Cole Jefferson, a large man with hands the size of Texas opened the back door
to the club and tossed a wiry man out into the alley. The man stumbled and
fell to the ground.
"Don't ever come back here, Mason! I have zero tolerance for sloppy
musicians," Cole said.
"Yu, yu, you have no right, Keys! No right t'all!" Mason stuttered.
Cole shook his head in disgust; his large frame cast a shadow from the single
light on the old brick wall of the club that seemed to engulf the alleyway. He
turned to walk back inside and the alley returned to its illuminated state.
Mason struggled to his feet, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and wavered
toward State Street.
"Keys, don't you think you were a little rough on him?" Sara asked.
"The pathetic thing about Mason is that he had talent. He just couldn't
take his face out of the bottle long enough to utilize it."
He went into the club and sat down at his usual table in the far corner, just
left of the stage and across from the bar. He could see the entire club from
there and noticed everyone coming in the front door, who had been sitting at
the bar, and kept his eye on the stage. He owned the Club Stingray for nine
years now, since old man Miller sold it to him. A smile crossed his lips as he
remembered playing in the club when it was called Night Blues. It was back in
the mid-fifties, during a time in Chicago when the music was changing as fast
as the city and the people in it. There seemed to be a revolution brewing and
he wanted to be part of it. When the opportunity presented itself to purchase
the club, Cole jumped on it. He put every penny he had ever saved into it and
borrowed the rest. And so, Club Stingray was born.
"Hey, Keys! What a night man! If'n we keep going like this, we be needing
a larger club!" Matt said as he handed Cole the receipts for the night.
"It's a Friday night, Matt, we always do well on Friday night." Cole
said as he began to go through the receipts and cash. It was nearly
three-thirty in the morning and the club was closed now. Matt smiled and went
back to the bar to clean up.
"We're gone, Keys. See ya tomorrow," Angela said as she walked by
the table with Sara beside her.
"Good night, ya'll. Have Tick walk you home," he replied, but didn't
look up from his work.
"Thanks, Keys. Bye," Sara said.
They walked out the front door and Tick, the burly Italian boxer, followed
them out. The door closed, but not before letting in a burst of fresh air that
seemed to clash with the smell of cigarettes and alcohol.
"Thanks, Tick," Angela said as they walked through the quiet city
"No problem. Mr. J wants to make sure you girls get home safe."
"What kind of name is Tick anyways?" Sara asked.
Tick smiled and paused as the "L" train passed over the street.
"Mr. J gave me that name after he saw me fight in the ring. He said I was
like a tick that burrowed into my opponent and didn't stop until there was
"Why did you give up boxing?" Sara asked.
"I wasn't making much money and my head was starting to get dizzy from
being hit all the time. Mr. J was nice of enough to offer me a job at the
Cole leaned back against the chair and lit a Kool cigarette.
"Need anything else, Keys?" Matt asked.
"No man, go home. See you tomorrow," he said taking another drag of
Matt pulled on his hat and left the club. Cole put out his cigarette in the
ashtray and stood up. He looked around the empty club with the chairs stacked
up on the tables, the bar wiped clean and the stage lights turned off. Walking
toward the stage, his footsteps echoed like the roar of people clapping, he
stepped up on stage and sat behind the piano. He slid back the cover to expose
those magnificent white and black blades of mercy that had always made him
feel at home. Sitting on the bench with his hands flowing across the keys, he
began to play and sing the club's theme song he wrote several years earlier.
you got no home, child
stole your shoes
can always come, baby
'n sing your blues
at the club, uh huh, yeah at the club
huh, at Club Stingray
His fingers jammed at the keys as he moved down the scale and finished in the
key of G. He smiled as he slowly lifted his hands and released the sustain
pedal. The last chords floated around the club until they drifted into the
walls and floorboards. Cole reached into his pocket and took out another
cigarette. After lighting it, he closed the piano, locked the front door, and
went upstairs to bed.
The next day Angela was getting ready for work in her one bedroom apartment on
Madison Avenue. It was a small apartment and all that she could afford after
working as a singer on a cruise ship for the last five years. She had started
working for the cruise lines when she was twenty-two years old and thought it
would be romantic to sail on the oceans and see the world. She had dreams of a
foreign prince or an American business tycoon noticing her and sweeping her
romantically off her feet. But after five years of watching young couples
displaying their passion and older couples re-igniting their marriages, she
decided to give up the adolescent dream and settle down in the city.
Chicago wasn't the first city she encountered and she was sure it would not be
the last, but for right now she had a nice apartment, friends who cared about
her and she was doing what she had always loved to do, sing. Her Italian
heritage and her mother's fondness of the opera had Angela singing at a very
young age. She had a natural talent for music and could sing a variety of
musical styles, but she always held a special place for the blues. Perhaps it
was because she was somewhat sad and had not found that special person to fill
the void in her heart. She had several relationships, all of which were doomed
from the start. The biggest problem for Angela was her huge heart and the
kindness she showed to everyone. This was often taken advantage of by the men
she had dated, and when the same courtesy wasn't returned she left them
standing in the street, sitting in restaurants, or chasing after her as she
climbed into a cab that sped away, as was with the last loser.
It was nearly seven-thirty in the evening and she didn't need to be on stage
until nine o'clock, but she always enjoyed going to the club early to have a
snack and talk with her friends. She slid the long black dress over her head
and fixed her hair one last time. Then, dabbing perfume on her neck and
wrists, she grabbed her bag and left the apartment.
"Dede, can you take table 4? If that guy says one more thing to me I
think I'm going to throw up!" Sara said walking with a tray of empty
glasses to the bar.
"Sure, hon, I'll take care of him for you. By the time I get done with
him, he'll be running home to mama." She laughed as she took the three
bottles of beer over to table four.
Sara smiled at Matt behind the bar. "I just love her! I wish I could be
more like that and say whatever was on my mind."
"Yeah, that Dede don't take shit from no one," Matt agreed.
It was almost eight o'clock and the Saturday night rush was starting to come
in for the show that would be starting soon and they wanted tables close to
the stage. Cole was sitting at his usual table. With his chair leaning back
against the wall, he scanned the club nodding with approval. Sara walked up to
his table with his glass of gin and tonic and placed it and a napkin on the
"It's gonna be another busy night, Keys," she said with a smile.
"Yep, this city loves its weekends. I have a new sax player coming in
tonight … I told him I'd give him a listen. Can you send him over here when
he gets here?"
"No prob," she replied and headed back to wait on the tables.
In front of the Club Stingray with its neon sign lighting up the block, Angela
stepped out of a taxi and went inside. She made her way toward the bar where
Dede and Sara were waiting for Matt to fill their drink orders.
"Ciao, Angela! How are ya?" Sara called out as Angela walked up to
"This place is packed already!"
"They wanna hear you sing, Angela," Dede said as she picked up the
drinks and headed back through the crowded club.
"You keep packing them in, girl, and I'll keep counting my tips,"
"I've got to grab something eat, I'm starving!" Angela said and
started toward the buffet table. She picked up a plate and began to fill it
with salad, fruits, and other essentials. After she finished, she carried it
over to Keys and sat at the table with him.
"For someone so skinny you sure know how to pack it in," Cole said.
"I'm a growing girl. I need the energy to stand on stage all night,"
Angela smiled and took another forkful of salad.
At nine o'clock, Matt turned down the lights and Cole walked up on the stage.
The spotlight shined on him from the rafters as he sat behind the piano and
adjusted the microphone. He looked toward the audience and began to play.
"Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Club Stingray!" Cole
played the piano like it was an extension of his soul. No one could belt out a
tune like he could and he had that raspy, blues voice that carried throughout
the club. People began to clap and whistle, and then cheered him on as he
broke into the theme song as only he could sing it.
you got no home, child
stole your shoes
can always come here, baby
'n sing your blues
at the club, uh huh, yeah at the club
huh, at Club Stingray!
Cole stood up from the piano and walked to the center of the stage where he
picked up the microphone.
Everyone screamed with excitement.
"We have a great show for you tonight and later on a special guest is
making their debut here at Club Stingray. Our barkeep Matt will keep your
drinks flowing, our hostesses Sara and Dede will tend your tables. I'm your
host, Keys Jefferson. I'd like to introduce Casey on the piano and our
Casey took his position at the piano and Angela walked up to Cole who handed
her the microphone and then, left the stage.
Cole withdrew to his table again, sitting against the chair as it leaned on
the wall. He stared at the stage as Angela was in the second verse of Eyes of
Mine. That girl knows the blues, he thought. Just then, noise and yells
came from one of the tables as two men jumped to their feet and started
wrestling with each other. Tick was already on it and quickly grabbed both men
and proceeded to lead them to the back door. Cole shook his head and laughed
as he watched Tick nearly lifting both men off the ground. Tick never
hesitated when it came to keeping order in the club and Cole didn't interfere
with his decisions to keep the club safe. After showing the two men the
alleyway, Tick stepped back inside and nodded to Cole.
Sara walked up to Cole's table followed by a young, nervous looking man two
steps behind her. She took Cole's empty glass and replaced it with a full
glass of gin and tonic.
"This is Sam Baker. He says he plays the sax," she said and winked
"Is that right?" Cole asked as he glared over Sara's shoulder eyeing
up the young man hiding behind her.
Sara turned and went back toward the bar carrying a tray of empty glasses. Sam
removed his hat with his left hand, still holding his saxophone case with his
right. He stood about six feet and wore an old tattered suit that was at least
a size too small. The brownish-gray pants looked as though they were ten years
older than the jacket and had worn thin and ragged. His yellowish stained tie
hung low and had a hole in the bottom of it.
"How do you do? I'm Sam Baker. I talked to you on the phone about a
job," he stammered.
Cole sat up in his chair and reached across the table for his pack of
cigarettes. Removing one from the pack, he lit it and inhaled.
"So you think you got what it takes to play here at the club, huh? What's
your style boy?" Cole asked and took a sip of his gin.
"I can play anything, sir, but I like Jazz, like Louis Armstrong
Cole smirked and took the last drag of his cigarette, then smashed it out in
the ashtray. He stood up, which startled young Sam to take two steps
backwards. Cole reached for his glass and started to walk toward the back
door. He called out over his shoulder for Sam to follow him.
Cole opened the back door to the alley and stepped out followed by Sam, still
carrying his saxophone case and hat. Cole leaned against the alley wall and
took out another cigarette.
"Let's hear what kinda soul you got, boy. I ain't got all night."
Sam looked around the dark alley and then back at Cole.
"What's a matter? You never played in an alley before?" Cole lit his
"Yes, sir. I mean, no sir." Sam placed his saxophone case on the
ground and then popped it open. He removed the shiny golden saxophone from the
case and took out a reed, which he placed in his mouth to moisten. With the
strap around his neck, he placed the reed into the mouthpiece and adjusted the
saxophone's neck. He took one last look at Cole and then closed his eyes and
blew into the alto saxophone.
The night air filled with the crisp, luscious notes of the sax as Sam moved
his fingers on the keys. The smoothness of his changes and his grasp of the
instrument's capability had captured Cole's interest. He put his cigarette out
with his shoe and took a sip from his glass.
"Alright, so you copied the great Louie. What do you have that's
yours?" Cole asked as Sam finished the tune. "Give me something with
some soul. I want to see people open their windows in this alley as if they
just heard the devil himself play."
Sam looked at Cole and then at the night sky. He paused for just a moment and
then began to play. The smooth sound of that sexy sax filled the alleyways and
drifted out into the streets. The blues style mixed with sounds of the Chicago
night, and people started to peer down the alley from the sidewalk of State
Street. A young couple walked down the alley and stopped just in front of the
club's back door, where they swayed back and forth with their bodies pressed
against each other.
Sam ended the song and looked up at Cole. The couple stopped dancing and
facing Sam, clapped and smiled. Then they turned and strolled down the alley
to State Street. Cole took the last sip of gin and made his way over to the
young saxophone player.
"You got talent kid. I'll say that much for ya. Where ya'll from?"
"Atlanta, Mr. Jefferson. I'm from Atlanta," he said smiling.
"Ya gotta place to stay?"
"I'm staying over at the 'Y' on Ashland Avenue. It ain't much, but it's
alls I can afford right now."
Cole looked past him and out towards State Street. "I'll give you a
hundred a week to start. You'll play at least three nights, maybe four. If you
can keep the customers entertained, we'll talk about an increase. There's no
booze while you're playing -- I catch you with one drop of liquor on my stage
and I'll toss you out in this alley faster than you can say Atlantic
"Yes sir! Thank you, sir! I really appreciate it!" Sam said
"Have you had anything to eat today?"
"No, sir. Not yet."
"Get inside and have Sara fix you up
"Thank you, Mr. Jefferson! I'll do that right now," he said and put
the saxophone back in its case and went into the club.
Cole stood outside in the alley and stared up at the sky. "Sweet Jesus,
how many of these folks are you expecting me to take care of?" A small
grin escaped his mouth as he turned and went back inside.