Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 10

Blue Notes and Book Notes

by Paul Serralheiro & Marc Chénard / July 1, 2002

Version française...

Blue Notes and Book Notes

by Paul Serralheiro & Marc Chénard

Jazz Fiction...
The Horn
John Clellon Holmes, Thunder's Mouth Press, New York, 1999
ISBN 1-56025-206-5, 264 pages

Jazz fiction is a peculiar genre, possibly because its protagonists are drawn from real-life personalities that already have fictional qualities. Prominent professional musicians are known to most people from an amalgam of anecdotes, rumours, legends and encounters through recordings or in concert settings--experiences that are bathed in myth-inducing hues.

Jazz fiction is also a peculiar genre because it combines some of the "noir" conventions of the detective and mystery novels on the one hand, and the searching quality of novels featuring larger-than-life romantic anti-heroes on the other.

Dorothy Baker's 1938 novel "Young Man with a Horn" is a well-crafted story about Rick Martin, a self-destructive, tragically perfectionist jazz artist modeled after 1920s legend Bix Biederbecke. A more ironic and stylish escape is available in the Evan Horne series by Bill Moody. These crime novels involve dead jazz musicians and pianist-cum-detective Evan Horne, with titles like Death of a Tenor Man, The Sound of the Trumpet, Bird Lives, and the most recent, Looking for Chet Baker. More documentary yet poetic reading can be had in Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful, a collection of creative portraits presented in a reflective prose that tries to capture the essence and not simply the facts of several important jazz artists, among them Lester Young, Charles Mingus, and Chet Baker.

Finally, for a yet more engaging and powerful read, pick up a copy of John Clellon Holmes' novel The Horn. Holmes is probably the least known of the "Beat Generation" writers, a group that included the more celebrated Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Although less prolific and iconoclastic, Holmes is hardly less talented. Go, his first novel, was the first published work by a member of the "Beats" and is still considered one of the best. Holmes also published one other novel, Get Home Free, a book of poetry and a few collections of essays.

Remarkable for its powerful musical prose, The Horn tells the poignant story of Edgar Pool, a hard-living tenor saxophonist whose career takes a nose-dive, brought on by age and a health-abusing lifestyle that seemed the norm after the arrival of Charlie Parker and stellar neophytes like Chet Baker and Art Pepper. Edgar Pool is the kind of "angel-headed hipster"--to borrow a phrase from Ginsberg--who engages in struggles against his demons with as much passion and verve as he invests in his music.

First published in 1958, The Horn has gone through at least two reprints, the latest of which (1999) contains an illuminating foreword by saxophonist Archie Shepp. Although it first appeared over 40 years ago, Holmes' novel still sounds fresh, and it is probably the most convincing at conveying the inspired rhythmic and melodic inventiveness of the best jazz musicians. Paul Serralheiro

... and reality
Chet Baker, Deep in a Dream
James Gavin, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002, ISBN 0-679-4487-1
370 pp. + discography and index

Sce its beginnings, jazz has been surrounded by an aura of mystique. Part fact, part fiction, its history is wrapped in as many myths as clichés. Although today's musicians have not faced as many hard knocks as their predecessors, a case in point being the young stars who hit the big time soon after leaving the secure confines of academe, the newer reality has not significantly altered the 'romantic' perception of this music in the public's mind.

But musicians themselves have been responsible for this perception, and of the many legendary performers, few have so decisively contributed to that mystique as Chet Baker. A heart throb in his youthful days, he was not only blessed with good looks but with a natural ability to play the trumpet in an easy, breezy way, while intoning old standards, like his signature tune 'My Funny Valentine', in a subdued voice. Incredibly enough, in the mid-fifties, he became as popular as Frank Sinatra.

Yet there was a price to pay for all of the fame and adulation. A rebel like James Dean, his lifestyle became more removed from the naïve love songs he was crooning. From after his early dabbling with 'soft' drugs in California, he got hooked on heroin following the death of his closest musical associate, pianist Dick Twardzik, in 1955 by an overdose at age 24. From then until his own demise in 1988, Baker would dance with the needle for the rest of his life.

James Gavin's recently published biography of the trumpeter, hardly a pretty story, does little to spare us the sordid details. As an only child, Baker's early life was marred by a problematic relationship with his parents, but his discovery of music would give him a sense of purpose. Relying on his natural ability to play by ear, he had no patience with reading music or rehearsing. He would thus have to live within his limitations, which increased with his chemical dependency. Scandals followed him in the States and in Europe, and like any junkie he claimed that the whole world was doing him in rather than laying blame on himself.

Many will accuse Gavin of dragging their idol into the mud. Others will also object to the lack of discussion of his music, save for some pithy descriptions of his various recording sessions and general ineffectiveness there. However, the author has done plenty of firsthand research, interviewing associates and the many women in Baker's life, all of whom he duped to suit his needs. Concerning his death in Amsterdam under nebulous circumstances, the author reviews the theories but offers no satisfactory explanation, though he excludes foul play. Yet for all of this, the central question of this book is: How can someone living such a harrowed life manage to play music that could be so tender and so sweet? The answer to that may well be that Chet Baker was the ultimate escapist who managed to steal his fans away by leading them deep into a dream rather than into his own weird nightmare. Marc Chénard

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale