Malachi Phonoferous: Soloist
Malachi Phonoferous was a jazzman. He played be-bop
trumpet, sitting in on open jam sessions at the jumpingest joints with
some of the craziest cats in town. On Tuesdays he’d strut on down to the
Blue Bubble Lounge, wide shoulders of his zoot suit thrown back, chin held
high. Under his arm he carried his case, inside of which was Malachi’s
"Uh-oh," Slick Jimmy the doorman said from his stool one
night when he saw Malachi coming.
"Say Jimmy, what’s shakin’?" Malachi liked to say to him,
‘cause Jimmy was all right.
Malachi shuffled on in, signing the play roster on the
way, and marched right up to the bar, leaning back on his elbows and
resting easy to wait his turn to work his horn. He kept to himself,
listening to the other performers go, a confident smile on his face.
"Somethin’ to drink, Mal?" Greasy the bartender asked him.
"Usual, Grease," Malachi said.
Greasy moved down the bar, coming back a moment later with
a rocks glass full of skim milk with a straw.
After a few more cats had played, Malachi’s turn came up
and he strode up to the stage, breaking out his trumpet and warming up
while the house players started settling back in. When he was finally
ready, Malachi turned to the band and called out "Gurgleburger." The house
gang picked it back up, got it together, counted it down and started into
Malachi waited, his horn in his hands, bobbing his head
calmly through a few measures while the band played behind him,
expressionless. A measure later than he probably should have he brought
the horn to his lips, and off the beat he fell across the groove, a
fractured, uneven shriek from his trumpet shattering the air like a dying
bleat from a brass cow. The band kept together while Malachi pushed the
keys with gnarled, flailing fingers, his fingertips slipping from place
and releasing before he tried to put them back. As the keys rose and fell
the sounds from his horn swerved and screeched, they slammed and fell,
occasionally interrupted by the rush of futile air flowing emptily through
Malachi salivated much more than normally while he played,
a thick gooey saliva resulting from the milk he drank before he went on.
His lips oftentimes slid from the mouthpiece, and on a bad night both he
and his horn finished up soaked.
Two folks seated near the front gathered their drinks and
ran for cover. Faces in the audience turned toward the stage with pained,
squinting eyes. Most of the other musicians hanging in the club snuck out
through the back to smoke reefer in the alley. A new waitress stood frozen
holding a scotch and water extended above a table. Its customer held his
hands over his ears. Monkey the junkie, nodded out in a dusky back corner,
snapped out of his reverie and briefly contemplated giving up the needle.
Orders at the bar picked up suddenly.
"Man," one patron yelled to his companion, "this guy’s
playing is really bad!" He was speaking literally, not
When the band finished up, their faces like passengers in
a car that had just hit a skunk, Malachi wiped the drool from his chin on
his suit sleeve and tipped his hat to the darkened, near-silent crowd. The
bassist’s deep voice came over the P.A. announcing a short intermission,
and Malachi dried off his horn with a rag from his case and packed it up,
stepping down the short stage stairs. Everyone who could stand to listen
knew Malachi’s playing was terrible. Malachi thought he had sounded great.
On his way back to the bar he winked at a foxy mama as she walked past,
giggling. Malachi noticed her teeth when she smiled.
"That’s right," he thought to himself.
At the bar he ordered his usual and leaned back up on his
elbows next to Big Benny, the diminutive jazz critic from Free Form
magazine. Benny covered the local scene and had heard Malachi perform on
many occasions. After trying vainly to identify a hint of avant garde in
his playing, Benny had determined that Malachi had no ability whatsoever.
Once Benny finally realized that Malachi wasn’t innovating, he found he
simply didn’t have the heart to tell him how bad he actually was.
"So Benny," Malachi asked him after sipping his milk,
"how’d I sound tonight?"
"You were there," Benny said. Malachi grinned as he looked
to his shoes.
"That’s right," Malachi said.
Malachi not only lacked ability, he had no understanding
of his instrument and not the slightest grasp of music theory. He didn’t
know a single note. He rarely practiced, except for his gigging only
picking up the horn when the urge overcame him, when he felt swept up by
the spirit of the music he loved to hear, Bird and Diz, Miles and Monk and
‘Trane, Johnny Carter and Hokie Mokie all welled up inside him all at once
and then he’d whisk up his horn and let it fly. His chest would swell and
his cheeks would tense and he’d raise the trumpet to his lips, he’d close
his eyes and his fingers would get going all by themselves and he’d be
gone, like an unpiloted rocket out through the cosmos. He’d squeak and
skwonk, oblivious to the pounding on the ceiling, the clanging of a boot
on the radiator pipes, the neighborhood dogs howling outside his apartment
A few days later Malachi moseyed on into Uncle Nemo’s
Razz-Ma-Tazz and Jazz, trumpet in tow. When his turn came up, Malachi
worked the horn like usual, burning down "Episcopalianistrophy." Toward
the end of the song, without any prior plan or intention, rather than
blowing through the mouthpiece he began pulling air back through the horn;
it was a completely improvised technique Malachi spontaneously added into
his playing that night. Unfortunately the tinny, quack-like sounds the
manuever produced did little to alter the result of his sound. Before he
was through half the crowd had filed out the door, going across the street
to catch the late performance of a touring mime troupe. Scabby Tom the
local alley cat wandered in, searching for the source of the noise. The
lights in the building dimmed, only coming back to full power after
Malachi finished up. When the room got brighter, Malachi could see the
sparse crowd smiling, laughing, having a good ol’ time.
"That’s right," Malachi thought to himself.
"Man," a bewildered patron said to the coat check girl,
"that guy really blows!" He was speaking figuratively, not
Uncle Nemo, his eyes brimming with tears of rage and
disbelief, ran out from behind the bar and over to Big Benny.
"Benny, you gotta keep this nutcase outta my club! If he
keeps showing up, I’m going out of business. You tell him never to come
back, or no more whiskeys on the house!"
Big Benny froze with fear. He didn’t want to tell Malachi
he couldn’t come back, but his slim income as a jazz writer made the
thought of buying his own drinks unbearable. Malachi settled back against
the bar, soaking it all in, and Benny pulled up a stool next to him.
"So Benny," Malachi asked him, "how’d I sound tonight?" He
wore a sly grin on his face.
"Hey Mal," Benny started, "let me buy you a drink. Can I
get you a whiskey?"
"Oh no," Malachi replied, "got to keep it together," he
said, tapping his temple. Then he raised his arm, finger extended. "Hey
Nemo, the usual." Nemo disappeared and came back a moment later, pouring
Malachi a milk, an angry scowl on his face. Benny waited until Nemo had
finished and wandered off, muttering as he went down the bar, before he
started up again.
"Malachi, you’re self-taught, that right?" he asked.
"That’s right," Malachi replied.
Benny continued cautiously. "Did… Malachi did you ever
think about taking a lesson?" He winced.
"Lesson? What you drivin’ at?" Malachi stared at Benny
with genuine confusion.
"Well, you see…" Benny wasn’t sure how to proceed. He
slugged down the rest of his whiskey and raised the glass, shaking it for
Nemo to see. "Another one, Nemo. Malachi?" he said, pointing to Malachi’s
glass. Nemo poured a fresh whiskey.
"I’m straight," Malachi said, still looking at Benny
"That’ll be seven-fifty," Nemo told Benny, a determined
look on Nemo’s face. After a pause Benny paid for the drink, then took a
large swig off his whiskey and continued.
"You see Mal, the thing is, you’re really not very good."
Malachi’s face fell into an embarrassed smile.
"No," Benny said, taking another strong pull, like a
drowning man gasping for air. "Really. With all due respect Mal, you might
be the worst player I’ve ever heard." He looked away from Malachi’s blank
face. "And I’ve heard a lot."
For an uncomfortable moment Malachi didn’t say anything,
only stared at his milk as he stirred it slowly with the straw. "But, the
feeling?" he finally said.
Benny found that the whiskey was barely helping hide the
heartbreak he was feeling. He took another slug, then got angry.
"Damn it Malachi, you stink! Do you hear what I’m saying?
Stink!" His bloodshot eyes flared. He drained his glass and brought it
down firmly on the bar. "Nemo!" Benny hollered. "Gimme another!"
Nemo made his way back over to where they sat, watching
Malachi’s face warily. Then he poured it up and walked off, charging it to
Malachi had a lonely walk to the subway, shoulders
slumped, chin almost touching his chest. The trumpet case he usually
carried under his arm hung down from his arm. Could it be true? It didn’t
seem possible to him. All the years he’d spent blowin’, and to hear now
that the music that came so naturally to him, that brought him such joy,
was it true that it all was for nothing?
He went through the turnstile, peering meekly at the bored
station attendant. She sat behind her bulletproof glass, hand on her chin,
eyes drooping toward sleep. Malachi sighed and lumbered down the stairs to
the empty platform.
Underground Malachi walked slowly down the platform,
kicking at a piece of newspaper on his way to a bench. He sat down and
rubbed a hand across his face. His mind was filled with the smiling faces,
the hot mamas and cool daddies he’d encountered in all the clubs over the
years. Was it true? All the while he’d been baring his soul, reaching down
inside himself and letting it flow. He’d been true to it, letting it all
hang out. Had he been jivin’ himself for all these years?
Malachi laid the trumpet case on his knees, snapping open
the clasps and pulling out the horn. He held it in his hand, running his
eyes over the shiny, golden brass that winked in the dull light of the
"Man," he thought to himself, "all these years I been true
to you horn. Damn."
Malachi looked at the dingy trash can a few feet up the
"Man," he said now under his breath. "You ain’t nothin’
but junk now." He pushed the case onto the bench beside him and stood up,
walking to the trash. "Well," he said to the horn, "it’s been real."
But Malachi was stopped short of the can by a noise.
"Lemme go! Help!" It was a voice from somewhere he
couldn’t see. He walked on past the trash, further down the platform and
slowly around a stairwell.
On the other side, under the sloping stairs, Malachi saw a
pair struggling. A raggedy clothed man with a beard had his mangy arms
wrapped around a young girl. She fought against the mangy man’s grasp, but
he was beginning to overpower her.
"Somebody help!" she screamed.
"Rape," Malachi thought quickly. "That ain’t right."
And with the same automatic motion that his fingers pushed
at and mangled the trumpet keys, Malachi approached the pair. With the
same smooth effortlessness that his slobbery lips slipped from the
mouthpiece, Malachi brought the horn up high above his head. And with the
same instinctive force that his lungs shoved and tugged air through the
horn, he brought that trumpet down on the assailant’s head, hard. And any
hep cat in the know, any fool with half an ear could tell you, baby when
Malachi brought that horn down, when the brass hit the skull, the sound it
made was a pure, perfect, unwavering C sharp minor that rang out,
reverberating off the cavernous walls and filling the subway tunnel with
A week later Malachi was on stage at the Horny Toad
tearing apart "Your Ugly Cousin." Horrified audience members watched as
his fingers danced all over the trumpet like a spider on benzedrine, his
toe tapping the stage like a clam at a hootenanny. The crown of his horn
was bent, now pointed slightly upward and to the right. The lip had
crumpled, and a dent was clear on the underside. As a result the sound
that came out was altered. His fingers still missed their proper positions
on the keys, his lips still slipped and slid from the mouthpiece, and his
lungs still alternated haphazardly between sucking and blowing through the
damaged horn. But the broken notes, ugly sounds and unexpected rushes of
air that came from the horn now were accentuated by a new croakiness, you
dig, a flavoring that suggested a weak-throated frog at the bottom of an
Those in the crowd that night who’d heard Malachi before
thought he sounded worse than he ever had. Deep down, Malachi knew he’d
never played better. Malachi Phonoferous was a jazzman.
Joe is a freelance writer in Chicago, MFA candidate at
Roosevelt University, and a contributing editor for Oyez Review.