The Story of a Saxophone in New York City
This is a story told to me by a transient NYC native who told me to call him “Boss.” This is transcribed word for word from a digital recording device I used to make the recording. Boss would not let me take a picture of him or his saxophone, but he let me record him telling this story. I have used correct spelling but I have not touched the grammar.
BOSS: Eight million stories in New York, give or take a few hundred thousand. Eight million different lives going in different directions at any given moment. My horn starts sometime in the 1920’s. Can’t rightly remember the year it was made, but she is a Buescher Alto Sax, a TrueTone ax bought by some rich kid’s daddy who heard the sound of the alto in Brussels and couldn’t get it out of his head. The kid was named Reximillion Moneybags for all I know, but he took a lot of years of sax before him daddy lose everything they had in the Great Crash.
ME: The stock market crash of 1929?
BOSS: That be the one. See, Reximillion’s daddy lose all his money, so guess what he did? He throwed himself off a building. Died with a splat no nevermind to the poor fool who had to scrape him off the street. Reximillion was broke, and had to take care of his mother and sister to boot. All he had left in the world was this here saxophone. Now, this here horn is gold-plated. See that? Real gold, son, none of that fake brassy stuff. He could have hawked this for a decent amount, even in them troubled times, but he didn’t. Know what busking is, son?
ME: Um, usually improvised street performances.
BOSS: You are smart. Bet you didn’t learn that in no school though.
ME: [laughing] No sir, I did not.
BOSS: So Rex, as he was called by then, starts busking in Central Park. Every day, rain or shine, snow or not, and it was said his music was so beautiful that people would throw whatever money they had into his lil porkpie hat. Now Rex made so much, he could have moved out of Hooverville – you know what that is, son?
ME: Yes, Boss.
BOSS: [looks at me incredulously]
ME: During the Great Depression there were millions out of work. When they couldn’t pay their rent, they were out on their ear, so the homeless in New York built their own little city in Central Park. They called it Hooverville because they blamed President Hoover for their situation, and it was their own little slice of Hell.
BOSS: You know an awful lot about New York, sonny, you sure you not from here?
ME: I read a lot.
BOSS: No, Rex didn’t want to move out of Hooverville, but he moved his sissy and his momma out as soon as he could. Hell, I do b’lieve he earned enough to send his sister to school. Toward the end of the Depression, he took on a student, lil black boy named Tescoe [Transcriber’s note: I have no idea if that is actually the name, that is the best approximation I could come up with.] Jenkins. Now Tescoe was prolly 14, maybe 15, and Rex was only about 35 himself, but time served in Hooverville counts double. By the time Rex could have moved out of Hooverville, his momma was dead and his sister was away – far away. His mind was going but Rex could still blow a mean ax and he taught Tescoe everything he knew. Not sure what happen then. Tescoe was living on the streets at the time and when American entered the war, you know which one?
ME: World War II.
BOSS: Right. Somewhere in the early years of the war, Tescoe got it in his head that getting shot at was better than living on the streets, so he told ol’ Rexy that he wanted to join up. Rex told him to do it, and gave the boy this. [Here he pats his saxophone.] Tescoe entered the war and fought and nearly died a couple times, but dragged that saxophone all over God’s green Earth.
ME: Was he in Europe or the Pacific?
BOSS: Don’t rightly know, he was on a boat, though, that I remember. Didn’t get sunk by no U-Boat so maybe Pacific?
ME: You also know your history.
BOSS: [laughs] I ain’t as dumb as I look neither. So anyway, after the war, Tescoe comes back, see, all uniformed and pretty, looking for Rex. Never finds him. He asks around but no one knew nothing. It was like Rex just up and disappeared. Happens from time to time, even now. Guys you’ve known forever just up and gone. You hope they gone out west for a better life or whatnot, but you know somewheres inside you that they prolly died in the night and the po-po cleaned them up the next day. Happens.
ME: What did Tescoe do?
BOSS: What the #$%@ you think he do? Starts in busking. Uniform and all, people dropping coin in his service cap. Buys himself a small place in Harlem, gets himself a wife and starts having babies. But those weren’t no times for a black man, especially a black man what wants the freedom of the city. He played Central Park for a long time, but as his kiddies grew he wanted to stay closer to them, so he played in Harlem. He only made it out to Central Park two, maybe three days a week. That was when I met him.
ME: How old were you?
BOSS: I don’t remember, son, but couldn’t have been older than ten. It was 1960, that much I do recall, and Tescoe was about the same age as Rex was when he gave him this here sax. But Tescoe had done better in the head than old Rex did so he remember the lessons he learn from Rex and the war. Tescoe taught me everything I know about music and about life. Music is life, you see that, son? And the music Tescoe taught was the music of New York. The heartbeat. The rhythm. This city is alive, boy, and you got to dig that beat, do you dig it?
[He puts the reed to his mouth and begins to play. The music is… indescribably good. A small crowd gathers and after he is done, they applaud louder and longer than any crowd I have ever heard of. He turns to me and grins.]
ME: That was amazing.
BOSS: You bet your ass it was amazing! That is the city, son, music is the blood of the city, and the saxophone just plays what beats through it.
ME: Making the sax the heart of the city.
BOSS: Now you get it. You seen “Imagine”?
ME: [I nod solemnly.]
BOSS: That man, Lennon, he live here and die here. He knew his $#%@. His music, and his band, they made up a whole, what you call it… Generation. They helped shape that generation and someone killed him for it. Just like another man, a black one, who died in Memphis in… #$%@ I hate dates…
ME: [Gently] 1968.
BOSS: Right, ’68. The reverend knew his $#%@ too, but it was beyond the music of the city, it was the music of the world. But he died for that. And so did Tescoe. See, after Reverend King died, black folks didn’t like that much. There were riots. I was prolly 17, 18 at the time? Harlem was the site of a big riot and some white jackhole – no offense.
ME: None taken.
BOSS: Some white jackhole done lit Tescoe’s place up with his wife and youngest daughter inside. And ‘course, that the day that Tescoe be playing in the Park. Soon as he heard about the riots, he ran himself home. His wife got out cuz of a neighbor but his daughter? Tescoe change after that. He split with his wife. Wander the streets, muttering. Carry the sax but never play. I found him not too long later, less than a year, dead near my alley, holding the ax like it was his only thing to live for… or to die for. It was the only thing he had left that meant anything, so’s I took it.
[He glances down and places the mouthpiece in his mouth again. He plays a slow, mournful piece of his own devising that brings me nearly to tears.]
BOSS: Been playing here every since. Everyday, til I got old. Know how old I am boy?
ME: If you were around ten in 1960 that would make you about 65.
BOSS: Smart. You keep them smarts boy and maybe they’ll do you good. Anyway, since I got old, I can’t get out here as much. Harder to do now. I’ve seen presidents come and go. I’ve seen wars and terrorism and fear and hate and it just happens over and over again. And the music, it changes, see. But only the melody. The things it makes you feel, it’s mostly the same. On 9/11 I moved my act to as close to the towers as I could. Didn’t take no money that day. Didn’t want it. I played for the dead, and the living who remember them. And now… [He looks down at his haul and the ten dollar bill I had put in there. He reaches down, takes it out, and hands it to me.] All I did was talk your ear off, kid.
ME: More than I could have hoped for. [I try to give it back, but he refuses.]
BOSS: I’m alone now, son. Ain’t got no home, no woman, no kids of my own. No one cares these days about an old black man with a sax. This here saxophone is near 100 years old and still sings as pretty as the day it was made. But when I’m dead… who is gonna play it?
[He gathers his few things and walks away. As he does, he plays a song that makes me think of roads not traveled. And then Boss was gone from my life.]