The Sax - James Michael Starr

The Sax


MY EYES ARE RIVETED. I can’t look away and feel a gag coming on. My stomach begins its gymnastics routine again for the second time this week, and I think I’m going to puke, in front of everybody, standing here in line.

I’m watching Virgil Tipton empty his horn’s spit valve into an empty metal wastebasket beside his chair. The hollow tapping echoes through the classroom, and the brown steel resounds with a disgusting splash and trickle. Somebody behind me must see it, too. I hear them moan in revulsion.

But I fight back the nausea. I refuse to be deterred. I turn away and focus on my music teacher, Mr. Gleason, sitting behind his desk.

“Next,” he says, following one finger down his list. “Jamie Michaels.”

“I want to play the trumpet,” I say.

“Smile, please,” he says, looking up from his notebook.

I smile and repeat my selection.

“I uant to pway za chumpet.”

“No, you don’t have to talk, Jamie,” he says. “I just want to look at your teeth.”

So he does.

“Bit of an overbite. You’re going to have a hard time with the trumpet.”


“Your embouchure isn’t right.”

“My arm butcher?”

“No, your em–bou–chure. The way you hold your lips and meet the mouthpiece. Your overbite throws things off a bit. I’m not saying it’s impossible for you to play the trumpet. It’s just that it’d take a lot of work to overcome it, and I know you too well to think you’ll do the work. I’m going to put you on tenor sax.”

I’ve never been good at standing my ground, to other kids or adults. But I’m not going to end up playing the stupid saxophone. That’s only one step away from the trombone. And then comes the tuba. No thank you.

“But I like the trumpet better. I like the way it sounds. How do you know I won’t do the work?” I ask him.

“I just know you. I know your sister Lee. I know a little bit about your whole family. You figure these things out. It’s a small town, you know.”

“What’d she say?”

“She didn’t say anything, Jamie. I’m just telling you that as a teacher you eventually see pretty much everybody in the whole town go walking by. You watch the kids go through school, you hear about their parents around town, and you put two and two together. You figure out a lot that way. You’d be surprised how much I know about you little heathens coming through here. Before we even meet face to face. And I’ve been watching you.”

“So all of that tells you I can’t handle the trumpet.”

“Not can’t. Won’t.”

“You think I’m lazy?”

“No, I’ve just seen a pattern with you, Jamie. You’re always looking to find a way around anything hard. You strike me as the kind of kid who doesn’t want to confront obstacles. Now, don’t get me wrong, in some situations, avoiding obstacles can be smart strategy. Like if you’re laying highway over the river there in West Virginia for instance. But you’re not laying highway over the river in West Virginia, are you. You’re trying to learn to play a musical instrument. So there are going to be challenges, and I just want you to confront them in the right way. Not by looking for some easy way out, so you don’t have to suffer any hardship.”

“Well what about Dizzy Gillespie? Does he do things the right way? You know, with those cheeks? And what about that bent horn of his?”

“I wouldn’t advise picking on Gillespie if I were you.”

“Okay, so what about Chet Baker? He had his teeth knocked out, right?”

“Oh, I get it now.”

He smiles and sits back in his chair.

“It’s your mom, isn’t it?” he grins at me.

I feel my face suddenly get hot.

“What do you mean?” I ask. I almost go right into that line I always hear on the courtroom dramas on tv, like Perry Mason and The Defenders, where the lawyer is pressing somebody on the witness stand for the truth, and the person blurts out I don’t know what you’re talking about. But I stop myself. I don’t want to look as guilty as they always do.

“Your mom’s the singer, right?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“Nobody your age is going to know about Chet Baker’s dentures unless there are musicians in the family. Yeah. I’ve heard your mom sing. Not bad.”

Good. He’s not on to me yet. But I wait and watch his face. I want to see if all this about my good-looking mom is going to score me some points on the whole trumpet issue. Either way, though, I’ve got something on him now. Since my mom only sings in nightclubs, now I know my teacher is actually a denizen of the night. I wonder if the principal knows he’s a denizen of the night. Maybe even a heroin addict. Still, the worst thing I could do is open my mouth and blow it. So I’ll play things cool.

“So tell me this, Mr. Michaels,” he continues. “Maybe it serves your interests to find the easy way through life and never have to grow up. But I doubt your mom and dad want you to stay a kid forever. How do you think they’d feel about this personal philosophy of yours?”

“They like it fine.”

“Yeah, right. You think they want their son to go through life looking for the easy way out of every difficulty that comes up?”

“I don’t care.”

It’s my go-to answer. I don’t care actually means I don’t know. And I don’t have to. I’m only fifteen.

“But Chet Baker,” he goes on. “He’s not exactly one I’d pick as my role model if I were you. Granted, I can tell you’re not the type to follow Chet Baker all the way down the slippery slope to self-destruction. But I think, starting out anyhow, you’re going to need somebody who has a little more going on in the work ethic department.”

He looks back down at his list of names and makes a note.

“Not to mention the not-shooting-crap-into-your-arm department,” he mutters.

You’re one to talk, you heroin addict.

He looks back up at me and taps his pencil on the desk.

“Starting on sax isn’t the end of the world, Jamie. You can always switch later. But a student’s first instrument–especially if that student is you–that better be one they can handle while they’re learning, and not get discouraged. Tenor saxophone will do nicely. Even you won’t find it too challenging.”

I can’t hide that I’m crestfallen. But I’m not giving up yet.

“I don’t know. All those keys,” I mutter.

“C’mon, Michaels,” somebody in line groans. “We don’t have all day.”

Mr. Gleason holds his hand up in their direction, like a traffic cop. True, I am taking more than my allotted time, but he’s enjoying this too much.

“So you’re thinking that three keys are going to make it a lot easier, huh? You think the trumpet is easier than the sax.”

“Sure I do.”

“Okay, so you know our little water glass orchestra last month?”


“We played ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on all those water glasses, right?”


“Okay, so imagine this. I’m going to take all those glasses away from you except for three. Now play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ for me. On three glasses of water.”

What is this guy trying to say?

“I don’t care,” I tell him.

He lets out a deep sigh.

“Look, Jamie. I know Chet Baker’s cool. And Dizzy is–well–I don’t know what Dizzy Gillespie represents for you. But I’ve got to get every one of you in this class through at least one year. And each of you on one instrument. Without a lot of switching horses in mid-stream. And for you, that trusty steed is going to be a nice tenor saxophone. Even if I have to tie you to the saddle and slap it on it’s big saxophone butt to get you going.”

Now I let out a big sigh, too.

“So why the trumpet?” he asks.


“Why are you so dead set on playing the trumpet? I know you think the sax is going to be more difficult. But it couldn’t be worth fighting me this hard over it. There must be another reason. What’s the reason?”

“I want my mom to be happy.”

“She likes the trumpet?”

“Yeah,” I say, looking down, embarrassed to have to admit it matters so much what my mom wants.

“Picking an instrument on the basis of what someone else wants isn’t always the best approach, Jamie. That can just dry up and blow away, and then what are you left with?”

“I don’t care.”

He sits and stares at me for a moment.

“So let me ask you something,” he goes on. “What even makes you want to play anything? Any instrument at all?”

I hadn’t even thought of it. But I don’t have to dig too deep to realize I know why. Only I’m ashamed to say it.

The real answer is going to be way too embarrassing. But whatever I say, it can’t be that I don’t care, or he’ll transfer me out and I won’t be playing anything. Not even the tuba. I swallow hard.

“Hearing my mom, I suppose,” I mutter, hoping the others can’t hear me.

“Listening to her sing around the house, you mean?”

“No. Her trio. When the guys come to our house and practice with her.”

“So what’s that like? What instruments are they playing?”

“Upright bass. Drums. Electric guitar, usually.”

“But you didn’t ask for any of those.”

He’s closing in. I don’t know if I’m going to get out of this.

“It’s not the instruments exactly,” I say, looking around.

He waits a moment.

“Yeah? Then what is it?”

“It’s the feeling,” I say and I feel my face is getting red.

“What’s the matter? Are you okay?”


“Well, what feeling are you talking about? Are you talking about what the songs make you feel? I’m sorry, am I embarrassing you now?”

God this is awful. Am I embarrassing you, little girl?

“No, it’s–”

First it was hard to imagine talking about it. Now that I know I have to, I realize that I don’t really know how to say it. I take a deep breath and picture the scene that’s taken place so many nights down in our basement. The guys warming up before my mom comes downstairs. Chuck pulsing his upright bass, both of them towering so high above me they look like they’ll bump the wooden floor joists overhead. The little whisps and bangs of Reuben’s drums. The insistent cry of Eddie’s electric guitar. And then, when my mom finally joins them, the voice, exactly like it used to sound to me when I sat in her lap, my head against her chest.

“I sit on the floor in front of them while they practice,” I say. “In the basement.”

“Yeah?” he answers. I can tell he wants to hear it, and that might make it safe to finally spill my guts. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll understand, and we can get on with the trumpet.

“I mean, I sit right there. Like three feet away. With the amps and the speakers and everything, it’s almost too loud to actually hear,” I go on. “I don’t mean it’s bad or anything. It’s great, actually. They sound great. I’m just saying that hearing it isn’t what–it isn’t really what I like the most about it.”

“Go on.”

Okay, now I know I’m going to sound stupid for sure. I put my hands on the edge of his desk and lean over it, lean in close so I can say it quietly.

“I feel it push against me. I feel it inside me. I don’t just mean how it’s vibrating everything. It’s like the music is a wall that moves off of them and onto me. It pushes against me. It almost pushes me over, but it doesn’t. It just goes inside of me. I don’t know.”

I put my head down, feeling really dumb about what he’s forced me to tell him. But he’s silent, and for a moment it occurs to me that maybe he understands what I’m trying to say. Slowly I look up to see if I can tell what’s going through his mind. He’s just smiling gently at me.

“You’re an artist, too, aren’t you?” he asks.

“I guess so. I’m taking art.”

“What are you guys doing over their in art? Painting? Ceramics?”

“Painting. Yeah. Drawing.”

“I mean, music is an art form, in itself. So, visual art or musical art, it’s all the same to me. I’m not making a distinction.”

“Okay.” I don’t understand, but I think I should go along with it. Things are looking up for Plan A.

“It runs in the family sometimes. So it makes sense, with your mom being a singer.”

“My grandpa, too.”


“Yeah, I mean he was a musician and an artist. Sort of.”

“So,” he goes on. “I’ll grant you Chet and Dizzy for the moment, cool jazz and bent horns and puffy cheeks and all that.”


“I think it’s safe to say you’re an artist, Jamie. I like that. It’s important.”


“You said you like the sound of the trumpet? And maybe also the feeling inside?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Home stretch.

“Well, I’m thinking about what you said. About feeling it, as opposed to just hearing it.”
Could I have finally won him over?


“Yeah. I’m with you on that, Jamie. It’s good to like the sound, but it’s even more important, what you said about feeling the music.”

He’s sitting back, smiling at me, but a gentle smile, as if he’s impressed and proud of me for making my case so well.

“The whole overbite thing and all that stuff about embouchure I mentioned before? Okay, that’s not all that big a deal. Push comes to shove? That can be overcome. But the feeling thing? For you to be aware of that at this age? That’s big. And I know that once you start playing, you’re really, really going to feel the sax. You’re going to feel the sax in your gut. It’s going to be great. You’ll see.”



Waldemar Kurpiński & Tress Jazz band in Tygmont Club, Warsaw, Poland






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