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Don't Make Me Play by Evan Kinney

artwork by Niya Miller


I sit squinting through the blinding light in the tough plastic chair on the wooden stage floor. My back faces the phantom audience and I sit about one foot from the ledge of the stage. Two of my classmates sit with me in silence. Beyond them, other students sit with us all facing the same blinding light and all with a certain ambition. The longer I face the back of the theatre the dimmer the light becomes. My pupils dilate and gain sympathy for the stage lights. With my vision now clear I gaze upon the setup before me.

To the lefthand side of me stands the rhythm section, a staple for all jazz music, “the motor”, as professionals would say. As I try to study the instruments that rest on the stage, three men walk onto the stage with us. The men line up in front of their corresponding instruments and all introduce themselves as the rhythm section of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

I attempt to sit up straight in order to show composure. I stare at the bass player who looks like he doesn’t know where he is. I guess that he is at least in his mid-seventies. He stands around his bass which is lying on the floor and smiles. The piano player sits on his bench and opens the piano’s keys and plays about three notes before facing me.

The drummer stands above everyone else making all of us students feel inferior to him. His bald head reflects light across the stage as he gives all of the students his name: “My name is David Gibson and I’ve been playing drums for over forty years.” A sense of selfish bragging emits from his expression. He paces back and forth across the line of sitting students. My classmates and I follow him with our eyes as he continues to talk. “First things first. I want you all to name a jazz musician.” His voice sounds threatening.

A heart-sinking emotion flashes through me. I don’t want to say anything, I just want to sit and listen.

He then starts to go down the line of chairs and the innocent students start listing names. Some of the more basic answers like Count Basie and Louis Armstrong shoot across the stage, and I try to think of an artist who may not get picked before he gets to me. My hands sweat profusely from the mix of mass fear and the hot stage lights beating down on me. His points his drumstick at his victims and eventually gets to me.

“Charles Mingus,” I say with confidence. As one of the few bass-playing students, I know that not many people could answer the drummer’s question with that one.

After he reaches the other end of the students, he pauses and then asks a more compelling question. “So, who’s gonna play for us?”

Those words run down my spine and my soul hits the floor. As I scan the rows in front of me, I spot some extremely brave hands shoot up in the crowd. The few kids walk up onto the platform where the rhythm section stands in the limelight. The kids begin to play and it sounds almost like I expected: a bunch of nervous high school jazz nerds playing in front of professionals.

After the group finishes, the drummer waves his stick again and summons another group of students. My focus shifts from the kids playing to David Gibson. I start to think of him more as an evil wizard than a jazz drummer, waving his drumstick wand and using his sorcery of intimidation to make these kids play under his control. More and more groups of brave-hearted students continue to go up and play for the masters.

I worry about potential death by embarrassment, but just in the nick of time the old bass player gets out of his chair and makes his first and only statement, “Why don’t we just show these kids how to do it?” The drummer gives him a stern look but he complies anyway. In my head, I praise the bass player one thousand times over.

“What do you guys want to hear?” asks the piano player. “Stablemates” blurts one of the front-row students. The three men give each other glances and the drummer counts them off. Without a beat, they begin to play the jazz staple perfectly. The mellow sound of the piano’s melodic chants drops my jaw to the floor. The simple yet coordinated beat that the drums create hold the trio in perfect time. The bass player plucks the strings with his frail hand but he pulls them with power and experience behind every note. I watch in awe as these three guys play a song from complete memory only using head nods and glances as communication.

The overwhelming amount of fear I had nearly minutes ago vanishes. My admiration grows more and more until some other guy yells in the back of the auditorium. “That’s time everyone, please go back to your school’s area and wait for further instructions.” I sink in disappointment, but I get up along with everyone else and shuffle outside the auditorium, rethinking my panic-filled theory of playing in front of the professionals. All I want to do now is play like them, but I will lose my chance as soon as I step out of the auditorium doors.

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