Friday 16 July 2010

Jazz Fiction - some personal favourites

Haruki Murakami - South of the Border, West of the Sun (1992)
Jazz hardly features in this novel, but the protagonist runs a successful jazz club (as Japanese writer Murakami did himself) and it features Ellington & Strayhorn's Star Crossed Lovers, which represent the doomed love affair explored in the
book. Hajime is an only child in post-war Japan who develops a close relationship with Shimamoto, another only child, through spending afternoon's after school listening to her father's record collection. They drift apart but he reappears years later, when Hajime is a husband, parent and successful jazz club owner. The love they have is strange, irrational and intense and comes very close to jeopardising his marriage. After a strange kind of consummation, she disappears forever, leaving him bereft, until he slowly works his way back to his wife, who has been standing patiently by, and a new life. The book has a melancholy feel to it, a sort of 2:00 am jazz club ballad feel. When a friend introduced this book to the book club I belong to, the men liked it, the women didn't. It captures a very masculine sentimentality - Shimamoto never seems real, she's not rounded in any way. That said, it somehow captures some aspect of the male mid-life crisis very poetically, even musically.

Geoff Dyer - But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1991)
English writer Geoff Dyer takes the bare facts of some well-known jazz stories (Lester Young court-martialed by the Army because of an inability to cope with a racist Drill Sergeant, Chet Baker's teeth knocked out by an angry drug dealer in a San Francisco diner, Art Pepper sentenced to five years in prison on a Heroin possession conviction) as his themes and then creates his his own version of them. The jazz musicians are artistic giants. On Thelonious Monk; "Whatever it was inside him was very delicate, he had to keep it very still, slow himself right down so that nothing affected it." On Ben Webster; "He carried his loneliness around with him like an instrument case. It never left his side." He creates an imaginary jazz world out of music, photos and stories. The book is beautifully written - every word carefully chosen - and is made more remarkable by the fact that the writer hadn't even visited America when he wrote it.

Antonio Munoz Molina - Winter in Lisbon (1987)
Probably my favourite jazz novel. Jazz pianist Santiago Biralbo is the house pianist of the The Lady Bird jazz club in San Sebastian. He falls in love with the mysterious and beautiful Lucrecia, the wife of an American art dealer. The love is obsessional and doomed and, straight out of film noir, takes place in clubs, taxis, after dark, in a discrete cafe on the hill overlooking La Concha, the beach at San Sebastian. The plot involves gangsters, guns, heroin, booze, years of waiting, and a car journey through the night from San Sebastian to Lisbon. In Lisbon American musician Billy Swann is in a psychiatric hospital. Santiago toured Europe with him for many years as Tete Monteliou, would have toured with the visiting Amercan greats like Lionel Hampton. The descriptions of Santiago on creative flights at the piano are the best I've read. Parts of it are like South of the Border, West of the Sun (mysterious women who are more figments of the imagination than real). The book started life as a film script and a film was made with Dizzy Gillespie as Billy Swann. Dizzy also recorded the sountrack. The film never went on general release (I'd love to see it), though you can pick up the CD. Antonio Munoz Molina is one of Spain's finest writers and this is probably the one of the best-written novels with a jazz theme.
James Baldwin - Sonny's Blues (1957)
A black school teacher in Fifties' America tells the story of his younger brother, Sonny, a Charlie Parker-loving bebop pianist and drug addict. As a schoolboy he decides he wants be a jazz pianist and there are some great descriptions of his single-minded practising:

He'd play one record over and over again, all day long sometimes, and he'd improvise along with it on the piano. Or he'd play one section of the record, one chord, one change, one progression, then he'd do it on the piano. Then back to the record. Then back to the piano.
The story shows what a massive, all-consuming commitment it is to give yourself to jazz:
I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It's made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there's only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

Though of its time, this book provides a real insight into one of the most fertile periods in jazz. It was no longer popular music, it was an art that demanded dedication and sacrifice. It get's right inside the appeal of jazz to both a musician and the audience.


&y said...

How about: Trumpet by Jackie Kay, The Bass Saxophone by Joseph Svorecky

John Harris said...

I considered Svorecky for the list but haven't read it in years. Jackie Kay sounds interesting. The other story I forget about but enjoyed years ago was A Night in Tunisia by film director (the writer) Neil Jordan. Definitely worth re-reading.

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