"Aren't you ready yet?"
An annoyed female voice came from the back of the house. "Chill out, would you? I'm just putting on my lipstick. What's the big rush, anyway?"
"The music starts at eleven. I want to get a good table."
"Okay, okay. I'm coming."
The couple bundled themselves in their car, and headed out.
They would end the day at the hospital.
The Satchmo Club was the opposite of the stereotypic jazz club. It was bright, not dark, and there was no smoke swirling. Food was served—great food—and the music started early. Sunday brunches were SRO.
Paul Randolph Johnston started the club ten years ago, with the goal of bringing younger audiences to classic jazz. He took out a bank loan and bought a rundown old Victorian mansion just north of the Princeton Shopping Center. It was on a nice piece of property, and there was plenty of parking nearby. After getting advice from an old buddy who had become an acoustician, he gutted the downstairs, combining the living room and parlor to create a large front room. Then he created a small stage at the back of the room, put up slanted ceiling tiles to reflect the sound, and purchased solid, rustic antique tables, comfortable chairs and a few couches to be strewn around the main room.
The old kitchen was merged with the dining room, and state-of-the-art restaurant kitchen equipment was installed. For weeks, while the construction was going on, Paul scoured the local restaurant reviews, looking for a chef. Finally, he found the person he was looking for in a local restaurateur whose business had gone bad. Anthony Eversole (whose friends pronounced his first name "Ant-ny") may not have been a great businessman, but he was a phenom in the kitchen, creating unusual and appetizing main courses and desserts that would put Paul's little jazz club at the forefront of regional dining.
Paul's longtime girlfriend, Josette Antonetti, quit her boring, meaningless job as an accountant to manage Satchmo's. She not only kept the books—and did it extremely well—but she also hired the very best kitchen and wait staff, paid them well and kept the atmosphere pleasant.
And then there were the musicians. This was Paul's real forte—finding the best area musicians and giving them a showplace. He haunted New York's best jazz clubs and those in outlying communities to bring talent to his club. If you were any good, you'd think you'd died and gone to heaven if Paul Randolph Johnston came a-calling.
When he started Satchmo's, Paul decided it was time to rethink how jazz was presented. On weekdays, he conducted his now-famous Jazz For Kids series at the club, hosting school groups from all over the area, providing jazz history seminars and music lessons, while feeding the kids some of Anthony's excellent food at the same time.
His musicians played at breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with concerts set up for special occasions. The late-night jam sessions were free and open to anyone who wanted to attend; they sometimes went on all night, as the musicians and the guests swung the night away. On more than one occasion, the early morning crowd would arrive for breakfast to find five or ten bleary-eyed musicians joining whichever group Paul had hired to play from eight to eleven a.m.
The highlight of the week was undoubtedly the jazz brunch on Saturday and Sunday from eleven to two. People who had had no previous interest in jazz showed up once word got out that Anthony Eversole was in the kitchen. Reservations were required, admission cost was high and the place sold out every time.
First-timers were sometimes surprised by the music, which was often raucous and lively. Not a simple background pianist playing soothing soft jazz quietly enough so people could talk over it. No, this was the real deal, real jazz—the kind you listened to because it's so damn good, you couldn't help yourself. The music was infectious, and sometimes people got up and danced. Paul designated an area at the back of the room, near the door, for the dancers to frolic. Swing dancers in period garb usually occupied part of the dance floor.
Johnston's Jazz All-Stars, his brunch-time house band, was made up of the very best regional musicians. Initially, they were none too thrilled with the idea of waking up early enough to play at eleven, but the money was good—really good—the music was great and so was the free food. Soon the hours didn't matter, and everyone who was anyone wanted to be part of Johnston's Jazz All-Stars for Sunday brunch.
The membership of the group varied from week to week, depending on who was available. If someone got a great gig in Manhattan, or Stockholm or Hoboken, a backup would fill in… or they'd just do without that instrument. That's one of the great things about jazz. It's improvisatory, and sometimes improvisatory means improvising which instruments are going to be part of the band at any given time.
There were a few regulars, or semi-regulars, who were known to the customers by their nicknames. "Hot Lips" was a trumpet player who doubled on cornet and trombone, "Reeds" played clarinet and sax, "Skinny Skins" (aka "S-Man" or simply "Skins") was an all-around musician who hit the drums and often filled in on other instruments, "Deep Voice" (aka "DV") plucked the bass and blew the tuba. Sometimes they were joined by "Keys" on piano, when he was available, and "Cutestuff" on vocals, plus several others to round out the house band.
Paul had plucked them out of other clubs, crafting them into a tight, hot jazz ensemble equally at ease with Dixieland and be-bop. This basic group was a congenial bunch who practically lived at the club, often showing up when other bands played, and nearly always sitting in on the jam sessions. Sharing in each other's triumphs and tragedies, they got along well, despite disparate personalities.
But mostly, they made music. Really good music.
And so, every Saturday and Sunday, the music was hot and sweet, the food was magnificent, the acoustics great, and the customers loved the whole atmosphere.
In short, the place was a sensation.
On that frigid Sunday in February, the place was packed by ten-thirty in the morning, with an overflow crowd hoping someone would leave and free up a table.
"I told you I wanted to get here early," griped the man when they were parked at the back of the room. "But no. You had to futz around for half an hour. And now we're stuck at a rotten table."
"I know, I know," said the woman. "It's all my fault. It's always all my fault. Sorry I'm not good enough for you."
She glared at him.
He glared back.
"It would be nice if, for once," she added, unwilling to let it go, "you treated me as if I had some brains. I seem to recall a guy who thought I was pretty special once."
"Well, maybe if you acted as if you had brains, it would be easier to remember you were special."
"Will you two please shut the fuck up?" said a deep voice in front of them.
Their sniping was really getting on his nerves. It wasn't bad enough that he'd wound up in the back of the room—damned stupid car wouldn't start in the cold—but if he was going to have to listen to these two for the next three hours, he couldn't be held accountable for what he might say.
Backstage, in what used to be the sitting room, the band was getting ready. Hot Lips buzzed his lips, Reeds' reeds soaked in bourbon, DV tuned his bass, and Skins had just been informed he'd be sitting in on piano today, because Keys was out with the flu. A newcomer named Johnny something-or-other would take over the drums. Skins just hoped the kid could keep time.
Just as they got ready to move into the main room, Hot Lips saw a wince cross Skins' face.
"Hey, you okay?" he asked. Since taking this gig, Skins had become one of his best friends.
"I guess," came the reply. "Just got a twinge."
"Gotta stop all that exercise," called out Reeds. "It'll kill you."
Skins smiled, but the smile soon turned into another grimace.
"Fuck," he said through clenched teeth. "Don't know what I did."
"Well, no one else's gonna know," Reeds pointed out with obvious logic.
"You okay to go on?" asked DV. "Looks like that mother really hurts."
Skins nodded his head.
"It's nothing. Besides, we don't have a guitar today, so somebody's got to fill out the rhythm section."
Soon Paul was introducing them. One by one, they wandered out onto the stage, adjusting mikes, setting up charts and dropping instrument cases on the floor. Skins settled himself comfortably at the keyboard of the Steinway baby grand as Deep Voice set up behind him, with the new kid Johnny whatever-his-name-was in the middle behind everyone else.
They'd decided today they were going to play around with some early `30s numbers, and really make it swing. Skins loved it. Some Fats Waller stride, maybe some hot `20s stuff with muted trumpet. Nothing like waking up half of suburbia on a Sunday morning.
Halfway through "Black Bottom," their second number, Hot Lips thought he heard something go wrong with the clarinet. Reeds must have split a reed. He paused a moment to listen, and then realized what he was hearing wasn't a clarinet at all.
Skins was screaming.
For a moment, the audience thought it was all part of the act, clapping and laughing as shrieks tore from Skins' mouth. But when he fell off the bench and then right off the front of the stage, curled up in agony, it was apparent to everyone that something was seriously wrong.
The screaming continued for a moment as silence descended on the room. In that frozen instant, Hot Lips saw forks poised in mid-air in front of open mouths.
Running across the stage, he jumped down and dropped to the floor next to his friend.
"Oh, my God, man! What the hell's going on?"
Skins just shook his head, biting his lip as he tried to keep the next scream inside. He didn't succeed.
Hot Lips jumped to his feet, grabbing a mike.
"Any of you guys a doctor? Something's really wrong here. We need a doctor."
A hand raised up at the back of the room.
The woman looked startled.
"You're not really going up there, are you?" asked the woman, incredulously. "You're an oncologist."
"Yes, Bonnie. I'm going up there," said James Wilson as he pushed his chair back and ran toward the front of the room, "I'm a doctor, and this man is in terrible pain."