When I was twenty years old I played the trumpet, poorly, in a jazz band called The Lucid Moments. The drummer was a young man who wanted to be a policeman so badly that he wore a policeman’s uniform all day every day and during our rare performances, which sometimes caused misunderstandings among the patrons of the various bars and church basements on which we inflicted ourselves. Our piano player was missing the last two fingers on his left hand for reasons that varied every time he explained their absence. The other members of the horn section with me were two brothers who never spoke a word that I remember. Our bassist was a young woman named Lamar, although she preferred LaMar as a stage name. For a while we had a guitarist, but none of us could stand him, so one night we shifted rehearsal without telling him, and he never found us, so The Lucid Moments, for the year that we existed, had a rhythm section, a horn section, and the piano. None of us could sing, though, so we were always on the lookout for a singer, and that’s why I tell you this story.
We went through a lot of auditions for a singer. Most of them were brief – you can usually tell pretty quick if someone can sing, or they only think they can; and if someone can sing, you can also tell right quick if they think they are cool because they can sing, which is not the sort of singer we wanted. But some auditions went further. With one woman we played our whole first set, about eight songs, before we discovered that she didn’t like musicians playing while she was singing. With another girl we actually went so far as to play a show in a bar at the beach, during which we discovered that while she could sing like an angel, she didn’t like people watching when she sang, so that was that. I think we probably auditioned thirty girl singers for the band, and I remember a few of them – the piano player’s sister, the silent brothers’ cousin, a girl in a skin-tight leopard-skin jumpsuit, a girl who ranted and chanted, a woman who wore a Girl Scout uniform, a girl who sang in Afrikaans, a girl who couldn’t remember any lyrics at all and she said she was scat-singing which she wasn’t, a girl who started removing her clothes when the drummer took a solo, and a woman who might have been seventy and had a cool growl of a voice but all she wanted to sing was Johnny Mercer songs, so we parted amicably.
Finally one night just when we were beginning to despair of ever finding the right girl singer we auditioned a girl who had seen our flyer at the grocery store. She might have been twenty, although she was so by god skinny that she looked like a beautiful broom, and she limped in on crutches, which didn’t improve her appearance, and she was wearing a summer dress that looked like it might have been made before the Civil War, but when she opened her mouth to sing we nearly fainted. She had the most amazing voice – a little low in the register, and sort of salty, as our drummer said later, which was exactly the right word. She had grit in her voice, and a kind of grainy honest tone, as if whatever words she was singing were exactly the perfect words to explain what she was feeling. It was like when she sang a song she had written that song, and was singing it for the first time ever.
It’s hard to explain her voice. There was just something about it that gave you the deep shivering happy willies. It was amused but a little sad, thrilling but shy, intimate but the complete utter absolute reverse of lewd. And it didn’t matter what song she sang, either. We tried Chet Baker songs, Sarah Vaughn songs, Rosemary Clooney songs, Joao Gilberto songs, Alec Wilder songs, even Johnny Mercer songs, and every single song she sang she owned in such a quiet amazing way that you knew, as soon as she finished, that you would never hear that song in the same way ever again. I wish I could explain what it was like to sit there listening to this girl sing in the back room of the bar where we did her audition. Sometimes there are moments when something happens and you know from the first few seconds that what’s happening is a truly amazing thing, a rare and extraordinary thing, a thing you will remember for the rest of your life. And for all that we think those moments usually have to do with love and sex and money, it seems to me that mostly they don’t, and far more of them have to do with being startled by surpassing beauty that you never expected to see or hear in a million years.
Her name was Edith, she said after the audition, and she was indeed twenty, and she was a student at the community college, and she worked at the grocery store, in the milk and yogurt section, and she could not read music, nor could she play an instrument, and she was a cripple from polio, which is why she was on the crutches, and she hoped the crutches would not be a problem for us, if we would be working together making music. […]
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Brian Doyle is an award-winning author, essayist, and editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. Doyle’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The American Scholar, Georgia Review, and Best American Essays anthologies. He is the author of several books, notably the sprawling Oregon novel Mink River. His new novel The Plover will be published in April by St Martin’s Press.