Scott Nadelson is the author of a novel, Between You and Me, a memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress, and five story collections, most recently One of Us, winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Short Fiction. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse and Best American Short Stories 2020. He teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University, and can also be found @scottnadelson.
A MINOR BLUES
Frank would always shoot while we were rehearsing in the studio. He was never in the way. You weren’t aware that he was taking pictures—they were never posed shots. He pretty much stayed in the background, but there was an underlying strength to his presence, as if he didn’t really need to say any more than he did.
It’s late summer, 1957. Van Gelder hasn’t yet opened his famous studio in Englewood Cliffs, nor has he given up his day job as an optometrist in Teaneck. For now he still records at his parents’ house in Hackensack, and that’s where Francis Wolff drives two or three evenings a month with his old friend Alfred Lion—over the impossible span of the George Washington Bridge, from which he can see all the way down the wind-rippled Hudson to the tip of the island where he arrived eighteen years ago. Eighteen years since he escaped what would have been his certain death. L’chaim. He owes his life to Alfred, who got him on the last boat out of Hamburg before the Gestapo began checking papers and pulling Jews off gangplanks. He would thank him again now, except as he drives, Alfred talks about a session Frank missed a few weeks ago, the interplay between the alto and a young guitar player, just brilliant, Alfred says in German, wait until you hear the recording, it really swings.
Frank feels particularly grateful tonight, though also shaken, having just returned from his first trip back to Berlin since the war, to visit his only surviving relatives, a pair of cousins he hardly knew growing up, one five years older than he, the other six years his junior. They’d been among a crowd of children at holiday meals, and their parents’ names were ones his father regularly mentioned. But if he’d ever had a full-fledged conversation with either, he could no longer remember it. They were near-strangers when they met in a café near the Tiergarten, though the bond they shared, that of being the last of their kind, made them tearful when they embraced, their words tender and intimate as those between old friends. Neither cousin could give Frank news of what happened to his parents after he’d left, nor his sister, but they did fill him in on the fate of several aunts and uncles and other cousins who’d been closer to him in age. All perished, of course, but the details of where they’d last been seen, when they’d been arrested, which trains they’d been herded into, all seemed crucial to hear now, when he was in danger of forgetting them altogether, as if they’d never actually been present in his life.
Above all, his time in Berlin made him miss Alfred, who has become his true family since he emigrated, the person who now knows him best in the entire world. Along with his life, he owes Alfred his livelihood, his purpose. Though he’d worked as a commercial photographer for a decade, when he arrived in New York, all the magazines and advertisers turned him away. The only job he could find was as an assistant in a Midtown portrait studio, developing another photographer’s mediocre shots of grim families who couldn’t afford anything better, their carefully oiled hair reflecting too much light. By then Alfred had already started the record label, and there was never any question as to whether he’d bring Frank on as a partner, though Frank had no experience producing music, nor any funds to invest. Nor did he have Alfred’s big personality, his ability to talk at length to anyone he met, unashamed of his accent, his history, his ancestry. But he shared Alfred’s passion for jazz, ever since they'd first encountered it together at sixteen years old, when Sam Wooding’s orchestra played in Potsdamer Platz. He preferred to work behind the scenes in any case, writing contracts and keeping track of finances, or behind his camera, the Rolleiflex he'd once used to shoot German models and actresses, one of the few items he carried with him across the ocean.
For fifteen years he and Alfred kept their day jobs, running the label in the evenings and on weekends, but they have finally begun to earn enough from record sales to pay themselves modest salaries and devote themselves full-time to jazz. Now the only photographs Frank takes are during rehearsal sessions in Van Gelder’s living room, shots of musicians Alfred uses on the covers of records to keep their design costs down. He is proud of these images, though his favorites often aren’t the ones Alfred chooses. His friend prefers shots suggesting action and ecstasy, the ones that make you imagine sound surging from frozen instruments. But Frank is most partial to the moments between the songs, when a horn player cleans his mouthpiece, or a drummer wipes sweat from his brow. In these he feels he has revealed the players at their most honest and vulnerable, and even more, that he has managed to commune with them, though his shyness otherwise prevents him from exchanging more than a few words.
Tonight, six musicians are crammed into the tight space, all in their early twenties, except for the saxophone player, who is not quite thirty-one. In his stiff suit and black tie, hair beginning to recede at the temples, Frank at fifty feels both old in their presence and also rejuvenated, as if their youth lets off a steam that smooths his slackening skin. They laugh and call out to Alfred, who addresses each of them by name: Donald, John, Sonny, Curtis, Art, Paul. In turn, they say to each other, It’s the Lion and the Wolf. Watch out, the Lion and the Wolf are here, gonna tear you apart. Frank, too, should know their names—he has written all their contracts—but in person he always finds himself flummoxed when searching for them in his mind, and rather than risk mixing them up, he has quit trying to keep them straight during recording sessions. He will put faces and names together again when he prints his negatives and cuts their checks.
For now, he wants only to study those faces on their own terms, consider angles and lighting and reflection. One of the great challenges of his career has been adapting to photographing dark skin, of which he saw so little in Germany, especially after jazz was banned in 1933 and American musicians stopped passing through Berlin. The task here is made more difficult by the dim light fixtures in the Van Gelders’ living room, the backdrop of ugly horizontal blinds and a cheap floor lamp. With instruments and microphones filling the tight space, there is no room for studio lights, which would make the place too hot in any case. So he has adjusted to using a hand-held flash, which he raises above his head with his right hand while snapping the Rolleiflex with his left.
The musicians have to put up with him flashing in their faces as they play, and as a result some of his best images show them with eyes closed, as if deep in contemplation, when in truth they are just blinking away the blaze of light. He jokes with them that he is doing an impression of the Statue of Liberty, holding a torch high to light the way to freedom, and most of them are good-natured about the intrusion, especially because they like having their portraits on the front of their records. It has become a signature of his and Alfred’s label, as much as the tone produced by Van Gelder’s engineering, an unintended benefit of their need to do everything on the cheap. Since giving up their other jobs, they have had to work sixteen hours a day to keep in business, doing almost everything themselves. But while using Frank’s photos was at first a way to save money, word has gotten out among the musicians: the Germans can’t pay as much as Columbia, but they include rehearsal time in the contract, and if you’re the session leader, you get your face on the album cover.
All the players tonight are used to him, except for the saxophone player, who, shy like Frank, turns to the side when the camera comes close. Once the rehearsal starts, however, he quickly loses himself in the massive sound coming out of his horn and ignores the flash and click. The rest have done sessions here before and seem entirely comfortable, especially the baby-faced pianist, who has been a regular in the Van Gelders’ living room, playing on more than a dozen records for the label over the past three years. Though he’s usually a sideman, tonight he’s the session leader, composer of most of the tunes, which are jaunty like him but also bounce with a wistfulness that comes from his generous use of minor keys. The other musicians defer to him, even the saxophone player who’s a good five years older and scheduled to lead his own session in just a couple of weeks. The fluidity of roles in modern jazz has always appealed to Frank—whatever hierarchy exists is temporary and pragmatic, necessary only for decisions about repertoire and arrangement. Once the music starts, such divisions disappear, and all the musicians enter into conversation, giving space to each other no matter who’s in charge.
It’s the same with him and Alfred: now that rehearsals have begun, Alfred moves out of the way, leaning against the wall, snapping fingers out of synch, and listening only to make sure the music has sufficient swing. That’s his single criterion. No matter how innovative or avant-garde, as long as a tune makes him want to move his hips, he’s happy to press it into vinyl. Frank, meanwhile, steps up with his camera and flash, unable to keep his feet in brown derbies from shuffling into a little dance as he bends and snaps, preferring low angles to give his subjects sufficient stature. He wants to make them as mythic as they have become in his mind, these passionate young men who have grown up in ghettos like the ones his relatives suffered in Europe, though the American version is less overtly circumscribed, liquidated more gradually with poverty and neglect rather than trains and gas chambers. His biggest regret on returning to Berlin was not having used his camera to document what was still there when he had the chance. An entire culture obliterated in a matter of a few years, and now nothing remains. He will not let the same thing happen to these evenings, which feel equally fragile and fleeting. The photographs may serve a practical purpose, but privately—this he hasn’t even discussed with Alfred—he has come to see them as something far more important, an attempt to preserve a world that might vanish at any moment.
And he thinks that’s what the young pianist and his fellow musicians are doing, too, why they work so hard to record their music, even though they make more money performing live at nightclubs. They are twenty-two, twenty-five, twenty-seven years old, but already they can
imagine a moment when they are no longer here. And it’s easy to understand why, when so many of their friends and family members have succumbed to hardships. The stakes are high when the tape rolls, and the mood then becomes more serious, which is why Frank chooses to shoot during rehearsal time instead. Now the musicians play joyfully and laugh between songs, with nothing driving them but love for what they are doing, for the sounds they make together, while for Frank the stakes are at their highest, when only he knows he is snapping the shutter to keep oblivion at bay.
When the rehearsal comes to an end, they are all sweating, Frank included, and they take a break so Van Gelder—nearly the same age as the saxophone player but seeming to come from an earlier generation, or a different universe, with his bow tie and thick glasses and double- chin—can set up his microphones, which he does with an obsessive precision, warning everyone multiple times not to move a single cable once he has set things in place, not even to touch it. Frank wanders to the kitchen for a glass of water, and there he finds Van Gelder’s mother, a small stout woman not much older than he is, who, with her husband, has run a clothing shop in Passaic for the past thirty years. What she thinks of her son inviting groups of colored musicians into her home every week he doesn’t know. She has always been polite and distant, bringing out a bowl of nuts or crackers for them to snack on and otherwise staying out of the way.
During one of their first encounters, however, she made sure to let Frank know that she is also Jewish—born a Cohen, in fact—though she married outside the faith. Now she asks about his trip to Berlin, says she could never have brought herself to go back; her family left Poland before she was born, and she doesn’t know how many relatives stayed behind. She is just trying to focus on the future, to keep the store in business, to make sure she and her husband can leave Rudy enough that he’ll be comfortable, no matter what he decides to do with his life. She knows he loves music far more than eyeglasses, and if that’s how he wants to make his living, who is she to say he shouldn’t? Much of what she hears coming from the living room makes no sense to her, it jangles her brain, but tonight’s session she enjoyed, she says, it has rhythm and melody and not too many high-pitched squawks.
This is the most she’s ever said to him at one time, and she speaks without giving him a chance to answer. But she hands him a glass of water without his having to ask, and for that he’s grateful. Though the sweat is beginning to turn cold under his shirt, his throat is dry. It’s better, Mrs. Van Gelder says, to look ahead rather than behind. It isn’t too late, she adds, glancing down at her hands, to start a new family. Not for a man, it isn’t.
I have a family, he says. I have Alfred. He thanks her for the water and excuses himself.
Two of the musicians, the drummer and the trombonist, stand outside the water closet, whispering to each other as Frank makes his way down the hall. They look solemn and concerned, each in turn pressing an ear to the heavy paneled door and trying the knob. Should we break it? asks the trombonist, tall and bulky but big-eyed and nervous-looking in a too-tight striped shirt, and the drummer holds up a hand to quiet him. Then comes a soft groan, followed by what sounds like the snapping shut of an instrument case. Both men let out a heavy breath, though they still look uneasy as the toilet flushes and the lock clicks. The door opens to reveal the baby-faced pianist, appearing even younger now, just a little boy blinking in the dim light and smiling a blissful, dreamy smile. His hands are empty, but one sleeve of his shirt is unbuttoned. He stumbles over the threshold, and the trombonist takes him under his long arm, steadies him, asks, you ready for this?
I can play in my sleep, the pianist says. It looks as if he might have to do so: his eyes droop, his head sags to one side. The drummer, shorter, with a dense mustache and a calm expression both wise and weary, takes his other side, and the two of them walk the pianist through the kitchen, as Mrs. Van Gelder looks on through thick glasses that match her son’s, sipping carefully at a cup of tea.
Alfred has expressed his concern about the pianist, as well as about others—that they might overdose before a session, or even worse, during one—but what are they to do? Write into their contract that using narcotics is forbidden? Frank worries, too, but what he hasn’t said is this: how can Alfred expect them to do otherwise? This is the difference between them, the reason Alfred has a wife and children while Frank has decidedly avoided any new ties. Alfred left Berlin in 1933 and didn’t witness the worst of what would come; his optimism is genuine but naïve, Frank thinks, and as much as his friend loves these musicians, as much as he admires them, he can’t see how deep their pain runs. Nor, for that matter, can Frank, who sat across from his cousins in the Tiergarten café unable to picture what had happened to them after he’d stepped on the boat in Hamburg, even with the details they offered—the horror of their experience pushed beyond the reach of his imagination, and all he could do was apologize to them for having run away.
When he returns to the living room, Van Gelder has finished setting up. He and Alfred consult about the volume of the snare drum as the musicians prepare, the saxophonist wiping the neck of his horn with a cloth, the bass player tuning a string. They chat and joke, but more somberly now, and the pianist sits silently on his bench, listening to the others, or maybe only to his thoughts. Frank glances at Alfred to see if he has noticed anything wrong, but his friend just bounces on his heels and smiles in anticipation. Would it serve any purpose to upset him? Frank decides then: he will keep what he witnessed outside the bathroom to himself.
Van Gelder disappears into the control room, which was once his childhood bedroom, all the furniture replaced with sound equipment he refuses to show anyone else how to use. Frank has just another moment before it’s time for him to get out of the way, but before he does, he grabs his camera and flash once more. Crouching, he focuses on the pianist across the plane of his instrument, face framed by its propped lid.
In the view are the exposed guts of the piano, and behind the pianist’s head a cymbal and the dark space of an open door. The young man glances to the side, as if contemplating a note only he can hear, and in his expression is something Frank saw in the expressions of his Berlin cousins. It’s a haunted look, both resigned and restless, possessed, he thinks, only by those who have confronted death, or rather, those who have stepped as closely as possible without crossing to its other side. Afterward they carry the weight of what they’ve seen, a burden they can never set down. It’s a terrible thing to bear, but also oddly beautiful and necessary, and he suspects they wouldn’t trade it away if given the chance, despite the suffering it brings them. His cousins couldn’t articulate such contradiction, but the pianist can, through his minor keys. And as if confirming it, his hand rises over the top of the piano, a short pencil gripped between two fingers, scratching something onto his score. Perhaps Frank can express it, too, or at least this photograph can, the camera able to see what he, who escaped his cousins’ fate, never will. It’s not the kind of shot Alfred prefers, but it will be the right one for the album cover. Frank will insist on it.
He raises the flash high over his head, releases the shutter, and turns the crank to advance the film.