Rent Party Jazz


January 02, 2002|By William Miller

* Editor's note: In 1930s New Orleans, informal rent parties are perfect venues for communities to come together and help each other out while everyone gets to appreciate up and coming jazz musicians.

Every morning, as the sun was coming up, Sonny went to work for the coal man. Sonny's job was to jump down and drag the sacks into the alleys, then shovel the coal down the chutes. He made 10 cents a day, seven days a week. His mother worked in a fish canning factory. All day long she packed fancy little fist, earning a penny for each can she filled.

When Sonny and the coal man drove through Jackson Square, they would hear trumpet players blowing their horns. The musicians played any tune people wanted to hear, hoping listeners would drop a few coins into their hats.

One morning Sonny came home to find Mama sitting at the kitchen table. She looked like she had been crying.

"What's the matter, Mama?" Sonny asked. "Are you sick?"

"Worse than sick, Sonny. I've been let go from my job. These are some hard times, and folks aren't buyin' much fancy fish. Might be three, four months 'fore they need these hands again."

Sonny's heart sank. Rent day would be coming soon, and the rent man didn't care whether you had a job or not. All he wanted was his money. If they missed paying the rent by just one day, the rent man would change the locks and sell off their belongings at a public auction.

"I'll get a second job, Mama," Sonny said. "I'll quit ..."

"No, Sonny," Mama interrupted. "I got two weeks to find somethin' else. You stay in school and learn everything you can -- everything, so things will be better for you."

After school that day, Sonny wandered through the streets of the Quarter, tired and sad. There had to be something he could do to help raise the rent money.

In Jackson Square a huge crowd had gathered around one man playing his horn. Even from the back of the crowd, Sonny could hear how fine the music was. And no wonder the music was so good, so sweet, so clear. Everybody in New Orleans knew about Smilin' Jack. He had played his horn all around the country, even in the great jazz clubs up North.

"Hey, young man, what's your name?" Smilin' Jack asked as he stepped down from the platform.

"Sonny Comeaux, sir."

"You need a special tune, Sonny? You're looking mighty down. Sure wish I could get those hands clapping."

"I love your music, Smilin' Jack," Sonny said. "But a tune won't solve my problems."

"Problems? What kind of problems does a boy like you have?"

Sonny explained about his mother losing her job, about the rent man who'd put them out on the street if they missed paying the rent.

Smilin' Jack suddenly looked serious. "Back in Mississippi, where I come from, they did the same thing to colored folks all the time. But then we found a way to fight back, pay the rent man and have the world's best party at the same time."

"How'd you do that?" Sonny asked.

"All the neighbors got together and threw themselves a rent party," Smilin' Jack said. "They baked sweet potato pies, fixed up some catfish and greens, then brought the food to the house where help was needed. They put out a big empty bucket, too, and soon someone who knew how to pluck a fine banjo or blow a jazzy horn would start playing -- make people sing and dance and forget their worries for a while. By the end of the night, people had dropped enough money in that bucket to put the old rent man back in his place."

"That sounds like a mighty fine idea," Sonny said. "But where am I going to find somebody who'll play for Mama and me, play for poor people he doesn't even know?"

Smilin' Jack faked a frown and tapped his foot. "Some people say I play a pretty mean trumpet myself."

For the first time in days, Sonny smiled.

Sonny knocked on all the neighbors' doors, told them about the party and asked them to bring whatever food they could spare. He told them to get ready for the best music in the world. They were all going to meet the great Smilin' Jack!

On his way home, sonny found an empty bucket in an alley. He put it on the floor just inside the doorway and sat down beside Mama to wait. Mama shook her head, thinking her poor son had just plain lost his mind.

A little while later Sonny and Mama heard cheering and clapping in the street. Then someone knocked loudly on the door.

"Mrs. Comeaux, I sure am pleased to meet you." Smilin' Jack, trumpet in hand, bowed to Mama.

"Well, I'll be! I thought my boy had gone full-moon crazy," Mama said, hardly believing her eyes. "I sure love your music, Smilin' Jack. I surely do."

The house and the street were soon filled with people. There was more food than Sonny had ever seen at one time, enough for everyone who was busy clapping and singing and dancing.

When everyone had left, the bucket was brimming with coins. Mama counted out the money they needed for the rent and handed the rest to Smilin' Jack.

"I thank you much, Smilin' Jack," she said. "I took what I need to see us through. This belongs to you."

Smilin' Jack shook his head. "No Ma'am. That money belongs to anybody who needs it for rent or food. I've already been paid. This was the most fun I've had in a long time. Wherever I go from now on, I'm going to play at least one rent party like this. We'll show those rent men how good folks help each other.

From Rent Party Jazz text copyright c 2001 William Miller. Illustrations c 2001 by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Reprinted by arrangement with LEE & LOW BOOKS INC. 95 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.

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