The Charlie Brown Jazz Band
By Jen Michalski, Dec 03, 2008

They practiced in a little red shed down by the pumpkin patch. It was actually a dog house; Charlie’s mother was allergic to dogs, and she made the little beagle Charlie had gotten for his birthday from the puppy farm sleep in the rusty, aluminum structure. It used to house a lawn mower and the family’s old Ford, things that were moved into the attached garage once it was built, along with boxes of old school papers, glittery, faded pink hearts he and his sister Sally had made from construction paper a few Februarys ago, their father’s old accounting textbooks from college, and their mother’s spelling bee trophies from high school.

The shed remained, however, escaping demolition by the grace of their father’s job, which took him out of town often and away from household chores. In fact, neither of Charlie and Sally’s parents were home often, nor were their friends’ parents. It was a latchkey town, full of traveling salesmen and women sipping gin and tonics at bridge clubs. The only adults Charlie and his friends ever seemed to come in contact with were teachers, people who droned on and on in an unintelligible garble about the issues of the day. Charlie wasn’t interested in the issues much. He liked what other boys liked: baseball, girls, music. He played a trumpet in the school band but secretly wanted to play guitar like BB King or Paul McCartney.

The birth of The Charlie Brown Jazz Band was an innocuous one; Schroeder, a shy, thin, standoffish boy with thick, meticulously styled blond hair who played piano, overhead Charlie emit a an agitated sigh after their fifth run-through of “When the Saints Go Marching Home,” which the school band was scheduled to perform for the Arbor Day Pageant.

You shouldn’t give up the trumpet, Schroeder said, fingering a few chords of Beethoven’s Fifth as Charlie wondered aloud why his parents never got him the Stratocaster he wanted for Christmas. There are lots of great bands with trumpet players in them.

Not the Beatles, Charlie answered. Not the Stones.

Better. Schroeder looked up from his piano. It was the most that Charlie, or anybody, had ever heard him speak. Miles Davis. Chet Baker. Ziggy Elman. You know, jazz musicians.

I don’t know much about jazz, he shrugged, wondering whether he could time it to get to his locker see that cute red-headed girl from his history class.

Jazz is much better. Schroeder pressed. Tell you what, if you want to get together after school, I can show you a few things. Normally, he was shy and antsy in the presence of others, particularly Lucy, who was the sister of Linus, Charlie’s friend. You know, you have a great jazz name, Charlie Brown.

Along with Linus, who already seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time lying about in the pumpkin patch near the shed, awaiting the arrival of mythical creatures that only seemed to materialize after Linus inhaled a couple of gulps from a sandwich bag lined with airplane glue, The Charlie Brown Jazz Band practiced the blues scale and chord progressions and listened to Schroeder’s Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker and Vince Guaraldi Trio records. During breaks, Charlie mopped the spit, fresh from his trumpet, with the baby blue blanket Linus always seemed to be carrying. Linus, red-eyed and slouchy and thumbing a dog-eared copy of On the Road behind his drum kit, never seemed to notice. The sounds from Schroeder’s piano communicated his moods, his ideas. Happy, sprightly numbers when they were in key were punctuated by angered chords when Charlie could not reach the upper third of an octave. Once Schroeder even banged his head on the piano, but that was only when Linus suggested Lucy come by and listen to them play.

Still, they had scrapped together a few songs to play at the holiday party that a girl in their class, Frieda, was giving: an epic ballad called “The Flight of the Red Baron,” a kind of somber piece, “Little Red-Haired Girl,” a pre-funk composition, “The Doctor Is In,” and one drum-solo piece written by Linus called “The Great Pumpkin.” Whatever, Schroeder’s eyes said to Charlie when Linus unveiled the ten-minute epic a week before the party. Just make sure he shows up.

Opening night at Frieda’s holiday party was a mixed review. Charlie’s decorations for the stage comprised a pathetic little tree that Linus had been growing behind the shed, a tree that strained under the weight of a single Christmas bulb, even as it was covered with thick, hairy buds. And Linus’s speech on the evils of anti-commercialism during the holiday season, accompanied by a hand-printed pamphlet entitled “The True Meaning of Christmas,” was a little awkward, particularly since Frieda’s parents were Jewish.

But The Charlie Brown Jazz Band did gain one fan, a cat named Franklin who invited them to play at his brother’s historically black college fraternity party. And from there they developed a small, devoted following. Franklin’s brother’s roommate knew a guy who knew a guy who worked at this record label, Blue Note. They should send this guy their demo, said Franklin’s brother’s roommate’s friend who knew a guy at this record label, Blue Note. In the meantime, the college circuit was the way to go.

They recorded in the little red shed down by the pumpkin patch. Not long after, Charlie’s parents put his dog to sleep. They thought the dog had rabies because he slept on top of the shed and dragged Charlie’s father’s aviator’s cap from WWII around in his mouth. The little yellow bird that lived in the tree above the shed seemed particularly sad and started fluttering around Linus in the pumpkin patch. It was speculated by historians years later that this was how Linus Van Pelt, drummer of The Charlie Brown Jazz Band, became known as “The Bird Man,” although this was never confirmed.

But if anyone ever asked him, years later, what led to the downfall of The Charlie Brown Jazz Band at the beginning and height of their career, Charlie always uttered one word: Lucy. Although everyone secretly pointed to the drugs, the excesses to which all bands were succumbing in the late sixties, the hubris and the egos and the drugs, it was a little-known love triangle that broke The Charlie Brown Jazz Band into pieces.

Lucy Van Pelt, Linus’s older sister, was a prissy know-it-all around school. She admired Freudian and later Jungian psychology until finally settling on an eclectic mix of behaviorism and feminist theory in grad school during the seventies. Although she was suspected a lesbian who always sought to emasculate Charlie and his classmates, Lucy had an interest in shy, slightly effeminate Schroeder for as long as anyone could remember. She hung around while he practiced the piano in the band room, asking him his opinion about the collective unconscious. On Valentine’s Day she decorated elaborate cards with pictures of Beethoven, wrote Schroeder’s name and her own with sarifs that looked like musical notes. There was never competition that stood in Lucy’s way to Schroeder’s heart, at least female competition. For years, Schroeder’s lack of interest in dating was safely blamed on his ambitions to be the next great American composer, greatest since the Gershwin, George.

But in the little red shed, Charlie noticed a new vibe coming from his bandmates. Initially, he thought it was the stress of recording the demo. Schroeder didn’t want to include “The Great Pumpkin.” It was too sloppy, he explained, rubbing the back of his thin, white neck. Who in the nineteen sixties was going to spend $2.99 on a record with a 12-minute drum solo on it? It was better suited as a rare, live jam.

That’s not what you said last night, an unshaven Linus muttered, his eyes hidden by a cascading tuft of bangs and a curled cloud of smoke rising from the cigarette in his lips. I’m going out to the patch.

He’s impossible to work with, Schroeder rubbed his eyes, which were red under a saucer of black. He’s careless with the beat, he’s late to practice, he’s high all the time. This record is our one chance, a chance we have to get right. How are we ever going to get invited to do Newport Jazz and Monterey if we’re not tight?

Charlie looked out of the shed, his eyes following the approach of the dark-haired girl in her signature blue dress and saddle shoes. He wished he’d been better at baseball and drafted to pitch at Stanford, or even as a place kicker at Rice. He thought the jazz band was getting to be a drag, with the student union parties and small backwater festivals where most of the musicians looked as sloppy and lackadaisical as Linus. Besides, the red-haired girl talked a different game, about those hippies and electric guitars and Jefferson Airplane. Jazz was all uptight nerds, like Schroeder, and black power and beats like Linus. What happened to Roger Maris, the Brooklyn Dodgers? What happened to Ms. American Pie?

He missed his dog.

Lucy appeared at the entrance to the little red shed. She always spent weekends home from Vassar, no matter how many committees she anchored, how many plays in which she starred, how many advice letters she had to answer from her love column on the school newspaper. She came home, Charlie thought, because after years of reading Freud and Jung and Skinner and Watson, after becoming versed in behaviorism and psychoanalysis and regression and biofeedback, she was delusional.

Hey, slacko, Lucy nodded at him, exhaling from her Chesterfield. She sauntered toward Schroeder. Hey, darling. You miss me?

Like I missed the measles, he answered, softly caressing the keys of the piano in thought. Charles, we need to pick up the tempo from the last stanza.

I love it when you’re aloof, she smiled. But I also love your determined libido. Did you almost get caught last night?

What do you mean? Schroeder looked up at her.

Well, I saw you sneaking toward our house. She sat on the piano bench next to him, crossing her legs. My window is on the right, darling, not the left. That’s Linus’s room, on the right. I’ll leave my window open tonight, okay? That way you don’t have to create a racket when you try to climb up.

Ummm...yeah. His hand went to his throat, his cheeks red.

Or you could take me out to dinner, first, like a real gentleman. She ran a hand along the inside of his leg before standing up. Oh, Charles? I saw your ugly Betty the other day—Patty is her name?

Lucy was such a bitch. But she was way off base. Couldn’t she see was happening here? Charlie was no fag, but if Schroeder and Linus wanted to fondle each other’s kumquats in the pumpkin patch, he didn’t care. Hell, he was prematurely bald at twenty, stuck at community college, and mourning his damn dog. What difference did it make if he was in a jazz band with quarreling queers? Good grief.

It had great alliteration, and a noodley, contemplative trumpet. When Charlie played the medley for Schroeder a few weeks later, Schroeder’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree, although that could have been the uppers habit he’d picked up after their all-night sessions. Those signature notes would become the single, “Good Grief,” from their demo and the subsequent name of their album—Good Grief! It’s The Charlie Brown Jazz Band. Blue Note pressed ten thousand, but wound up having to press a hundred thousand to keep up with the demand. The Charlie Brown Jazz Band was booked on a 12-city tour, a record to promote.

Lucy discovered them in the little red shed the night before the tour. She had seen Schroeder heading out there after the farewell dinner with Patty and Franklin and Sally. She hadn’t expected to find him bent over his own piano bench, her baby brother hunched overtop him.

Thumb sucking, security blankets, Lucy rolled her eyes at Charlie Brown in the hospital coffee shop. I should have known. Classic psychological symptoms manifesting into homosexuality.

Is you all right? Charlie asked. He wondered, briefly, if Lucy would be game for some sort of sympathy sex. They were both distraught and tired after getting Linus to the hospital for some Thorazine. Linus freaked, simply freaked, after Lucy walked in on him and Schroeder. Schroeder played sonata after sonata by Beethoven and wouldn’t talk to anybody, except to call Lucy a fucking whore, a simply dirty fucking whore.

But Lucy wasn’t a terrible-looking girl, Charlie reasoned, and certainly not a dirty one. Only opinionated. Something he surmised wouldn’t matter, in bed, where neither of them would be talking.

I’m fine, Lucy sighed. It’s Linus I’m worried about. And what about the band?

I don’t care about the band anymore. Charlie stood up. I haven’t for a long time. I miss my dog, Joe Cool. I want to get out of this town. Frankly, I don’t know why you keep coming back to it.

Because was in so love with him. Lucy dabbed at her eyes. It’s so silly...he was so rude to me, but so smart. I loved his mind.

You wanna go back to the little red shed? His hand was on her shoulder. Come on.

After Linus got out of the hospital, he dropped out with the Timothy Leary disciples in San Francisco. Franklin joined up with The Charlie Brown Jazz Band before getting shipped off to Vietnam. They released a second album, The Birth of Joe Cool, which was surprisingly mature and relaxed in the way that Good Grief was tense and unpolished. Cult fans preferred the first. Schroeder left for New York to write music for Broadway. For a while, Charlie and the Van Pelt’s cousin, Rerun, tooled around with Patty, who sang lead vocals. They renamed themselves The Peppermint Patties and were quickly dismissed as Big Brother and Holding Company rip-offs.

Charlie broke up the band and moved to Indiana. He coached a minor league baseball team to a 2-930 record over the course of five years. After that, he taught the marching and jazz bands at a local high school. Sometimes, during football season, after his students would beg him, he would choreograph “Good Grief,” which had achieved the fame of “Hang on Sloopy” and “Rock and Roll” by high school marching band standards, and 150 pairs of marching feet would arc out in lines and circles during crisp fall nights. It was enough, sometimes, to make him a little teary.

Charlie never did make it with Lucy that night, but he doesn’t feel so bad. She never made it with another man again, he heard. She and Patty wound up somewhere in south Florida, where they now run a lesbian cruise ship line. Schroeder scored a few minor musicals on Broadway before becoming the musical director of Lucy and Patty’s cruise ship line. Charlie receives postcards from them sometimes, along with discounted tickets for cruises to Alaska and St. Thomas. Charlie never heard much from Linus. Rumors circulated from fans at The Charlie Brown Jazz Band conventions that he ran a meth lab in Needles, California, and lived in an orange trailer named The Great Pumpkin. That much turned out to be true; Charlie received a letter in the mail one day postmarked Needles. In it was a picture of Linus, who was thin with the same shaggy hair, holding a beagle named Spike, in front of an orange-painted mobile home.

You’re a good man, Charlie Brown, the letter said. You should come visit sometime.

Jen Michalski’s collection of short fiction, Close Encounters (2007), is available from So New Publishing. Her fiction has been published widely, including McSweeney’s, Failbetter, storySouth, Hobart, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Thieves Jargon, Gargoyle, and others. She is the editor of the lit e-zine jmww and lives in Baltimore, where she cohosts the 510 Reading Series with author Michael Kimball.