Mo' better books: The place of jazz in modern literature

From F Scott Fitzgerald to Kerouac and beyond, jazz music has inspired writers with its wild energy and subversive style. But, argues Kevin Le Gendre, it takes more than a beret and a smoky setting to turn a character into a hep cat

Thursday 22 September 2011 07:22

Jazz has undergone startling transformations in its 100-year existence. The history of the music is mammoth. It requires documentation. It needs explaining. Reference books, big chunky tomes such as The Rough Guide to Jazz and The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, both of which offer valuable information on hundreds of artists and recordings, are rightly regarded as essential reading.

But is there another way to learn something of the spirit and culture, as well as the technicalities of the music, an approach that shifts us from the terra firma of non-fiction to the choppy waters of fiction? Can the music inform prose? Can it beget short story and epic tale?

There is such a thing as a jazz-inspired story, or at least there are writers who see the music as an energy source on which to draw. The texts of Ishmael Reed, Jack Kerouac, Rafi Zabor, E B Dongala and Jamal Mahjoub, to name but a few, contain anything from evocation of jazz in situ to dramatisation of the life of its practitioners. High-octane jam sessions, struggles with creative demons, affairs of the heart, the harsh realities of business, voodoo, dodgy American foreign policy and alien invasion colour the work of these authors. The best jazz tales, like the best jazz solos, do not unfold predictably.

One of the most interesting recent titles in the canon is Candace Allen's 2004 novel, Valaida. Based on the true story of Valaida Snow, the first female trumpeter to ply her trade in a 1920s Harlem band before traveling the world, the narrative paints an engaging, credible portrait of the life and times of the eponymous heroine. Despite the occasional burst of melodrama, Allen astutely balances the heady excitement of Valaida's artistic growth, a trajectory during which she gains the confidence to push her trumpet phrases from "low notes to mid with shake-butt flourish", with the grim realities of discrimination and exploitation. Much fine detail enriches the text, but the most telling is the subversion of the acronym, TOBA. It originally represented Theatre Owners Booking Agency, the biggest touring business in post-war America, but African-American artists re-dubbed it "Tough On Black Asses". You don't learn that in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD.

The "Jazz Age", in which the first half of Valaida is set, was full of brutality as well as fast livin'. It was a time of glitz, glamour and a status-obsessed moral vacuum; and that's exactly what The Great Gatsby is about. Arguably over-rated as an American classic, F Scott Fitzgerald's signature work nonetheless has its place among jazz-inspired fiction because it wholeheartedly reminds us that, in the roaring 1920s, the music was the soundtrack to the decadence of the "In-crowd".

Gatsby's Long Island palace, his Rolls Royce (a ride crying out to be pimped if ever there was one) and the swish guests at his lavish garden parties are given a final sheen by "the boom of a bass drum and the voice of the orchestra leader over the echolalia announcing the performance of Vladimir Tostoff's Jazz History of the World". Big band swing ices the high society cake. Fitzgerald, who published Gatsby in 1926, the year before Duke Ellington rocked a new rhythm at The Cotton Club, is ultimately concerned with wealthy, disenchanted socialites, lucre-laden consumers of cutting edge music rather than its less privileged producers.

So, we have the Jazz Age, but not the jazz musician, and, more importantly, the African-American folklore bubbling in the artform's crucible. Langston Hughes, prime mover of the Harlem Renaissance, the innovative Arts movement to which Ellington provided the soundtrack, gave us that in his poetry. Pieces like The Weary Blues are essential counterpoint and complement to The Great Gatsby insofar as they posit Black diasporic culture, of which jazz is a revolutionary expression, as a pivotal component of American culture.

Artistically descended from Hughes and other Renaissance icons like Zora Neale Hurston as well as Ralph Ellison, is Ishmael Reed, possibly the Sun Ra to Hughes' Ellington. His cult novel Mumbo Jumbo is a raucous Jazz Age fantasy: a surreal, camp comedy full of bold political ramifications. The story features anything from the birth of ragtime to New Orleans voodoo via Egyptology and the US intervention in Haiti. Apart from its snappy, zippy, pinball-machine rhythm befitting an Ornette Coleman tune, what's really impressive about Mumbo Jumbo is Reed's conflation of bravado, humour, and candour that underpins so much African-American culture. Tellingly, Reed has recorded this and other texts with David Murray, Taj Mahal and Bobby Womack.

Another iconic author who enjoyed the endorsement of musicians was Jack Kerouac. His short stories and his novel On the Road, a quasi-biblical scripture in the Beatnik faith, have been embraced by jazz singers like Kurt Elling and Mark Murphy, who recorded an entire album, Bop For Kerouac, based on his writings. In his moments of real inspiration, Kerouac captured some of the frenzied electricity of bebop, that most complex school of jazz whose students strove ferociously to make music into gravity-defying gymnastics. Although On the Road's emblematic characters Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty say much about 1950s America as defined by horny youth, drug culture and the sleazy frenzy of motel-mapped highway travel, the novel's most memorable scenes are the ones in which a musician, to sing a note, has to "touch his shoetops and pull it all up to blow".

For all the colourful portraiture of jazz praxis offered by the work of Kerouac, Reed et al, it's important to realize that dramatisations of the "jazz life" can turn to cliché in the wrong hands. I once read a novel that was closely modeled on Miles Davis' quest for Charlie Parker in New York and his subsequent drug addiction, where the characters became gaudy, vulgar caricatures within a few chapters. Presenting the much-lampooned "hepcat" accoutrements (smoky basement clubs, berets, shades and smack) and throwing in some Mezz Mezzrow jive talk ("heebies, jeebies, junkies and lushheads") for good measure does not good jazz fiction make.

Writers that reject such stock images and show the reality of the artist's quotidian life are therefore worthy of attention. Which is why we turn back to jazz non-fiction. Ashley Kahn's A Love Supreme, the book documenting the making of John Coltrane's classic album of that name has a vivid feel for both the extremely disciplined, studious artist and the obsessive, driven adventurer. Moreover, there is a brilliant epiphany in an understated description of the great saxophonist's funeral. The memorial service in Manhattan potently embodies both the transcendence and eternal flame of the artist's masterwork and his own graceful humility. Coltrane's casket was covered in yellow and white flowers. Thousands of mourners filed past his body.

But of course, fiction offers greater structural scope for a writer. As Jamal Mahjoub showed in his novel, The Drift Latitudes, you can put improvisation, the lifeblood of jazz, right under the skin of the text. In his story of family ties and identity, characters hop, skip and jump through life as a soloist hops, skips and jumps through a tricky chord sequence. Reed, too, really conveys that sense of the unscripted, of things just happening - "jes grewing" - and there's a quite rampant, subversive irreverence as well as a grasp of the energy of jazz at the heart of his work. He has surely inspired others to think outside the box and two of his most accomplished heirs might be E B Dongala and Rafi Zabor. The former's 1982 short story, "Jazz and Palm Wine", is a tall tale in which the earth is saved from extra-terrestrials by the music of Sun Ra, while the latter's 1998 novel, The Bear Comes Home is an even taller, furrier tale charting the struggles of a New York saxophonist. He is a bear, literally, artist-as-outsider figuratively. He likes to play "Parker's Mood". He likes to shit in the woods. As outrageous as they are, both of these fantasies do not entirely eschew reality. Zabor makes the essential point that, for all of the seriousness framing its position as high art, jazz, like surrealism, still has humour; while Dongala pays an imaginative tribute to Sun Ra, the avatar who influenced anybody from George Clinton to Sonic Youth.

Although born in Chicago, Ra maintained that he was from Saturn, that his music was traveling strange celestial roads. His whole aesthetic was shrouded in mystery, outlandish and otherworldly, bold enough to create its own cosmology. It is thus logical that aliens are pacified by his alien music. Through his text, Dongala tells us that he has listened to and absorbed something of Sun Ra's oeuvre, and accepted the artist's right to fashion his own myth. He has decided what Ra's sounds and philosophy mean to him and that's perhaps the real point of any music-informed literature.

It is precisely this kind of narrative skill that takes Ashley Kahn away from the academic dryness that can characterise jazz non-fiction. The achievement of his Making of... works (Davis' A Kind of Blue as well as Coltrane's A Love Supreme) is the suspense, the undertow of the trial and tribulation of the musicians, as well as sharp analysis of their technical brilliance. Kahn's new book, The House That Trane Built (Granta £20) tells the story of Impulse!, the label that was anchored by Coltrane and went on to release music by Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler and other iconic jazz artists of the 1960s and 1970s. There are stories about musicians, about gigs and about behaviour during gigs. Some scenes graphically capture the poetry of supposedly prosaic scenarios. For example, the drummer Paul Motian offers a great vignette of the notoriously diva-like Keith Jarrett with whom he played extensively in the 1970s. "Normally he wouldn't talk much," says Motian of the pianist. "One time we were playing in Hamburg, and there was a pit in front of the stage for the photographers and the cameras were clicking away." The tantrum comes right on cue but there's a significant twist. "Suddenly Keith stopped and told them to get the hell out of there. Then he picked up exactly where he left off." That's the stellar jazz moment; that's the real story.

Geoff Dyer uses such moments as a springboard to fiction. His seminal But Beautiful (1991) is a work that takes scenes from the life of legends such as Ellington and Monk and dramatises them in a way that is engaging and plausible rather than histrionic. There are also purely invented scenes but they read as real life. What the author calls "a common repertory of anecdote and information" is used to create the stories, but the underlying dynamic of the text is commentary on the art of jazz and the life of its practitioners, on banalities as well as glories and infamies. A description of Ben Webster crossing Europe by train thus has as much insight as the depiction of Chet Baker being beaten senseless has horror. Both work as non-fiction. Both work as fiction.

Dyer calls his method "imaginative criticism". Maybe this is the best way to cross the divide between fiction and non-fiction in jazz but then again there's no absolute need to. The two genres need each other. Anybody who wants to penetrate the music through literature would do well to read The House That Trane Built as well as But Beautiful, Mumbo Jumbo and The Rough Guide to Jazz. Although they may fall into different literary categories, these works form a continuum of jazz information in which story and anecdote have their place alongside technical analysis and discography. Ellington famously said there was only good and bad music. So here's a 2006 remix of that dictum: there's only good and bad jazz writing, be it fact or fiction.

To buy a copy of 'The House That Trane Built' (Granta £20) for £18 (p&p free), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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