Early that next week, with my head still spinning, I sat with the Conner family for Ellen’s first jazz concert of the year—her three younger brothers sandwiched between their parents and me next to Mrs. Conner, feeling guilty that I’d been avoiding her daughter. It was pretty obvious that, between the six of us, only Mrs. Conner and I actually wanted to be there, but Mr. Conner dutifully tried to keep the boys quiet and entertained.
“Ellen looks gorgeous,” I whispered to Mrs. Conner when the jazz band made its way onto the stage. Ellen wore a knee-length black dress with long sleeves and a scooped neckline. Her mom had forced her to take off the leather choker for the evening.
“She’s miserable,” Mrs. Conner whispered back. “We go through concert dress woes every year.” She rolled her eyes. I smiled and looked back to the band members, who were tuning their instruments to Ellen, the lead saxophone. They began with a few big band arrangements, followed by a swing tune, then a ballad. “Ellen has a solo in this one,” whispered Mrs. Conner.
When the band fell into the background, Ellen stood up and a giant spotlight shone on her. She played effortlessly, a beautiful, full tone, with perfect rhythm. The concert band director had begged Ellen to join their group as well, but she just wasn’t interested. “In jazz,” she’d told me, “you can actually lean into a wrong note and make it sound right. It’s not like concert band, where you have to be perfect.”
“She’s got this down,” I commented to Mrs. Conner.
“It’s actually improv,” she offered back.
My eyes widened. I could hardly believe that this picture-perfect sound being pushed along the ceiling by an alto sax was being invented on the fly. I imagined myself standing in front of tonight’s crowd, looking not at a sheet of music but letting it flow out of me like rays of sunlight. I shivered in the audience—not from any chill but from the fear conjured up by the brief imagination.
Dr. Foster is right, I thought. I am definitely uncomfortable with uncertainty. It upset me a little to see how far-reaching it went.
“Jazz and fantasy both push the limits,” Ellen had said to me once. I’d had to think about it for awhile before it sat right with me. Tonight I could see that Ellen was just a teenager who wanted no boundaries. She needed improvisation, needed those grace notes.
A dark stage, a young girl in a black dress. The spotlight’s mouth circling her in a perfect O as she gazed straight ahead. It reminded me of the stormy night that Matt played his keyboard for me, the way his eyes too had found that particular secret spot where the music comes from.