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Atonally Yours

by M. E. McMullen

part 1 of 2

Music is the symbol by which one may invade the enchanted province of nothing and find one’s way.
— Muriel Draper, Music at Midnight

It is not surprising that the New Haven Institute Hall of Fame enshrined Brenda Ely as its only member. She was the only graduate ever to make a name for herself in New York. What was surprising to some was that her bad-girl reputation and, yes, her polyandry, raised a few eyebrows but were apparently not factors in the committee’s final decision.

Brenda was, after all, one of the great atonal jazz artists and composers of her times. Her marital issues were her business. Lloyd Mulroy, her mentor and partner, was “generally recognized” as her husband, and that was good enough for the committee.

There was a photo Brenda loved: Lloyd as a street actor in a fright wig, from his “Budapest Kid” days in Baltimore’s Vigilante Street Theatre. His face had given in to age over the years, but his hair was unruly as ever, a look that lasted right through the funeral, leaving his image forever mussed. The committee had the Budapest Kid photo enlarged to portrait size and presented it to Brenda at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

* * *

“I left Budapest, went into the world to make my way,” Lloyd told Brenda the day they first met, luring her straight into the first of many impromptu bits they would spontaneously concoct over the years.

“What’s it like in Hungary?”

“What’s what like?”


“Budapest, the capital, is actually two cities, you know,” Lloyd said, “one called Buda, the other is called—”

“The publicity flyer says your family troupe fled the—”

“Nazis, yes.”


“They fled the Nazis and the Communists. Their act was reviled across the political spectrum.”

“You don’t really come from Hungary.”


“What’s it like in Baltimore?”


“Why’d you leave?”

“I got several young girls in trouble.”


“Eight, actually.”

“You’re joking.”

“Yeah. It was only four.”

Lloyd’s hobbies were chasing women and drinking.

When he met Brenda at Frenchie’s Seaside Retreat in Frenchie’s Bay, California to talk a little business, his reputation preceded him. He was a genuine dashing salt-and-pepper haired, leather-skinned California relic. A light ocean breeze tossed his hair.

Draped over a chaise in a silky silver dress, Brenda was a white lotus among palm fronds, her classic cleavage and double dark Hollywood sunglasses turning heads as she swept in, a perfect accessory to a perfect California day.

“Brenda was on the wrong side of thirty, her singing career very much on hold when she met Lloyd,” Tyron Watkins noted on the UG Jazz Channel. “When she crossed those divine legs, the devil took out an option on Lloyd Mulroy’s soul.”

“Lounge acts pay fifteen per cent as a rule,” Lloyd told her, making eyes at her, coming on pretty flirty for a guy supposedly talking business. “I’m letting you off at twelve because you have such great legs.”

“You’re as full of crap as a Christmas goose.”

“Maybe, over the years, I have disrespected the truth,” Lloyd said. “I don’t deny it. I resent the truth. The truth is paralyzing and fickle. That’s how it goes with me.”

“I’ll tell you how it goes with me,” Brenda said, lowering her already husky voice. “My late husband, Jack Quick, was one hell of a ’bone player. Jack toured with some big names. He got involved in trouble down south and was eventually wanted by the FBI, the IRS, and several other three-letter agencies. He disappeared in Tampico, Mexico on Christmas Day.

I went down there and saw the Federales, asked about Jack and his trombone, playing the grieving widow. I thanked the Capitan profusely. I even did a little air trombone, but the chingado pretended not to understand. He was too busy ogling my tits. I checked pawn shops and music dealers, but I never found Jack’s trombone, which belongs in a jazz museum. That’s how it goes with me.”

From a Chronicle review: Brenda Ely, at the Mark Hopkins through Saturday. Expensive booze in a felt-covered bottle, still sporting a string of pearls she wore the day she lost her way out of the mainstream. You hear the breathless staccato syllables of “Chicken with a Train” and you know she’s an American original.

Brenda married Harry “the Scorpion” Fishman as a publicity stunt, paying off an old friend’s chit to some Brooklyn knuckle-buster. When she did Harry’s radio show, the subject of atonal jazz hardly came up. The Scorpion was mainly interested in talking about her gorgeous tatas. He asked her on the air to marry him. She accepted. All in good fun. She’d been in People magazine five times by then.

If public acceptance of her concept anti-music was stalled somewhere between Berkeley and Times Square, Brenda still had her looks and her compound-interest boobs. The Scorpion, her bridegroom, crawled out from under a rock to announce that the press corps would be joining the happy couple in the honeymoon suite for what he called “the great unveiling.” He planned to eat raw oysters off her boobs and perform such other fertility rituals as would delight his late night subscribers.

Their first project as a couple would be a 3-D porn movie. After a long, stupid ceremony, Brenda cut out to her back alley limo and went straight to the airport. By the time the Scorpion’s male and female hooker twin back-ups arrived, Brenda was already back in L.A., taking a long shower.

Later that same year she married a tragically hip performance artist sax guy named Gypsy Joe Johnson, whose hobbies were sleeping all day and sponging off women. She was booked for ten nights at Lefty’s Last Place in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She cut out on Gypsy Joe when the gig closed, ten days after their chapel vows, stuck the lazy bastard with a two-hundred dollar bar bill. In August, she got loaded one night and married an orthopedic shoe salesman by the name Kirk Rochelle, from Milwaukee. The guy turned out to be a world class dip. She stuck him with a three-night hotel bill in Omaha.

“Do they drink vodka and Squirt in Budapest, honey?”

“Absolut,” Lloyd beamed. It was their eighth anniversary dinner. “You heard about the time Camus, the French existentialist writer, and Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director, both vodka and Squirt guys, by the way, ran into Stan Getz, the American jazz player, another v&S guy, at the Beaux Arts Festival in Brussels, riding on an elevator. They were pretty well oiled, the story goes. Camus was going on about nothingness, which Getz likened to rests between notes, and Bergman compared to the spaces between film frames.”

“The elevator got stuck between floors,” Brenda said. “Camus freaked out, likened the experienced to being caught ‘between nothingness and a hard place’.”

“If you already heard the fable, Linda, why let me tell it again?”

“My name isn’t Linda.”

“You’re acting like a Linda I once knew. Big, big pain in the ass. Used to step on everybody’s lines, just like you.”

“You were banging Linda, weren’t you, Lloyd? Was she one of those sad little tricks you used to lure into the alley with promises of an audition?”

“Linda disappeared into the jungle many years ago. Sad story.”

“All your stories are sad, Lloyd.”

“Not the one with you, honey.”

“You’re sweet, Lloyd.”

Sunday afternoons, people would sit around listening to her records, mixing domestic weed and sloe gin, cheering themselves up by repeating lines from one of her old bits with Chester White.

“Music soothes the savage beast.”


“That, too.”

Brenda had soft memories of Lloyd; a lone tenor sax moaning wistfully in the background, while a jazz lyric rode out front.

Poised for one last run at glory, Lloyd sniffed the salt breezes, his body a bronze testament to the healing California sun. Tall, lanky, he comes clickety click clicking over the butterscotch tiles in those oh so stylish leather deck loafers, cheerily sliding into the mottled light beneath the grape arbor, sipping apricot brandy on crushed ice with a red dash of bitters. His natty, hand-stitched, silk shirt matches the topaz of a boundlessly optimistic Southern California sky. Quartz antelopes adorn the nearby rock fireplace where Lloyd sips, their flanks guarded by black andirons and a cracked, red leather bellows.

Lloyd was impressed with how the management handled Brenda’s run. Fans came in from L.A. on opening night, found her snug inside a soft blue spot, prim and straight in her black sheath, skin milky and smooth in the subdued light. Before her was a sturdy oak table filled with sound implements: graduated cow bells, slide whistles, ratchets and cranks, clickers and clackers, a flat metal tray with eight bottles of various sizes and shapes, a dozen rubber mallets, six wooden blocks. Somewhere in the Great Musical Beyond, Spike Jones was smiling.

Press account: New York, July 7 (AP) Letter Revealed: One of the foremost impresario-performers of modern atonal jazz, Chester White, came into being as the result of a single letter. In the executive boardroom of Lloyd Mulroy’s Broadway offices, the story goes, a man of dubious demeanor appeared one day, with scruffy hair spilling over the collar of his checkered coat, looking suspiciously like a grown-over, weedy version of Lloyd Mulroy coming off a binge. He bore a letter, written in a familiar hand, addressed to the corporate directors and endorsed at the bottom by three Deacons and a tax lawyer. “Mr. Lloyd Mulroy having been called away to urgent business in the Far East,” it said, “has placed his business affairs in the hands of the bearer of this letter, one Chester A. White of Philadelphia. Mr. White is to be afforded the same courtesy and co-operation as Mr. Mulroy himself would be given were he here.”

Ordinarily, such a letter might have raised concerns, but the players here, unanimous in their dismay over this checkered coat permutation of their boss, drew comfort from the fact that but for the drop-off in style, the new boss was pretty much the same as the old boss. Copies of the letter were circulated, along with a prospectus. A new company was formed, CHESTER WHITE PRODUCTIONS, not affiliated with a line of domestic swine of that same name.

They didn’t invent atonal jazz, and you can’t really say they popularized it, because it was never “popular,” but whatever footnote niche it manages to occupy at the fringes of the post-modern avant-garde movement was carved there by Chester White Productions.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house the night the Ely-White ‘nuptials’ went into the books. Brenda’s once and future husband, Lloyd Mulroy, the Hungarian prince, didn’t make the wedding, which, everyone found fitting, of course, considering that he wasn’t invited and that none of her other husbands were there either.

“Chicago was mostly booze and blue smoke in those days,” Mulroy wrote later, in his Treatise to Hip. “They were jamming one night, Chet was dropping bennies. We figured out that if Brenda’s career was going any farther, we had to make changes, get an aggressive agency.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by M. E. McMullen

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