I sit on a dark stage at the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. A motionless ride cymbal obstructs my view of the audience. This twenty-inch cymbal—a pressed weave of copper, tin, and silver—was born in a Turkish fire. Sweating craftsmen hammered dimples into its cheeks, then clamped it to a lathe. Their calloused hands shaved away the cymbal’s crude metal and exposed its gold. I imagine some frail cymbal sage rapped on the fresh face with a tattered drumstick before calling it good.
Now, as the stage lights rise and the drum kit that covers my knees glows red, the ride catches an oblong reflection: blue eyes glow from deep sockets, and shoulder-length blonde hair frames a neon orange tie, which spills from a black collar. This is my freshman year of college. I am the drummer for a jazz ensemble.
Our director clears his throat, then raises straight arms above his shoulders. His dilated pupils hypnotize me. Outside of time, my maple stick hovers above the ride cymbal. With a nod, the director breaks the trance, then counts in a brisk whisper. Like a child strapped to the seat of a climbing roller coaster, I hold my breath. The ride drops on count four.
Once my right hand is unleashed, it coaxes the cymbal into a swing. The bouncing drumstick speaks in steady dactyls: smooth-chit-chat-smooth-chit-chat. With each collision of maple and metal, notes—sweet like hard candies—energize the audience. Heads bob in the darkness. On my right, an upright bass strolls up and down bebop scales, while the horns to my left toss a staccato melody toward the back of the room. Between the drums and the scalding lights, a silhouetted saxophonist rises to her feet. In a stream of consciousness, she peppers improvised notes around the swing. A bead of sweat crawls down the bridge of my nose. Sensing fatigue, the director barks in my direction, move, baby, move!
* * *
Six months after the jazz festival, I am flipping through a yellowed photo album that contains images of my father’s college years. Behind the album’s bubbled plastic, a photograph shows the man in academic regalia. Long blonde hair falls from his black cap, and his gown-draped arms clutch a Boston Terrier—his parents’ dog. A proud graduate of DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, my father smiles wide. But, as a severely depressed man, his happiness is fleeting.
In college, my father crammed ninety lithium pills into his stomach but survived. When I was twelve, he completed the deed on a rope. His confused brain was stuffed into the ground, where maggots burrowed through rotting accomplishments. I do not know my father well.
A sliver of gray paper peeks from behind the graduation photo. I slide my forefinger into the back of the photo’s plastic pocket and retrieve a folded newspaper clipping. Unfolded, the paper reveals a black and white image of my father at a drum kit—blurred stick in his hand; pressed lips lifted in a grin; deep-set eyes fixed to the ride cymbal. A caption under the photo reads DePauw Ensemble Plays Elmhurst College Jazz Festival.
* * *
The director lifts upward facing palms, signaling the swing’s crescendo. He eggs on my attack, Do it, man, do it! Beneath brisk blows, the ride cymbal shivers, and the audience’s spines straighten. The horns stir dust particles into the air, which singe beneath sweltering stage lights. As I inhale the burning sound, endorphins dance, and my subconscious latches onto the groove.
The swing is in my DNA. My father once commanded this stage. Thirty years ago, his right hand bounced shimmering beats off the walls. I am, despite my distancing efforts, tied to the hollow man whose goodness is trapped in newspaper clippings. A smile grows beneath the director’s gray mustache, and a trumpet enters a solo. The music shows no signs of stopping, so I entertain my father’s rhythm and jump on the ride where he fell off.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Keith McDuffee