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Monday, August 2, 2010

Jazz Novels

 As an avid reader, I have come across several books that bring the spirit of jazz to live. Many others have used jazz as backdrop for their plots, with Haruki Murakami, who once owned a jazz pub, as the most notable one, but also thriller author Steve Hamilton and a few other ones.

Yet there are three novels in which jazz is at the center of the story, with Michael Ondaatje's "Coming Through Slaughter" as my favorite.

Michael Ondaatje - Coming Through Slaughter (Picador, 1976) ****½

Michael Ondaatje is possibly best known for his award-winning novel "The English Patient", a book that is ten times better than the movie, and an absolutely fantastic read. Ondaatje is a language virtuoso, with a lyrical style that is at the same time intricate and easy to read.

In "Coming Through Slaughter" he tells the story of Buddy Bolden, the cornet player who started jazz in the early 20th Century in New Orleans. Little is known about Bolden's life, or about his music. He suffered from schizophrenia, and was collocated in a mental institution at a relatively young age.

In this wonderful novel, Ondaatje tells Bolden's story through the perspective of the people who were closest to him, as if they were they are delivering witness accounts of what was taking place. Each person, whether his friend the photographer Bellocq, or Cornish the trombone player, or his wife, talks with his or her own voice, alternated with scraps of other material that could shed light on the musician. The result is a patch-work of carefully crafted texts that not only re-create Bolden, but the whole atmosphere and context of turn of the century New Orleans, with its music and its nightlife.

The novel is an absolute delight. A must-read for jazz fans.

It is said that Bolden was the first to merge blues with ragtime and gospel. Here is Ondaatje's descriptive of this, through a testimony of one of the other characters:

"I'm sort of scared because I know the Lord don't like that mixing the Devil's music with His music. But I still listen because the music sounds so strange and I guess I'm hypnotised. (...) The picture kept changing with the music. It sounded like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil. Something tells me to listen and see who wins. If Bolden stops on the hymn, the Good Lord wins. If he stops on the blues, the Devil wins."

In the marching band he was playing in, Bolden starts doing his own thing while spotting a girl on the sidewalk who reacts to his music.

"March is slowing to a stop and as it floats down slow to thump I take off and wail long notes jerking the squawk into the end of them to form a new beat, have to trust them all as I close my eyes, know the others are silent, throw the notes off the walls of people, the iron lines, so pure and sure bringing the howl down to the floor and letting in the light and the girl is alone now mirroring my throat in her lonely tired dance, the street silent but for us her tired breath I can hear for she's near me as I go round and round in the center of Liberty-Iberville connect. (continuing further for another page like this) my heart is at my throat hitting slow pure notes into the shimmy dance of victory, hair toss victory, a local strut, yes meeting sweat down her chin arms out in final exercise pain, take on the last long squawk and letting it cough and climb to spear her all those watching like a javelin through the brain and down into the stomach, feel the blood that is real move up bringing fresh energy in its suitcase, it comes up flooding past my heart in a mad parade, it is coming through my teeth, it is into the cornet, god can't stop god can't stop it can't stop the air the red force coming up can't remove it from my mouth, no intake gasp, so deep blooming it up god I can't choke it the music still pounding a roughness I've never hit, watch it listen it listen it, can't see I CAN'T SEE. Air floating through the blood to girl red hitting the blind spot I can feel others running, the silence of the crowd, can't see".

Ornette Coleman (was it him?) once said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture", yet some of us, and Ondaatje in the first place, manage to come close to evoking it.

Roddy Doyle - Oh, Play That Thing (Vintage, 2005) ***½

Irish novelist Roddy Doyle is the master of the long and funny dialogues, taken from real life. Usually he sticks to the common man in Ireland, and many of his novels are really worth reading, such as "Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha", "The Barrytown Trilogy", and "Snapper". To the general public he is possibly best known from the movie "The Commitments", in which a young band becomes the Irish replica of James Brown's music.

In this novel, Irish immigrant Henry Smart arrives in New York, gets involved in some mob troubles and has to flee to Chicago, where he meets no one less than Louis Armstrong, who is turned into a fictional character here, and is even involved in a burglary together with Smart. As in all Doyle's stories, "Oh, Play That Thing" is about the common man trying to make a living, making ends meet in a society whether nothing is given for free. And with no skills or education, they end up in the world of speakeasies, bootleggers and criminals.

The story is rambunctuous, fun and told with the energy and dynamic power we know from Doyle. Whatever stupidities they're up to, you cannot but feel a deep sympathy for the humanity of the characters.

Here is a short description of Armstrong's playing.

"The names danced among the crazy lights that jumped from the mirror ball above the dance floor. He was dancing now as he played, as if his legs were tied to the notes that jumped from the bell of his horn. His steps were crazy but he was in control. He was puppet and master, god and disciple, a one-man band in perfect step with the other players surrounding him. His lips were bleeding - I saw drops fall like notes to his patent leather shoes - but he was the happiest man on earth."

Patrick Neate - Twelve Bar Blues (Penguin, 2002) ***

"Twelve Bar Blues" tells a story that spans several generations, but its key character is "Lick" Holden, cornet player from New Orleans, and a contemporary of Louis Armstrong. It is an epic tale about jazz music, about African American culture and racism, about passion and love.

Even though it is not literature with a big "L", it is wildly entertaining and it creates characters and conjures up an entire world that are highly plausible and fun.

Now, Michael Ondaatje is from Sri Lanka and lives in Canada, Roddy Doyle is from Ireland, Patrick Neate from the UK. I may have missed something, but where is the great American jazz novel?

This is the first review that I post on my two blogz on Jazz CD Reviews and on Literature Reviews, the latter less popular because only in Dutch, but I will change that.

© stef


Jason Crane | The Jazz Session said...

I just checked out Coming Through Slaughter from the library after a friend made an erasure poem based on text from the book. I haven't read it yet but will dig in this week.

All the best,


Maciej Nowotny (Editor) said...

Fantastic post! Thanks Stef :-)))

joesh said...

Hi Stef

Nice to read these 'jazz novels' reviews, I didn't know those two ....... (or hadn't read them) as yet. However, if you're really interested in jazz literature you should start looking out these few classics, although I should add that I don't know what's still in print :

1) John Clellon Holmes - The Horn
A retelling of the life of a saxophonist Edgar Pool (Lester Young???).

2) James Baldwin - Sonny's Blues (Part of 'Going to Meet the Man : Stories')

3) Marcus Cornelius - Out Of Nowhere
An amazing reconstruction of the life of Warne Marsh ..... as if he's telling the story. Taken from interviews, and real life happenings AND VERY interesting.

One should not forget the hilarious autobiography (ok, it's not a novel, but ....) of Mezz Mezzrow - Really the Blues.

There are some more interesting ones, but I'll have to scratch my head to remember them.

Stef said...


Many thanks. I read "Baldwin's Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone", but not the other ones. I will look for them.


joesh said...

If you don't find them let me know, I'll dig them out of my boxes ..... somewhere in the cellar!

Best - Joe

Guy said...

czech writer josef skvorecky also was a fan of jazz (he wrote one novel called "the bass saxophone", and a collection of essays, "talkin' moscow blues" that deals w/ jazz, politics, etc). worth checking out as well, toni morrison's 'jazz' is heavily indebted to the music

Stef said...

Thanks Guy!

groove68 said...

Shirley Clarke's Ornette: Made in America

video on demand stream

Unknown said...

"Hopscotch" by Julio Cortazar is another tinged with jazz life references.

Howard Mandel said...

Thanks for this post, I'm fascinated by jazz novels, and consider The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor and Sweet Adversity by Donald Newlove among the best. Others not yet mentioned include Young Man With a Horn, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, Nathaniel Mackey's Bedouin Horn Book, Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues (memoir? novel), Charles Mingus' Beneath the Underdog (same thing -- a memoir? More like a novel), and jazz plays significant role in Kerouac's On The Road, Baldwin's Another Country and Pynchon's V., among many other 20the century classics. Check out the jazz mysteries of Bill Moody, stories by Dashiell Hammett Donald Barthelme and Terry Southern while you're at it.

Anonymous said...

Beyond Blue by Peter Schimke is also a jazz novel.
The book not only is themed by jazz, but also stylistically incorporates it.

Alex said...

Hi all,
if you are interested in jazz fiction, jazz novels and books on the topic just check my website

where I posted lots of book reviews and a short introduction on the topic.
I guess I am some sort of expert on that topic; I spent years researching this peculiar intersection of the two genres.
See you around :)
Cheers, Alex

Debbie B. said...

Also please consider the new release GLISSANDO: A story of love, lust and jazz, which is sassy/angsty contemporary fiction with a deep jazz backdrop. Thanks! ~~Debbie B.