If silence is golden, Octavia would gladly be the poorest pony in all of Equestria, if only she was still allowed music. Though always the stoic, she was always enthralled by masterfully played notes. A skilled violinist could make the faintest tear form with the sheer beauty of a solo. She often visited music halls, especially if they were ones she'd be next to play at, and enjoy the show.
But they only played one kind of music, what the laypony would call classical. Oh, how wrong they were. The halls played Romantic, Baroque, modern Contemporary, and more. The works of Neightoveen, Buck, or even Trotkovsky sounded alike to the masses. But, alas, most thought anything with a violin, piano, cello, and horn counted as "classical", which was outrageously incorrect in and of itself.
But Octavia knew better. There was another genre, something she almost felt guilty for enjoying. It pretty much held all the same instruments, with a few changes, but the music itself was so different, so... fresh and alive. Jazz, although this too was a generalization. Swing, blues, smooth jazz, the very sound delighted her. The moan of the saxophone. The thump of the big bass, playing alongside the accompaniment of the piano and drums. Trumpets played long and slow, going almost to the blues, or quick and snappy, a hoof tapping jam that put an urge to dance in your very soul.
The grey mare honestly couldn't say WHY she'd fallen for the genre. Perhaps it was the taboo that drew her. A pony who can play "Classical" is respectable, well paid, and earned the right to play at high class events, such as the Grand Galloping Gala. No other musician is as likely to play for the Princess and the various other nobles. You certainly aren't going to find a harmonica or electric guitar at the Gala.
Or, perhaps, it was how all the instruments were displayed equally in "Jazz". Octavia was not the type to brag, but she felt proud of her skills in using her Double, or Doghouse, Bass. And yet, in almost every piece, she was merely background noise to help make the piano or brass stand out. Just once, she'd like for her playing to be the talk of the show. "Did you hear the bassist? My, what a marvelous mare to show mastery of the strings to that level."
Octavia sighed as the pegasus chariot she had hired touched down, and she paid out the bits the taxi required. She watched it take off for a moment, a fleeting moment of jealousy for the mobility pegasus wings offer. Had she walked, the musician would have had to trek miles through bog and bayou in the swamps surrounding the birthplace of Jazz itself: Neigh Orleans.
And so, tonight, rather than the usual stuffy, upper class Canterlot music hall, the young gray mare was dressed in a totally-not-trying-to-hide-my-identity trench coat heading into downtown, searching for the music. She passed up all the big showy bars, and avoided all the riverboat shows like the plague. No, she knew, for the true essence of the music, go to where it has meaning. To where it's played to be played, not to be paid. Well, paid very much. Musicians have to eat too, Celestia knows I do. It took some searching, but the stray notes of a band warming up brought her to a smoky den.
The Dragon's Nest was old. Not "established" like the fine theatres or other venues she typically visited. It simply had been here for a very long time, gaining no notability outside of being a quiet place, far from the tourist districts, where a body could get a drink and hear music peacefully, and more importantly, cheaply. It should be noted the word body was used in place of pony. Inside, ponies sat with griffins, Diamond Dogs, and even a young dragon was present, though as the bartender.
Tuning up on stage, the band was a mix of races, with four members. A pegasus, soft blue in fur with a deep purple mane and a tenor sax cutie mark was getting the reed ready for his instrument. A Diamond Dog, Saint Bernard type, was toying with his drumsticks. He'd toss one in the air, then catch it in his jaws to polite clapping and quiet giggles for the pre-show entertainment. At the piano was an Earth pony, a faint yellow coat and equally subdued pink mane, cutie mark obscured by the jacket she wore. And a griffin plucking the doghouse, her brow furrowed as she tuned the stringed behemoth. It pleased Octavia to see a fellow bassist so dedicated to perfecting the sound, having held up her own ensemble for such tuning.
The dragon bartender walked over to her, greeting her with an awkward, toothy grin. He was young by dragon standards, only pushing 80. As such, his body was only about the size of a large bison, and he could still walk freely on his hind legs. He wiped a glass and nodded towards the band. When he spoke, it was the manner of speech you'd find in the swamps further downstream.
"I can see yer a music lover. Most folks don't pay a'tention until after dey start playin'. The band's called Coltrain and da Noise. Coltrain is da blue boy on the sax. Somethin' bout those pegasi lungs let 'im hold a note louder and longer den any uhder horn blower ta grace dese walls. Bonez, tha hairy mutt, been dere drummer for, eheh, a dawg's age. Don't let size fool ya, 'is bark's worse den 'is bite. Mezzo-forte is da other pony. She been ticklin' da ivories since da day she wah born. The griffin's name is Brunhilde, but most call 'er Brew. Dey'll start playin' in abou' fiddeen minutes. Wan' somethin' ta drink? I got some Draco Fire Water in taday."
The accent was thick, but Octavia had visited the city enough to translate it effectively. She shook her head, knowing that "Fire Water" is not a euphemism for dragon whiskey. It literally was liquid fire, and only the very brave or very ignorant drank it. Instead, she put down a few bits and pointed to a sweet cocktail listed on the menu.
It was just about show time, and the pegasus coughed at the microphone. A few voices dropped but chatter continued on. But the pegasus began to speak nonetheless, and the silky tones washed over the listeners. Octavia's ears perked at the musical voice.
"Before we begin, I want to thank our host for having us here once more. And by that, I mean giving us free drinks and letting us keep all the tips."
There were a few chuckles, including the booming baritone of the bartender, and Coltrain nodded to Bonez. The room went silent, and Octavia found herself holding her breath. The dog began to tap on the cymbal, a soft rainlike patter. The piano and bass joined in, the noise invading the audience and tearing away the tensions of the day. Faces relaxed as the troubled minds cleared; the entire crowd was still. When Coltrain finally blew into the sax, everyone fell under the spell.
As one, the listeners released their breath, all gazing at the band. Octavia would have sworn the sax player must have been an Alicorn, but the only horn he had was at his lips. But what magic it wove, the haunting tones flowing freely into the hearts and minds of the awestruck audience. The dragon's comment about Coltrain's lungs turned out to not be hyperbole. Octavia stared entranced as he held the notes long and low, carefully working the keys. He had to stand on his hind legs, using the beating of his wings to hold himself up. But there was more to it, and nothing escaped Octavia's keen musical senses. I see. He's using his wing beat as a metronome for the others as well. Color me impressed with his talent.
As much as she enjoyed it, Octavia tore herself away from the sound of the sax, and let the others wash over her. Bonez was very skilled, helping keep rhythm for the whole group, the patter of the cymbal broken by the occasional crack of the drum like thunder. Mezzo-forte was nearly as good a pianist as Octavia's ensemble's, making excellent accompaniment to Coltrain. And Brew, bless her, every note was pitch perfect, her attention to detail rewarded with each pluck.
The mare was so focused she almost didn't notice her drink arrive, the bartender grinning again at her obvious enjoyment. He remained silent, and she gave a wordless thanks for it. Nothing should ruin the performance. Coltrain gave a final blow and the song stopped. He tucked the sax away in its case and slotted the mouthpiece into a trumpet. He gave it an experimental blow, and seemed satisfied with the sound.
"Alright, now that we have your attention, let's get into the swing of things. Ok guys, three, two, one, let's jam!"
This time the music was less a gentle rain and more the fiery blast of life, stirring that inner part of your soul that knows what a glory it is to be alive and able to listen to such music. Feet of all shapes and sizes tapped with the furious tempo of the swing. Brew's thumped the body of the bass, mimicking the heartbeat within Octavia's chest.
The subdued grey mare felt her face flush as her blood matched the new pace. She looked out to the dance floor, a clearing just in front of the stage. While most were content to simply enjoy the music, a few had ventured there to fully express their revelry in the music. A stallion walked up to Octavia, winked and nodded towards the dancing. She politely declined, which he took in stride and managed to get the very next mare to join him. Truth be told, she'd have loved to dance, but that would have meant taking her focus off Coltrain... Coltrain and "da" Noise, not just Coltrain.
When the song finally came to an end, the dancers all but collapsed. Coltrain addressed the sweating and panting patrons once more.
"We'll be taking a small intermission. Time for the first half of our pay and all."
The dragon chuckled and prepared their drinks without waiting for orders. The band all ordered the same thing at every show, and the bartender had long since memorized the list. A Mint Jolep for Coltrain, the mint kept his throat relaxed, and the bourbon was for everything else. Brew enjoyed a nice Horse's Neck, that is, brandy and ginger ale. She always gave a joking look to any pony who sat closest to her when she drank. Bonez received a pint of straight whiskey, and howled after gulping the lot in one go. Mezzo-forte did with a glass of white wine, and was content to sip away as Coltrain spent the remainder of the intermission walking around with a saddlebag, getting the first round of tips/donations. Octavia put in almost twice as much as anyone else, earning a smile from the pegasus.
"I almost feel bad, taking so much money from such a lovely filly, but, business before beauty. Perhaps after the show I could repay you another way..."
Brew tossed an ice cube at him, forcing him to return to the stage. Octavia blushed nonetheless, and with another count-off, the band went with a samba this time. It was fast paced and lively, and those with fingers snapped in time. Again, dancers flocked to the clearing. For the first time this evening, Octavia allowed herself to look elsewhere in the bar beyond the stage.
The air was hot and humid, thick with smoke. Fans spun lazily, ineffectively cooling anyone, but it was a nice gesture. Almost everyone had a drink, cocktails of any type and make. The dragon had the time and money to buy bottle after bottle of liquor and had the skill and knowledge to make anything. No matter how off the wall, or how hard it was to find the needed ingredients, the dragon mixed them all up gladly; in exchange for proper payment, of course.
Drinking and music aside, there was quite a bit more going on. Critics trying to speak over the music
"The band last week was much better."
"You remember old Cob Caraway's acts? THERE was a stallion who could sing."
Others echoing Octavia's own opinion.
"Shut up and listen or get out, I'm trying to enjoy it!"
There were lovers discussing what a wonderful evening it had been. Groups of friends who were only just beginning their night of song and drink. And every other table seemed to have a card game going. Though some didn't seem like gambling. I'd swear I heard someone get the Old Mare...
Her attention returned to the band when the music stopped once more. The band was already packing their instruments, though Coltrain wasn't quite done. He pulled out a harmonica from yet another case. Three different instruments in one night. I'm surprised he goes through the trouble...
"You know, I always hate ending a show. The joy of those who love our art, the grins we earn through our hard work. The bits lost because we can't milk you for more." Again, laughter. "And all that gives me a mighty big case of the blues. I'll be performing one last song for you tonight, while my friends and band mates see how much it moves you. Hopefully in numbers easily dividable by four, since the five of us are terrible at math."
As the trio moved among the crowd, Coltrain began his solo. It sang out, sorrow etched into melody as purely as the light of Celestia's sun. It drew out all the joy from your body, though not in a bad way. It replaced that sheer mindless happiness with respectful self-introspection. Everyone had serious expressions, most staring into their glasses, some letting a tear drop into whatever they were drinking. Octavia was the only one who openly cried, a quiet sob from the glory of this pony's talent. What a loss to the music world! Content to play in the dark, when he would easily outshine any star Luna put in the sky. Please, do not let this moment ever fade from my memory. With one last note, held for as long as time allowed, the harmonica was taken from his lips, and put away.
The band left immediately, while everybody was still in deep thought. Their job for the evening was done, and they were hoping to get something to eat before the shops closed down anyway. Drying their eyes, they paid their tabs and left for home. Octavia stayed, just staring at the empty stage, knowing she would one day return to hear him... them play. But for today, she could only get up, give a nod to the bartender, and let herself return to the main flow of the city, and be carried into the night.