by Todd Robert Petersen
Previously unpublished, this story appears in Petersen’s collection “Long After Dark” available from Zarahemla Books.
Six months ago I called John Medeski and told him I’d come across some pretty amazing players in Denver, and I was going to stay here with them until we hit big or busted. The guitarist was this crazy Mormon kid from Salt Lake, the bass player some unknown East Indian guy from Vancouver named Shumish. They needed a drummer. It was that simple.
Before I left Manhattan, Medeski told me that quitting New York would cripple my career. I told him I was getting pulled apart, music dragging me one way, the city another. I told him one side was going to lose, music most likely if I didn’t do something pretty quick. So I blew town and drove west, smoking cigars in cheap motels, trying to “grow up with the country,” et cetera.
I caught these guys playing in this little club to a crowd of eight. Their drummer had just gone to L.A. They played the gig without drums, and man, could they swing. I was spellbound. In a week I was renting an apartment, and by the end of the month we were gigging together, and the crowd had jumped to thirteen. I suppose settling down in Denver will keep me from being first rate, but first rate means nothing if all you want to do is eat the barrel of a shotgun.
The Mormon kid really freaks me out. He goes by Ammon—just Ammon, no last name. He’s tall and skinny, wears black pants and a white shirt buttoned to the neck. No tie. There’s nothing in his apartment but a few pillows, a tube amp, a pristine ES-295, and a refrigerator full of San Pellegrino and bean sprouts. There’s maybe a half-dozen books in the place; he doesn’t have a phone, doesn’t talk to anyone, really. The band calls him Harpo, which infuriates him, but he plays best when he’s a little bit angry.
The kid listens to horn players mostly—Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Adderly. He’s going so many directions it’s hard to keep pace with him, but it keeps us honest. When the kid takes a solo, it’s like the notes have been stitched into his guts and then ripped back out. He’s so good I’ve seen guys in the audience hang their heads like they’re going to sulk home, set their axes on fire, and take up needle point. I’ve asked the kid about it, and he swears he doesn’t know where it comes from.
You know, I’ve met a few Mormons here and there, and I’ll tell you what—I don’t know either. Whatever it is he’s doing, he didn’t pick it up in Sunday school. Medeski said the kid sounds like he’s the kind of nuts that can teach you something.
The other day the kid and I were grabbing some lunch downtown. He was saying grace over avocado and sprouts on wheat. I’ve never seen a musician say grace in public—come to think of it, I’ve never seen anybody say grace in front of people like that. When he was done, I asked the kid if he had some kind of girlfriend—you know, just making small talk. He stared down at his sandwich and shook his head. He looked like he was about to say something, but he didn’t, not right away. I started to get really uncomfortable, and I apologized, but he waved me off. After another couple seconds, he swallowed and then looked up and said, “Mormon girls don’t like jazz. They’re not supposed to like things that aren’t uplifting.”
“Having ten kids is supposed to be uplifitng?” I said. I thought he would laugh at that, but he smiled, barely, and took another bite, poking the sprouts back into the bread.
“No,” he said, finally. “But if they don’t understand jazz, they won’t, you know . . .” He gestured the end of the sentence, which I immediately understood to mean that these girls from his church were never going to understand him. He looked around the joint, sighed, and then slumped a little in his seat and scratched his head. “It’s hard to get that point across, you know.”
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