A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker: Some call this 1938 tale the first jazz novel. There were certainly depictions of jazz music in many earlier books, but none that successfully treated the life of a jazz musician as a serious subject like Young Man with a Horn. Baker takes her inspiration from the life of legendary cornetist Bix Biederbecke, but her protaganist, Rick Martin, only resembles Bix in broad outlines. Rick’s the tormented genius type. Preternaturally brilliant with his horn, driven to be the best in the world, but worn ragged by the hard life his single-mindedness creates. There’s a success story buried in there somewhere, taking Rick from a Los Angeles slum to the swanky nightspots of New York. But it’s mostly about the endless struggle for artistic expression that seems to know no success. It’s got great atmosphere, wonderfully realized settings, an appropriately moody tone, characters that might be a bit of-a-type but don’t fail to fascinate, and it’s quickly paced.
Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje: If you’ve read Ondjaate’s more famous Collected Works of Billy the Kid, you’ll already have a feeling for the type of experimental historical fiction that’s at work here. Ondjaate takes the little that is known about early jazzman Buddy Bolden, plus some of the scant details we have from the life of New Orleans photographer E.J. Bellocq and makes a part fact/mostly fiction collage that’s really a portrait of Storyville at the turn of the century. As the title suggests, there’s definitely a dark and violent element to Coming Through Slaughter, as both protagonists struggle with madness. But there’s also a great sense of jazz’s raucous, celebratory roots. It’s written in a terse, oblique style that partly mimics the improvisations of jazz. While this can make it difficult going at times, it’s still an enjoyable, and surprisingly quick read.
But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer: Dyer calls this work “imaginative criticism.” Suggesting that these vignette’s about jazz greats like Lester Young, Art Pepper, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, etc. are like critical biographies, just with some invented dialogue and a few artistic liberties. Frankly, it’s a terrible book if that’s what you’re expecting. However, if you want historical fiction that evokes not just the time, place, and characters behind jazz history, but one that equally captures the sound and mood of jazz as well, you’re not likely to find better. Dyer’s prose is poetic and philosophical. He chooses a single, revealing incident in his subjects’ lives, then uses it to help sum up their individual style and career. The whole thing feels strung together thematically too, like a carefully structured novel, not a series of shorts.
List by Matthew