New Orleans, Louisiana
JOJO’S BLUES BAR stood on the south edge of the French Quarter in a row of old Creole buildings made of decaying red brick, stucco, and wood. Inside, smoke streamed from small islands of tables, drinks clicked, women giggled, and fans churned. Black-and-white photographs of long-dead greats hung above the mahogany bar—images faded and warped from humidity and time.
Dr. Randy Sexton stared at the row of faces as his thick coffee mug vibrated with the swampy, electric slide guitar. He tapped one hand to the music and held his coffee with the other. The bucktoothed waitress who had brought the coffee shook her head walking away. This wasn’t a coffee place. This was a beer and whiskey joint. Order a mixed drink or coffee and you felt like a leper.
JoJo’s. Last of the old New Orleans blues joints, Randy thought. Used to be a lot of them in the forties and fifties when he was growing up, but now JoJo’s was it. The Vieux Carre was now just endless rows of strip joints, discos, and false jazz—unless you counted that big franchise blues place down the street. Randy didn’t.
This bar was a New Orleans institution you couldn’t replace with high-neon gloss. The blues sound better in a venue of imperfection: a cracked ceiling, scuffed floor, peeling white paint on the bricks. It all somehow adds to the acoustics of blues.
Randy was a jazz man himself. He’d studied jazz all his life, his passion. Now, as the head of the Jazz and Blues Archives at Tulane University, he was the curator of thousands of African-American recordings.
But blues was something he could never really understand. It was the poor cousin to jazz, though the unknowledgeable thought they were the same. Jazz was a fluted glass of champagne. Blues was a cold beer—working class music.
His friend and colleague Nick Travers knew blues. He could pick out the region like Henry Higgins could pick out an accent: Chicago, Austin, Memphis, or Mississippi.
Mississippi. The Delta. He sipped some more hot, black coffee and watched the great Loretta Jackson doing her thing.
A big, beautiful woman who was a cross somewhere between Etta James and KoKo Taylor. Randy had seen the show countless times. He knew every rehearsed movement and all the big, black woman’s jokes by heart. But he still loved seeing her work anyway; her strong voice could fill a Gothic cathedral.
Her husband, Joseph Jose Jackson, pulled a chair up to the table. A legend himself. There wasn’t a blues musician alive who didn’t know about JoJo, a highly polished, dignified black man in his sixties. Silver-white hair and moustache. Starched white dress shirt, tightly-creased black trousers, and shined wingtips.
“Doc-tor!” JoJo extended his rough hand.
“Mr. Jackson. Good to see you, my friend, and—” Randy nodded toward the stage. “—your wife, she still raises the hair on the back of my neck.”
“She can kick a crowd in the nuts,” JoJo said.
Loretta sweated and dotted her brow with a red lace handkerchief to some sexy lyrics and winked down at JoJo.
“Rock me baby.
Rock me all night long.
Rock me baby.
Like my back ain’t got no bone.”
They sat silent through the song. JoJo swayed to the music and smiled a wide, happy grin. A proud man in love. The next song was a slow ballad, and Randy leaned forward on the wooden table, the smoke making his eyes water. JoJo cocked his ear toward him.
“I’m looking for Nick. Isn’t he playing tonight?” Randy asked.
JoJo shook his head and frowned. “Nick? I don’t know. He’s been tryin’ to get back in shape or some shit. Runnin’ like a fool every mornin’. Acts like he’s gonna go back and play for the Saints again. No sir, he ain’t the same.”
“He’s not answering his phone or his door.”
“When he don’t want to be found,” JoJo said, nodding his head for emphasis, “he ain’t gonna be found.”
“Could he be out of town? Maybe traveling with the band?”
“What?” JoJo asked, through the blare of the music.
“Traveling with the band? ” Randy shouted.
“Naw. I ain’t seen him. ’Cept the other day when we went and grabbed a snow cone. Started talkin’ to some gap-toothed carriage driver ’bout him beatin’ his horse. Nick said how’d he like to be cloppin’ ’round wearin’ a silly hat and listenin’ to some fool talk all day. Skinny black fella started talkin’ shit, but he back down when he got a good look at Nick. I’m tellin’ you, man, Nick gettin’ back in some kinda shape. Not much different than when he was playin’. You think he’s considerin’ it? Playin’ ball again?”
“I doubt the Saints will take him back,” Randy said, raising his eyebrows.
Nick had been thrown out of the NFL for kicking his coach’s ass during a Monday Night Football game. He knocked the coach to the ground, emptied a Gatorade bucket on the man’s head, and coolly walked into the tunnel as the crowd went crazy around him. Nick once told Randy he’d changed his clothes and taken a cab home before the game ended. He never returned to the Superdome or pro football again, and Randy never prodded him for the whole story.
A few months after the incident, Nick enrolled in the masters’ program at Tulane. Later, he earned a doctorate in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi before sporadically teaching a few classes at Tulane.
“JoJo, tell him to call me if you guys talk.”
“His band ain’t playin’ til . . . shit . . . Friday night,” JoJo said. “Whatchu need Nick for?”
“Got a job for him.”
“Yeah, put his sorry ass to work. Soon enough he’ll be back to the same ole, same ole, drinkin’ and smokin’.”
At the foot of the bar, an old man watched the two talking. A cigar hung from his mouth as he brushed ashes from his corduroy jacket lined with scar-like patches. His gray eyes darted from JoJo to Randy then back down to the drink in front of him.
“If you talk to him, tell him to call me,” Randy said, getting up to leave and offering JoJo his hand. He knew JoJo would find Nick. He was the man’s best friend.
Randy took another sip of coffee and stood watching Loretta. She had a drunk tourist on stage and was getting him to hold her big satin-covered hips as she sang the nasty blues. The old man at the bar watched her too, his face flat and expressionless. His black, parched skin the same texture as the worn photographs on the wall.
Randy and the man’s eyes met; then the old man looked away.
“One of our colleagues left for the Delta a few weeks ago,” Randy said. “He’s disappeared.”
“The Delta? Lots of things can happen to a man there,” JoJo said, looking him hard in the eye. “Nick’ll help; he’s a fine man.”
“Yeah, I think a great deal of him. He’s a good guy.”
NICK TRAVERS WAS drunk. Not loopy, hanging-on-a-flagpole drunk, but drunk enough to find simple enjoyment in the soapy suds churning in the Laundromat washing machine. It was two A.M. on St. Charles Avenue, and he sat sideways on a row of hard plastic seats—baby blue with flecks of pink. He had three loads now in the machine as heat lightning shattered outside like a broken fluorescent bulb, a tattered Signet paperback of The Catcher in the Rye in his hands.
“Goddamned phonies,” he muttered, thumbing down a dog-eared page, waiting for his clothes in white boxer shorts and battered buckskin boots. His white T-shirt and faded jeans were in the wash, and there was no one around except a homeless man drinking whiskey from a brown-bagged bottle. A classic wino, even missing a few teeth.
“You know what I mean, they screw it up for everybody,” Nick said.
The wino nodded.
Nick liked the hard sixties decor of the place with its stainless-steel rims circling the glass of the washing machines and its occasional elevator music over a busted speaker. But now, he only heard the sound of the dry summer wind blowing Spanish moss on the oaks that canopied St. Charles Avenue like the gnarled fingers of an old man in prayer.
An elderly black woman with her hair tightly wrapped in curlers walked through the open front of the Laundromat and saw Nick in his underwear and boots. She immediately turned and left. The wino watched her butt as she walked by him.
“Get me a piece of dat,” he said, his head bobbing as if he had no neck muscles.
Nick turned to the washing machine. So this is what it had come to: washing clothes for enjoyment and talking to derelicts for a social life. Jesus, life changes in five years. Not that life was crappy now and all that sorry-for-self bullshit. Just different. Apples and oranges. Yin and yang.
Sometimes he could hear the deep resonating cheers echoing from the Superdome and wished he was still in there, grabbing some sissy quarterback by the jersey and slinging him down. But then he thought about lacing up his cleats for a five A.M. practice and would smile. Yeah, life was simple now. Teach a few classes on blues history, play some harp down at JoJo’s, and just enjoy life.
He’d watch the bubbles as the world pulsated in an electric vibe around him. Not quite in, not quite out. Somewhere in the middle. In his mid-thirties and getting soft mentally and physically. No challenges. No immediate goals. He needed to get back on it.
He reached down to the plastic chair beside him and grabbed a handful of quarters from a pile of keys and Dixie beer caps. He tossed the soggy clothes into a double-load dryer and walked next door to an all-night convenience store. He bought two quart bottles of Colt 45, one for him and one for the wino. The Vietnamese woman never blinked at his pantlessness.
“Hey pal, here you go,” Nick said, handing him the water-beaded beer.
“Tanks, Chief,” he said.
Nice of the guy to say thanks. Proved he was all right. It didn’t matter that he was homeless as long as he had some manners. Nick had seen some rich bastards not even thank a waiter for bringing them a meal at Emeril’s. “You from here?” he asked, unscrewing the cap.
The man jerked his head back giving him a double chin. “Naw, man, dis ma’ summer home. Just on a vacation from France.”
“Well, you don’t have to get all surly about it. You could be just passin’ through.”
“Naw. From New Awlins. Stay in New Awlins.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s like I can’t leave, as much as I hate this fuckin’ city sometimes.”
“Yeah, I know, man. Listen, I know. Twenty-nine, ninety.”
“That’s the degrees this city sits on, man. Like a big magnet, it draws folks in.” He set his hands a few feet apart, then crashed them together. “Smack. Just like that, your ass is stuck and you can’t leave.”
“I could get out if I wanted to,” Nick said.
“Reason you hangin’ out here is you ain’t got a woman.”
“Had me a meal yesterday but my stomach still empty.”
“Brown hair and eyes like morning coffee. Voice kinda raspy like a jazz singer and a comma of hair she constantly kept out of her eyes.”
“I ain’t ask you to unload on me. Jus’ sayin’ you need a woman.”
“I need to get back on it.”
“Life is easy,” the man said, gathering his rags and a dirty plastic bag of crushed aluminum cans. “Livin’ is hard.” He winked at Nick and disappeared into the thick night as a streetcar clanged past.
"JoJo's Blues Bar—a place so deftly described that it should be real even if it isn't. This tale's a pleasure for both mystery and [Robert Johnson] fans."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"An impressive debut by a promising new talent."—The Philadelphia Inquirer
"One of the year's most promising new series . . . Throw in some snappy dialogue, a steamy romance with a red-haired blues singer, and the superbly evoked Delta landscape, and you have a meaty, straight-ahead mystery, entertaining from first to last."—Booklist
"Ace Atkins has woven the Johnson legend into a zesty tale that should appeal to mystery buffs, musicians and readers who like to discover new and promising talent."—The Tampa Tribune
Crossroad Blues will be published this month, December 2009. Find copies at your favorite independent, chain, or online bookseller. See the list at the right for some of the indies that support & stock BFP titles. Booksellers/librarians: Crossroad Blues (along with all other BFP titles) is available through Consortium, Ingram & Baker & Taylor.
Ace Atkins, a former journalist, has written eight novels. His writing career began at age twenty-eight, when the first of four Nick Travers novels was published in 1998. In 2001, he earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his investigation into a 1950s murder that inspired his 2006 novel White Shadow. He followed with three more true-crime novels: Wicked City, Devil’s Garden, and Infamous (2010). Atkins lives on a historic farm outside Oxford, Mississippi, with his family. Visit his website here.