Monday, April 15, 2013

Dorothy Baker writes about jazz - he pushed his hand across his forehead and said whew, or one of those happy exhausted sounds

Now this one is a bit of a stumper.  Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn (1938) is the First Jazz Novel (not exactly a long shelf of books), and more importantly a great jazz novel, which may or may not make it a great novel.  Is it?  I don’t know.  I liked the jazz writing so much that I have no idea what a non-jazz lover would make of the book.  Baker gets 1920s jazz so right.

Rick watched the hands the way a kitten watches a jumpy reflection on a carpet.  And when ‘Dead Man’ was played out, he pushed his hand across his forehead and said whew, or one of those happy exhausted sounds.  The three instrumentalists up front turned around for approbation from Rick, and got it, not from anything he said, but just from the look on his face.  (50)

That was me, sometimes, reading Baker.  Whew!

Rick Martin is a self-taught prodigy, a badly supervised white Los Angeles kid who hears the world in a funny way and is lucky enough to stumble upon a piano, although when he gets the chance he switches to  trumpet which “seems like it’s closer up to your head somehow” (81).  He practices, and hangs around with black musicians who – another stroke of luck – later become major figures (there they are playing up above, young and hungry).  Rick becomes a pro, and eventually a star.  Rise and fall, that old one.  Luckily Baker knew to tell most of the story in big, detailed scenes, with the transitions and dull stuff occupying the blank pages between chapters.

A lot of that detail is musical.  I have never before read a novel with so much writing about playing, about practicing, the mechanics of music. 

And then there were three, all three good and drunk but still able to play.  They folded up the music and did a home-made job.  They’d start something, play three choruses of it, ease down as if to break it off, and then one of them would take it again, just for a final run, and at the end of that one somebody else would get an idea and pick it up again.  Perpetual motion.  When they finally got it stopped, they’d just sit there and laugh like mad until they started to play again.  (99)

The descriptions of music are inevitably, since the tools, words, are so unmusical, some combination of metaphor and pinpoint gestures and sheer breathlessness.

Daniel Jordan in a white tuxedo pounding the prettiest set of drums in existence.  A dazzling sight.  His eyes were turned obliquely upward and he chewed his lower lip all the while he played; then he’d knock out a beauty and turn his eyes down, startled, as if he’d surprised even himself with that one.  (118)

I have seen that, I have heard it.  Not very often, but I have.

For the reader who does not care about jazz, Baker’s novel also has artful things to say about:

1. Race.  Rick Martin is a white kid who plunges into a black world, the only place where he can find people who think about music the way he does.  But the move is not exactly easy.  A long scene, early in the book, where he attends a black drummer’s funeral should be better known.

2.  Creativity.  Perhaps an exploration of the creative impulse of a jazz musician also has some relation to that of other artists.  Novelists, even.  At times, I thought that might be the case.  The novel has an odd narrator who drops a hint or two sometimes.  Normally, this would be an idea I would like to pursue, but in this case I am so impressed by the writing about jazz that I have trouble seeing that it might be about anything else as well.  But it probably is.

Maybe someone who does not care about jazz but has read the novel will stop by and fill me in.  Gary Giddins, himself a great jazz writer of the critical variety, provides the NYRB Classics with an Afterword so good that I avoided everything in it.


  1. I wasn't going to mention it, but since your next post is about how useful the internet is as an editor, allow me to suggest that you correct "male" to "make" at the end of the first paragraph.

  2. Oh good, thanks. Wuthering Expectations is a treasure trove of jolly typos.

  3. I've been vaguely aware of Dorothy Baker, but your post makes me want to move her higher up in the to-be-read pile. Those are terrific quotations, especially that last "as if he'd surprised even himself with that one."

  4. I should try Cassandra at the Wedding, the other Dorothy Baker book published by NYRB, but after finishing this book what I really wanted was a similarly good novel about Jelly Roll Morton or Coleman Hawkins.

    I agree that that last line, that gesture, is some high-level writing.

  5. By the way, Boris Vian translated this book into French. Given that he was also a fine trumpet player, I'd love to read what he did with it...

  6. Yes, I bet there are some juicy parts - some improvements, even.

  7. I've had a lot of luck with NYRB titles, and I've had my eye on this. I have the Cassandra at the Wedding on the shelf which I really should tackle first.

  8. Oh yes, please, read Cassandra at the Wedding and fill me in.

  9. I read this earlier in the year and felt just about the way you did afterwards. Whew! Missed your post when it first came out, but now I'm prompted to ask you if you've ever read Cortázar's novella/long short story The Pursuer? It's similar to Baker in atmosphere and style and, as I recall, also touches on matters of race, perhaps obliquely.

  10. I've never read any Cortázar, not even Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.