You're leanin’ crooked in a murdered out, illegal gin joint. The wait staff? To the nines. Smart. Buttoned-down. They look good. You look good. The girls look goddamn great. You've got a drink in your hand. The smoke-choked air is pregnant with the possibility of groove. With potential. The band's about to kick into gear. The leader's staring down at his wingtips. Shiny and polished just so that if you catch their sheer sheen in the right light, at the right angle? You might spy the haggard reflection of God. And then that moment moves into the next and ain't no one lookin' at that guy’s shoes anymore. We're ready to go, yeah? It happens. Jazz happens. He lines it up with an impossible chord and then follows through with a miracle. The horn kicks in. Out of nowhere, the thundering crack of the snare moves everything to a whole new level. The bass comes in low and dirty, seeking a rumble. Now ever'body's lookin' at ever'body. The empty space that up to this point has defined our entire lives is gloriously filled. It all starts to crazy swing, man, and we know at last why were born.
Of course, this isn't the world anymore. Instead we get iPhones and karaoke machines. Bars stopped booking bands because patrons head for the door when they see a cat setting up his skins on the pallet crate stage. Down here in Norfolk, the tired, worn-out bowels of the deep South, you're lucky if you can find a Buffett cover band or a couple of kids fearlessly pretending to know what punk rock is. Maybe a country rhythm and blues group with cowboys too old to know their time is done. But jazz? There hasn't been a jazz club around these parts in well near a decade. The music is drying up. And maybe soon, it'll simply blow away. We'll let the machines handle that shit, yeah? So we don't have to endure the silence of a long elevator ride.
I'm squirming in front of Russell Scarborough, the living memory of Norfolk's scene. He's held drumsticks in his hands for over half a century. I've risked the temerity of brokering his ire with an impertinent question. "C'mon, Russell, what does jazz even mean anymore?"
Ordinarily, this is not a man prone to displeasure. You’re more likely to find him on the throne, doing that thing he was born to do. He'll slide those brushes across the snare skin just right and you'll know what it means to love something. Just this second, though? He's a little pissed off. "No, I don't think I care to answer that," he drawls before deciding to throw me a bone. "I'm with Louis on this one: if you have to ask, you'll never know."
If anyone knows, it's Scarborough. Incredulously, there was a time in his life when he was surrounded by people who didn't believe he had the music in him. "I was, ah, asked to leave my middle school band. The director went so far as to warn all the high school music teachers about me ahead of time. That was fine by me. I wasn't interested in playing drum major. I wanted to rock and roll."
A nearly lifelong Norfolkian, Russell stepped out with his high school diploma just in time to board a bus on it's way to the draft. Vietnam was heavy on his mind. His own father, a veteran of a the second World War who also knew his way around Korea, had declined the offer to screw around in the jungle, instead choosing to retire two shy of his thirty years. Russell muses, "He went to the Pentagon and protested the war. I had a draft number. It was called. Four busloads of nineteen-year-olds left Granby Street for the induction. Half a busload came back. I was lucky enough to be on that bus that came back."
Relieved of his responsibility to trundle off to war, Russell found a seat in a band almost immediately upon his return. "We wanted to play Yardbirds. We played a whole lot of a 'Whole Lotta Love,'" he laughs. Years later, bored just banging the drums on two and four, he discovered jazz and that was that. "Most of the guys that had gigs were older. More experienced. They were playing Satin Dolls, Count Basie. Stuff like that. I played fourteen, fifteen years. Studying them. Learning." Frustratingly, he couldn't seem to make it pay the bills entirely. "I played at night. I always had day jobs. I would cremate people. Make pizzas. I ended up in construction. Twenty stories in the air with concrete in one hand, holding my ass in the other. And then I asked myself, 'What the hell am I doing here?'"
"I used to play seven nights a week, but that was common back then. The drinking age was eighteen. Navy town. You got a bar, selling a thousand dollars worth of beer. They paid the band a hundred bucks. Everybody's happy."
That was enough. Russell walked out that day, found an agent, and asked what he needed to do to play full-time. He got a monkey suit, started playing professionally, and never went back. "All through the seventies, I gigged my ass off." In '78, he walked into a music store with his student and was offered a job on the spot. He remembers, "It never occurred to me to sell instruments for a living. I perceived salespeople as creepy, mercenary cats. But I found that I could help people. Sell the right stuff. Make them happy. And make myself happy. I get to talk about drums all day. I hang out with musicians constantly." Somewhere along the way, he started teaching lessons. "I taught non-stop for a solid fourteen years and then I got sick of it. Now I only teach when I want. And I get to play, man. I've played almost everything there is to play. Country. Blues. I've been in polka bands. But jazz? Jazz is where it's at."
In 2007, he quit his job at the music superstore where he had been for an eon and found himself without steady work for the first time in decades. "I messed around for a bit. Tried running a restaurant. It didn't work out. So I decided to take all my money and open my own music shop. One month later, I was standing right where I am now.” Russell's Music World, that is, home of vintage kits, rare music books, and the occasional jam session. So far, he’s had a solid run, but things haven’t always been easy. “There were some challenging years during the recession, like everyone else I struggled. But I weathered that. I sold all my fancy drums. My piano. My records. My car. And now I make a comfortable living selling guitar strings and drums to the good people of Norfolk. Nothing's really changed. People go through their Neil Peart phase and then they sell all that and come here to buy four drums and two cymbals. The working cat plays a stripped down kit. I'm not selling Fender Strat packs. I'm not competing with Guitar Center. I'm making it selling things like used drums. You know, only I have that one set. There's always something interesting in here. I fill a niche."
For the diehards who occupy that niche, Russell’s is a godsend, but things are getting dry out here. "Back in the day, there were a million venues. The kids now can't believe it when I tell them I used to play seven nights a week, but that was common back then. The drinking age was eighteen. Navy town. You got a bar, selling a thousand dollars worth of beer. They paid the band a hundred bucks. Everybody's happy. And this was back when a hundred bucks was real money. My rent was a hundred-forty a month. You couldn't tell me nothing." He laughs. "You still can't. The guys I know, now? The younger guys? They have to live at home with mom and dad so they can play a big show once a year. The guys who want to play full time? They've got to make some kind of lifestyle concession. You're not gonna get paid enough just playing. And I'm fine with that. If I work six days a week and gig six nights a week? I'm perfectly happy with that. I don't care if I'm tired."
With that, I bid so long to the old jazzman. Fade out into the gaunt night. Hit the street, jangly and desperate to discover the next high note. I take solace in the fact that men like Russell are here to remind us what it's all about. What does jazz mean in this day and age? I'm not sure I can put it into concrete terms. Like Armstrong once opined, "If you have to ask …”
This much I can tell you: jazz has something to do with knowing when to move and when to sit still. When to stay and when to go. At the end of the day? Jazz is about time; Russell Scarborough has stood its test and then some.
During the day, you can find Russell Scarborough at his shop, Russell's Music World, located at 504 Washington Park in Ghent. Hear his chops Wednesday nights at the Belmont House of Smoke where he performs with the Russell Scarborough Trio.
Photography by Jeff Hewitt