The story of the jazz saxophonist’s final artistic achievements

Starting with his first Blue Note Records comeback session in July, 1959, tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec recorded five albums worth of material as a leader in the early 1960s, two of which are undisputed masterpieces: Blue and Sentimental with guitarist Grant Green, and the organ jazz album Heavy Soul with organist Freddie Roach. Quebec died of lung cancer in 1963 at age 44. He was just getting restarted. History has divided his career into before his comeback and after his comeback. But the music he made after his comeback is what he remains known for, and he created it in much less time.

During these three comeback years, he filled jukeboxes with 45rpm singles. He helped Blue Note artists arrange their own albums, starting with Jackie McLean’s 1959 album New Soil, and Blue Note was finally able to put him on payroll as a talent scout. He played sax on Grant Green’s near-perfect album Born to Be Blue, and made a guest appearance on pianist Sonny Clark’s last album, Leapin’ and Lopin’. Sonny Clark died of a heroin overdose in 1963 at age 31, three days before Quebec. But Quebec’s best efforts appear on his own comeback records. His spare, stripped down arrangement of “Blue and Sentimental” features no pianist. It’s just him and guitarist Grant Green slowly playing over drummer Philly Joe Jones, and I mean really slowly — slow enough where he could stretch out and get that deep feeling that had attracted him to the instrument as a kid, where the song gets so quiet you can hear his every breath. The little piano you hear behind Green is played by Quebec. It seemed the perfect song to return with. Wouldn’t you be blue and sentimental if you returned to a musical world where you only partially fit? Quebec’s playing is gorgeous and nuanced. It sounds contemplative and pensive and full of pain.

Certain details of Quebec’s life remain unclear. History shows Quebec recorded his last single in 1952 before disappearing. And it shows when he reappeared in the studio in 1960. At some point he got back in touch with Blue Note Records’ co-founder Alfred Lion, who he had a close relationship with before addiction sidelined his career. We don’t know when or how the two reconnected. Was it a phone call? A spontaneous office visit? We don’t know what prompted Quebec’s return. We only know that the music that resulted from his reemergence remains as dynamic and stirring as it was when first pressed to wax in the 1960s.

Modern jazz fans around the world, from Sweden to Japan, are fortunate Quebec and Lion reconnected, even if we don’t know the specifics. As one of those devoted Quebec fans, I have often wondered about Quebec’s final years. I’ve read nearly everything I could find about him. His music is some of my favorite, so I want to know him. In the absence of more detailed information, I filled in the blanks myself. History alone doesn’t bring musicians to life. Dates and details are not flesh and bone. We need stories to humanize the people who make art, not just to examine the music itself.

Using the limited historical record, I have created a fictional narrative of a single night in Quebec’s life in order to tell his larger story: how he thrived in the swing era, then staged the unprecedented comeback during the hard bop era that led to his masterpieces. This jazz fiction sticks to the facts of his life: biographical details, recording sessions, dates, achievements. The night itself is a creation. It’s how I imagine his comeback. To illuminate the spirit of his triumph, I wrote this story in the spirit of Geoff Dyer’s jazz book But Beautiful, except not as masterfully. I only hope it does Quebec’s brilliant music and artistic contribution justice.

In the wee hours, when the drunks had left Manhattan’s bars and the cheating lovers no longer needed him, tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec parked his taxi near the jazz clubs where he used to play, and waited for sunrise.

If his last fare left him uptown, he’d park on a side street near the Savoy Ballroom or Smalls Paradise in Harlem, smoke cigarettes till dawn and hope no one he knew spotted him. If his shift left him in midtown, he’d park off 52nd Street near where The Three Dueces and The Onyx used to be, lean his head back against the car seat and listen to the radio. Stations broadcast live jazz performances from joints like the Café Bohemia and Birdland. The other night he’d listened to the Miles Davis Sextet broadcast from Washington DC’s Spotlite Lounge. Davis’ saxophonist John Coltrane was as brilliant and fresh a tenor as Quebec had heard since Charlie Parker. Listening to Coltrane felt like listening to jazz for the first time as a kid, when King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band played on his parent’s Philco console radio in Newark, New Jersey in 1928. Quebec had been performing jazz for nearly twenty years, and he marveled how an artist like Coltrane could make it sound completely new again. 1958 was an exciting time for jazz, just as it had been in Dizzy and Bird’s days. Jazz was always evolving. It pushed musicians to evolve, too, though sometimes they’d already found what they were good at. The new music cheered Quebec up, but his night shift’s solitary hours also filled him with a creeping dread that he’d been left behind.

On this cold November night in 1958, Quebec parked his cab in front of a payphone off 52nd Street around 4am and flipped through the stations. Friends called him Que, and Que used to have a lot of friends. All the old big band musicians knew his name. Many of the young players did, too. And the club owners, hustlers, poker sharks, pawn brokers and bartenders, but after Bebop replaced swing in the late 1940s, Hard bop had replaced Bebop, and Quebec played neither style. He was one of the most talented swing saxophonists of the 1940s, on par with that era’s famous tenors Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Ben Webster. Because Quebec hadn’t kept recording the way those guys had, people assumed he’d retired, or worse, that he was wasting away in a hotel room like Lester. Critic Leonard Feather included an entry about Quebec in his 1954 Encyclopedia of Jazz. When Feather published the supposedly encyclopedic Encyclopedia Yearbook of Jazz in 1956, the book omitted Quebec’s name. By then, Ike felt omitted from life itself. Musicians would ask each other where he went and they’d shrug. He was so gone he didn’t even know where he’d been. He only knew that when he weaned himself off heroin, he owed people money, and some collectors were less forgiving than they had been with Charlie Parker. Parker had died sometime during Quebec’s absence, however long that had lasted. He’d heard the news but it didn’t stick. Now that Quebec’s head was clear, Bird’s absence felt palpable to him. So did the sad fact that jazz had already moved on.

Another yellow cab drove past him in the darkness and barely made the light. Quebec had started performing at small clubs again, but occasional gigs couldn’t support his pauper’s existence, so he’d started driving a cab.

Even in its heyday, jazz was never an easy way to earn a living. Some musicians did carpentry on the side. Some did studio work for radio and television, cooked in restaurants or worked as tutors. Trombonist J.J. Johnson worked as a blueprint inspector on Long Island. Quebec chose the stability of a cab, driving businessmen and rich white folks around the city in the same cars that had once ushered him to gigs at The Onyx. He never imaged things would turn out like this, or that his wife Kathleen would divorce him and refuse all his calls. Still, he was grateful. The money was good. The hours suited his nocturnal life, and he could afford to spend part of his shift listening to music and thinking about his next move. To his surprise, his boss was actually cool. Unlike others in the company, this Italian cat from Queens didn’t make Quebec wear a cabbie hat or uniform, just a suit and tie. Que always wore that anyway. Besides musicians, he rarely liked bosses. Most treated black men like dogs and talked down to them, but he hadn’t liked a white employer this much since he worked for Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records. Of course, Al had more passion and personality in his little finger than ten of his cab bosses combined.

Rain smeared the street lights through Quebec’s windshield. He couldn’t shake the idea that it was time to call Al. He’d been thinking about calling Al for a while. He’d parked in this spot the last two nights.

Born in Georgia in 1918, Ike Abrams grew up in Newark, New Jersey where kids started calling him Quebec because he liked wearing berets. His parents always played ragtime and classical music in the house. Once he discovered his body, he discovered his natural sense of rhythm, and he would dance all over the house to the radio. Family members call him “Lithe Ike.” “Dance for me, Lithe Ike!” they’d say after Sunday dinners and on holidays. His Uncle Walt used to pay Quebec a nickel for every new dance move he made up, and encouraged the boy to take classes at the local school. Quebec was a quiet type, and dancing gave him a way to express himself. Music became Que’s everything.

During the 1930s, he worked as a dancer with a touring variety show called “Harlem on Parade,” and the group’s house pianist taught him to play. Quebec loved pianist Earl Hines. Everybody did. So he tried to emulate Fatha Hines’ inventive fingering, and he got pretty good. He liked piano for sketching song ideas and goofing around with friends late at night, but once he heard Lester Young playing in Count Basie’s big band, all he wanted to do was play tenor with that much feeling. A member of the review let Quebec borrow his soprano between shows, and when “Harlem on Parade” returned home, Quebec bought a used tenor and locked himself in his bedroom for a few weeks to practice until, as one friend put it, “He could play that saxophone better than anybody.”

In 1940, Newark’s Conrad Butler invited Quebec to join the Barons of Rhythm, and Quebec’s band mates helped the twenty-two year old fine tune his technique. He soon outpaced them all to the point of jealousy. Everybody in that band could see the kid in the beret was going places, and he wasn’t going there with them.

Boxy and tall with a convex chest, he favored a pencil moustache, alternated fedoras with his beret and sometimes kept a ring on his right pinkie finger for flare. Tenors envied his tone. Deep and lush, with a touch of what critics later called a rasp, he wasn’t as breathy as Webster, and he wasn’t as sad as Lester. Ike played buoyant and nimble like a dancer, forceful and joyous, more like Hawkins than most of his peers. Underneath his dapper threads was a deep well of emotion and intellect. When he put that horn to his lips, he produced a booming warm sound as sultry and easy as his heavy-lidded eyes.

Quebec made his recording debut in 1940 with the Barons, not that anyone noticed; his sax was buried in the frontline of a small regional band in a sea of big bands. Thankfully Manhattan was close by, so he bounced between groups there, playing behind trumpeter Benny Carter, singer Ella Fitzgerald and his idol tenor Coleman Hawkins. Musicians had to do that to survive. During WWII, the government limited record production to conserve raw materials for the war effort. As musicians got drafted, big bands shrunk to small combos, and the economics changed. Que never got drafted. As the War raged, he recorded in 1943 with trumpet virtuoso Roy Eldridge for Decca Records, and also Hot Lips Page. Big band leader Cab Calloway gave Quebec what became his longest running job in 1944, taking the tenor chair from Illinois Jacquet. That same year, two months before WWII ended, Quebec made his first recordings under his own name for the fledgling Blue Note record label, including Ike originals “Facin’ the Face,” “Scufflin’” and what would be his biggest hit, the song “Blue Harlem,” with the brilliant guitarist Tiny Grimes.

Quebec was young and knew everyone, so he was hip to trends. Like many young musicians, he’d been spending late nights at Minton’s Playhouse up in Harlem, jamming in loose sessions with the inventive musicians who were forging the new style of jazz called Bebop. Blue Note’s cofounders, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, were two white Jewish German immigrants. They loved hot jazz and had initially focused their label on traditional forms like boogie woogie. They had what pianist Herbie Hancock called two left feet. “They couldn’t dance,” Hancock once said. On a two-four beat, Lion snapped on one and three, but he didn’t have to have rhythm to appreciate it. Lion and Wolff’s talent was recognizing brilliant music when they heard it, and their business thrived because they didn’t interfere with the musicians they hired to play. They just put the musicians in the studio with free food and booze and let them do their thing. Blue Note eventually landed many of the day’s biggest talents that way, including Art Blakey, Sidney Bechet and Miles Davis, and they were always searching for more good music.

Lion got to sit in on jam sessions, and he went out to clubs most nights in search of new discoveries. But as Bop drummer Max Roach described New York at the time: “There was white town and black town, and black town was where black music was played.” Lion couldn’t have unfettered access to black society, and he couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Since Quebec had a taste for jazz’s modern forms and hung out in places white people didn’t go, Blue Note had him work as their talent scout in the late 1940s. The arrangement was unofficial; Blue Note didn’t yet have the budget to pay A&R men, but they welcomed their players to recommend new musicians to sign. Lion specifically asked Quebec to help because the tenor’s unusually astute ear was always aimed at the ground, and Lion wanted to beat the other labels to the new stars he knew were out there. When Quebec tipped off Lion and Wolff to two unusual pianists up at Minton’s named Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell in 1947, the label’s monthly budget only allowed them to do one record at a time. Some people told Lion to sign Powell. Powell’s more technically proficient, they said. Monk’s music is too weird; that’s why no labels want him. Lion signed Monk. Then when he could, he signed Powell, too. “They seemed to be, in a way, visionaries,” Max Roach said. Even though Lion couldn’t keep a beat, he could recognize Monk’s genius. The music Monk recorded for Blue Note was some of the most original music written in America, jazz or otherwise, and it would have gone undocumented without them. Blue Note couldn’t sign Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie since the Dial and Savoy labels had them, but Quebec’s recommendations still put the label ahead of the curve. Its subsequent embrace of challenging modern music earned it respect as a hip label to watch, and history would prove Lion’s and Quebec’s tastes as visionary.

Unfortunately, as Blue Note moved away from conventional swing-oriented jazz toward the experimental music that Ike championed, Quebec’s work as a leader ended. He stayed with Blue Note to scout more musicians. He even wrote two of the four songs that Monk recorded on his first date. But his September 1946 session for Blue Note was his last of note for over ten years. In fact, with the exception of one 78rpm single, Whispering Winds/Kiss of Fire, for tiny Hi-Lo records in 1952, Quebec quit recording when swing quit being the thing. Gigging with Calloway generated some money during the Bebop era, he recorded a bit with trumpeter Jonah Jones’ small group, but the gigs dried up, and Quebec and Calloway parted ways in 1951. Most big bands had long since folded by then. On top of that, Quebec had developed a heroin habit. Many jazz players had. Many players believed heroin enhanced creativity, and Black musicians dealt with the psychological and emotional toll of systematic racism in different ways. His addiction quickly devastated his relationships and took him off the scene during the mid-50s. His playing suffered. People quit trusting him, and when they spotted him, he was usually slumped in god-knows-where with his eyes closed or calling dealers from payphones like this one beside his cab.

For all the gigs he’d played, all the times he’d backed Fitzgerald and Eldridge, he had criminally few documents of his own songwriting ideas: just a handful of 78rpm singles under his name, all from a decade ago. Hell, now Monk was famous, performing in Paris, signed to Riverside records. Rollins had 18 of his own albums, and he was only 28 years old! Que was old enough to be Sonny’s uncle.

Quebec flattened his moustache with his index finger. Had he squandered his talent? He was divorced and had no kids. What did he have to show for his efforts? It seemed like last week that he, Eldridge and Hawkins watched the ‘O’ on The Onyx’s neon sign go out, and they’d all laughed as the famous club’s name turned to ‘nyx.’ Hawk had taken a drag on his smoke and said, “Guess it’s lights out for us boys.” These were the things he thought about in his cab late at night. As Monk once told him while jamming in his Sugar Hill apartment: The mind goes to dark places at four in the morning.

Rain collected on the windshield, as the neon ‘R’ on Jimmy Ryan’s sign flickered but stayed lit. He studied what was left of 52nd’s neon signs. People used to call this Swing Street. He and his friends just called it “the street.” Monk wrote a song about it called “52nd Street Theme” that literally everyone played now. Back in the day Monk wrote it as their own private anthem, back when they played together at Minton’s for kicks and didn’t worry about what record execs call ‘longevity.’ Bop was an accident, a rejection of swing. Ike lived in both worlds, but he knew which one he belonged to.

During that time, this street was the center of the jazz universe. Clubs filled the old brownstones’ basements, one after another: Jimmy Ryan’s, The Hickory House, The Famous Door, Club Samosa. On any given night you could hear Dixieland, guitarists, piano trios, Bebop and crooners. Signs out front advertised Art Tatum, Big Joe Williams, Mary Lou Williams. Money came easily. Booze flowed at all hours. People came all the way from Connecticut and deep in New Jersey to dance to bands like Ike’s. No one thought it would end. By the early 1950s, New York City was crawling with Charlie Parker copycats, and everything was Bebop this and hey-daddy-o that, with the country so crazy for hep cat bohemia that even TV commercials sold products to mainstream American with scatted jingles like: “I dig it, you ain’t hip old man to EZ-Pop popped in its own pan.”

Swing was dead. The Onyx was dead now, too, replaced by a restaurant. Somewhere out there in the night, all over the city, musicians were jamming in lofts and living rooms, letting their cigarette ashes fall on the floor while writing the songs that Quebec would one day hear on the radio in this car. That was what he should’ve been doing. Quebec hadn’t jammed for years.

Up in his own apartment, Quebec often played along to Sonny’s records, trying to deconstruct the tenor’s chord changes and harmonic ideas, though he couldn’t keep pace with many of the fast or atonal parts. He could never play as fast as the Boppers either. Their scales and rapid constructions were fascinating, but that anxious style wasn’t his. His heart was in ballads, and to steal a line from Arkansas blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes, it was rainin’ in his heart. Part of him feared that young cats would think his slow sweet songs were old fashioned and sentimental, and think of him as over the hill, but he lived for those songs. Ben Webster famously cried when he played them. Que never cried, never, but he did express himself best on those same tender numbers. Bop wasn’t for slow songs, but the new Hard bop that had replaced it was. Alone at night, he thought constantly of how his old friends at Blue Note were making their living on Hard bop players like Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Hank Mobley, recording what were unquestionably the most talented and innovative players to emerge since Bird and Monk. Driving his cab, he spotted marquees outside clubs all over town with those new cats’ names on them, playing the new joints like The Five Spot that had replaced Ike’s Three Deuces as the center of cool. He needed to get in on that. He had a lot left to say.

Two men in long wool coats shuffled down 52nd past Eddie Condon’s club, their breath trailing plumes like smokestacks behind them. They and Quebec were the only ones around, and they didn’t even know he was there. The snow that had fallen the last two nights had yielded to rain. Ike hated snow and the way it left everything either icy or slushy, but something about watching it melt made him sad this time. The young clean powder had turned to mush. Now it ran in the gutters and pooled on the street, where the busy daylight world stepped over it like it had never existed. Things in New York were always getting replaced: clubs, buildings, people. Maybe that was the natural way of things. Maybe it was just his turn.

Blasting the heat in his cab this night, Quebec patted his coat pocket for his Lucky Strikes, though he didn’t light one. He only had three left, and the closest newsstand had closed. Instead he set an unlit smoke between his yellowing fingers and could almost taste the tobacco.

Everybody smoked back then. The military had even supplied soldiers with cigarettes during WWII, and advertisements everywhere claimed that “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” Quebec had recently seen a doctor. “Don’t believe those ads,” the doctor said. He encouraged Quebec to quit. Most of Que’s friends were too young to die from it, but even at age 39, he could tell something was wrong. His lungs had always burned, but they burned differently than they used to. He hadn’t told the doc about the blood.

Nothing about his playing betrayed he might be sick. He kept the idea to himself. He didn’t want people’s pity, and he didn’t want colleagues to treat him differently. He already had enough regrets.

Que gave in and lit the Lucky, lowering his window enough to let out the smoke.

When Miles Davis kicked heroin, he locked himself in a room for seven days and emerged with a sense that he had to make up for lost time. Now look at Davis’ ass. Newly sober, Miles recorded and toured furiously, producing some of his best material in 1956, ’57 and ’58. If Quebec had anything like a religious philosophy, it was what tenor Sonny Rollins had said: “We have to make ourselves as perfect as we can.” The sores on his arms had healed, and he rubbed cooking oil on the scars to help them go away. Quebec planned to follow Davis’ lead for as long as his body would let him.

He and Alfred Lion had always gotten along. Al was easy to love. He’d devoted his life to jazz. He didn’t tell musicians what he wanted or what would sell. He asked them, “So vat are you vorking on today?” Despite two decades in America, Lion’s voice never fully shed his native Berlin. Saxophonist Johnny Griffin liked to impersonate Lion and Wolff: “The band must sving! We must have svinging!” Musicians joked about their accents and lack of rhythm, and the stiff way the Germans danced in the studio, but no one doubted their devotion they way they doubted many opportunistic label owners who preyed on musicians’ drug habits and inability to understand contracts. As Freddie Hubbard said of Lion, “He really loved that music, man.” Blue Note paid well and paid on time, and they cultivated a familial loyalty. After years recording drummer Art Blakey, Al and Art thought of each other as brothers. Ike and Al were close but not Blakey close. They had been like cousins. When Ike and some other musicians couldn’t afford to see their families one Christmas season, Al drove them to his apartment in Englewood, New Jersey, and had them light the Hanukkah candles on a big brass menorah. It had all sorts of branches that made it look like some crazy futuristic instrument. Al called it his horn. “It’s the only instrument I can play!” he said. He and Ike stayed in touch intermittently at the beginning of the ’50s. Even at his worst, Quebec sat in on a few Blue Note recording sessions to finesse the arrangements and improve the songs. He could sight read better than most musicians, and he knew how to write charts, but then he’d disappeared completely, and maybe three or four years had passed since he and Lion last spoke. Ike couldn’t remember. Al would.

He stared out the windshield into the darkness. Steam billowed from a manhole cover as rain glistened on the telephone booth. Maybe tomorrow would be the day he made the call.

* * *

When the drilling jolted him awake, Quebec’s fedora had slid down over his nose. The construction crews were drilling around a nearby building site, ripping up the sidewalk for who knows what. Through damp eyes, Quebec saw men in silver hardhats carrying bags of cement down from the back of a truck. Two fat white foremen leaned against a wall drinking coffee. They couldn’t see Ike through the condensation, but they looked like the kind of hard asses who enjoyed telling brothers what to do. Some of his old musician friends now worked these kinds of jobs. He wiped the condensation from the windshield with a wool glove and leaned over the steering wheel, straining to see if he knew any of them. All he saw were hardhats, no faces.

He checked his watch: 8:43am. That was early enough to call the Blue Note office. Al usually arrived before posted business hours. Now that Al and his wife Lorraine divorced, he slept many nights on the office floor to spare himself the drive from Englewood and facilitate his late nights at clubs. The office was down the street on Lexington.

Stepping into the cold, Que slammed the cab door and dodged the melting black slush that pooled along the curb. He’d kept these slick leather loafers clean and polished since his Cab Calloway days, and he intended to keep them that way. Nice blue pinstriped suits and herringbone blazers still hung in his closet, outfits he wore now that he’d starting played out again. The jackets fit more snuggly. Sobriety had put some weight on him.

He dug three dimes and a Zippo from his trousers and perched a Lucky on his lips. Huddling in the phone booth, he pulled up his jacket collar. The coins clinked and machinery clicked as he dialed the number. The Blue Note secretary answered and wouldn’t initially put Que through to Lion. When Quebec said his name, she didn’t recognize it. “I used to record for you,” he told her. “Al knows me.” The line went silent as he waited. They didn’t use to have a secretary.

Businessmen shuffled by holding newspapers, headed for the office jobs that Quebec’s talent had mostly helped him avoid. Other yellow cabs raced toward Grand Central Station to make that reliable commuter money that Que could have been making. He could afford to skip another day. More importantly, he’d been practicing every day in his apartment, blowing along to his own records and to Getz’s newest, and he’d gotten his chops back. He even had a new organist from the Bronx he wanted to introduce to Al: a young blood named Freddie Roach. Soulful and restrained, Roach had a bunch of original tunes to record. They’d played out together a few times. So far Quebec’s lungs held enough breath to blow as intricately and delicately as he used to, and he still had the strength to leap into those high registers when he wanted, and to dip down low. Now he feared how soon that might change.

He leaned against the console and waited for Alfred to answer. From the corner of his eye, he noticed a cop stop to eyeball him and his cab, giving the tenor the once over like he was going to knock on the telephone booth and ask him some questions. It had happened more times than he could count: This your car, boy? You parking here or living here? You got papers to prove it? Nonsense like that, the flexing of muscle to keep him in his place. Ike looked away, nervously counting the seconds for the inevitable confrontation, counting the way he’d count off a beat before starting a solo. The white soldiers who used to drink on 52nd Street didn’t always like seeing educated black men dressed in sharp suits ─ it afforded them too much dignity ─ so the soldiers started fights. Some prick from down South jumped Dizzy Gillespie here once, and Dizzy had to hide in the subway station to escape. So Quebec shrunk in the booth, waiting for the cop to accuse him of something he didn’t do, to tap the glass with his night stick and say, “Move along, boy,” but the knock never came.

Lion got on the phone with a roar worthy of his namesake. “Ike, you old coot. I’ve been thinking about you! So glad you called.”

“Hey Al,” said Quebec. “Good to hear your voice, man.”

Smoke from Que’s cigarette coiled into the Manhattan air as the two men laughed and brought each other up to speed on their lives, their loves, Monk and Bud Powell’s careers, and Blue Note’s latest releases. Lion was proud of Cannonball Adderley’s first Blue Note album, Somethin’ Else, and he was proud how willing Miles Davis was to play on that record, despite the trumpeter being signed to the enormous Columbia Records. “He told Cannonball that we were the only label to trust,” Lion said. Que agreed, and he loved the album, especially Adderley’s speedy interpretation of the Broadway show tune “Love For Sale.”

“You used to do that one,” Lion said.

Que had only done it a few times, it was too showy, but he let his friend think it. He preferred old forgotten tunes like “Just Once More Chance” and deep bluesy ballads like “Don’t Take Your Love From Me.” He wanted to tell Lion about the slow-burners he’d recently written, one called “Easy Don’t Hurt” and “Heavy Soul,” which he’d been performing at a little hole in the wall with Freddie Roach. He wanted to tell him about a new fast one he’d written called “Acquitted” that included an almost exact quote of Bird and Dizzy’s Bebop song “Salt Peanuts” as a tip of the hat to the new school and the old. But he didn’t speak fast enough. Lion started excitedly describing a session he had scheduled for the end of the month, for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

“It’s mostly originals,” Lion said, “by a tenor named Golson, tentatively called Moanin’. I think it’s going to be a really cooker.”

Ike almost laughed at the way Lion pronounced ‘cooker’ ‘koook-err.’ Instead, he added Golson’s name to a mental list he kept of all the new tenors to watch, the ones whose records he should buy, ones he might need to one up one day. “Golson, huh?”

Lion said, “He’s very goot.” Quebec liked Blakey’s soulful swinging and knack for the back beat, but the drummer’s thunderous hard-driving style got in the way of Ike’s light touch. They’d only played together once at Minton’s and that was enough.

He knew how he wanted his comeback album to sound. He could hear it right now. He had it all sketched in his mind: Organ jazz, stripped down to a quartet, with a swinging drummer who keeps in the background and a bluesy guitarist to trade the lead with. And ballads, lots of ballads. Thinking about it got him so excited that he could almost see the cover, though the exact artwork was hazy. He’d leave that to Lion and Wolff. Their new 12-inch LP format had incredible artwork like no other label’s, and the rumor was that they paid a young advertising dude who designed all that and who didn’t even like jazz. Since he’d left, Blue Note became a serious operation; gone were the days when they just dropped 78s like his into brown paper sleeves. They needed colorful covers to catch customers’ attention and liner notes written for collectors, by fat cats like Leonard Feather, that fool who’d left him out of his book, the dummy.

Before Al started in again, Quebec got down to business. “I want to talk with you about doing a record.” When Al asked for who, Ike said, “No, no, not for a young cat. For me.”

Alfred laughed. “This is goot. Vee are overdue. Why don’t you sving by the office soon to talk? Maybe we can book you something for summer.”

Summer? The tips of his fingers were freezing to the phone receiver. Summer seemed like a lifetime away. “Sure thing, Al, but the sooner the better.”

The sound of flipping pages came through the receiver, as Lion checked his calendar for available dates at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. “I’ve got your man Bud Powell scheduled to do a date next month, though it’s a trio, no tenor. Then I’ve got our house pianist scheduled to play on someone else’s album that I know you’ll like: Sonny Clark.”

“Yeah,” Ike said, “Sonny. I saw him and Lee Morgan play not too far back with Jackie McLean.” Que didn’t mention that he’d scored dope with Sonny a few years ago. Ever since then, he’d tried to avoid him in order to resist temptation. Resisting was hard when half the folks you knew used. Quebec was done with dope. He was done with taxis. He was done with feeling done. It was time for a comeback.

“Maybe you can come do a song with Sonny,” Lion said.

Quebec dropped his cigarette butt in the slush and listened to it hiss. “You got it, Al, I’d like that.”

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.

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