where he drank Coca Cola from the red bottom cups so that whites wouldn’t have to touch their lips to the same glass. He confined his travels to the Shoestring on the West Side and the clubs he played on the Stroll. Since coming to the city and moving in with Maddy, Napoleon had never crossed the river. He’d had no reason to until now.
As the streetcar clanged, the coloreds got off and white people got on. Soon he was the only black person on the tram. He stared out the window, surprised when he came to the river. It was a dirty, green trickle. Napoleon laughed to himself. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but this river was not like one on whose banks he’d grown up. His big muddy river thought nothing of bursting its levees and drowning the cotton fields and its inhabitants for miles.
The ride across was brief, but once he was on the other side, everything looked bigger, brighter. Whiter. The cars, the buildings, the people. He thought about turning back, but he was enjoying the movement of the tram as he rode, humming along, his horn resting in his lap. Then he got off at Broadway and walked until he stood in front of the sign for Chimbrova’s Saloon and Sweets.
The corner tavern was a long two-story brick building, painted a rusty red. In the front were canisters filled with lemon drops and sassafras balls. Napoleon could see through into the back where the bar was. He looked for the side entrance. There was a family door where wives sneaked into the taverns, but not a black man. He walked into the alleyway where the stables were, but he could not find a service entrance. In the fancy establishments he had to go in the delivery entrance or the kitchen. He never just walked in the front as if he owned the place.
And he was troubled by the tattered black ribbon that hung across the lintel. They had lost someone recently and he was worried for the boy named Jonah who had nightmares of water. He was worried for himself too. For half an hour he stood, watching men coming and going, hoping he’d see a black man. But there were none. He’d come this far, he reasoned, not that it was really that far, though it seemed like as long a journey as he’d ever been on, and he stepped inside.
A dozen or so men leaned across the bar. They wore dark jackets and hats and were drinking mugs of foamy beer with their backs to the door. The regulars had been coming in a steady stream for weeks now. With a somber face, Jonah poured Lev Walenski, the butcher, a double whiskey as he slumped at the bar. Bert Winkler still wore a black armband and Bud Hansen’s bouquet of baby’s breath and roses lay withering across the bar. Mrs. Baum’s dead husband was there as well. Though Mrs. Baum had him declared dead a decade ago so she could collect her annual death benefit of seventy-nine dollars, he still lived nearby. When he came to see his children, he stopped in to sip a few at Chimbrova’s. He too had come to pay his respects.
Balaban and Katz sat at a table in the corner. When they were bedraggled boys, they came to Anna’s candy shop after school where she sold two hot dogs with a soda for a nickel. They never had more than a penny apiece, but Anna couldn’t stand their hungry eyes. She always gave them a hot dog and a soda, adding a gum drop or a root beer ball, and told them to save their pennies which they did. “That’s why you don’t make any money,” Chimbrova had scolded her. Anna didn’t care. Now they were in their twenties, plumper, but still inseparable, scraggily boys, who could pass for brothers. They had saved their pennies – a lot of them. Soon they’d be opening a theater they’d bought on the North Side. Every night since the Eastland they’d come to pay their respects. “Tanta Chimbrova,” they said when they arrived, “is there anything we can do?”
Anna shook her head. “Please remember my children.”
Each night before they left, they put a two-dollar tip on the bar. They were starting to refurbish their theater where they planned to show movies and have vaudeville acts. They were looking to find colored entertainers and their eyes settled on a black man as he hesitated at the saloon door. In his silk suit, horn in his hand, Napoleon stood in the entrance of the smoky-blue dive with the sawdust on the floor, not so different from the Rooster, except that here the clientele was white. Lev Walenski, with his bloody hands and distended belly, leaned over and whispered something to Mr. Scheffield. Mrs. Baum’s dead husband turned as well. Outside of the voices it was quiet at the bar. There was no music at all.
Napoleon’s eyes scanned the room. He was terrified of letting his gaze lock with a white man’s. Long ago his grandmother taught him that they can cast a spell with their blue eyes. He looked sideways, but not straight on. He thought he should get on the streetcar and go back the way he’d come. He was about to turn around and walk away when Jonah spotted him from the bar. “You made it,” Jonah said, waving him in.
“Yes,” Napoleon replied, patting his gris gris bags, “I did.” He breathed a big sigh. “I guess you did too. I haven’t seen you at the Shoestring in a while so I was worried…”
“I’m not working there any more…” Jonah shrugged. After the Eastland Jonah refused to return to Western Electric. He could not bear to think of his brothers who were gone. He and Moss promised Anna they’d run the saloon and make it work. “I couldn’t go back,” Jonah said.
“But you’re all right.”
“Yes,” Jonah said, “I am.” He pointed to the black cloth that covered the mirror. “But my brothers weren’t so lucky.”
“I am sorry for your loss…” Napoleon nodded, dropping his gaze. He did this not only out of respect, but because he saw the impenetrable sadness in the boy’s eyes which he was able to recognize because it mimicked his own. He knew that Jonah would grow into a solitary man, rarely leaving these four walls.
“I slept through. I was so tired I missed the boat.” Jonah paused, shaking his head. “Now I’m tired all the time.”
“Missed the boat…Well, there must be a reason,” Napoleon said.
“What reason could there be for my brothers to drown?” Jonah shook his head, and there was nothing Napoleon could say. “What’ll you have?” Jonah asked.
Napoleon slid his horn at his feet. “I’ll take a whiskey.” He barely spoke in a whisper, then leaned against the bar, nursing his drink, wondering what he was doing in a North Side dive that was in mourning and had probably never seen a black man inside its four walls. He was unsure of where to put his hands, where to look as his eyes scanned the room. They came to rest on the piano.
It was sitting neglected in a corner, an old Black & Vose upright, shiny as ebony. He’d hardly ever seen a piano naked like that with no one at the keys. It was lonely, Napoleon decided, as lonely as the people in this place, and he felt badly for it. Putting his drink down, he strolled over and struck a few chords. It was in perfect tune and the keys were smooth and loose. Most joints don’t keep a piano this nicely. “Does that piano just sit there all night?” he asked Jonah. “Or does somebody come and play it?”
“Mostly it just sits,” Jonah replied. He didn’t want to explain that Vlado Slovik, the piano tuner, kept it tuned in exchange for shots of gin. “Sometimes people pound on it, but not very well.” In truth no one played much more than patriotic war tunes like “Keep the Home Fire Burning” which were sung fervently by tearful drunks, remembering the boys overseas. Or romantic ballads like “Gypsy Love Song” that brought another set of tears.
“Well, that’s a shame,” Napoleon said, fondling the white and shiny keys. He played a few bars and was aware of people shuffling behind him, turning to listen. “It’s a good instrument.”
“Yes,” Jonah said with a pensive nod.
Napoleon could see that someone took the time to take care of that piano, even if nobody played it. He thought about this for a while. He tucked his horn under his arm. He wasn’t going to play tonight in this tired saloon. He needed a rhythm section for that. “Mind if I come back sometime?”
“No,” Jonah shook his head. “I wouldn’t mind at all.”
* * * *
A few weeks later on a warm fall evening Napoleon Hill returned with his horn and a piano player with onyx skin and watery eyes named Earl “The Judge” Winston, who could play the blues all night. “I brought my friend along. Is that all right?”
“That’s fine with me,” Jonah said.
The Judge roughed out a few chords while Napoleon checked his mouthpiece, thrust a bore-brush through his bell. The Judge looked up at him with a nod. “It’s good,” he said, a smile on his face. At the Rooster where the piano was out of tune, the Judge played in a different key than Napoleon in order for them to stay in tune. Here they’d play in the same key.
“This is a little thing I wrote,” Napoleon said. “It’s called ‘Rags ‘n Bones’.” He drummed his valves and noodled with a warm-up. The Judge riffed on a melody, playing the opening run until Napoleon picked up his horn and was blasting away. He held the brass hard against his wide, red lips. He wanted them puffy, just the way they were. He never took any time off from playing because they would go down. He kept them oiled with a salve made from ground eucalyptus and pig fat. He knew horn players whose lips had split during a performance, blood flowing down their shirts. Some never played again.
Halfway through the first chorus, Napoleon was dripping. His shiny suit was mottled with sweat, but he never saw the spots. They dried before he was done. He dabbed his face with a small towel he kept draped across his shoulder. He began with a haunting refrain that grew from his early mornings on the New Orleans streets when he collected old clothes and bottles. Even when his tunes were loose and funky, they were always a little sad. His rags and bones.
Using a tiny pillow as a mute, he let that quiet sound start deep, then grow. He switched to the open horn, then reached for the different objects he’d placed on the piano lid – a drinking glass, a child’s sand pail. The audience laughed when he put a plumber’s plunger to his horn. “Hey,” Napoleon said to the crowd, seeing they were with him, “You should’a seen the look on the guy’s face in the hardware store when I told him I didn’t need the stick.” But they grew still when he produced a deep sound that was almost an echo as if he were blowing at one end of a tunnel.
He puffed up his jowls and found notes no one had ever heard on the North Side before. Or almost anywhere else for that matter. For his low notes he bent down as if he were going to pray and for the high ones he raised his trumpet towards the ceiling as if he could make the walls tumble down. The music seeped up through the floorboards. The sounds of a high-pitched trumpet and a stride piano made its way up the stairs, down a corridor. It moved like a fog, filling a room, taking up all the crevices and corners. It enveloped sleeping children as it drowned out the night sounds that made them restless and afraid. Its melody drifted until it came upon a dark-eyed girl who was sitting up in bed.
Pearl was wide-awake, listening. The music had a rhythm to it that made her think of that boy, the one who was drumming his fingers on the railing just before the Eastland sank. Pearl could still see his hands, moving, and the sound that rose from below coaxed her out of bed. She tiptoed to the landing, pausing there.
A trumpeter had a horn to his mouth. His thick lips were pressed against the mouthpiece as rivulets of sweat poured down his face. He was blasting out a tune until his eyes floated upward and all she could see were the whites. When he brought his trumpet down, he glanced at the girl in her pink nightgown. She froze on the landing. “Well, what have we got here?” he said, a smile breaking across his face. “Looks like a little night owl, don’t she?” Hearing the deep rumble of his laughter, Pearl scurried back up the stairs.
From THE JAZZ PALACE. Used with permission of Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2015 Mary Morris.
For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.