In 1971, there was a local character in my neighborhood named, Mr. Bidwell, who walked to and from the little grocery on the corner at Airport Road. He never bought much; milk, coffee, bread, sugar. Maybe it was all he could afford. Or, maybe it was all he could carry.
He always dressed the same: wrinkled charcoal gray suit, white shirt, burgundy tie; a hat and shoes shined to perfection. He always seemed to be talking to himself.
I would walk by his overgrown house on Kees Street, on my way home from school and he would be on the porch in a rickety old cane chair, staring blankly off into space, jabbering away like a parrot. He would call to me.
“H’lo, son.” He would say with a small wave of his veined hand.
He greeted everyone the same. It was, “‘H’lo, son’ or ‘daughter,’” to the youngsters, or “‘H’lo, sir’ or ‘ma’am,’” to the adults. All received a similar salutation. Everyone ignored him. And no one knew him.
I was walking home one frost worn night after swim team practice and I passed his dark and lonely house. There was a vague light coming through the ragged shrubs at the front window and I heard music. It was soft and sweet. It was sad and mournful… a deep throbbing bass; a piano, a muted trumpet; it was beautiful. I stood and listened to the somber notes as they weighed into the brittle night air. I could see his shadow on the shaded glass, moving back and forth. He had something to his mouth, I couldn’t tell what.
I edged closer through the crunching gravel to his scrubby lawn and strained to hear, to see.
Suddenly, I was bathed in light. Mr. Bidwell stood in the open doorway of his house, glaring into the darkness.
“Who do there?” He snapped.
I was startled.
“Uhm… it’s me, Mr. Bidwell.” I stammered.
He seemed relieved and irritated all the same.
“Oh… h’lo, son.” He said. “Whatcha doing out? Ain’t you cold?”
I clasped my hands together and blew into them.
“Yes, sir,” I started, “I mean, I heard music.”
He had a trumpet in his right hand.
“Yes, you did.” He affirmed. “Did you like it?” His eyes narrowed.
“Yes.” I said.
“Would you like to hear some more?” He asked.
“I know, everyone thinks I’m crazy…” He warily offered.
I moved back a step.
“No, sir.” I lied.
“Well, I ain’t!” He barked. “I’m just old, is all!”
We both stood in the frigid night air, each regarding the other.
“Well, come on, if you’re coming.” He turned back toward his doorway. “You’re letting the cold in.”
As with every wayward child in every bedtime story, I was too inquisitive to resist.
His living room was hot and shallow; endlessly cluttered with bric-a-brac and curios, evidence of an unimportant life. There were shelves of books and sheet music scattered everywhere and though all seemed to be in its proper place, the sheer volume of contents was in danger of bursting the walls and overflowing into the street. His home was thoroughly dusty but not dirty. It was chaotic and disorderly but not foul. It was a dank museum to the recent past; to a life he lived once upon a time but only visited late at night when he thought no one might hear or see.
In the corner by his overstuffed chair, on a stand under a lamp was an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and on the floor next to that, an open trumpet case.
Mr. Bidwell moved past me, carefully laid his trumpet away and sat down with a huff. Dust billowed up from the old wingback and swirled about in the stifling heat.
My eyes darted back and forth, unable to take in all they saw.
Mr. Bidwell reached into his back pocket and pulled out a pint bottle of “Old Crow” bourbon. He twisted the cap off the neck, put it to his mouth and drained a portion. He pursed his lips thoughtfully as he exhaled.
“You nervous, son?” He asked softly.
“No, sir.” I lied.
He pointed to a chair by the window.
“Then, the polite thing to do, for a young man who is not nervous in an old man’s home, would be to sit down.” He patiently explained.
I tried not to stare at him. I tried not to stare at the trumpet, shining like a jewel in the soft light.
“Was that you playing?” I asked as I sat.
He sighed long and hard. He turned toward the light, so that it fell into the wrinkles on his face. A small tear ran the crevices of his weathered cheek.
“Yes.” Was all he said.
We sat in the dim silence for what seemed hours before he finally spoke.
“Jazz.” He finally answered.
I hadn’t asked, but I wanted to know.
“Jazz.” I solemnly repeated.
“You know, Jazz?” He asked suspiciously.
I righted myself, sat up in the chair.
“No. Not really.”
He took another generous swig from his bottle.
“Ah! You kids today only know rock and roll.” He spat out bitterly.
He reached over and turned the tape player on. A soft bass fiddle bounced a single note off the walls and then a trumpet began to moan. Mr. Bidwell smiled a far away smile, more a sad remembrance than a happy one.
“Sweet note.” He affirmed. “That’s what he called me, ‘Sweet Note’ Ramsey.”
“Who?” I asked.
Mr. Bidwell sat up straight and pointed to the tape machine.
“Him!” He said indignantly. “Miles Davis… don’t you know anything, son?”
He snatched his trumpet up by the hackles, thrust it to his lips and blew a single frayed note that keened through the unhappy air; that cleaved the endless night like a ragged set of claws and then ran down the scale like a child falling on the stairs- his nimble knurled fingers floating over the keys like fluttering moths- until he reached a small quiet tone at the bottom. He held it, cradled it like a child’s last prayer until it stopped weeping and then sparingly, haltingly laid it to rest.
He pulled the instrument reverently from his lips. He saw my wide eyes. Then he laughed like the devil himself, happy with another soul, snatched from the greedy clutches of heaven.
“My Christian name is Joseph.” He said wiping his eyes. “But, in New York, in the early fifties, all the cats called me by my mother’s maiden name, Ramsey. I played with Miles, you know… that’s where I got the name, ‘Sweet Note.’ Man, he loved my horn.” Mr. Bidwell remembered.
“Oh, hell,” he continued, “we used to play for the rubes and the suckers; the skirts and stiffs in those dark little out of the way clubs and late night basement joints but after hours, man, that’s when we would really play; that’s when the place would jump, you know? That’s when we really wailed!”
He told the tale like and old carnival gypsy selling fortunes to ignorant housewives.
I couldn’t keep from smiling.
The sparkle in his eyes was palpable.
“And you know, Miles,” he spoke as if we were old friends, “he couldn’t keep from showing off. He could play, I mean, really play, you know? But, I would keep after him; just dog him every eighth note or so; that’s why he called me ‘Sweet Note.’ Hell, man, anybody can play scales, but it takes an artist to know where to put just one note and I had him, man: I was down with that one, sweet note.”
I was happy and warm. I was dreaming. I was lost in his joy; his enthusiasm spilling over me like the music from the tape machine. Black and white images flooded my head: picture stills of robust, slouching young men and their dangerous horns, supple and sultry young women leering after them; empty park benches in November; stark and barren city streets under wet lamplight; headlights in the mist. What had, at first, sounded so sorrowful and lonely, suddenly sounded smooth and comforting like mother’s milk, or a soft warm bed in a far away place.
“But, don’t get me wrong, young cat,” He continued as he drank more bourbon, “I could blow. God, could I blow! But, Miles, he was painless, just painless with that horn. There wasn’t nobody like him! I was ‘Sweet Note’ Ramsey, but, truth is, the city was full of sweet notes. Or, at least it was then…”
Ramsey ‘Sweet Note’ Bidwell fell silent as the first sparse notes of “Round Midnight” spilled carelessly into the gloom close air.
He drew in a resigned breath.
“Ah,” he grunted, “Miles damned near killed himself, that sweet lip of his with the junk, though. Damn pure shame too. That’s about all Jazz and Rock and Roll have in common, I guess; booze, dope, junk and death.”
His countenance soured and he fell silent again. He gazed with restless longing at a picture of a youth with a horn bathed in footlights. The music stirred softly in the muted darkness.
I suddenly felt very uncomfortable.
“I… I have to go home, Mr. Bidwell.” I stammered.
He sighed long and hard. He was dunk.
“Call me ‘Sweet Note,’” He said.