Project: Swing Your Song Down Low/Short Fiction-Poetry
Jazz Children
A Look at the Intersection of Be-Bop Music
and the early Civil Rights Movement
Approx 1700 wc
For Sax and Flute
The Blue Funk Trilogy-
Tales from a Hip Kitten
The Death of a Child Reverberates
through the Years
Everyday life in a 1930's Rural Farming Community
in Northern California.
Expected Date of Publication: Spring 2010

Jazz Children


Some mornings are so beautiful they hound me for days.

When the dawn fails to return hot, yellow light set within

flaming red and orange, a deep ache swells my throat, sometimes

fleeing my mouth. Black coffee dripping,  just behind this

bile of disappointment, so thorough is the leeching of



My sister Katie got thinner and thinner. I stumbled

yesterday trying to take care of her. I wanted to hum,

to bring sound and soften the room. The disease had taken

her sight and some of her hearing. What remained was sharp

angles, hard and staggered breath. She responded to music, spirituals.

We were raised Holy Roller and had sung all those songs, but,

I couldn’t remember one, couldn’t hear anything. There was

a rage in the room, gathering at the corners, filling my

ears. It was a strange, scary departure.

I looked down at Katie and whispered, “Sorry.” At one

point, somewhere deep in my mind, I could discern Billie Holiday’s

voice, so, I just let the music fall from my mouth, watched it

as it fell over Katie.

It was true. Rather than the good word, I had summoned the

purveyor of the Devil's music I wanted to laugh with sis about

my evil ways. I wanted to ask her if she remembered that one

Sunday morning when Minister Jones wife, Clarice, got

the spirit and fell out at the mourner’s bench just like

any other common sinner. Jones stammered and tried to

help her up, then asked the congregation to join him in

singing Peace Be Still. We were bored in our seats and

leaned over to ask mama if we could go to the bathroom

because we couldn’t remember the words to the song any

old way. She looked at us sideways and said she figured

if we couldn’t remember the words to

such an important hymn, we would have to skip dessert that

night and study. Gurl...! 

I look at her again. Wistfully. Prop up her pillows.

I don't believe that child has left. Where is my sister?!!!

I’d had some hope Katie might linger a little while,

I wanted to talk to her. She and I were Mama’s youngest.

I protected her. Always did.  

Of course, I should have seen the signs.

The intense mourning had begun a few months ago.

I would awaken with it tightening around my throat.

Then there was the slow waning of yesterday, it unfolded

so slowly, my exhaustion was thorough

the push and glare of it striking Katie’s bed. It claimed

her too. Sitting beside her, my head on her shoulder,

I feel her ease away. Began to shiver. I called Mama.

“It’s happening! Mama, mama! Katie is dying!”

The morning was sunny.

The wind swung the leaves to and fro and for a moment,

when I looked out the window, the sky was dark matter;

green, brownish-yellow and purple. She died anyway,

walked right from this place. We were all there; ten of us

siblings, Mama and Daddy, M’Deah, Babydoll, my husband

Alexander, and Katie’s little girl, Lena, all, holding hands.

I noticed death didn’t crawl into the room. It

announced itself with bulky silence and stillness so ample

there was no room to move. I am a singer, haved lived a

life of filling the quiet rooms. Here, I was still.

Even my thoughts were muffled. Looking down at Katie’s body, it

is her voice I miss the most, her, “Hell yes Marie!”

Mama would be scandalized, so I roll the thought along my

tongue. I am surprised at how sweet it is, this eating

of my sister’s voice. Wonderful.

Alexander asked Miriam Makeba to come sing. I

heard the doorbell and went out to answer it.

Entering Katie’s Bedroom, I noticed Miriam’s hands were

already raised, her hum, a raven, circling our heads.

I heard her just under mama’s wail.

I can’t say how long we were in there. Have you

noticed when death passes through, time is released

into some unknown place and may tease, but does

not impose itself, as is the normal state of things?

I was suspended, a paucity of context, though it felt

sacred, nonetheless.

I looked around and saw Lena perched in Makeba’s

arms. Miriam stopped singing and looked down at her.

“When I was a little girl, my father told me the dead are hiding.”

Lena’s head shot straight up and caught Miriam’s eye.

“He did?!!”

“Yes, I looked around and I didn’t see anybody.

I then walked around the entire village. I was looking for my

grandparents. Oh, I loved them so, but, I couldn’t find

them. I began to cry. My father heard me and he said,

Miriam don’t cry my child. Grandmother and Grandfather are

here among us, just because you do not see them doesn’t

mean they have gone. We could not exist without the

ancestors. We would not survive. They protect and care

for us. He began to laugh, Lena, and swept me up in his


“Just like you sweeped me in your arms?”

“Yes, Just like that.”

Mama rose from Katie’s bedside and went to Miriam and held

her face gently in her hands, brushing her cheek with

trembling lips. I left the bedroom to help with serving food.

Alexander followed. He had been playing drums in Charlie Yardbird

Parker’s band. Bird saw me from within the crowd that had

begun to form in the sitting room and kitchen. His large

graceful body made it through the throng of sisters and

brothers carrying steaming plates of food to the table.

He kissed me and I looked up at him. It is possible to

see the extent of a man in his face?

So much information gathers and glistens on that one solitary surface.  

He really didn’t need to say much, it was always there, always creeping out to his sleeves.

“Princess, how ya doin?” Katie gone?”

“Yeah, although Miriam says she’s just hiding and can’t

wait to proclaim her transformed existence.

Then, she will set us all straight!”

“I see the way you look at that child, Marie. Po gone.

Now, Mo too.”

He was referring to Lena’s names for her parents.

He shook his head, it was a long, slow swinging.

I felt something begin to move up my chest, something feeling like a warning,

followed by promise, latched as it was to the image of a squirmy, excited little girl.

“What are you trying to say, Bird?”

“I’m only saying what you’re thinking.”

“Marie, where you at?” My oldest sister, Evie, was calling me.

Ethel Waters on the telephone. She wants to talk to you.”

“I gotta go, we will finish this discussion.”

“Where Mama and Lena?”

“In the back with the Reverend. Miriam is there too.”

“Uh-huh, I heard her when I was walking up the street.”

I made it to the telephone and grabbed at it.

“That you, Ethel?”

“Oh, you know this is a hard life, Marie, but you got to

try and meet it, head up and shoulders back! Hear me baby?

How’s your mama?”

“She’ll be all right, eventually. She’s not doing so well now. None of us are.”

“It’s not right to bury your child, Marie.”

“I know, I know.”

I went to the kitchen looking for Alexander, my heart

beating so fast it was distracting and I nearly fell into

the open oven. Alex hadn’t noticed. He and my brother

Thomas were in a heated discussion. Thomas was a teacher

and a political activist. The house of the young preacher

from Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr., had been bombed in

the early morning hours. Thomas, a member of the Communist

Party, admired King, but questioned his method because it

failed to demand a change away from Capitalism. He thought

it was the great enemy of Black people and poor people

everywhere. According to Thomas, Capitalism debilitated

the social, physical and spiritual health of the people,

sacrificing the many for the few. Alexander, red in the

face, argued he could not find a model for Communism that

delivered anything better for Black people than Capitalism.

Not in the real world. Surely Thomas’s perspective was not

grounded in practice, but was some kind of pie in the sky

theory. I Heard Alex say, “Look Man, maybe DuBois was onto

something after all. I’m not so sure I want to live among

them. Why would a sane negro want that?”

Thomas rolled his eyes, and turned to glare at him,

“Because separate ain’t never gonna be equal, Brother!

So you got to get what you can!

Plessy was a farce. When you look back at our history

here, what do you see? Its been 50 years man, 50 years!

If White folks had intended to act in good faith, Plessy

would have been given enough resources to raise the people

to a decent standard of living. Am I right Alex? Haven’t

the Whites had enough time? Look out your window.

Martin King is doing everything he knows to do. He can’t

promise his family won’t be bombed again tomorrow

morning. If you start rable rousing you won’t be able to

give your family the promise of safety either. Bet on

that! That’s why I will not marry, I will not visit this

upon children”

Alexander sighed, this conundrum, this fact of black life

saddened, “Thomas, you are my brother, but you are wrong

about Communism. You have been misled.”



...Looking back frustrates me, there are days when memories

vex the heart. Lena is 16 and just as brilliant and funny

as her mother, but Lord, today, I miss Katie something

fierce. I went into Lena’s bedroom and Sammy Davis Jr.

was singing Mr. Bojangles on the Flip Wilson Show. Lena

was in the bed, a quilt around her shoulders, boo-hooing

into the television; looking like Katie had taken over her

body...and, there we were, little girls again, huddled

together in the bed we shared…this little piggy went to

market, this little piggy stayed home… has it really been 12 years since

she passed? Time had taken me and spun me, spun me ‘round,

and now I’m slightly limp and prone to forgetting

“He’s beautiful isn’t he Mom?”

I smiled and shook my head. Lena’s eyes were solemn, and

fixed on Sammy’s hands and feet: positioned, an irresistible

question. One hip thrust out, his hat low on his head,

jaunty and forlorn.

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