Midnight in Montana

  • Photo illustration by Shaun C. Gibson; images by ISTOCK, NASA

On a cold night that should have been warm, I pulled off the highway and headed for an historic gentleman's club to hear the Doug Turman Sextet, a band of no particular renown. This was mining country in northwestern Montana, where unpredictable, bitter weather is a fact of life, outdoors and in. Next to me in the dark lounge, a young woman dressed in low jeans, a white shirt and James Dean hair courted another young woman. They giggled, spilled wine, and seemed daring to me, and probably to themselves.

The band played old jazz standards, the musicians taking turns politely and looking like they were pretty darn tickled to be together. The old Montana Club is a place with burnished wood walls and chartreuse ceilings, white tablecloths, candles in cups, waiters in black — all in the basement of a stately brick building, holding down the soil in the windblown high valley of Helena. You can practically hear the elk bugling just outside town.

The members of the band made me feel good about America. M.J. Williams is a mannish woman with graying hair who can flick on sultry like nobody's business. Playing trombone, singing scat, and even doing a jazzy percussion riff on melodeon, she tilts her chin up to listen as the trumpet blows. The man on the coronet, Mark Hutchinson, is the youngest in the band, and he plays like he respects his elders: perfectly executed little twirls of sound that don't clutter up the place with a young man's ego. When it's his turn, though, he suggests a tune "with lots of Chicago in it," and the next thing you know, the bald man on the piano opens with a few bars of boogie-woogie that could curl the tails on the cats prowling in the cold outside.

This is when M.J. pulls out the melodeon, a squashed-flat, plastic flute with a kazoo-looking mouth and not very many piano keys arranged down its front. Packing a chord with ninths and elevenths and thirteenths, she chugs a train around the track, and it's going fast and we are not in Montana anymore. We have left the lonely prairie behind.

Jazz is the American music, according to the Europeans looking across the ocean with some envy at this kind of soul. The textbooks say it too, and the picture next to the history lesson will give you Harlem circa 1920. This is Helena 2008. "Blackie" Nelson is the name of the white guitarist, and he's got thick silver hair, a pudding face, sensible shoes and a spring-green Gibson that he plays like he's sneaking up on game.

Later I find out that some of these people pressed transistor radios to their ears in bed at night as kids in the '60s, pulling in Wes Bowen's jazz show from the metropolis of Salt Lake City. I live in Salt Lake myself now, and I fell for jazz as a grown-up white woman who didn't want her laces quite so straight. My teacher was Steve Keen, a musician good enough to take you to jazz even on his oompah accordion. He taught me to try a few licks, and it's something I do on the piano or even the accordion now, in private at the end of a day. I'm an amateur, and practicing is almost more about learning to listen than learning to play.

So I am a sucker for local people who gather on a Wednesday night and drink their martinis or 7-Up, listening, talking, and finding music to call their own regardless of whose music it was to begin with. It'd be no surprise to me or anyone if there's a sorrier side to this scene. The light is dim, but I can see the dark teeth on a young woman in the corner, which could be caused by dental hygiene, but might, more sinisterly, stem from "meth mouth."

But right now it's midnight in Montana, or close enough. We had a "Bye-Bye Blackbird" that sounded like a final number, and then another tune, and another. The family man on bass gets a good lick in. He's Rennen Rieke and his pluck inspires the piano man, Steve Hulse, to another go. At the very end, it's Doug Turman, the drummer, who gives us the grace note. All night long, I haven't noticed him. I can't see him where I'm sitting, and I also can't see him because he's a man who likes his cymbals. I think there are six but I lost count. I don't suppose I'm exaggerating to say he's dwarfed and lost, physically, behind all those shiny brass plates. Like all good folk, he's tucked himself away and kept a steady beat through the melancholy of "Lover boy, where can you be?" and the groovy bossa nova of "What's New?" But there's an opening between his regular responsibilities of keeping us grounded in time. When he takes that opening, he takes it with all cymbals. He tickles them.

There are bells ringing, only these bells have got the hula-hoop, they've got the twinkle toes, they've got the light fantastic, and when I leave the place, driving through the sleet in my sturdy safe wagon, I leave the radio off and tingle my way home.

Note: The Doug Turman Sextet will be playing weekly this winter at the Montana Club in Helena. For M.J. Williams' CDs, go to http://cdbaby.com, to find: Tappan, Roberti, Williams Dancing to the Edge. 

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