Sebastian Matthews

What Love Is

You could tell he was a Marsalis
brother, even sitting in the back:
he had that muddy river lilt


in his voice, the bristling intellect
and the irrepressible need to teach
the storied history of African-


American classical music. Jazz
was in his blood as legacy.
The Funky Butt was jammed, only this


back table free, whiskeys on the way.
A Basie number, Monk. The band
tight, Delfeayo’s trombone aflame


from the opening chorus. I even
didn’t mind that nearby tables
were more chatter than rapt attention,


or that our waitress took her time.
For Delfeayo was holding forth
on the subject of “cuttin’,” that


fraternal pissing contest where raw-
boned skill and bravado run loose
to fight for the night’s supremacy.


When the trumpet got introduced,
he looked over at Marsalis, a little
reticent to step into the ring.


Who could blame him? Delfeayo was all
over the bone: so low in the register
your feet could feel it; so high


he was bumping the night’s rafters.
And not just range. He donned all the hats
of virtuosity in rapid succession


and swung like crazy, too. The trumpeter
was game, following behind
like a younger brother, tossing up


the bell of his horn, blatting out wild
roundhouse notes. But he was going
down. And when he managed a high


C, and held it, it came from his waist:
he’d been cut off at the legs. We
nearly jumped out of our seats, like


at some cellar cock fight.
At the break, heading for the john,
I spied a couple groping


in the dark hall; the woman pushing
the man up against a wall, kissing
him hard; his hand cupping her ass.


And when the waitress set down our drinks,
her breasts dropping like ripe peaches,
a cowgirl tattoo dancing on her arm,


I just about burst into happiness—
for being among friends,
for loving my wife, who


I knew, was at home
in front of the fire, dog asleep
at her feet—and raised a silent


toast to the night unfolding:
to soulful music and to the grace-
ful glance of good luck’s passing.


Later, when Delfeayo played
the loveliest solo on “You Don’t Know
What Love Is” I ever heard


(heroin slow, each note laid out
like an early morning baker
sets out a rack of bread loaves)


the place got church quiet, drinks
clinking as we listened in
on a one-way lover’s plea


into the grimy pay phone of the blues.
Before we left, the couple returned,
the guy’s shirt back basted


with brick dust and sweat. I shook
Marsalis’ hand on the way out
in that tentative way blacks and whites


do, half soul shake, half how you do?
and told him what I thought of his solo.
He gave me a look I couldn’t read,


that I’d like to think registered surprise.
What do I know? Out on the street,
on the walk back to the hotel,


past a broken-bottled Congo Square,
the four of us picked our way
through the drunks—city still


bustling past midnight, sidewalks
slick from a streetsweep of rain—
jabbering about the prize fight


of a set, and I tried to
tell my friend something
of the feeling that had taken


hold of me, stumbling over
the words like a greenhorn
sitting in. He listened, rapt, happy,


filling in the last gap
of my music with a huge whoop
and then, steps later, Wow!


Wow! and we crossed over
onto Canal, heads bent in reverie
for all the night had offered up in its swell.



“What Love Is” was first published in The Greensboro Review.