“Tee Hicks was the master of jazz fusion,” said Arringer. “Not just the usual sax and percussion, he had a goddamn synthesizer on stage that he would modulate with a foot pedal to do everything from a Moog pipe organ to just wild static.”

“That sounds…deeply unpleasant,” said the stranger, swirling his liquor. “Don’t people usually try to avoid static?”

“If you do it right, though…perfectly timed and perfectly executed…it’s just another part of the improvisation.” Arringer took a pull from his cup and wiped his lips. “This stuff, your losers on stage playing at being jazz stars? They’re not fit to serve Tee Hicks’ drinks.”

“Sounds like you’ve got a powerful grudge against my boys,” said the stranger. “You think your static-y jazzman was any better?”

Arringer set his jaw. “At the show in ’77, Tee Hicks used static as a duet with his alto sax improv. Blew my goddamn mind.”

“Counterpoint,” the old stranger said.

“What?”

“It was counterpoint, not a duet, when I played the Orpheum in ’77.” A raised eyebrow. “I should know. I dropped out of Juliard.”

Inspired by the song ‘T’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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Though it was inconcievably alien
A being from so far outside us
As to be all but indecipherable
She raised it, loved it as her own
So when the time came to leave
It spoke to her without words
Predicting the world’s fiery end
At its own inscrutible hands
But promising to its “mother”
A few minutes’ warning before
And a final song of blowing brass
The music she had always loved
Announcing the end of the world
As recomense for a kindness
Neither could ever understand

Inspired by the song ‘2nd variety’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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The public administrator’s office, the place where the unknown and indigent dead’s estates were tracked down and disposed of, was an unlikely customer for cutting-edge technologies. Yet when a body was discovered, there was so much that the public administrator needed to know: the names of next of kin, terms of a will (if any), assets and debts. Investigations tended to be long and expensive.

With the introduction of cerebral synergy units, that all became much easier. The raw contents of a mind dumped at the coroner’s office, turned over to whoever needed it.

“All right,” said Calvin, speaking into a recorder built into his headset. “This is Calvin Matthews, an investigator working for the City of Hopewell public administrator’s office. My subject today is one Mr. Joseph Devine, born January 9, 1950 and found dead of natural causes in his home on November 19, 2015. In accordance with a warrant issued by the City of Hopewell circuit court, I am now going to attempt recovery of information and assets through cerebral synergy.”

There was no switch to throw, no button to press. All it took was a thought.

Calvin was Joseph Devine.

There was dancing. So much dancing! Joseph had, in the words of his neighbors, been a man who kept to himself, a man who never went out. But the memories that animated his life, that took up the greatest portion of his being, were of dancing and lights, laughter and the pungent odors of bodies in motion.

The Speakeasy on West State soon after it opened in ’67. Long hours of gyrating in blinding smoke to jazz players up from Chicago, down from Detroit. That disco joint on Division, what had it been called? Zucker’s. It had burned down in ’78, never rebuilt. But every nut and bolt of the place was laid out in Joseph’s mind.

His partners were blurry, indistinct, unimportant. All that mattered was the experience, music on the keen cutting edge of the world, and the motion. And then it had all come to an abrupt halt.

Inspired by the song ‘Joe 90’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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Weber, carried only by the wind, alighted on the steeple of the Königkirche, still the highest point in the Free and Hanseatic City of Elbemund.

Dusk was coming, but it was still possible to see clearly what was going on in the streets below. The Red Spartakists had erected barricades out of trolley-cars and whatever else they could find for blocks surrounding the Königkirche and were firing from positions behind them and in many of the old row-houses along the Kaiserstraße. Men of the Freikorps apposed them, many still wearing their old uniforms from the front, though Weber saw veterans and sailors in uniform among the Spartakists as well, fighting with red armbands and the weapons they’d borne into four years of slaughter. The cracks of rifles and pistols were broken up by the staccato coughs of Spandaus or the new machine-pistols.

Men of the Reichswehr could be made out by their stahlhelms painted with bright republican colors. They wore gas masks and manned heavy artillery batteries which they fired in support of the Freikorps, and assault brigades moved with precision to ourflank the Spartakists. But in places the Freikorps were attacking the Reichswehr; Weber saw at least one artillery battery cleared out by a man with a machine pistol and turned back on its previous owners. Künstler had been right; the Freikorps were only siding with the Republic out of convenience, and they clearly saw the heavy weaponry as a great prize that could be used once the Red Spartakists were cast down. They probably had starry-eyed notions of driving onto Berlin and shelling President Ebert out of his office and installing His Majesty Wilhelm in the smoking crater that resulted.

Air raid sirens rang over it all, a pall of noise to go with the smoke, and in the distance the neon and thumping jazz of Rotlicht could still be perceived. Weber, slumped against a gargoyle, wept bitterly at the sights, the sounds, and the scents from below. He had to get out of Elbemund, to go further than he had before, to hide and remove himself from the violent conflagration working its way across the city.

He had only begun to toy with the idea when a far-off buzzing attracted his attention. Noisy specks were incoming on the horizon; after a moment, Weber saw that it was a formation of Fokker D.VII fighter planes. They bore the bright-colored cockades of the Entente, but from newsreels and posters Weber recognized that the pilots wore German gear. The formation broke apart as he watched; a group made a strafing run on Spartakist positions and several went down in flames, riddled with heavy machine gun bullets from the Reds or the Freikorps.

The remainder zeroed in on the Königkirche. Weber had been spotted, and he barely had time to move before the gargoyle on which he’d been leaning was shattered by incendiary bullets.

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The music was still there, the bright jazz issuing forth from Cecil’s coronet.

But he found himself remembering less and less of each performance, though the raw spots on his hands were a testament that they’d happened. Between the dressing room–and all the pills, poweders, syringes, and smokes it contained–and the curtain, everything was, well, a blur.

Not only that, though. The music itself seemed to be different. Cecil had spoken with the audience, and they assured him that his playing was the same or better than ever. But what little he could remember of the performances wasn’t dizzying or joyful. No, something harsh and dissonant, straight out of Leo Ornstein, had crept into Cecil’s music.

And he was the only one who could hear it.

Not many know that Sly Whitmann harbored aspirations well above and beyond the world in which he became famous, the smoky jazz and blues clubs of Bourbon and Beale. Patrons at the venues where he performed often remember being dazzled as Sly switched instruments mid-set, moving from his signature coronet to the alto sax, the trombone, even the honky-tonk piano. For year rumors swirled about Sly’s personal life as girlfriend after girlfriend left complaining that he didn’t seem to have any time for them. When one of Sly’s relatively few studio albums dropped, people noticed that it included a full symphony orchestra backing up the usual quartet, but hardly anyone read in the microscopic print that Sly had orchestrated the various parts himself.

In fact, Sly Whitmann harbored a desire, long and keen, to write for an orchestra. Those nights away from clubs and girls were spent in classes, or poring over correspondence courses. Sly never earned a degree but over his lifetime he put in enough coursework and practice to qualify for a degree from Juliard. It was his dream to infuse the raw passion and popular sound of the clubs into the whole range of instruments, something akin to Gershwin in scope but far more modern and experimental. But try as he might (behind the scenes, of course) no one was willing to commit the resources to allow him to write, record, or perform anything but club music.

That all changed when Dr. Rutherford Scheer directed the pioneering film “Carnivale et Amour” in 1968. He hired Sly on the spot to record music for his picture, and the posters proclaimed that the film was to feature music by one Sylvester J. Whitmann. But it was not to be. A fickle audience at a preview was all it took for the producers to remove Scheer from creative control, recut the film, and distribute it with no original music at all, only a selection of pop tunes licensed from the Decca back catalog (which completely clashed with the Mississippi River setting). Scheer was able to preserve the acetates of Sly’s music, but never got the chance to present them to his friend; Sly died of a heart attack onstage less than a week after he received the news.

His frame was crippled by the poverty of his upbringing: polio in the legs, a touch of rickets in the upper arms, scoliosis due to malnutrition, and a laundry list of other debilitations. Yet his hands were as strong as any there ever were, and his eyesight keen, and those who heard him swore him to be the finest acoustic guitar player who’s ever lived.

In those far-off sticky summer days, he and his band would roam the Delta countryside, playing for whatever paying audiences they could find. The money was never more than a pittance, most of which went to offset the cost of care, wheelchairs, and the demands of nervous musicians afraid to be associated with a man many believed to be cursed. As was the case with many in those days, there were dark whispers that he’d dealt with Old Scratch, trading his physical strength for fiendish skill.

No one can quite agree on his ultimate fate, but all concede that his was a life cut short. Some maintain that he drank himself into an early pauper’s grave somewhere in the New Orleans wards. Other have him drowning when a riverboat capsized, dragging him into the deep buckled into a wheelchair. Darker tales speak of a midnight lynching when he bested a favorite son in a musical duel or when a stillborn and strangely twisted child was born to a local belle.

But his guitar…well, that went to Woody’s, the establishment where he played most of his gigs. It hangs over the stage to this day, still fully strung more than 70 years later. It’s been said that whoever can coax a tune out of it will have some fabulous reward; equally prevalent is the whisper of a terrible fate awaiting anyone unlucky enough to strum those cursed catguts.

Let’s find out, shall we?