Happy Jack: Red’s Revival
Editor’s Note: The following is a selection from my mostly completed (they’re never really done until and unless they’re published) manuscript, HAPPY JACK. It features the title character doing what he does best – making people happy.
In almost no time at all, rumors of the miracle worker on Dauphine Street spread throughout New Orleans. Within two months, people were lining up around the corner of Esplanade Avenue waiting to see Jack Hazelwood and Dr. Claudius Beauregard Archambeau – the men who sold happiness like a commodity in the Hazelwood & Archambeau Holistic Wellness Clinic.
Especially after Bastille Day, the day of Red’s Revival.
By July 14, 2010, Red Armstrong was mostly know as a harmless beggar who frequented the outskirts of the French Quarter by day and lingered outside the doors of Bourbon Street clubs by night listening to the Big Easy’s new wave of ragtime bands. To the younger generation, he was a nameless face. But to the old timers, he was a fallen star, another resident of Katrinatown.
Red was once considered the greatest trumpet player to come out of New Orleans since Louis Armstrong, who, coincidentally, local legend had it was Red’s illegitimate father. There is no sound evidence Louis Armstrong fathered Red, although there is evidence Red legally changed his last name from Oliver in 1956. None of that matters to those familiar with the New Orleans jazz scene. They say the way Red played his trumpet was as all the evidence they needed to prove he was the true heir to Louis’ talent.
But Red lost everything in Katrina – his house, his popular jazz club in Tremé, and most importantly the trumpet he claimed Louis gave to him as a boy. When that was gone, people said he just stopped playing. He lost the will to play and he lost his wits. No one could remember which got lost first, but folks had enough of their own problems after Katrina that no one had it in them to stop his free fall.
By the time Jack came around, those who still knew who he was thought he was too far gone to save, this man who spent all his days mumbling broken lyrics to Louis Armstrong hits. Those who didn’t know him didn’t care in the first place.
Except for Jack, who caught a glimpse of Red walking by on the Dauphine Street banquett in front of the clinic. The lines were shorter then, but the waiting room was still full. Jack asked Dr. Archambeau if they could take a break so he could help the man, who he didn’t know from any other old hobo in tattered whisky-stained rags.
The doctor said they didn’t have time for charity cases, but Jack insisted the man was worth helping. He was sure Dr. Archambeau would like what happened if he did.
The doctor was intrigued enough by the offer to let Jack bring him in. The people in the crowded waiting room, however, were not amused. Most of the already unhappy assembly griped and complained about getting skipped by a bum. A couple patients recognized Red and told Jack not to waste his time, there was no use bothering over the old coot. Jack begged forgiveness and promised everyone it would be worth their while. Worth it for the whole city.
One of those waiting room patients was Demetrius Applewood, an up-and-coming clarinet player from Red’s home neighborhood of Tremé. Applewood was in the clinic that day because he was struggling to make it as a musician and was looking for a way out of some trouble he had gotten himself into trying his hand as a small time drug peddler. The story of Jack and Red is one I might have never known if Applewood hadn’t overheard me interviewing other former clinic patients at his new restaurant and live music venue on Spain Street, just north of the French Quarter. He sat down, measured me with a few questions, then said any friend of Jack’s was a friend of his. That he owed everything he had to Jack.
Demetrious Applewood, former patient; proprietor, Who Dat Soul
I saw Jack messin’ around over Red and thought this man crazier than we is. How am I supposed to get help from a dude who don’t know the difference of troubled mind from lost-his-mind? I be seein’ Red on the corners back then, just talkin’ nonsense. But there was always somethin’ a little off with that dude. I used to sneak into his club in Tremé back when I was a kid and he’d dedicate every set to his Pops, Louis Armstrong. I’d be like, old man, nobody believe all that mess. Not even ya own damn band.
What I’m sayin’ is Red, he was pretty unmoved ‘bout this whole episode at that point. He just hummin’ along while Jack drag him into the clinic. The whole time Jack pleading with us and Dr. Archambeau to hear him out, Red mumblin’ old Satchmo, same as he always did. Sound like: ‘I see trees of green, red roses too … two left feet, oh so neat, has Sweet Georgia Brown … oh when you smilin’, when you smilin’ … they all sigh and want to die for Sweet Georgia Brown … and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.’
Anyways, Jack tell Dr. Archambeau he need about a thousand dollars. Dr. Archambeau don’t like this none too well and he lookin’ around at us in the wait room shifty as hell because he don’t want all these fools knowin’ he keep all that money up in there. But, sho’ as I own that seat you parked on, he go off in the back and come back with a cool stack of Benjamins. Jack don’t hesitate. He run out the door and come back 10 minutes later with a classic Besson trumpet and a starter drum kit. You ax me, he got a fine deal on that brass. Just as good as stole it for $800, but you know how it was tough times and all back then. Them drums weren’t worth a handful of beads, though, so I guess the pawn shop got him there.
Dr. Archambeau, he say, ‘Jack, you wanna take this back into the treatment room,’ and Jack say, ‘Naw bawse. These people need to see the show they been waitin’ fo’.’
Jack sit down and start bangin’ on them drums, and I think, damn, boy can do some work with them sticks. Shit, I might pay just to come jam with this brother. That’d surely have my step feelin’ light again. He’s layin’ down the dirtiest old ragtime drum line you ever heard and people in the room start bobbin’ they heads, you know, gettin’ into it a little bit. To the point we don’t even see ole Red step over to the Besson that Jack laid up on the end table.
Man, son, you couldn’t believe it. Like that trumpet never left his lips. He was smokin’ that piece. Everybody in the room get up and start dancin’. Yeah, you know I did. We got music in our blood in this town. Red’s feelin’ it, too. He shakin’ it pretty good for a old ass bum. Then he start playin’ his way right out the front door and everybody like, ‘Yo Red, where you goin’ old man?’ Jack sling a strap ‘round his neck with the snare drum and tell us to just come on wit’im.
It sound stupid anywhere else, but not in N’awlins. We straight started marchin’ down the street and had us a parade. Red marched us the long way ‘round the block to Louis Armstrong Park. Everybody was out celebratin’ Bastille Day and we picked up, shit, I don’t know, prob’ly like two, three thousand folks along the way. Little kids with they hair in braids dancin’ ‘round Red. Must have had ‘bout eight, nine dogs start tailin’ us, too. Then shit got real when this Ma Rainey lookin’ whole-lotta woman joined in. Dressed like she on her way to church in her high heels, purple dress, flowers fallin’ off the side of her hat. I never seen this woman in my life and never seen her since, but I can tell you she stole 1926’s heart with that voice. You better believe Bessie Smith turn over in the grave that day axin’ who stole my sound. That’s when musicians started poppin’ they heads out to see where that new old sound comin’ from. We just about had us a full street band playin’ when we got to the park. ‘Bone, more drums, clarinet, this one zydeco cat had his washboard. They see me and know who I was and be like, ‘Yo D, that crazy Red? Red Armstrong?’
Yeah, yeah it was. Boy, that was a time with a capital T.
Red’s still playing, but no one compares him to Louis Armstrong anymore. He was reborn with his own sound. His new band plays every Thursday night in Who Dat Soul with Applewood on the clarinet. Jack’s not the drummer. He never was a drummer, and he couldn’t play the drums on his own if he tried. It’s what his gift guided him to do that day, that time.