An excerpt from Chapter 2, stompin' at the savoy.
Bernie Brightman figured he should try everything in life at least once, and bought two of these three cigarettes for a quarter. "Where should we smoke it?"
"Just go right over there into the bathroom," Roy said, walking away.
Nobody in the bathroom seemed to mind as they stood there in the brightly lighted white tile room and lighted up these two slim white hand-rolled cigarettes. People brushed nonchalantly right past them and went about their business and seemed singularly nonplussed about the whole thing.
Bernie smoked half of the stick and really didn't think much of the effect, so he smoked it all the way down and would have kept smoking but there was nothing left except the tiniest burning ember. Then they shared the third stick together. He was feeling a little different before they left the bathroom but as they went out the door it seemed to hit him all at once, the people dancing and the dim, sexy lights and the colors and the music. He felt like he was gliding on air and found himself being drawn to the bandstand, where he positioned himself directly in front of the house band, the Savoy Sultans, who were blowing like crazy.
The Sultans only had about seven or eight guys but they might just as well have been a thousand, ten thousand, Genghis Khan and his entire horde of Mongol warriors. They sounded so full and big and powerful, it sent chills up his spine. They were playing Kansas City style, two trumpets and three saxophones trading solos like a basketball team fast-breaking down a court at breakneck speed, each man handling his gleaming horn with the cunning aplomb of a switchblade about to make a lethal cut when the alto man Rudy Williams took over and started blowing his lead and Razz Mitchell was drumming so fast and hard that Bernie could barely keep track of his sticks. The music just seemed to jump up to another level of intensity as if suddenly cranked up by some giant invisible hand, and then the whole brass section kicked in together on the chorus. The effect was like a crisp slap hitting him squarely across the face. Bernie Brightman thought his heart was going to leap right out of his chest. At that moment he felt like a weight was being lifted from him, like the Great Depression itself was just blowing away from him like a thin leaf caught in a saxophone hurricane. None of it seemed to matter anymore: the drudgery of his lousy job for eight dollars a week, pushing heavy racks of clothes through the streets, the milk lines, relief, the pressure, the stone cold drag of being young and poor in New York and feeling like you had no future.
Brightman had absolutely no interest in dancing at first. He just wanted to stand there alone in front of the bandstand like a solemn worshiper before an altar. He closed his eyes and let the music fill his whole being. But when finally his feet began to move, they moved with a life of their own. It seemed as if he became pure speed and rhythm and style itself as he started to dance.
That was the moment when it really started, with his feet just flying and cutting across the Track as fast as Razz Mitchell's sticks across the high hat. That was the moment when Bernie Brightman understood in his soul exactly why they called it swing, and from that moment on he was a viper.
FROm chapter 8, The Great tenor solo in the shoeshine jukebox
When Billie Holiday finally made her way to the stage of Cafe Society at the age of twenty four, it was abundantly clear that she had traveled the length of an entire world to get there from Harlem, and it was just as clear that even though she was now performing for a crowd of well-heeled New Dealers and society people, there were certain things about her that would never change.
Holiday had arrived in the chic demimonde of the small downtown nightclub on Sheridan Square and was no longer in the familiar atmosphere of Clark Monroe's Uptown House in Harlem, but she wasn't about to stop smoking reefer. She liked to smoke between shows in a taxicab riding through Central Park, alone with a stick of tea burning in her hand, dressed in a beautiful white off the shoulders gown with a single string of pearls around her neck, wearing a white gardenia in her smartly lacquered hair above her left ear. She would always return from these forays soaringly high and would then like to have a glass of sweet wine to relieve the parched dryness in her throat before taking the stage. Each night she was performing three sets of six songs and her audiences at Cafe Society were usually raptly attentive, but for some reason not on this particular night. The crowd seemed stiff, a bunch of squares, and some of them were even talking loudly. Billie stopped after the first song, her eyes flashing with anger. She stood for a moment in silence, alone in the pink light against the darkness. She then whirled around, her back to the audience, bent way over, and flipped her gown up over her derriere.
What the audience saw for a brief and shocking instant was that Billie Holiday wore no underwear underneath her gown--in short, what the audience saw was everything before she strutted boldly past the tables, back to her dressing room. Members of the audience gasped at the display, but the underlying message of the gesture was clear enough. If those fancy white folks weren't hip enough to appreciate what she was singing, they could just kiss her big beautiful black ass.
From chapter 13, You're buzzing baby
Kerouac had known about Benzedrine but had never tried it. He knew that Charlie Parker and many of the other musicians he admired who were playing at Minton’s Playhouse took it, prying the tops off of the little white Benzedrex inhalers and taking out the amphetamine-soaked strip of yellow gauze marked “Poison” and soaking it in coffee or soda or cocktails and drinking it, or just plain rolling it up in a nasty bitter little ball and swallowing it down, which is precisely what the three of them proceeded to do right there at the table.
As the drug began to hit, Kerouac began looking quickly around. Almost immediately he found himself dissociating from his environment. Times Square had completely transmogrified into a place he no longer recognized. It was funny, wild, he had gotten so high, so fast, he began to think he was in another country…
"Are we in St. Petersburg? Are we in St. Petersburg, Russia?"
Kerouac knew he was talking nonsense but couldn't stop himself. Talking up a storm was one thing but this was a kind of hyper-loquaciousness he had never known. He couldn’t seem to control his mouth.
"Are we in Chicago? Are we in Katmandu?"
Then they got in a cab, all of them riotously high, and Burroughs paid the fare as Vicky took them all around Times Square looking to pick up on some tea. It was a tour unlike any that either of them had ever experienced of the place. She made them cruise up and down each and every block, repeatedly, and at every street corner she would scream, "Stop!"--and go jumping out of the cab, running up to every zoot-suited character on the street--
--before hearing, "Nothing, ba-by!"--then clamber back into the car on her high heels, pouting, and order, "Drive on!"
It went on like that until it was obvious there was no tea to be had in all of Manhattan but now Kerouac was even higher and more entranced by her. Before he knew it he found himself clutching onto a strap of the F Train as it went barreling down town, pressed tightly up against Burroughs and Vicky Russell, his heart pounding and his mouth dry as cotton balls, the words rushing out of his mouth unable to catch up with the thoughts firing off in his racing brain, digging Burroughs as if he had never really appreciated him before, the two of them looking into each other's eyes and it felt like they were really connecting for the first time as people and friends, digging everything and everyone not only on the train but in the whole world, especially this crazy gone redhead named Vicky--
"My ears are ringing," he kept exclaiming, "I don't know where I am!"
"You're buzzing," she kept laughing. "You're buzzing, baby!"
For the next forty-eight straight hours Kerouac had sex with her—“fucked her solid,” as he later described it--and when it was over it felt like he had lost ten pounds. He had never been so high in his life, and had never felt so spent after it was over, so jangled and lost after the great towering exhilaration of the high. He had been so high, in fact, that he had completely forgotten about his father, Leo, who was sick out in Ozone Park, and thinking about his father after coming down was like the sudden reacquisition of some shattering knowledge.