Neon lights spelling out “THE REX” pierce the rain and fog as Mr. Banks crosses the street, gripping his black overcoat shut with one hand while cleaning his fogged glasses with the other.
He hands two dampened bills to the tall gentleman at the door and peels off his coat, his tweed blazer underneath soaked through. He shivers into the downtown jazz bar, leaving a trail of wet footprints to his usual table in the back. The place is packed.
He drapes his blazer over the wooden chair and shakes his dark brown ascot cap dry. It’s been the rainiest week of the year in Toronto, but nothing could keep him home alone on his 70th birthday, also The Rex’s Miles Davis tribute night.
He runs his knobby, wrinkled fingers through his thin, white hair, adjusts his thick-framed glasses, rotates his gold wedding band, and tightens his polka dot square end tie — a ritual he’s maintained since youth. His prime, when he walked with confidence in his stride, and every wink made ladies swoon, and every smile made the sun seem a little less bright. When he married his wife at age 20, though their first loves would always be jazz.
The second he dropped the tonearm onto his very first Miles Davis record and heard the smooth, sultry, soulful brass, he was hooked.
“Would you like anything, sir?” asks the perky blonde waitress.
Banks scans the laminated menu absentmindedly, but has ordered the same drink his entire life.
“Scotch please, neat,” he says softly.
He looks back to the sharply lit stage, where framed posters of famous musicians hang along the walls. A tall man in a fedora, a white button down, and black pants makes his way to the stage, a polished brass trumpet in one hand and a microphone in the other.
“Hello, ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “Thanks for making it out to Miles Davis night. I’m honoured to celebrate this man’s life with all of you, and I just hope I can do him some justice.”
After securing the microphone in its stand, stepping back, and raising the trumpet to his lips, the man takes a deep breath and Davis’ “Nature Boy” fills the room. Banks can’t help but close his eyes. It all goes dark as the smooth, rounded tones begin to form an image in his mind. Goosebumps pop up along his arms — his closed eyes fill with dark blues and greens swirling along with the melody. His mind wanders back to seeing Davis live in Carnegie Hall.
It was 1964 and his first time in New York. He’d borrowed his father’s oversized tux and sat far in the back, but was still in the same room as the legend himself. From his balcony seat, Davis was unrecognizable, but the second he played his first note, Banks knew it was him. He was in awe. He closed his eyes and focused on the notes. Colours splashed in rhythm with the jazz standards. Banks returned to that night in his mind as often as he could, to delay it slipping into a vague and distant memory. In his musical trance, he hadn’t noticed the concert was over and Davis had left the building until a petite brunette approached to ask if he was alright.
The abrupt wave of applause in The Rex snaps Banks back into reality as his eyes begin to well. That night at Carnegie Hall was the night he met Joanne, his wife of 50 years who passed away last spring.
The trumpeter plays one final piece to end the evening. As the clock strikes midnight, he launches into Davis’ “’Round Midnight” and the crowd smiles in recognition. Banks wipes his tears away and runs his fingers along carvings in the table — his and Joanne’s initials, which they’d done on their first wedding anniversary. He looks at the empty seat beside him and can almost see her clear, blue eyes looking back.
A final round of applause rang through the room as he stood and made his way toward the door. The rain had finally stopped and he hails a cab, humming the tune of “Nature Boy.” Before getting in, he rotated his wedding band and blew a kiss to the sky. Joanne would never miss a Miles Davis tribute night.
Featured image by Lucas Lucchitti