The play starts in the 1950s and follows the family through the next 35 years. The play's narrator is Clifford Glimmer, the only son of Gene, a talented but self-absorbed jazz trumpeter, and his alcoholic wife Terry, who describes the tumultuous relationship his parents shared and the haphazard career journey Gene followed over the course of three decades.
Dedicated more to his music than his family, he refuses to accept a regular job to support them, and their home life gradually unravels. Clifford eventually assumes the role of breadwinner his father has forsaken and offers his mother the emotional support Gene cannot. Scenes alternate between the family's Spartan New York City apartment and the smoke-filled nightclubs and cabarets of another era.