The Art of Improvisation

It was one of those perfect late-spring mornings that made you feel great to be alive. Unless, of course, your name happens to be Marcus Williams. That, unfortunately, is my name. It’s hard to be happy about the life you’re living when you’re twenty-seven years old, sitting in the back seat of your parents’ car as the three of you drive upstate to visit your recently incarcerated older brother. You start thinking things like, this is not the life a jazz musician is supposed to live. I like to imagine that I live the life of a jazz musician, despite the fact that I’m not a musician of any kind. It helps get me through times like this.

I’d just broken up with my girlfriend the week before that wretched drive upstate. Apparently, the fact that she’s Jewish and I’m black and not Jewish caught her off guard after two years together. My relationship with Robin was most certainly a lifestyle choice appropriate for my imaginary profession. Charles Mingus married three different white women. Miles Davis cavorted with white women all the time. Max Roach lived with a white whore for a while. So much for living that life.

So I’m in the car with my parents in a situation unbecoming a jazz musician, although I must admit going to visit one’s brother in jail does have a certain blues aesthetic. I could’ve worked this angle much better in my head, though, if I’d ever liked David. It’s not “bluesy” to visit a jailed brother you’ve hated your whole life. It’s just embittering.

I didn’t want to go; I’d made the trip simply as a favor to my mother, who dabbled in making her children feeling guilty when she wasn’t suffering through a stale marriage. I had nothing to say to him. I’d have to improvise the whole thing, though I had a feeling my improvisational skills would fail me in this instance. Improvisation requires letting go, clearing your head. Don’t think, just play, is the mantra of most jazz instructors. My mind was too cluttered for anything remotely free-form.

I didn’t even realize when my dad had taken us off the FDR Drive and across the G.W. Bridge on the way to Rt. 17. I was thinking of how David and I used to sit contentedly in the back seat during those infrequent family drives my father used to take us on when we were kids. I never had any idea of where we were going then, and I had no idea where we were going this time. The scene out the window on the way to jail was the same as it was when I was seven years old in the back of dad’s big, burgundy Cutlass Supreme: a blur of cars and trees and road signs.

David never bothered me much on those drives. I guess he was paying too much attention to the scenery, or maybe he was talking to my dad, or maybe he had thoughts of his own that engaged him, though that seems doubtful. I was too busy wrapped up in my own oblivion to notice that he wasn’t putting me through his usual brotherly torture. Though there was the one time that he refused to keep his legs closed. He’d spread-eagled his legs so that he encroached all the way over on my side.

“Look, I’m not a girl,” he said, “I sit with my legs open.” Apparently, I didn’t have the balls he had, so I had to clamp my legs together to give him and his delicate crotch some room to breathe.

“You’re awfully quiet back there,” dad said to me somewhere in Rockland County.

“Just thinking,” I said.

“Sooooo. How are things with you and Robin?”

“We broke up.”

The parental units belted out a simultaneous, “What?!?” One of the few times they’ve ever been in sync. On anything.


“We broke up. Last week.”

“Why don’t you tell me these things?” mom said.

“I don’t know. Didn’t seem like that would matter much.”

“I wish you’d talk to me more,” she said.

“I just didn’t feel like talking about it.”

I used that line on Robin quite a bit. Like, “So what happened with your brother? Are your parents okay?

I don’t want to talk about it.”

Robin liked to talk about everything. Whereas I was content to lay my head on her lap in complete silence while watching whatever happened to be on the tube, all she wanted to do was talk. About anything.

That’s probably why I started sleeping with one of my coworkers. I’m a copyeditor at a biweekly computer magazine the size of a smalltown phonebook. Checking on whether the writer meant to include the abbreviation for kilobits per second (Kbps) or kilobytes per second (KBps) doesn’t exactly fit in with the lifestyle I like to imagine I live. Absolutely nothing neo-bohemian about it. There’s no room for improvisation at a computer magazine, not when it’s your job to make sure the copy adheres strictly to the magazine’s rigid style. But it pays the rent and justifies my degree in English.

Tara Simson, one of the members of the Copy Chorale (a term coined by Tara herself, I believe), accompanied me to a small club in Williamsburg that featured jazz on Thursday evenings. Turned out she lived in the neighborhood, so I walked her home after my set. We went upstairs to her studio apartment and had sex like a couple of overeager undergraduates – that is, loud and sloppy.

We continued our trysts for about three months. We started talking more during that time. Tara would call me after work occasionally to discuss stuff about work and what’s on TV before we got to the business of phone sex. I knew I was heading for trouble when her influence began to spread over me. Tara was a tall, redheaded (natural, I found out that night after the show), skinny creature, and her dietary habits were nothing like mine. She also had a way of finding pleasure in the smallest things.

“Every night for the past two weeks I’ve had nothing but a fried plantain for dinner,” she said once in that soft, melodic voice of hers. “It just makes me so happy. I just eat my fried plantain and I’m the happiest girl in the world.”

Great, I thought, now tell me: what are you wearing? Why don’t you take it off?

Two nights later, I was frying a plantain for dinner.

I’ve always been helpless when it comes to the influence of others. Growing up, I liked the same TV shows David liked, the same music he liked. If there was a basketball player he hated, I immediately disliked him, too, sight unseen, simply because David would make such a convincing argument regarding why that particular player sucked. Good thing he didn’t do time when we were kids or I would’ve followed David to juvie hall.

“I just wish you’d let me know when things like this happen,” Mom said, snapping me back into real time.

“It’s not that big a deal,” I said through a big yawn. This brief conversation was making me more anxious than I already was. My anxiety manifests itself in compulsive yawning.

“You tired son?” Dad said, always ready to exhibit his powers of observation.


That shut them up for a while.


I had no idea where we were. Somewhere Up-fucking-state New York, halfway between home and some medium-security prison I’d rather not have known even existed. I’ve never been good at keeping focused during long drives. As a kid, during the few times my dad took us out for family drives, I’d make a conscious attempt at tracing our route, so I’d be able to find my way home in case I’d gotten stranded. Without fail, I’d lose track as soon as we left Brooklyn, off inside my head.

I was lost in there again, mulling over the fact that I was about to visit my incarcerated, drug-addicted older brother, the one who never protected me or delivered me from evil, as older brothers are supposed to do, as I understand it. If anything, he tried to introduce me to evil, in the forms of marijuana, prepubescent sex (there was that time when I was nine and he was eleven and he dry-humped our new seven-year-old next-door neighbor, encouraging me to do the same, which being the follower that I am, did), not to mention street violence, attempted fratricide….


Monk had his weird intervals, so did David. Nothing but dissonance in his life, often atonal when he should have been following the chords. Not that he didn’t know the chords, he just ignored them.

That incident with the neighbor, for example. There was a similar episode with another neighborhood girl, who was my age. I was about seven at the time. We were in the backyard on a summer night and David suggested we all drop our pants and show our underwear. I’ll never forget Tanya’s pink panties. David immediately dropped his pants afterward, too. I chickened out at the last minute. Still, I gladly dry-humped that other girl (who’s name escapes me) a couple of years later. David’s probably the reason why I find foreplay and dry-humping so much more pleasurable than actual intercourse (there are no smells and sticky substances to kill the mood when you and your partner are rubbing your denim-covered crotches against one another).

Robin loved sex. She wanted to fuck as much as she wanted to talk, and she loved to talk. It always seemed as if we were in some weird role-reversal thing whenever I tried to get out of sex, or even some of the heavier preliminaries, such as sticking my fingers inside her. I didn’t want to touch the sheets after fiddling with her and I certainly didn’t want to put my hand anywhere near my nostrils. That stickiness on my fingers would sometimes be enough to kill the mood for me altogether.

Sometimes I didn’t mind going down on her; in theory, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I wanted a guarantee that the pungency would be at a minimum. I quickly realized that such guarantees are impossible to come by.

“Do I smell?” she asked one time.

“No,” I lied before holding my breath again for the dive into her acidic quiff.

I never had such issues with Kelly, a girl I dated in college for a while. I don’t know what her secret was, but neither Robin nor any other woman I’ve been with has discovered it.

All of this relates to influence. Influence, for a musician, can be both a blessing and a curse. As much as I tried to avoid it, David’s influence was all over me.

I’m sure Robin eventually grew tired of begging me for sex, and that that was just one of the issues that drove a wedge in our relationship.

“You’re like the only guy I know who needs to be talked into having sex,” she said a few times, always followed by, “Don’t you wanna fuck me? Don’t you find me attractive? Are you having an affair?

An affair – as if we were married. So dramatic.

“So what was it that the two of you couldn’t work out?” my mother said, breaking up the multiple instant replays running through my mind.

“She said she felt like she’s always freaking out on me. I said, ‘Well, yeah, you are.’ ”

My father found this amusing and shot out one of his short, gut-driven laughs. Ho-HO!!! Mom just shook her head.

“Well,” I said in defense, “she asked.”

Mom and dad never really understood me, though I could always take comfort in the fact that they understood David even less. Why a seven-year-old boy would be found naked in the bathroom with our cousin Susie was, quite understandably, beyond the comprehension of my parents. (I believe his explanation was, I don’t know how it happened. Susie is now a lesbian. Wonder why.)

They really didn’t know what to do with him. Punish him, don’t punish him. Tough love, unconditional love. Let him do what he wants, keep him on a short leash. My parents tried everything with David. They improvised. Nothing worked. They couldn’t keep up with the chord changes.

That was, it struck me, maybe the one thing David and I had in common. We both felt like outsiders. But while David wanted so badly to be on the inside that he was willing to do anything – drugs, violent crime, time – I was willing to remain an outcast. Granted, my decision to remain an outsider was born mostly out of laziness. The things my brother did to win approval just smacked of so much effort that I wanted no part of it, so I was content to sit obliviously in my room through most of my childhood. David had to be out in the world; I didn’t even have the wherewithal to create my own.

And you yourself are just fumbling your way through. Oh yes. Mom and dad don’t know about your half-bottle-of-bourbon-a-night habit, do they? No one knows. Your brother has his – ahem – issues, as do you. Yes, morally superior is what you are as you struggle to find the right balance, just like he is, just like we all do. His improvisations led to trouble. You’ve just been lucky. Don’t you wish you had a drink now, buddy boy?

I wanted to get out of the car and hitchhike back home.


“We’re almost there, son,” dad said almost under his breath.

I yawned uncontrollably for the next fifteen minutes. I didn’t want to do this. For a while after my mother first asked me, I thought some part of me wanted to see him, but it was clear from the moment I got up that morning that I would rather have spent the day in bed being a disappointment to my mother. She’s the one who really wanted me to visit David in his new medium-security home. (When they first told me that he was in jail, I had images of David warily bending over for soap, but then they told me it was a medium-security prison. The justice system really doesn’t work.)

I didn’t want to see him. I had nothing to say – nothing good, at least – and I never really have.

I wanted to shut my brain down, my go-to move in stressful situations. All I could think of was that David would try to hug me, tell me how glad he was I showed up, crack a few jokes about prison life, reassure me that he would hang out with me once he got out, admonish me about fooling around with those white girls. I’d replayed this exchange in my head for about a week before I took the trip, so sure that that’s how it would go that I should have told my parents I’d already spoken with David, so there’s no need for me to go.

But just because the script had already been written didn’t mean there wasn’t room for improvisation. It’s what I knew best, and it’s what got me through that day and other tough situations before and since.

It’s how David lived his life, too, except that when he strayed from the written score, he hit all the wrong notes.

But even Coltrane missed a few notes in his time.

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