Since the journalists seem to believe Dark Briggate Blues is the start of a series, and a couple of people told me things that sparked my imagination, I’ve been making some notes for what might be a sequel. This is one of the scenes. The year is 1957 – please, I’d love to know what you think. But it is still very rough.
It had been an empty Friday evening. Markham was restless, unable to settle. Too early to go to Studio 20. Normally he avoided parties, but it seemed a better alternative to sitting at home. Once he arrived, though, it seemed like a bad idea. The house was full of people who were too bright, a fraction too loud, as if they could will themselves into having a good time.
He sat in the front room, letting the conversations and flirtations ebb and flow around him. There were money here, a baby grand sitting by the window. But the only music was skiffle and pop from a record player, muffled by the wall. Guy Mitchell, Pat Boone, Nat King Cole. Emasculated music. Only Little Richard sounded like his wildness hadn’t been tamed.
When someone called out, ‘Charlie. Come on, give us a song,’ he groaned inside and stood by the door to leave without a fuss. The woman who settled on the piano stool and lifted the lid looked uneasy, reluctant. She took a sip of gin and put the glass down before running her hands over the keys. She had thick dark hair that finished in a curl around her shoulders and a black sheath dress. She closed her eyes for a moment then started to play.
At first he couldn’t pick out a tune, listening through the haze of voices. But the room quietened as she continued and he understood she was lulling them, drawing in their attention. The melody began to take shape in the chords of the left hand as the right improvised, hinting here and there before finally settling so that faces began to smile as they recognised it. A Foggy Day In London Town. The woman opened her mouth, her singing low and languorous, as if it was emerging from a distant dream.
She had something. Not an Ella or a Sarah. But there was a velvet sensuality in her tone, hinting at something more intimate than the words themselves, something adrift on soft memories. Then she let her hands take over again, pushing down on the sustain pedal to let chords hang and fade until it all drifted off into the distance.
The applause was polite. People returned to their talk. She took another drink, looking around and blinking, emerging from somewhere else. As she stood he walked over.
‘You’re very good,’ he told her. She didn’t blush, just looked him in the eye.
‘It’s what I do. At night, anyway.’
‘You play well, too. A lot of George Shearing in there.’
That made her smile.
‘I’m Charlotte Taylor.’ She extended a thin, pale arm.
‘Dan Markham,’ he said as they shook.
‘And I only sound like Shearing because I’m not good enough to be Monk or Tatum.’ She spoke the words like a challenge: did he know what he was talking about or was it all bluff?
‘No one else can ever sound like Thelonious,’ he answered. ‘I think he hears things no one else can. And Tatum…’ He shook his head. ‘You’d need two more hands. Are you a professional?’
She looked embarrassed.
‘Trying,’ she admitted. ‘I do nightclubs sometimes. It’s hard to get a gig. Working behind the counter at Boots pays the bills. For now, anyway,’ she added with determination.
He tried to imagine her in the nylon overall, selling medicines and make-up, but he couldn’t reconcile it with the woman he’d just heard singing.
‘How about you?’ she asked. ‘What do you do?’
‘I’m an enquiry agent,’ he said and her eyes widened.
The next night they met for a meal and wandered through town to Studio 20. As they walked she told him a little about herself, short sentences with long pauses. She’d grown up in Malton, married young, a couple of years after the war. But wedded bliss had been a fragile peace, and the decree nisi had come through in July. Leeds had been a fresh start, a chance for her to do more with her music.
‘I’ve never been here before,’ she admitted as they went down the stairs to the club. ‘I don’t know anyone who really likes jazz.’
‘You do now,’ he told her with a smile.
The place was packed, hardly room to stand among the young men and women. In the corner a quintet was playing. Three guitars, bass, and a ragged washboard offering rhythm. Skiffle. Markham glanced at Bob Barclay, the club’s owner, sitting in his booth. He gave an eloquent shrug.
‘The Vipers,’ he said. ‘They’re from London, had a big hit. Brings in the money, Dan. You can see for yourself. That lets me put on other things. There’s not the market for jazz there was a few years back.’
Disappointed, they left. She tucked her arm through his.
‘Hardly your fault.’ She tried to smile, but it was a weak effort. ‘It’s the same all over. Everyone wants pop music.’
He saw her again on Wednesday and the following weekend. Over a month a quick goodnight kiss graduated to passion. Soon she was spending some nights at his flat, or he’d stay over in her bedsit in Hyde Park.
On the occasions she performed Markham would be there, sitting in the corner of a club with endless cups of coffee, applauding every song. She had talent, but Leeds wasn’t a place where it could flower.