Can a father give his son
what he himself never possessed,
or lacks the courage to wish up from his own deprivation?
– Galway Kinnell, ‘Memories of my father’
My father I think at thirty-five
had turned from nights he fingered
the double bass in a trio
or quartet, dressed in black tie
to jazzify Nat King Cole, cover
Dave Brubeck, the blind George
Shearing, and so on. Him on bass,
a friend so dark they called him Gandhi
on the grand. And Ikkie Martinus
brushing drums and cymbals. Somewhere
always some loose sax to be found.
Nights they played the white hotels
from Newlands to Sea Point; would
have played I’m sure for nothing, just so
petrol was covered, drinks were free
and they could dance to the next band.
My brother and me stayed home in Paarl
in the big double bed with Mother
who read magazines and smoked.
To tease us, she kissed Clint Eastwood
pinned inside her wardrobe door
before turning to the sleep that brought
Father home and us to our beds.
We wailed in betrayal. But I bet
she kissed that cowboy as she needed
dreams. Maybe Dad, king of the dance-floor,
had his dark hand like a tarantula
on a sleek, pale shoulder blade, grand
in a sequined, green, low-back gown.
He didn’t drink. But during break
he’d sure dazzle even white women
with his waltz or burning tango.
Father stopped he sometimes said
because the band now just played
non-whites-only hotels, patrons
too drunk and noisy, without class
who all the time just wanted langarm
a swing too brash to be jazz.
It wasn’t the band’s choice to move.
And Gandhi too refused, skulked
back to council house
to purify himself on his old upright
crammed into the too small lounge.
Space to roam he found in alcohol.
Ikkie stayed on, renamed, regrouped:
Ray Hendricks on electric organ –
no Hammond this but Yamaha –
Bokkie on some dull electric bass
and a whole troupe of coloured brass.
New Year’s Eve the Drakenstein Lounge
bopped and crashed and blared
as Ikkie popped on his monkey-stool
thrashing Pearl snare and toms
bashing his Zildjian ride high-hat crash
with two sticks
hickory chewed by the snare’s rim.
Not for Father these high jinks. And one
Sunday morning Desmond Traffic Cop
dropped by with high-gloss sax a joy
of brass, levers, valves lying still
as a robot in red velvet, while the bird
roasted pot-brown, Mother knitted
to approaching winter, and Father
tuned the carb on Desmond’s car.
Done, the men came in to the five-by-
ten rectangle, our lounge
partitioned by six-inch fomolite
in our rented servants’ quarters.
With nothing but scorn for langarm
my father coaxed a murmur
from his bass and hedged in
young Desmond’s barping sax, just to show
jazz is knowing first about restraint.
Then suddenly my eyes couldn’t choose
between his right hand tugging
at the strings below or his left
like a mouse up-down the fretboard
as he flared swung the sax
mewled Desmond spluttered
Father crowed in laughter. And said:
‘Come, what do you know about swing?’
Even quick the bass was gentle
then. And sometimes sluggish
like a fish brooding under the skin.
Or sometimes like rows of sand
left by wave upon wave
of thick sound
rounding in on us.
And sometimes, just sometimes
the sax hit its high note
Tea break, the sax in its bed. The bass
sprawled to one side over the grey chair.
Mother smiled. And talked of dancing
in those days before she had us children
when she went with to white hotels:
‘But we were so young then. And things
have changed.’ Father got up and held the bass
for my brother who stood on the chair
straining his small fingers on the taut snares.
Me on my knees, fingering the dents
dibbled in the worn linoleum
by the foot-pin of my father’s bass.
from This Carting Life (© Kwela Books/Snailpress/Rustum Kozain)