The bridges of Madison County (Chapter 9)

PostScript : The Tacoma Nighthawk

As I wrote the story of Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson, I became more and more intrigued with Kincaid and how little any of us knew about him and his life. Only a few weeks before the book went to the printers, I flew to Seattle and tried again to uncover additional information about him.

I had an idea that since he liked music, and was an artist himself, there might have been someone in the music and art culture of the Puget Sound area who knew him. The arts editor of the Seattle Times was helpful. Though he did not know of Kincaid, he provided me access to pertinent sections of the newspaper from 1975 through 1982, the period in which I was most interested.

Working through the 1980 editions, I came across a photo of a black jazz musician, a tenor saxophone player named John “Nighthawk” Cummings. And beside the photo was the credit line Robert Kincaid. The local musician’s union provided me with Cummings’s address, advising me that he had not played actively for some years. The address was on a side street near an industrial section of Tacoma,

just off Highway 5 running down from Seattle. It took several visits to his apartment

before I found him at home. He was wary, initially, of my inquiries. But I convinced him I had a serious and benign interest in Kincaid, and he became cordial and open after that. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of my interview with Cummings, who was seventy at the time I talked with him. I simply turned on my tape recorder and let him tell me about Robert Kincaid.

Interview with “Nighthawk” Cummings

I was doin’ a gig at Shorty’s, up in Seattle where I was livin’ at the time, and I needed a good black-and-white glossy of myself for publicity. The bass player told me there was a guy livin’ out on one of the islands who did some good work. He didn’t have a phone, so I sent him a postcard.

He came by, a real strange-lookin’ old dude in jeans and boots and orange suspenders, takes out these old beat-up cameras that didn’t even look like they’d work, and I thought, Uh- oh. He put me up against a light-colored wall with my horn and told me to play and keep on playing. So I played. For the first three minutes or so, the guy just stood there and looked at me hard, real hard, with the coolest blue eyes you’ve ever seen.

After a little while, he starts takin’ pictures. Then he asks if I’ll play “Autumn Leaves.” And I do that. I play the tune for maybe ten minutes straight while he keeps banging away with his cameras, takin’ one shot after another. Then he says, “Fine, I’ve got it. I’ll have them for you tomorrow.”

Next day he brings them by, and I’m knocked over. I’ve had a lot of pictures taken of me, but these were the best, by far. He charged me fifty dollars, which seemed pretty cheap to me. He thanks me, leaves, and on his way out asks where I’m playin’. So I tell him, “Shorty’s.”

A few nights later , I look out at the audience and see him sittin’ at a table off in the corner,listenin’ real hard. Well, he started comin’ in once a week, always on a Tuesday, always drank beer, but not much of it.

I sometimes went over on breaks and talked with him for a few minutes. He was quiet, didn’t say a lot, but real pleasant, always asked politely if I’d mind playin’ “Autumn Leaves.”

After a while we got to know each other a little I used to like to go down to the harbor and watch the water and ships; turns out, so did he. So we got to the point we’d sit on a bench for whole afternoons and talk. Just a couple of old guys winding it down, starting to feel a little irrelevant, a little obsolete.

Used to bring his dog along. Nice dog. Called him Highway.

He understood magic. Jazz musicians understand it, too. That’s probably why we got along. You’re playing some tune you’ve played a thousand times before, and suddenly there’s a whole new set of ideas coming straight out of your horn without ever going through your conscious mind. He said photography and life in general were a lot like that. Then he added, “So is making love to a woman you love.”

He was workin’ on somethin’ where he was tryin’ to convert music into visual images. He said to me, “John, you know that riff you almost always play in the fourth measure of ‘Sophisticated Lady’? Well, I think I got that on film the other morning. The light came across the water just right and a blue heron kind of looped through my viewfinder all at the same time. I could actually see your riff while I was hearing it and hit the shutter.”

He spent all his time on this music-into- images thing. Was obsessed by it. Don’t know how he made a living.

He never said much about his own life. I knew he’d traveled a lot doing photography, but not much more until one day I asked him about the little silver thing he had on a chain around his neck. Up close, I could see the name Francesca on it. So I asked him, “Anything special about that?”

He didn’t say anything for a while, just stared out at the water.Then he said, “How much time do you have?” Well, it was a Monday, my night off, so I told him I had as much as it took.

He started talkin’. It was like a faucet got turned on. Talkedall afternoon and most of the night. I had the feelin’ he’d kept this all inside of him for a long time.

Never mentioned the woman’s last name, never said where it all took place. But, man, this Robert Kincaid was a poet when he talked about her. She must’ve really been something, one incredible lady. Started quotin’ from a piece he’d written for her— something about Dimension Z, as I recall. I remember thinking it sounded like one of Ornette Coleman’s free- form improvisations.

And, man, he cried while he talked. He cried big tears, the kind it takes an old man to cry , the kind it takes a saxophone to play .

Afterward, I understood why he always requested “Autumn Leaves.” And, man, I started to love this guy. Anyone who can feel that way about a woman is worth lovin’ himself.

So I got to thinkin’ about it, about the power of this thing he and the woman had. About what he called the “old ways.” And I said to myself, “I’ve got to play that power, that love affair,make those old ways come out of my horn.” There was somethin’ so damn lyrical about it.

So I wrote this tune— took me three months. I wanted to keep it simple, elegant. Complex things are easy to do. Simplicity’s the real challenge. I worked on it every day until I began to get it right. Then I worked on it some more and wrote out some lead sheets for the piano and bass. Finally,one night I played it.

He was out there in the audience; Tuesday night, as usual. Anyway, it’s a slow night, maybe twenty people in the place, nobody payin’ much attention to the group.

He’s sittin’ there, quietly, listenin’ hard like he always did, and I say over the microphone, “I’m gonna play a tune I wrote for a friend of mine. It’s called ‘Francesca.'”

I watched him when I said it. He’s starin’ at his bottle of beer , but when I said “Francesca,” he slowly looked up at me, brushed back his long gray hair with both hands, lit a Camel, and those blue eyes came right at me.

I made that horn sound like it never had before; I made it cry for all the miles and years that separated them. There was a little melodic figure in the first measure that sort of pronounced her name— “Fran… ces… ca.”

When I finished, he stood real straight by his table, smiled and nodded, paid his bill, and left. After that I always played it when he came by. He framed a photograph of an old covered bridge and gave it to me for writin’ the song. It’s hangin’ right over there. Never told me where he took it, but it says “Roseman Bridge” right below his signature.

One T uesday night, seven, maybe eight years ago, he doesn’t show. He’s not there the next week, either.I think maybe he’s sick or somethin’. I start to worry, go down to the harbor , ask around. Nobody knows nothin’ about him. Finally, I take a boat over to the island where he lived. It was an old cabin— shack, really— down by the water.

While I’m pokin’ around, a neighbor comes over and asks what I’m doin’. So I tell him. Neighbor says he died about ten days ago. Man,

I hurt when I heard that. Still do. I liked that guy a lot. There was somethin’ about that cat, somethin’. I had the feelin’ there were things he knew that the rest of us don’t.

I asked this neighbor about the dog. He doesn’t know. Said he didn’t know Kincaid, either.So I call the pound, and sure enough they’ve got old Highway down there. I go down and get him out and gave him to my nephew. The last I saw of him, he and the kid were having a love affair.I felt good about that.

Anyway, that’s about it. Not long after I found out what happened to Kincaid, my left arm started going numb when I play for more than twenty minutes. Something to do with a vertebra problem. So I don’t work anymore.

But, man, I’m haunted by that story he told me about him and the woman. So, every Tuesday night I get out my horn, and I play that tune I wrote for him. I play it here, all by myself.

And for some reason I always look at that picture he gave me while I play it. Somethin’ about it, don’t know what it is, but I can’t take my eyes off that picture when I play the tune.

I just stand here, about twilight, makin’ that of ol’ horn weep, and I play that tune for a man named Robert Kincaid and a woman he called Francesca.


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