A Life in Music by Alan Swyer

“What is it with you and married women?” Ed Solomon asked Marcus Coleman the morning after the band they were filling in with played a weekend at a club in Baltimore.

“You don’t know?” replied Marcus.

“Know what?”

“They appreciate it more.”

When Solomon responded with a quizzical look, the older of the two musicians elaborated. “Do their husbands listen to ’em? Make ’em feel appreciated? Do the ladies think it’s peachy when Charlie or George or Sid stumbles in, smelly from work and maybe some booze on the way home, then tries to bounce on their bones? With me, it’s romance, candlelight, making ’em Queen For A Day.”

“But aren’t you worried about getting into trouble?”

“Hell, the damn husbands oughta thank me. I’m clean, respectful, and no threat to their marriage. Know why?”

“Tell me.”

“Because, Sol my boy, the next day I’m gone. And most important? Ain’t nothin’ women love like a secret their husbands know nothin’ about.”

Unlikely was far too mundane a description for the bond between the two musicians. Ed Solomon, whom Marcus chose to refer to as Sol, Young Boy, or occasionally Youngblood, was a twenty-six-year-old white bass player in his mid-twenties, still toiling part-time at a music store while adjusting to life as a working musician. Marcus Coleman, in contrast, was a Black trumpet player who claimed to be in his fifties (though the word was he was arguably several years older) who, according to scuttlebutt, had backed up everyone from Bobby “Blue” Bland to James Brown, the Isley Brothers to Memphis Slim. Plus, it was rumored, he spent a fair amount of time in the jazz world, including stints with Charles Mingus and Charles Lloyd.

Solomon and Coleman first encountered each on a one-nighter with a Salsa band in the Bronx. They crossed paths again when each was summoned as a last minute add-on for a tribute to King Sunny Ade in Brooklyn.

“What’s someone who looks like you doing playing Latin stuff, then this Juju Music?” Coleman teased while packing up after the second gig.

“Doesn’t seem like you’re Cuban.” Solomon retorted. “Or Nigerian.”

Coleman grinned. “You play upright, too? Or just that damn electric thing?”

“I actually prefer acoustic.”

“If I say Rhythm in B-flat, what’s that mean?”

“This a quiz?” wondered Solomon, getting a nod from Coleman. “I Got Rhythm, which in Dizzy’s hands became Salt Peanuts.”

“Who’s your favorite trumpet player – other than me, that is?”

“You’re expecting to hear Miles.” When Coleman nodded, Solomon surprised him. “Clifford Brown.”

“And on sax?” asked Coleman

“Instead of Coltrane or Parker, I’ll take Sonny Rollins or Gene Ammons.”

Coleman eyed Solomon strangely. “How’s a youngblood like you know about that old school stuff?”

“Anything wrong with it?”

“Wrong?” muttered Coleman. “Hell, no. What else do you like?”

“Chinese food. Pistachio ice cream. Baseball.”

“And musically?”

Solomon thought for a moment before answering. “Ray Charles. Monk. Lou Reed. Cyndy Lauper.”

“Who?”

“Not your kind of music.”

Coleman studied Solomon for a moment, as if making up his mind before speaking. “Whatcha got goin’ Monday night?” he then asked.

“You tell me.”

“When I’m in town, I play Mondays at a joint in Harlem – piano, drums, acoustic bass, and me. Except Willis Bailey on bass just got a tour with one of the Marsalis brothers. Up to it? Or more importantly, for it?”

Though flattered, Solomon took a breath. “What do I need to know?”

“Only that it’s a long night. Oh, and you’ll be –” 

When Coleman hesitated, Solomon spoke. “I’ll be what?”

“Integrating.”

After the first set at the Harlem bar on Monday night, Solomon stepped out into the alley behind the club, where Coleman was catching a smoke. “Am I doing okay?” he asked.

“With a crowd like this, no need to ask.”

“Because?”

“If you’re lame – and on top of that, white – they’d run your ass out in less than three minutes. But in the next set –”

“Uh-huh?”

“When it’s your turn to solo on Clifford’s Sandu, or a Bud Powell, or some Lee Morgan thing –”

“Yeah?”

“Give ’em their money’s worth, Young Boy. Make ’em think you got some Mingus, Ron Carter, Milt Hinton, or even Ed Solomon in you.”

Thanks to Coleman vouching for him, Solomon started getting more and more offers in addition to the Monday night gigs. Some gigs focused on Be-Bop, some on Horace Silver-style Hard Bop, and once in a while the groove was more on the order of Roy Hargrove, or even old-fashioned Dixieland.

Whenever possible, Solomon returned the favor, putting Coleman in incongruous settings: backing a white hip-hop duo… performing in an evening of a New Age Music… and even once entertaining at an over-the-top Bar Mitzvah on Long Island. 

The more the two of them worked and traveled together, the stronger their friendship became. Even as Coleman periodically lamented “I’m getting too old for this shit,” he was relentless in showing his new protege the ropes. Seemingly everywhere they went, the old pro was the source for the best places for good cheap eats; where to dig up rare vinyl by the likes of Erskine Hawkins, Ben Webster, Jimmy Scott, and Elmo Hope; how to cadge drinks from fans; and, most importantly, how to find female companionship. To Solomon’s amazement, there seemed to be no city or town, large or small, where Coleman was without a married woman waiting for – or in search of – a brief dalliance.

Grateful for tips of the trade and the lore being passed on to him by Coleman, Solomon tried to reciprocate every way he could. He carried the older man’s suitcase when traveling, fetched coffee and snacks while waiting at train stations or airports, and constantly expressed his gratitude. But there was one thing about which he nonetheless remained perpetually perplexed.

“I still think you’re playing with fire,” Solomon finally stated one morning as the two of them were headed back from a two-night booking in Boston.

“Youngblood, ain’t hurt me thus far,” teased Coleman. “And know what? It sure feels good.”

“But this talk about giving up the road and only playing in and around New York –”

“What about it?”

“Won’t that mean –?”

“Missing all those fine married women?”

“Exactly.”

“I’ll deal with it when the day comes. And besides –”

“Yeah?”

“Who knows? Maybe one of these days I’ll find some sweet young thing and settle down.”

“That day coming soon?” 

“Never can tell,” replied Coleman, giving the impression that soon was not likely to arrive in the days, weeks, or months ahead.

At Coleman’s invitation, Solomon began taking the subway on days off from the apartment he shared with two other musicians in Brooklyn up to his friend’s place in Harlem. Stopping for goodies at one of Coleman’s favorite lunch spots – fried fish, hot links, smothered chicken, or hush puppies and candied yams – he spent afternoon after afternoon listening as his mentor pointed out what to listen for in the work of masters of the stand-up bass. Initially the focus was on Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, or Jimmy Garrison. 

During that period, Solomon expressed some curiosity as he was getting ready to leave late one afternoon. “What about non-music stuff?” he asked.

“What about it?”

“Anything I should be thinking about? Anything I should know?”

Coleman shrugged. “There’s lots you should be thinking about. Plus lots you should know.”

“Hit me with something.”

“You asked for it,” said Coleman, “I know you care about music, but tell me this. Can you live without it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Exactly what I said. Can you live without it?”

“Where’s that coming from?”

“Music’s hard, Youngblood. It’s hard when you’re starting out, and unless you become a star, it never gets easier.”

“Which means?” asked Solomon.

“If you can live without it, find another way of earning a living.”

Solomon took a couple of moments to digest what he heard. “And if I can’t live without it?”

“Then,” said Coleman, “instead of a job, it’s what church folks consider to be a calling. If that’s the case, ain’t no higher calling than a life in music.” 

Next came a period in which it was the bass-playing of Jimmy Blanton and Eddie Gomez that was studied, scrutinized, and discussed, again with Marcus serving as tutor. Toward the end of a session, Ed Solomon studied Coleman for a moment, then asked another question. “Anything career-wise I should be thinking about, or headed towards?”

“When the time comes – and it’s best not to wait too long – form a group with you as leader.”

“Because?”

“You don’t want to wind up 35, 40, 45, or even older and still hustling gigs.”

“But you did it.”

“Different time, different world,” stated Coleman. “There were more clubs, concerts, festivals, and college gigs. It was through work, work, and more work that guys learned their chops, not at some Master’s program. You see anybody like Miles, Mingus, or Monk coming up today? Or Ray Charles, James Brown, or Ike & Tina Turner? The scene I knew is ancient history, Young Boy, and it ain’t coming back. So no matter what kind of music you’re gonna be playing – jazz, funk, what they now call R&B, or whatever – find a sound, form a group, and make your place not just in the world of today, but more importantly in the world of tomorrow. Read me?”

Solomon nodded. 

“Know what?” said Coleman. “While you’re thinking about that stuff, let’s spend some time focusing on Mingus, Ron Carter, and Percy Heath. Sound good?”

Solomon nodded.

A week later, as the two men were wrapping up after another session, Solomon asked yet another question. “What else should I know?”

“Marry rich,” joked Coleman.

“And?”

“Don’t get hooked on drugs.”

“And musically?”

“If you got it in you,” said Coleman, “start writing songs.”

“Because?”

“That’s your shot at what I call mailbox money.”

“You mean royalties,” replied Solomon.

“Can’t put nothing past you. You get yourself a hit – or something that becomes somewhat of a standard – it don’t matter if it’s from your recording or from cover versions. Remember, there’s a difference between wanting to work and needing to work. Read me?”

“Yeah.”

“There are guys who survived thanks to one or two songs that brought in money even when they couldn’t find a gig to save their lives. Oh, and one more thing. Ready?”

“You bet.”

“Whatever you do, never sell publishing,” stated Coleman. “Imagine if Errol Garner had been fool enough to sell the rights to Misty. He would have been kicking himself for the rest of his damn life. Selling’s a chump move, so I mean never.”

Instead of age, weariness, or a jealous husband, it was a frigid New York winter that put a stop to Coleman’s sexual roadshow. Walking home after a Monday night gig, he slipped on an icy sidewalk, shattering his left ankle.

Though after a couple of months Coleman was able to resume playing locally, albeit while seated, the combination of pain and difficulty walking restricted him to short dates that were geographically desirable.

Showing up at his friend’s place more than ever, often with bags of groceries in addition to lunch for the two of them, Ed Solomon occasionally would get in a dig. “There must be a lot of unhappiness out in the world,” he announced one Tuesday.

“Because?” wondered Coleman.

“There’s nobody looking after all those married women.”

Then came a Friday when, after placing a bag of Jamaican food on Coleman’s kitchen table, Solomon asked, “Did you hear about the petition on the internet?”

“What petition?”

“From all the married ladies wondering where’s their Dr. Feelgood.”

“Somebody loves busting my chops,” grumbled Coleman.

“Blame me?” replied Solomon.

“Gimme some of that jerk chicken,” Coleman grumbled.

Early in the Spring, Solomon was surprised by a phone call from his mento. “What do you know about Sylvia’s?” Coleman asked.

“It’s Harlem’s legendary soul food place.”

“What else should you know?”

“You tell me.”

“It’s where you’re meeting me tonight for dinner.”

“That an invitation?” teased Solomon.

“No, a summons,” teased Coleman in return.

Upon reaching Malcolm X Boulevard that evening, Ed Solomon approached Sylvia’s, then stepped inside. Scanning the restaurant, he quickly spotted his friend, who was seated with an attractive light-skinned young woman with braided hair, hoop earrings, and a rose tattoo on her left forearm.

“Nice to be integrating again?” Marcus Coleman joked as Solomon neared the table. Still favoring his bad leg, Coleman stood to give Solomon a hug, then turned toward his companion. “La Quita, say hello to my main man Sol.”

“A pleasure to meet you at last,” said La Quita, offering her hand.

After the two of them shook, the late arrival took a seat, then watched Coleman give La Quita a squeeze. “So how long have you two known each other?” Solomon asked.

“Not long enough,” replied Coleman.

“But long enough to fall in love,” added La Quita.

Over a shared meal of catfish fingers, smothered chicken, bbq short ribs, collards, and candied yams, followed by bread pudding with bourbon sauce, plus banana pudding, Solomon watched something he never thought he’d see: Marcus Coleman cuddling, and even smooching, with. a woman young enough to be his daughter. Or maybe even his granddaughter.

Though never made to feel unwelcome, Ed Solomon’s trips to his friend’s apartment seemed less necessary, and thus became far less frequent, once La Quita moved in.

His need for companionship diminished further when a flirtation with a brunette named Amanda, an aspiring novelist who worked at a bookstore where Solomon often browsed, evolved into an actual relationship.

Every so often the two new sets of lovebirds got together for exotic meals in Harlem: once for Ethiopian food, another time for Senegalese, then an evening at a place serving fare from the Ivory Coast.

But it was only when an invitation came for a brunch prepared by La Quita that Solomon and Amanda sensed that Coleman’s infatuation with La Quita had reached another level. 

“So you up to it?” Marcus asked his friend Ed midway through the meal.

“Up to what?”

“Being my best man.”

Stunned, Solomon nearly spewed food. “Y-you’re getting married?”

Coleman smiled. “Guilty as charged.”

“And you want me?”

“Look at it this way,” said Coleman. “Miles is dead, and so’s Monk, Mingus, Clifford Brown, and Coltrane, which means they’re unavailable. But if you’re not up to it, or for it –” 

“Says who?”

“Then I’m counting on you,” stated Coleman.

On the subway headed back to Brooklyn, Amanda sat silent for several stops before finally speaking. “Okay if I ask a question?” she asked Solomon.

“You mean will it work?” her boyfriend replied. “I can only hope.”

“Me, too,” said Amanda.

Solomon and Amanda were among the small group to attend Coleman and La Quita’s civil ceremony at City Hall, then the reception at a tiny place called Belle Harlem.

In the following weeks, between a spurt of gigs, time spent searching for an apartment together with Amanda, then the rigors of moving in and furnishing their new place, Solomon’s interactions with Marcus Coleman were almost nonexistent.

That changed abruptly when a call came in one Thursday morning. “Remember me, Youngblood?” Marcus teased.

“Kind of,” Solomon replied playfully.

“How about meeting an old man for lunch today?”

“La Quita won’t mind?”

“C’mon, never heard the joke?”

“What joke?”

“I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch!”

Solomon was seated at in the backyard of LoLo’s Seafood Shack on Harlem when Coleman hobbled over to join him.

“Still having trouble with the ankle?” Solomon asked.

“Ain’t the only thing I’m having trouble with,” Coleman replied.

“Want to talk?”

“Let’s order first,” said Coleman. “Crawfish suit you? Plus maybe some plaintains with cheese?”

“I thought La Quita has you eating mainly vegetarian.”

“You see her here?” 

“No.”

“Me, neither. So if you don’t squeal, neither will I,” stated Coleman, who flagged a waitress.

Small talk predominated until their food arrived, then both men dove in. But after wolfing some crawfish and plaintains, Coleman shrugged. “Promise you won’t laugh?” he asked.

“Promise.”

“And no talk about karma, payback, or I-told-you-so?”

Solomon gulped. “She’s cheating on you?”

Coleman nodded unhappily. “I’m not sure, but –”

Solomon took a deep breath. “How’ve you been behaving?” he asked.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Remember when I first asked why married women were attracted to you?”

“Kind of.”

“Recall what you told me?”

“I can’t recall what I had for breakfast.”

“Do their husbands listen to ’em? Make ’em feel appreciated? Do they think it’s peachy when the old man comes home, smelly from work and maybe some booze on the way home, then tries to bounce on their bones?”

Coleman groaned.

“Then there’s what you told me you offered,” Solomon continued.

“Which was?”

“Romance, candlelight, and making ’em feel like Queen For A Day.”

Coleman sighed. “Think it’ll work?”

“What do I know?”

“As I recall, you know about Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, and Gene Ammons.”

“That must be why I’m rich.”

“You and me both,” said Coleman. “You and me both.”

On the subway back to Brooklyn, Ed Solomon couldn’t help but wonder what the future held not just for his friend and mentor, but also for himself.

Though he felt for Marcus Coleman, whose life was already complicated by age and his ankle injury even before the arrival of La Quita, Solomon’s feelings were balanced, at least as he saw it, by his friend’s lifetime of experiences.

Solomon pondered what it would have been like to be around when music seemed to occupy a more important place not just in the culture, but also in the world. And what it must have been like for Coleman to see – and in some cases play with – the likes of Miles, Monk, and Mingus, as well as Ray Charles, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Solomon Burke.

While Solomon could only hope that Marcus would not be hurt too badly if his late-in-life marriage crashed and burned, he would nonetheless always be grateful for the advice, the wisdom, and above all the friendship provided by his mentor.

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.

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