The sounds I was hearing – the soft "tink-tink" of silverware tapping on china, the murmur of the diners broken occasionally by laughter, and the jazz music coming from the stage - reminded me of one of the dinner clubs in an old movie.
The food was mostly Italian, and the music was a mix of pure jazz, blues and old big-band favorites. The five-piece band were all older black guys, and it was evident they'd played together for a while. It was also evident they played mostly for the fun of making music rather than for the money. There wasn't a sheet of music anywhere, and the sound was fantastic.
I was there because I needed someplace to eat dinner and didn't fancy the atmosphere of the restaurants in the hotel. I was staying there for the annual conference of suppliers of hand and power tools to industry and the hardware store trade. As head of marketing for my company, I had to attend, but I could at least enjoy my evenings as I saw fit. I told the desk clerk I liked jazz music, and she'd given me directions with the assurance the food was great.
I was halfway through my chicken alfredo when the sax player stepped up to the mike.
"We thank all you folks for comin' to hear us, and we'd like to try out somethin' iffen you don't mind. A while back, the owner of this here club said he'd like to hear some singin' when we play. Well, we went out and found us a singer. Her name's Jesse, and she's purty good. Come on out here, Honey, and show these folks whatcha got."
The bite of chicken breast fell off my fork somewhere between my plate and my mouth. I'm still not sure where. I was too busy looking at Jesse.
She wasn't the young, blonde, tight-bodied twenty-something singer I'd have expected to show up in a Nashville club. This woman had the smooth, full curves that grace only women who've lived through some of life. The black dress she wore reached almost to the floor, and when she stepped, one nylon-clad leg flashed from a slit that ran from the hem almost to her waist. What she was showing of her legs was balanced nicely by what she was showing of her generous cleavage. Waves of dark brown hair cascaded over the swell of her breasts and framed a face that showed some years, but wore those years with the confidence and grace only found in beautiful mature women.
When the first few words of "Sentimental Journey" left her lips, it became obvious to me that Jesse wasn't just another amateur. If I closed my eyes, I could see Peggy Lee, or Helen Forest or Doris Day singing. Jesse was that good.
The band did another six songs with Jesse and then announced they were taking a short break. Shortly they were all grouped around a table near the stage and placing their orders with a waitress.
That waitress had to pass my table on her way to the bar, so I called to her as she passed. Janet, as her nametag proclaimed, turned quickly and stepped to my table.
"Sir, I'm not your waitress, but I'll tell Lisa you need something."
"No, I just wanted to pay for the singer's drink, that's all. And if you'd tell her I think she's great, I'd appreciate it."
Janet bustled off, and a few minutes later came back to my table with a tray of drinks and sandwiches.
"She's drinking a club soda, so that'll be two-seventy-five."
I gave her a five, and said, "you won't forget to tell her I think she's great, will you?"
"Nope. Here's your change."
"You keep it for doing me this favor."
Janet grinned, picked up her tray and hurried off. I saw her say something to Jesse as she put the glass of club soda on the table. Jesse turned in the direction Janet was pointing and smiled when she saw me. I could not believe my eyes when she picked up the glass and started for my table, but before I could blink twice, there she was, standing in front of me. Even her voice was sensuous.
"Aren't you going to ask me to sit down?"
"Oh ... sorry, I'm just surprised that you came over. Yes, please, would you join me?"
"I will if you tell me who I'm joining."
"Oh ... yeah. I'm Jeff ... Jeff Wayne."
"Well, Jeff, I'm Jesse Fitzgerald. Thank you for the drink."
Her smile was intoxicating, and I couldn't look away. Then the smile disappeared.
"Am I that bad close up?"
"No, I ... I just ... well, you sing so well, and up close, you're a very beautiful woman."
She smiled again. "It sounds like you're trying to pick me up ... not that I'd mind that. Doesn't happen very often anymore."
"I wasn't trying to -"
"You don't have to come up with some explanation I'm not gonna believe anyway. I got over being upset at men picking up younger girls after I turned forty."
"Well, I bought you the drink because of your voice. You have to have a CD or two out, don't you? A woman with a voice like yours must be recorded by somebody."
Jesse laughed. "Where were you twenty-five years ago? I could have used a fan or two then. Yes, I came to Nashville to get rich and famous. What I got was broke and nowhere in the first year. I ended up getting a job just like ninety-nine percent of the other starry-eyed singers who come here. I do sing a little on the side, but I've never cut a record or a CD."
"Well, you should. You're as good as I've ever heard."
"I could sit here all night and listen to that kind of talk, but right now, I have to go sing again. This is our last set. Will you be here when I get done?"
It would have been easy to stay there for hours just listening to Jesse. Her voice had that quality, that richness, that purity that only comes along once in a while. I couldn't figure out why she was singing with a bunch of old jazz musicians, but I didn't care as long as I could listen to her.
The set ended, and Jesse walked back to my table. By now, I was over my initial infatuation and I could watch her. Her movement was so smooth it was almost as if she floated over the floor, except the motion of her hips left no doubt that under all that black satin was the body of a real woman. She slid into her chair just as the waitress brought another club soda to our table.
"Why, thank you again, Jeff. I could get used to this, not buying my own drinks I mean."
"Jesse, after what I just heard, you deserve a lot more than just a drink."
"No, the drink's enough. I do get paid for this, you know, and I have another job too."
"So, what's a pretty girl like you do when you're not singing here?"
"I work in the music business. They wouldn't let me cut an album, but they did give me a job."
Jesse took a sip of her club soda and then melted me with her smile again.
"So, what do you do when you're not sitting here listening to me?"
"I work for a power tool supplier as a marketing manager. We're having a convention this week at the Opryland Hotel."
I thought I saw just a flash of disappointment in Jesse's eyes, but she quickly smiled and said, "so you don't live around here then. Where's home?"
"Ah, Chicago. I grew up there ... McKinley Park's where we lived. I haven't been back there in ages though. Nashville's my home now. " Jesse looked at her watch. "I hate to drink and run, but I really have to leave. I have to be at work by eight tomorrow, and it's almost one now."
I walked her to her car and watched as she drove away. As soon as she was out of sight, I realized I missed her, that I wanted her to come back and stay with me for a while longer. At the time, I couldn't have described the feeling. It just hit me that I liked her and liked talking with her. It had been a long time since I'd had that feeling, and with luck, I'd be talking with her again tomorrow night. I'd already decided I liked the place.
As conferences go, this one was pretty good. There were lots of buyers in attendance, and I spent the afternoon demonstrating our tools and explaining how our order system worked. The afternoon went by pretty quickly. At six, I drove back to the jazz club for dinner.
I was expecting to see the band playing on the small stage, but the music playing in the background was coming from a CD player at the bar. I flagged down Janet, the waitress from last night.
"Hi, remember me? Where's the band?"
"Oh, they only play on Sunday night. The rest of the week Billy plays CD's."
"Their singer ... Jesse ... would you know how I could get in touch with her?"
Janet frowned and shook her head. "Sorry, I don't know her very well. Maybe the manager would know, but he's not here tonight. He always takes Monday off."
Janet mirrored my sad face, then beamed me a smile. "But he'll be here the rest of the week. Sorry. Can I get you anything else?"
The food was good, but I didn't have much of an appetite. It didn't take me long to finish and drive back to the hotel.
The next day of the conference was the same as the first. It just seemed to last longer. I went back to the club, partly to eat, but mostly to talk to the manager. I really wanted to see Jesse again.
He wasn't any help at all. All he could tell me was he'd hired the band through an agency and paid them in cash. He didn't have an address or a phone number for any of them. He did give me the number of the agency, though.
I took a break on Wednesday, and called the agency to asked about the band. The girl who answered the phone with "Monroe Entertainment. This is Jeannie. May I help you?", was polite but firm. If I wanted to hire the band, all communications would go through the agency. They didn't give out any personal information about any of their clients. She said she hoped I'd understand.
.... There is more of this story ...