Jazz Wife
Xu Xi

You marry the music not the man.

Here’s that intro no one sings. The old familiars stick to form — AABA, AABA, AABA, AABA. Here’s the one to the B that goes ba-doinnnng, all wrong.

She walks into that bar, that club, that jazz space and listens to the boys in the band. Comes to visit a bartender, is all. 1978. Jazz is dying in America faster than a doornail that tings!


Trumpet arrives first. Bandleader. Having scoped her out from onstage, he plants himself on her left. “So, you like jazz?”

“Doesn’t everyone?” she replies.

“You like musicians?” He’s a stand up comic in his spare time.

Now, she swings round and scopes him out. Not her type, although if you ask, she’ll say she has no type. Not at twenty two, she doesn’t. Sips her scotch and soda. “Don’t know.”

In the empty room, an elderly couple asks loudly, above their hearing, for “String of Pearls.” Pianist appears, singing, Glenn’s dead, forever. He’s Black and White, like she’s Black and Yellow. Oreo and banana crumble.

Pianist tells the trumpet. “I’m blowing this gig, man. Screw the money.”

“Hey pal. You promised.”

“Didn’t promise nothin’.” His volume rises, pounding the lower register. She slides off the barstool. Inconsiderate bastards. Least they could do is take their anger elsewhere.

Time she left anyway.

The pianist storms out behind her. Even mad, he’s tall, skinny and looking good. His car, blocking hers, doesn’t start, here in the middle of — fucking nowhere, he shouts — into the still of the night.


You don’t sing in the shower, or anywhere, unless you have perfect pitch.

At her place around an ancient upright, she sings. Someday, when I’m awfully low.

“You’re flat,” he says.

“So how do I hear better?”

“You listen. Maybe tape yourself.”

She plays the opening to “Misty,” the only standard she knows.

He interrupts. “Your rhythm’s off.”

“Rubato,” she replies.

“Wise guy.”

“I ain’t a guy,” and stops playing to prove it.

But when he plays she falls in love with the miracle of his touch, the sprawl of his octaves, the grace of his ballads and the speed of his bebop. The man can play. He’s still a boy though, like she’s still a girl, when he finally stops playing to kiss her.


They live together in Cincinnati.

Time is a half note, a quarter note, an eighth, a sixteenth.

“Demisemiquaver?” She asks, recalling foreign music theory. “Crochets and semibreves?”

He spits back jazz. “Modes,” he says. “Dorian, lydian. Modal like Monk, or crazy like Powell and Tristano.”

“Paganini was a wild man, like Dad.” The story of her life is the accident of conception, in Hong Kong, between a Black American banjo player and a Chinese stripper in the bars of Wanchai. She, an immigrant daughter in her father’s home town, searches for roots, writes about Paganini to get, belatedly, a bachelor’s degree in something.

“I’ll teach you about music,” he says. “But first you have to marry me.”

“I’m not a musician,” she replies.

“You could be if you tried.”

But she’s not sure, has never been sure, whether or not to believe him. To-may-to, to-ma-to. Let’s call the whole thing off.


You learn to feed the boys in the band.

Running out the door of their marriage in Cincinnati, he shouts up the stairs. “We’re rehearsing at eight.”

Their home in Clifton is old and rambling. Ivy clings. Hours spent scrubbing and vacuuming because he cannot abide the tiniest speck. Today, though, she doesn’t clean. When the guys rehearse, the aftermath is like a bar the morning after. Bass player smokes, drummer inhales. The front line rotates, depending on availability — trumpet, trombone, tenor, alto, flute — and because tonight, he’s really desperate, the oboe. Too many bottles of beer. Empties line the wall of his studio.

They’re guys now. Boys belonged to a quainter era.

What she does instead is season the wok, to prepare for their midnight feast. Don’t ask, just cook. Collard greens for the Black players, nothing too weird for the Whites. Yellow doesn’t play, not in Cincinnati. When they smell it they break. This way he eats, keeps up strength for the next gig and the next, if and when one comes along.

Afterwards, the complaints. Trumpet too loud, bass doesn’t swing, and there are way too many reasons an oboe does not belong in jazz. The oboist, a blond from the college orchestra, needs rides all the time — which he gives — because her car keeps breaking down. The one girl in the band. Why doesn’t she change her axe, he groans.

But to change your axe is to change your life.

“Are oboes like trumpets?” she asks.

He snaps. “How would I know?”

Why is he angry? She only meant to make him laugh with that joke among the guys. About the trumpet player at the club, that gal with the mouth. A jazz wife in the audience doesn’t count, except to listen to the path of his solos.

They don’t have sex after rehearsals.

In time, the oboe moves on and he makes love to her again.


It’s the gigs you miss most. The real jazz gigs.

Sometimes, a cat blows in from New York. If he’s lucky, it’s not a piano man. Then he’s in demand. Everyone needs rhythm.

Guys have become men.

A first call jazz man. Blows his regular lounge gigs for these. Anything for a chance to play the real thing.

She is thirty. “I’m getting up there,” she says. “Fertility’s dying.”

“Later,” he murmurs his refrain. Sometimes, he forgets he has this wife, the girl to whom he once played “My Romance.”

If it isn’t music, it’s later.

Yet every time he pounds a fist she flinches, afraid only for his hands, those precious, life-making hands.

But at the club that night, the real gig night, jazz wives congregate. Tonight, they’re out catting. Silk stockings for New York, and even Chicago, but not L.A.

They know everyone’s song.

On the bandstand, he’s in a suit, out of respect, regardless. Tonight, New York is white and young in jeans, barely out of boyhood. A genius on tenor.

She is proud. The music is all.

Not a cough in the house, the half empty house.


You get and keep steady work.

“So what’re you doing this weekend?” Her bachelor colleague has asked every Friday afternoon for over six months.

“Oh you know,” she smiles. “Same old same old. He’s working.”

“Don’t you go to all his gigs?”

“Not anymore.”

Guys hover. Black and yellow is exotic in Ohio. This one has thin lips and sexy gray eyes. Wait, she thinks, are gray eyes sexy? He’s nice though, asks about her, not him, her nearly famous husband, at least in Cincinnati.

Her colleague says. “Don’t you get jealous of all those singers?” By now, her husband’s a first call accompanist in fancy lounges, as far north as Chicago, where he’s playing this week.

“He’s not like that,” she replies. “He comes home.” The oboe, she has surmised, was an aberration. In his book, the only singers are Billie and Betty.

“You’re in love,” he says, as he does every time, the standard bridge to eyes that invite, anytime you’re tired of being a good wife.


Music is the wife.

AABA, AABA, AABA, AA ba-doinnnng.


Until she becomes famous for a day.

One Saturday evening, she rescues a child. He breaks away from pregnant Mom and runs headlong into traffic. Blind instinct sends her after the boy, pulling him to safety. The driver brakes hard. Cars collide. A total mess.

All she can remember, as she tells the TV cameras, is the boy’s face looking up at her. Trusting, unafraid. Confident in his innocence, a belief in his right to life.

The Cincinnati Enquirer sends their newest hire. He waits till after the cameras depart, annoyed. It’s his thirtieth birthday and drinks are on his friends.

In a nearby bar, they talk for over an hour. He catches himself asking more and more questions, long after the story, just to keep the conversation going. He eyes her legs, reminds himself, this is work, she is married, I am . . . a man. Afterwards, she thanks him for the drink, pausing to notice gray eyes and a mouth like her colleague’s.

The headline reads: JAZZ WIFE SAVES CHILD.


Music pauses.


In time, the reporter moves on. Larger city, bigger paper. To write about music. She’s been a good teacher, in and out of bed, elevating him beyond the news.

Jazz wife gives life. Her husband is none the sadder.


Time after time. So lucky to be loving you.

The passing years unfold, childless.


The night he plays “Nature Boy,” she goes, uninvited, unexpected.

From onstage, he sees her arrive. Doesn’t smile, doesn’t break into “Our Romance” the way he used to, years ago, whenever she came to a gig among friends.

His solo begins.

The best performance of his life. It’s in his face. His eyes gaze past all to music heaven. The boys in the band play hard, for him, with him, in him, caught up in the frenzy, in this, his moment of genius. In the empty house, she hears it too, feels his solitary flight.

Then, his face becomes one with that child. Trusting. Unafraid. Certain of his right to be saved, to survive. In her solitude, she knows. If it hadn’t been her it would have been somebody else.

She leaves, at last, in the middle of his solo.

After he’s gone, you live for the music.


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