Korb rearranges the chairs at 4pm every Monday. He makes them all face the little makeshift stage in the back of the Albatross. It’s hours until anyone will show up to listen to his free jazz combo try the regulars’ patience by alternating squalls of piercing atonal brass notes with barely audible string noodling. But Korb measures the gaps between seats as if he’s at the Village Vanguard before Coltrane hits the stage.
I give the guy credit. His monastic devotion to a narrow definition of pure musical expression is sort of admirable, if a bit creepy. He’s a little white suburban kid who worships at an altar built of the frustration and struggle of the descendants of former slaves. What can Korb possibly contribute that doesn’t smack of imitation or outright thievery? Yet, it’s mostly guys like Korb, fanatical followers with little primal connection, who keep this stuff alive.
Mondays are slow at the bar, so when Korb asks Lon about hosting a music night it seems pretty low risk. The place is empty anyway. Why not let the kid invite his friends to play their weird music? Few of them drink much. They duck their heads into their coats to vape in between sips of dollar Old Style. But maybe if there are more of them it could be worthwhile.
The first night, Korb’s band clears the room in ten minutes. Even Bill, who will linger if there’s anyone at all in the bar to talk at, practically runs out the door. I lean my elbows on the bar and give in to the pain the three guys onstage are inflicting on their instruments. The three nearest chairs are occupied by their significant others. Tough to say whether they’re enjoying the sounds their mates produce. Pleasure isn’t the point. This is art. It’s supposed to be difficult, incomprehensible, unpleasant.
Korb hunches over his saxophone directing all the force he can summon through it, producing a tone which makes me imagine a particularly painful alien birth. His drummer scrapes and stabs at his kit with objects salvaged from the alley out back. The bassist mostly air guitars his upright’s strings while freeze-framing in various dramatic poses.
Afterwards, Korb passes his Kangol around for donations. Lon has given him an open tab for the night plus $50, so this feels wrong. Besides, does he expect his girlfriend to pay for listening? Should probably be the other way around. But guys like him never know that. He believes his audience, whoever it’s made up of, is given great privilege by witnessing him do his thing. He’s doing important work.
He sure as hell won’t get a dime out of me.
Since no one is ordering drinks, I sketch them playing. After a few weeks of Mondays I fill up half a book. There are now about a dozen faithful listeners and Korb’s combo isn’t the only one that performs. But the regulars know to clear out at 7pm sharp.
Things come to a head the night Korb loses it on a birthday party.
Three middle-aged women and their husbands are crowded in the booth furthest from the stage. They come in right after I open. They’ve brought a birthday cake, candles, paper plates. They order shots of Jäger before sitting down. They put candles in the cake, light them, and sing happy birthday. The birthday girl, dressed in a blouse for her 20-year-old self, blows them out with such force that she almost lands on the floor from the recoil.
They cut up the cake and bring me and the drinkers at the bar slices. Then a round of Old Style and more Jäger. They’re getting a little loud but not bothering anybody, so I let them be.
Korb walks in carrying his horn. He nods my way, puts his things down near the stage and starts to move chairs. He gives the party a dirty look now and then. It’s not even 5pm. The band starts at 7.
All the chairs now point toward the stage. Each table and place at the bar has a flier with Korb’s music schedule for the next three months. He lights tea candles and distributes them about the room. He skips the party, but they don’t notice. They’re scream-laughing as he passes them.
As 7pm approaches all the regulars clear out. A dozen young people in carefully chosen thrift-store garb cluster near the stage in the back. A few are talking to Korb and his bandmates. Some scribble intently in tiny notebooks, the rest stare into space. None are drinking.
The birthday party near the door is still raging, even though I’ve cut them off. The last three times any of them came up to order Jäger I offered pint glasses of water instead. They’d leave eventually. But not soon enough for Korb.
After setting up the instruments and passing the Kangol around the crowd preemptively, he marches over to the party and tells them to be quiet. He’s not yelling but his tone isn’t friendly. They stop for a second, look up at him in unison, then burst into laughter. Korb skulks back to the stage and proceeds to lead his combo in a paint-peeling half hour of improvised noise. The birthday party departs at about the halfway point, as they’re unable to hear one another even screaming. I fill up a couple sketchbook pages, then go pick up the dozen empty shot glasses, piles of paper plates, and crumpled napkins and wrapping paper.
Lon comes down just as Korb is packing up his sax. He gives him the customary $50, but says this is the last time. He tells me later somebody from the party, a former schoolmate it turns out, called and complained. After everyone else is gone, Korb sits slumped over his Old Style and complains that he’s been mistreated. That nobody understands his art. I pause a moment or two for sympathy, then go back to washing glasses.
Korb keeps coming in sometimes but he leaves the chairs where they are. The regulars have started to stay past 7pm again.
When someone asks about live music at the Albatross I tell them about Korb.