Stella By Starlight had gone well, with that light clapping common for New York jazz clubs. Autumn Leaves was next, and my Jazz Cats were tuning up for their final piece of the set.
“Meow meow meow, meow meow,” went Monk, giving his usual pre-performance notes as the band leader. Monk played some flourishes on the piano, keeping his paws warm. Mingus played some basslines while tuning. Mingus was a Maine Coon, and I always kept his claws trimmed almost down to the paws for that round bass sound. Coltrane and Parker, both being Persians, took this time to smoke and sip from their whiskeys, having faith their saxophones would stay in tune for the whole set. Davis, waving around his Ragdoll tail, was engaged in a conversation with Jones, who was shifting around his drumkit.
“Meow meow meow. Meow?” went Davis.
“Meow,” went Jones.
Around me were the patrons of the Birdland Jazz Club, many of who I had come to recognize as regulars over the years. Nursing their cocktails and cigarettes, those sitting close to my table whispered the usual compliments.
“Those are some really cool cats. Some cool cats man.”
“Just like the old greats, eh?”
“Another excellent set. Brilliant.”
I went up on stage. “That was Stella By Starlight, with solos from Davis and Coltrane. We’re going to end the night with another standard, one you’ll all recognize. It’s been an honor playing for you fine folks tonight. We are the Midtown Jazz Cats. Here’s Autumn Leaves.”
The crowd watched in awe as the tune started up, with Parker and Monk carrying the main melody, before passing it to Davis for a solo. And of course they were in awe, there were six cats, my own beautiful Jazz Cats, standing or sitting upright and playing their instruments better than most human beings could. Since we started almost ten years ago, back when my Jazz Cats were little Jazz Kittens, we never had a show that didn’t sell out. The club owners always paid well too. Everyone loved my Jazz Cats.
Davis’s solo was mellow and thoughtful, like a log gently burning out in a fireplace. Davis played with a Harmon mute, following the signature style of the great Miles Davis. I remembered hearing his sound in Greenwich as a teenager, a sound I had been trying to get out of my own little Davis for ten years. Davis and my Jazz Cats were good enough. Good enough to the point where the audience couldn’t tell the difference. But they were no Miles Davis, no John Coltrane, no Thelonious Monk. As my Jazz Cats grew older, as my LPs became more and more scratched, I slowly realized they would never truly be like the greats.
Davis ended his solo with a pentatonic theme, which was picked up by Parker gracefully, who transformed it into a minor phrase. The crowd smiled as Parker expressed his whole life through his saxophone.
But they would not smile if they knew what it meant to be a Jazz Cat. The sacrifices these cats had to make, sacrifices which I pushed onto them in exchange for shelter, flea medicine, and Purina Cat Chow. Trimming Mingus’s claws was nothing compared to the fang-removal surgeries Coltrane, Parker, and Davis had to endure for the perfect sound. The addiction to their pain medication that led to their heroin use. I initially justified their use by telling myself that the old jazz greats had all been users too. For a time, I even felt that their addiction reaffirmed my work, that they were on the same track as the greats. Aside from the heroin, all my Jazz Cats used copious amounts of catnip, smoked like chimneys, and drank heavily.
Parker’s solo ended with a series of intense arpeggios, his face furrowed, eyes squinted, and sweat dripping down the ends of his whiskers. Coltrane waited a few bars, waiting for the intensity to fade out before playing his own solo, which started with a callback to A Night in Tunisia from earlier in the night.
Although I loved all my Jazz Cats like family, I had a soft spot for Parker and Coltrane, the two Persians. The lady at the animal shelter had said that they were brothers from the same litter. They were the first two to approach me when I began playing that Dave Brubeck record at the shelter all those years ago. After half an hour of music, six kittens were pressed up against the metal cage bars, their little ears twitching with the sound of the record player. I knew those six would become my Jazz Cats. They even helped carry my record player back to the apartment.
I have forgotten their original names, the names they had back at the shelter. They’re on the adoption documents, hidden among tax forms and take-out menus from a lost time.
After the show, my Jazz Cats wanted to go to The Grotto, a back-alley downtown night club. Jones had gotten on good terms with one of the owners, who also ran some of the dope circles in the area.
“Who’s the most sober?” I asked.
“Meow,” went Coltrane.
“Meow meow!” went Monk.
“Alright. Be safe,” I said. I tossed Monk the keys and watched as my Jazz Cats packed their instruments into my van and drove off.
It was still early, not quite eleven, so I decided to stroll down eighth Avenue before walking home, passing by the speakeasies that had once featured the jazz greats, many of which had now been outfitted as tourist trap bars. I stepped into one called The Cotton, which had New Orleans décor and claimed to have been a venue for Louis Armstrong. The walls were covered with Dixieland posters. I ordered Long Islands and drank next to an animatronic Louis Armstrong.
I went back to the apartment late, and my Jazz Cats were already passed out on the couch. Needles, spoons, little Ziplock bags, and catnip were scattered on the coffee table, along with two bottles of Gin, which I assumed Jones had swiped from Birdland. The record player was turned on, with the needle skipping over at the end of a Chet Baker record. The horns, barely packed away in their cases, were still warm from a drunken late-night jam session.
In the corner of the room was the large marionette which the Jazz Cats had taken out from storage. They frequently did this when they were drunk, hoisting each other up in the strings sarcastically and reminiscing about their kittenhood. I had used the marionette on my Jazz Cats when they were kittens, tying their front paws to strings so they’d walk upright. My Jazz Kittens would snarl and puff their tails and swipe their claws at me, but I persevered. Small price to pay for greatness, I used to think.
I peeled back some fur on Coltrane’s front leg and saw dark and bruised blotches. The injection area was oozing thick, bloody pus. I covered it with a Band-Aid. I began to weep. I’m so sorry my Jazz Cats, it’s my fault, I’m so sorry, I wanted to say. I finished what was left of the gin with some ice, squeezed in between Coltrane and Davis on the couch, and slept, waiting for the morning with my Jazz Cats.
It was a while before we returned to Birdland. My Jazz Cats and I were busy touring the East Coast, going to gigs and festivals, doing interviews, taking pictures, doing some sightseeing on the side, and even opening for an episode of Letterman. We played Ornithology, On Green Dolphin Street, Blue Monk, So What, Cherokee, and so on. During the nights, I drove the van and the radio played jazz, all the sounds I wanted my Jazz Cats to strive towards. As the nights deepened, I turned the volume quieter and quieter, as my Jazz Cats faded to sleep with dope and booze.
But before we knew it, we were back on stage at Birdland. In a Sentimental Mood had gone well, and my Jazz Cats were getting ready for the final song of the set, Giant Steps. The patrons near me whispered the usual.
“Those Jazz Cats are really something.”
“Their sound, it’s just absolutely stellar.”
“Your cats killed it on Letterman.”
It was Coltrane’s idea to put Giant Steps at the end of the set. He said he had some ideas, some thoughts to share with Birdland. Something that came to him in a dream.
I went up on stage. “That was the Duke Ellington classic, In a Sentimental Mood. We got one more for you tonight. Giant Steps, featuring Coltrane on the sax. You’ve been a wonderful audience. We are the Midtown Jazz Cats.”
The intro went off without a hitch, but Coltrane’s solo was unusual, almost minimalistic. My Jazz Cats, all staring at Coltrane, and then each other, adjusted accordingly. Monk dialed back his comping, Mingus switched to a halftime walk, and Jones backed off on his drum fills. Coltrane’s little beady eyes flickered for a while as he took a breather in his solo, a break that became longer and longer until he dropped his saxophone and fainted onto the stage floor. My Jazz Cats stopped playing. The crowd gasped as I ran up on stage.
My Jazz Cats and I circled around Coltrane. I held his little head in my palm and we went backstage. He was sweating profusely, and his pulse was quick and erratic.
“How many times did he shoot up today?” I asked. None of my Jazz Cats answered. “Damn it! How many?”
“Meow,” went Monk.
“Jesus,” I said. “It’s a wonder he was able to play at all.”
“Meow meow meow,” went Davis, puffing on a cigarette.
“Shut up Davis,” I said. I took the cigarette from his mouth and stomped it out. “Get your shit together. Everyone in the van. We’re going to the vet.”
We ran out into the parking lot. Coltrane was in my arms, his body trembling. He felt as light as the day I adopted him. My Jazz Cats had had close calls before, but never something like this. Behind me, my Jazz Cats were trying their best to keep up, hauling their instruments, with Jones in the back struggling with his entire drumkit and a bottle of Hennessy in his mouth.
I opened the back of the van and we lay Coltrane down on an old sweater. I began chest compressions, making sure to be delicate. My Jazz Cats held their breaths.
Coltrane suddenly woke up, gulping in air.
“Fuck me.” I sighed and sat on the back edge of the open van. In a few minutes Coltrane was up on his feet, talking with the other Jazz Cats about how the night’s set went.
After packing away their instruments, they began smoking cigarettes and drinking the Hennessy Jones had snatched from the bar. I tried my best to relax as well. Birdland was closing, and some of the patrons stopped by to check on Coltrane. When they saw him all okay, smoking and drinking, they congratulated us on our performance and asked my Jazz Cats for their paw prints on napkins. The night quieted down, and my Jazz Cats continued to drink. My eyes caught Davis reaching for the stash of needles in the side compartment.
“No,” I said. “Not tonight guys.”
My Jazz Cats whined.
“Meow meow meow. Meow,” went Coltrane.
“Especially you. Are you crazy? You almost died. We’re going to the vet first thing in the morning to make sure you’re really okay.”
“Meow,” went Coltrane.
“You’re not fine. None of you are fine. You’re cats.”
“Meow meow,” went Parker.
“No catnip either. We’re going back to the apartment. We’re all going to sleep. We’re done with all this.” I reached for the Hennessey bottle, but Jones hissed at me. I reached for the needles and catnip, but the others snarled too. Even Coltrane. They were like the old jazz greats now, masters of their instruments and veterans of their own lives. This was the life I had given them.
My Jazz Cats. My poor Jazz Cats. They would never stop. They would never ever stop, and they would die. I saw my beautiful Jazz Cats, in the last years of their lives, faded and doped up in my apartment. This was not the life for them.
“Out the van. All of you,” I said. The Jazz Cats only stared at me. I picked up the snare drum and threw it at them. “Get out!” The Jazz Cats were stunned. They retreated slowly. I threw the bass drum and cymbals at them too, and they leapt out of the van, snarling aggressively at me. “Get out!” I was in tears. I threw Davis’s trumpet. I threw the two saxophones. They began running away, and for good measure, I chased them into the back alley with Mingus’s upright bass, holding it over my shoulders like an axe. I smashed it into the ground. My Jazz Cats retreated deeper into the alley towards the dumpsters where the local stray cats lived. They hissed and snarled and clawed in my direction, back on four legs with their backs hunched. In the dark of the night, I could no longer tell which were the strays and which were my Jazz Cats.
I ran back to the van and started the ignition. The radio began playing Waltz for Debby. I turned it off and drove away into the night.
Jihoon Park is currently a MFA student at George Mason University. His fiction is forthcoming or published in Spry Literary Journal, MARY: A Journal of New Writing, Wilderness House Literary Review, and elsewhere. He is from San Jose, California. He is on Twitter here.