Music is the symbol by which one may invade the enchanted province of nothing and find one’s way.
---Muriel Draper / Music at Midnight
Not surprising that the New Haven Institute Hall of Fame enshrined Brenda Ely as its only member, given she was the only graduate ever to make a name for herself in New York. What was surprising to some was that her bad girl reputation and, yes, her polyandry, raised a few eyebrows, but were apparently not factors in the committee’s final decision. Brenda was, after all, one of the great atonal jazz artists and composers of her times. Her marital issues were her business. Lloyd Mulroy, her mentor and partner, was ‘generally recognized’ as her husband and that was good enough for them.
There was a photo Brenda loved; Lloyd as a street actor in a fright wig, from his ‘Budapest Kid’ days in Baltimore’s Vigilante Street Theatre. If his face had given in to age over the years, his hair was unruly as ever, a look that lasted right through the funeral, leaving his image forever mussed. The committee had the Budapest Kid photo enlarged to portrait size and presented it to Brenda at the induction ceremony.
“I left Budapest, went into the world to make my way,” Lloyd told Brenda the day they first met, luring her straight into the first of many impromptu bits they would spontaneously concoct over the years.
“What’s it like in Hungary?”
“What’s what like?”
“Budapest, the capital, is actually two cities, you know,” Lloyd said, “one called Buda, the other is called, —“
“The publicity flyer says your family troupe fled the, —“
“They fled the Nazis and the Communists. Their act was reviled across the political spectrum.”
“You don’t really come from Hungary.”
“What’s it like in Baltimore?”
“Why’d you leave?”
“I had several young girls in trouble.”
“Yeah. It was only four.”
Lloyd’s hobbies were chasing women and drinking.
When he met Brenda at Frenchie’s Seaside Retreat in Frenchie’s Bay, California to talk a little business, his reputation preceded him. He was a genuine dashing salt and pepper haired, leather-skinned California relic. A light ocean breeze tossed his unruly hair. Draped over a chaise in a silky silver dress, Brenda was a white lotus among palm fronds, her classic cleavage and double dark Hollywood sunglasses turning heads as she swept in, a perfect accessory to a perfect California day.
“Brenda was on the wrong side of thirty, her singing career very much on hold when she met Lloyd,” Tyron Watkins noted on the UG Jazz Channel. “When she crossed those divine legs, the devil took out an option on Lloyd Mulroy’s soul.”
“Lounge acts pay fifteen per cent as a rule,” Lloyd told her, making eyes at her, coming on pretty flirty for a guy supposedly talking business. “I’m letting you off at twelve because you have such great legs.”
“You’re as full of shit as a Christmas goose.”
“Maybe, over the years, I’ve disrespected the truth,” Lloyd said. “I don’t deny it. I resent the truth. The truth is paralyzing and fickle. That’s how it goes with me.”
“I’ll tell you how it goes with me,” Brenda said, lowering her already husky voice. “My late husband, Jack Quick, was one hell of a bone player. Jack toured with some big names. He got involved in some bullshit down south and was eventually wanted by the FBI, the IRS, and several other three-letter agencies. He disappeared in Tampico, Mexico on Christmas day. I went down there and saw the Federales, asked about Jack and his trombone, playing the grieving widow. I thanked the Capitan profusely. I even did a little air trombone, but the chingado pretended not to understand. He was too busy ogling my tits. I checked pawn shops and music dealers, but I never found Jack’s trombone, which belongs in a jazz museum. That’s how it goes with me.”
From a Chronicle review: Brenda Ely, at the Mark Hopkins through Saturday. Expensive booze in a felt-covered bottle, still sporting a string of pearls she wore the day she lost her way out of the mainstream. You hear the breathless staccato syllables of’ `Chicken with a Train’, you know she’s an American original.
Brenda married Harry ‘the Scorpion’ Fishman as a publicity stunt, paying off an old friend’s chit to some Brooklyn knuckle buster. When she did Harry’s radio show, the subject of atonal jazz hardly came up. The Scorpion was mainly interested in talking about her gorgeous tatas. He asked her on the air to marry him. She accepted. All in good fun. She’d been in People Magazine five times by then. If public acceptance of her concept anti-music was stalled somewhere between Berkeley and Times Square, Brenda still had her looks and her compound interest boobs. The Scorpion, her bridegroom, crawled out from under a rock to announce that the press corps would be joining the happy couple in the honeymoon suite for what he called ‘the great unveiling’. He planned to eat raw oysters off her boobs and perform such other fertility rituals as would delight his late night subscribers. Their first project as a couple would be a 3-D porn movie. After a long, stupid ceremony, Brenda cut out to her back alley limo and went straight to the airport. By the time the Scorpion’s male and female hooker twin back-ups arrived, Brenda was already back in LA taking a long shower.
Later that same year she married a tragically hip performance artist slash sax guy named Gypsy Joe Johnson, whose hobbies were sleeping all day and sponging off women. She was booked for ten nights at Lefty’s Last Place in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She cut out on Gypsy Joe when the gig closed, ten days after their chapel vows, stuck the lazy bastard with a two hundred dollar bar bill. In August, she got loaded one night and married an orthopedic shoe salesman by the name Kirk Rochelle, from Milwaukee. The guy turned out to be a world class dipshit. She stuck him with a three night hotel bill in Omaha.
“Do they drink vodka and Squirt in Budapest, honey?”
“Absolute,” Lloyd beamed. It was their eighth anniversary dinner. “You heard about the time Camus, the French existentialist writer, and Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director, both vodka and Squirt guys, by the way, ran into Stan Getz, the American jazz player, another v&S guy, at the Beaux Arts Festival in Brussels, riding on an elevator. They were pretty well oiled, the story goes. Camus was going on about nothingness, which Getz likened to rests between notes, and Bergman compared to the spaces between film frames.”
“The elevator got stuck between floors,” Brenda said. “Camus freaked out, likened the experienced to being caught between nothingness and a hard place.”
“If you already heard the fable, Linda, why let me tell it again?”
“My name isn’t Linda.”
“You’re acting like a Linda I once knew. Big, big pain in the ass. Used to step on everybody’s lines, just like you.”
“You were banging Linda, weren’t you, Lloyd? Was she one of those sad little tricks you used to lure into the alley with promises of an audition?”
“Linda disappeared into the jungle many years ago. Sad story.”
“All your stories are sad, Lloyd.”
“Not the one with you, honey.”
“You’re sweet, Lloyd.”
Sunday afternoons, people would sit around listening to her records, mixing domestic weed and sloe gin, cheering themselves up by repeating lines from one of her old bits with Chester White.
“Music soothes the savage beast.”
Brenda had soft memories of Lloyd; a lone tenor sax moaning wistfully in the background, while a jazz lyric rode out front. Poised for one last run at glory, Lloyd sniffed the salt breezes, his body a bronze testament to the healing California sun. Tall, lanky, he comes clickety click clicking over the butterscotch tiles in those oh so stylish leather deck loafers, cheerily sliding into the mottled light beneath the grape arbor, sipping apricot brandy on crushed ice with a red dash of bitters. His natty, hand-stitched, silk shirt matches the topaz of a boundlessly optimistic Southern California sky. Quartz antelopes adorn the nearby rock fireplace where Lloyd sips, their flanks guarded by black andirons and a cracked, red leather bellows
Lloyd was impressed with how the management handled Brenda’s run. Fans came in from LA on opening night, found her snug inside a soft blue spot, prim and straight in her black sheath, skin milky and smooth in the subdued light. Before her was a sturdy oak table filled with sound implements: graduated cow bells, slide whistles, ratchets and cranks, clickers and clackers, a flat metal tray with eight bottles of various sizes and shapes, a dozen rubber mallets, six wooden blocks. Somewhere in the Great Musical Beyond, Spike Jones was smiling.
Press account: New York; (July 7) (AP): Letter Revealed: One of the foremost impresario-performers of modern atonal jazz, Chester White, came into being as the result of a single letter. In the executive boardroom of Lloyd Mulroy’s Broadway offices, the story goes; a man of dubious demeanor appeared one day, with scruffy hair spilling over the collar of his checkered coat, looking suspiciously like a grown-over, weedy version of Lloyd Mulroy coming off a binge. He bore a letter, written in a familiar hand, addressed to the corporate directors and endorsed at the bottom by three Deacons and a tax lawyer. ‘Mr. Lloyd Mulroy having been called away to urgent business in the Far East,’ it said, “has placed his business affairs in the hands of the bearer of this letter, one Chester A. White of Philadelphia. Mr. White is to be afforded the same courtesy and co-operation as Mr. Mulroy himself would be given were he here.’
Ordinarily, such a letter might have raised concerns, but the players here, unanimous in their dismay over this checkered coat permutation of their boss, drew comfort from the fact that, but for the drop-off in style, the new boss was pretty much the same as the old boss. Copies of the letter were circulated, along with a prospectus. A new company was formed, CHESTER WHITE PRODUCTIONS, not affiliated with a line of domestic swine of that same name.
They didn’t invent atonal jazz, and you can’t really say they popularized it, because it was never `popular’, but whatever footnote niche it manages to occupy at the fringes of the post-modern avant-garde movement was carved there by Chester White Productions. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house the night the Ely-White ‘nuptials’ went into the books. Brenda’s once and future husband, Lloyd Mulroy, the Hungarian prince, didn’t make the wedding, which, everyone found fitting, of course, considering that he wasn’t invited and that none of her other husbands were there either.
“Chicago was mostly booze and blue smoke in those days,” Mulroy wrote later, in his Treatise to Hip. “They were jamming one night, Chet was dropping bennies. We figured out that if Brenda’s career was going any farther, we had to make changes, get an aggressive agency.”
The Bedderman Agency was Lou Gould, the Broadway agent, short and pudgy, unshakably supercilious. Chet White watched the headlamps gleam off the Columbus Circle merry-go-round forty stories below while the company parrot, a large blue, fanned its feathers and pecked under its wings, startling an unwary Brenda with a sudden, blood-curdling RRRRAAAAWWWKKK.
“A college concert tour,” Gould said, “a research project studying perfect pitch, and a documentary film about the research project. A book tour, a sound track album, and a charitable foundation funding research into the curative powers of atonal music. When’s the last time you heard about a musician having a shot at the Nobel in medicine?”
“Who’s doing all this?” Her skeptical frown said it all.
Seeing that a little snit was about to erupt, Chet White looked in the mirror, the story goes, and saw a lonely, haunted Lloyd Mulroy peering back. “You are, Honey,” he said, softly, just the way the old Hungarian would’ve.
“If you fuck with me, Lou,” she told Gould, “the parrot gets it.”
Ely and White played Basin Street East in New York. “Opened with ‘My Funny Valentine’ to the sounds of slurps and gurgles, burps and gulps,” Mulroy wrote. ‘Sailing’ was next, with thumps and bumps, ratchets and flapping sails, far off thunder, fog horns, bells on buoys, cords slapping in the wind, waves lapping, seabirds’ beating the air with their wings, while Brenda’s siren song descant floated cannily above the fray. After the intermission, they did Brenda’s signature number ‘Chicken with a Train’, which ran twenty-one minutes, capturing the anguish of a lonely soul tied to the railroad tracks of life.
By the time they played the Paris Opera House, the act was drum tight. Ely and White were headliners in Europe. Brenda had worked Russ Wesley into the mix, a young guitarist who kept a string or two slightly out of tune, giving his play a jarring edge. ‘Homage to edginess, a fingernail across the black-board of musical sensibility, a paean to progressive gauche,’ Le Monde called their Paris sweep.
Running the Jersey Pike through a wasteland of rancid air, metal pipes and oil tanks, otherworldly backdrop to the energy of anticipation coursing through them, her fans braved a sulfuric world to see Brenda and Chet in person. They found the city, made their way through deserted streets to cramped rooms in a dingy hotel, where they fell into fitful, shivering sleep.
Twenty bucks for a table was a lot of money in those days. Braving the glances of other barside aficionados, taking quick glimpses of exotic, upside-down cleavage in the overhead mirrors above the bar, they smile when their guy snaps his fingers and a table and chairs appear from thin air. The houselights dim. A voice offstage intones, “Ladies and gentleman, the Basin Street East is proud to present Ely and White, masters of atonal jazz.”
Brenda came out with Russ, the guitar player. The spotlights came up, spinning the room into a blue, smoky feel. The drummer and bass player were set up left, easing into a little finger popping be bop riff as the blue lights came up. When Chet White came clicking in from the left, the drummer started into a major roll, like bip bop doo bam bam ring-a-ling, bip bop doo bam bam, ring-a-ling, while the bass player got a walking line going. Russ popped one of his sweetly dissonant run of chords, and the legendary `most over-the-top set ever seen in atonal jazz circles’ began.
Rod Marvin of Variety wrote:
>Reed players marvel at Brenda Ely’s ability to sustain a screech,
>She bares a thigh, pumps her fishnet clad legs to the accompaniment of crinkling wrapping paper greatly amplified, doing a piece she calls ‘Creech’. She follows with twenty minutes of a mellow version of Dizzy’s Night in Tunisia, with the sound of ‘ten drummers pecking away inside an empty oil storage tank.’’ The ten drummers are actually one drummer from ten different lighting angles.
>She flips two ratchets to the savage drive of Busted Bonnie Doon, tingling the hairs on their necks with a sudden, piercing wail that comes screeching out of her gut like a bat out of Hell, the first startling notes of her unsettling twelve bar Unexpected Freight Train Blues.
>Next, in tender tremolo, Brenda’s quavering voice wanders into a meadow of soft ambient near-silence. The house system mix of gurgling brooks and Bedouin tribal chants as background is irresistible.
Chet White’s own personal coda was not so structured.
He went out for a cigar one day and never came back. Brenda had rented the old Regal Theatre on 39th Street to rework some classic big band arrangements for a new Vegas review she was putting together. Somebody saw Chet White get into a cab. He said he was going out for cigars, which was odd because he didn’t smoke cigars. It was last time anybody ever saw him, Brenda was working out Lady in Red at the time, playing lead with a blowtorch, with much hissing and popping to a Latin beat, and bits of molten metal and white-hot sparks flying everywhere.
The revue borrowed from a broad sampling of modern musical sell-outs, embracing every musical cliché, every derivative phrase, every stolen line and lifted lick she could find, from all across the spectrum; teeny-bop to R&B, punk to metal to disco to R&B to be-bop, hip-hop, rap and back. “When the body of my work stands for appraisal by History,” she wrote, “let it be said that no bauble was too gaudy for me to wear at least once.”
Put off by this new direction, purist fans denounced the gig as a charade. Some cursed them. Many lost faith. A guy named Gus Ramos called her a ‘sell-out whore’ on one of those street interview segments, tearing up afterward, like he’d caught his girl cheating. “We are sorry-ass eavesdroppers,” he said as an afterthought caught on tape, “pitiful voyeurs with no lives of our own, wasting our time caring about people who don’t even know we exist.”
“In Budapest, they have a saying,” Lloyd once said, “never take a monkey to a funeral. Are you hanging around waiting for me to die, Brenda, so you can take a monkey to my funeral?”
“I have a rental rhesus on standby,” Brenda said.
When Lloyd Mulroy came back after Chet White’s low key departure, nobody paid much attention. For his last autograph, signed years later, Lloyd used a yellow ballpoint pen with CHESTER A. WHITE Productions written on it. In a dim hallway back stage at the Basin Street East years before, when Brenda was doing yoga breathing exercises, there’d been an exchange overheard accidentally by fans. They cleared their throats, shuffled their feet as Brenda brushed by. They were as panes of glass to her. Her sweet aura made them weak in the knees. Lloyd came by afterward smiling and extending a friendly hand, ever charming, ever congenial. Black suit, white shirt and gold cuff links, he bore little resemblance to the mythic guy on the California patio, having switched from apricot brandy to vodka mixed with Squirt and put away on the No Tomorrow Plan. She delivered the line with a comical derision bordering on contempt for the depth of his seeming naïveté. “Divorces?” Her crooked grin was priceless. She’d had a few too many. She was enjoying this. The fact that nameless faceless fans were gathered as inadvertent witnesses was all the better. “There weren’t any divorces, honey, just marriages,” she said. “If you push me, Lloyd, the house of cards caves in.”
“I’m not pushing you, honey.”
“Honey isn’t the only thing that attracts flies, Lloyd.”
“What do you want from me? You get loaded, Brenda, get that edge.”
“You’ll find a way to keep strings on the money, even from the grave, won’t you, Lloyd? Just to have the last word.”
“You should be doing yoga instead of vodka.”
“When you’re lying in your grave, Lloyd, and somebody’s dancing up there on top, and all the dirt’s dropping down in your face, and you think you hear laughter and smell piss? Guess who it’ll be, Lloyd.”
Mulroy couldn’t have been nicer, pretending nothing happened, pretending he remembered these young fools caught in the cross fire. Fans.
“You guys have been coming around for a while.”
Yeah, they had.
One of the guys had a cocktail napkin mounted and framed. He kept it on a shelf next to the Johnny Walker and a paper Mache’ tipsy sailor leaning against a lamppost. Brenda’s sweep gave the front row a cheap gander at that Grand Canyon cleavage. She took a cocktail napkin, dashed off an autograph, —‘Atonally yours, Brenda Ely’, handed over with a sweet smile.
From Cabaret Beat: `Brenda Ely’s new retro show, a touring anti-musical called Polly Loves Andry, was about to be syndicated by the newly formed Polyandry productions; her cookbook of mostly edible delicacies from the East Bay was to be released simultaneously; until Mulroy sued for an injunction.
He sued Brenda, Polyandry Productions, White Productions, Chester A. White, personally, and fifteen other subsidiaries, spin-offs, divisions and affiliates. He even sued himself. After calling in his political chits and paying off some big people, he had Brenda declared a national treasure. Every contract, every composition, every arrangement, every piece of special material, all the assets, props and equipment, the present and deferred income, the license fees and royalties, everything was put in trust by the Registry of National Treasures, administered by the Directors Committee of the New Haven Institute of Music for the preservation and promotion of atonal jazz. Brenda threw a fit when she found out. Everything was already out of her name because of all the husbands. Her legal position, she learned, was untenable.
It rained the night Brenda was inducted into the New Haven Institute of Music Hall of Fame. The music press was there. The familiar faces of several fans could be seen. The committee gathered. Drinks were soon flowing and exotic phrases soon filled the air,—shoo-be-doo-wah, ram-a-lam, oop bop she bam, show-dote-show-bee-doe and coo coo ca joob. Her silver sequined dress shimmered in the blue light when she flashed that radiant, endearing smile. She fell in with the house band on an impromptu little scat number they’d worked on, taking her place in the spotlight with a quiet sense of belonging. She thanked folks by name, saving the late Lloyd Mulroy for last. “Best husband I ever had,” she said, getting a laugh. “Best partner I ever worked with,” she continued. “Thanks, Lloyd, baby, wherever you are.”
The voice of Lloyd Mulroy came rattling in over the speakers. “The pleasure, dear Brenda,” it said, “is all mine.”
This startling if not downright weird development freaked out the in-crowd as much as a bunch of aging hipsters could be freaked out. Brenda, stunned into an involuntary interlude of silence, recovered quickly. The sound engineers were waving from the wings to show their support. They’d put Lloyd’s `line from the grave’ together from some old tracks lying around. The bit fell flat, and the silence was deafening, but Brenda was gracious, tossed it off with a laugh, not unlike the way she sometimes tossed off life, somebody observed.
“I will try to tell you why I love this undisciplined discipline of ours, this atonal jazz,” she said, “although I scarcely think it matters why anybody loves anything or devotes their life to it. It gives disorder its due, and it’s wild and free, untamable, and never the same from day to day. Lloyd always said that just getting them to take it seriously wasn’t enough. They had to appreciate it, understand that it wasn’t just noise. Lloyd was a dreamer. That’s why I loved him.”
Dean Madge Anderson, Committee Chair, read a letter from Bernstein and Jacoby, a law firm in New York, reflecting how they’d been instructed to drop all legal claims against Brenda and restore her to rightful control of her own career and legacy, turning over a generous allotment of money to her as well, all a token of Lloyd’s love.
Smiling unflinchingly, stifling a cry, Brenda lit up the room like a lighthouse. The crew brought out the gorgeous blow up of the Budapest Kid picture, visibly moving her. Somewhere in the audience, among dozens of loyal followers, one watched from the back with special love, never getting close again.
M.E.McMullen's work has appeared in numerous print and online journals and been cited for the Pushcart, Hugo and Editor's Choice. His 'Untoward Stories', a review of contemporary and classic short stories and writers, is a regular feature of Untoward Magazine, Chicago.