The New Jazz

It was almost showtime. We slipped through the crowd to our usual seats up front, right below the stage. We were joking around, laughing real loud like we owned the place. Low expectations are the greatest tranquilizer. They loosen you up, make you feel strong and invulnerable.

Ari, the club's new manager, took the drink orders, all serious and cocky. When he turned his back, we all exchanged meaningful glances and coughed to suppress the giggles.

Watching these amateurs would be a total hoot. The band leader was a notorious boob—even Fidel Castro was mocking the guy. And look at the retreads he had backing him up. Reliable sorts, but deadly dull. Old Rummy on drums? Talk about lack of imagination.

But it was all fine with us. After grooving to the Master for eight years, we were ready for some easy duty. Clinton and his outfit were thrilling, but exhausting. This new bunch would return to the old standards, and our job was just to tell the world what it was like to be in the room, to see and hear their prosaic act up close. Simple. For diversion, W. would provide endless gaffes: wrong notes, absurd phrasing, physical flubs. We were secretly hoping he might slip up on opening night, lose his footing, take a hilarious plunge from the stage.

The savagery would come easy, we thought. So easy we might have to watch ourselves, ration it out. Not have too much fun all at once.

The lights went down—we clicked on our micro-recorders and cameras, and flipped open our pads. On stage was a single spotlight, and a mike with an NBC peacock. Cheney stepped from the curtains, hunched and lumpy like a bad impression of Charlie Parker. His eyes did one slow circuit of the room, then he leaned into the mike in that nonchalant way of his, opened one side of his mouth, and started singing. It was so low at first, we had to lean forward to hear. The tune was familiar, yet oddly different.

"It was a good week," he crooned. "I think it's gone amazingly well."

Something about Dick's lowball delivery has always pulled us in. Back in his Pentagon days, he had riffs as soft as lullabies. We used to come out of those sessions feeling better about everything, even the bombs. Now, over at the next table, Russert called out something about the Marc Rich pardon. Dick gave one of his subtle chin nods and picked up Tim's tune. It wasn't a tough lead-in, but God, the man took it to places nobody else ever could:

"Well, I got to tell you, Tim, I've spent zero time thinking about Bill Clinton's pardons these last few days."

Applause started breaking out here and there, and you could feel the whole room tapping and swaying. Dick was with the beat, but also a few steps behind it, almost lazy, like Billie Holiday doing "Easy to Love." It was as if he were singing to each of us individually, giving voice to our own experiences and feelings. A spotlight came on at the back of the room, near the bar, and there was Mary with her own mike. She moved among the tables and toward the stage, nodding to friends all around the room, and blowing a kiss to James, as she sang, "We're moving forward, not looking back." When she reached the stage, Dick joined in, and they started scatting the phrases back and forth. Lookin' foh foh forward, not buh-be-be-be-be-boh back. Wild!

The curtains parted behind them, revealing a huge screen with an ABC logo. The clip of Clinton tripping over his dog up in Chappaqua started rolling, and though Dick still had his back to the screen, it was like he sensed what we were seeing, and his stylings got more elaborate, almost rapturous.

The stage lights came up just then, and the whole band was there, and they swung right in behind Dick. As they did, W. himself strutted out and sat down at the piano, the picture of confidence. He waited a few bars for an entry point, and then—in a moment of pure audacity—layered on a whole new melody. It was "Take the A Train," but now it wasn't about getting up to Sugar Hill in Harlem. It was about hurrying up to that church in Northeast D.C., his first full weekend in office, with Laura and the parents.

Then things just exploded. Ari jumped on the stage, grabbed a bass, and started plucking out a sunny theme, improvising his own lyrics: "I think the President's approach to how to get things done in Washington is to begin with the power of ideas." Everyone was on the tables now. Amid the chaos, I saw the Times' guy pause to scribble a line—"Bush's Transition Largely a Success, All Sides Suggest"—in his notebook.

Moments later, Ken Burns burst in with a camera crew, trailing Wynton Marsalis and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Burns asked Ari if it would be all right to film the historic gig, for episode 879 of his popular, never-ending PBS series, Jazz. Ari looked to Dick, who nodded.

The last thing I heard before the room started spinning, and I lost consciousness, was Marsalis speaking to the camera. He was giving W. and his orchestra the ultimate jazz accolade: "Man, these guys ain't just good. They're dangerous."