A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Once I’d decided that Young Man With a Horn by Dorothy Baker would be one of the books I read for the 1938 Club, I made a point of not reading any reviews or looking up anything about it. As such, it is only now, flicking to the beginning of the novel, that I see the note ‘Every character in this book is entirely fictitious and no reference whatever is intended to any living person’. And I’d been convinced that Rick Martin, the trumpeter of the title, was real, and that Baker had written a fictionalised version of his life. That’s a very good recommendation for the novel from that outset – even if it does make Baker’s prologue (which gives away all the plot) rather self-defeating.
(Later, I’ve gone to look at Wikipedia, which says that the novel is loosely based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke, so… who knows?)
In a nutshell, Young Man With a Horn tells the musical life of Rick Martin. As it opens, he is a child living with his aunt and uncle – ‘(brother and sister, not husband and wife)’, as we are informed – and not paid much attention by anybody. Happening upon a piano in a sort of church hall, he begins to pick out some tunes from the hymn books – and quickly reveals and aptitude and love for music that cannot be sated.
Smoke, a boy he meets at the bowling alley and his truest friend throughout the story, introduces him to other musicians in the area:
The four in the shell were glad to see Smoke and made a lot of it. They accused him of this, that, and even of the other, trying to find out why he never came around any more; and Smoke put them off by a system of grinning at the right time. And all the time Rick stood there trying to look unobtrusive, but standing out, just by the force of his contrasting colour, light a lighthouse.
There was need of more presentation, and this time Davis did it, very pleasantly and easily: “Mr Martin, I’d like you to meet Mr Hazard… Mr Snowden… Mr Ward… and Mr Williams.” Rick smiled at them self-consciously and made his mouth go, but not fast enough to say “I’m glad to meet you” four separate times. He made an impression on them, though; you could see that. I suppose part of it was that he always looked somehow like a rich kid, very clean and with expensive pants on. He was good-looking, too, on his own hook. He had blond, slightly curly hair and sharp brownish eyes. Brownish, not brown. In terms of colour, Rick’s eyes were scarcely describable; they had brightness and sharpness more than they had colour. They burned like the eyes of the fevered or the fanatical, with a deep, purposeful smouldering that will get out of hand if you don’t it in time.
Race is a fascinating question in Young Man With a Horn, and it is instrumental to an understanding of 1938 to see how it is treated in the novel. The opening line is pretty controversial – ‘In the first place maybe he shouldn’t have got himself mixed up with negroes’ – and there are constant callbacks, chiefly in dialogue, to ideas that black musicians play differently from white musicians. But, having said that, Baker seems in some ways very ahead of her time – in that she seems to condemn the outspoken racists in the novel, and the band she posits as some of sort of ideal comprises black and white players. I would be horrified if this novel were published exactly like this today, but wouldn’t have been surprised to be told it was from the 1970s. For the 1930s, it seems almost progressive.
Back to the plot. We do see a relationship or two enter Martin’s life, but this is dealt with rather hastily; for Baker, and thus for the reader, the true trajectory is his musical career. We see his status grow, particularly among those who – like him – live for music rather than fame: ‘He was a musician’s musician’. And Baker conveys this sense of camaraderie and cohesion really beautiful. I have often struggled with reading fiction or non-fiction about the glories of music; I play a couple of instruments relatively well, but certainly not close to standards, and music has only ever been a background interest of mine. I don’t thrill to music the way I thrill to words, and have occasionally lamented that my obsession (books!) isn’t collaborative, though blogging provides a secondary outlet for that sense of joining together. Well, this made it all the more impressive that Baker hooked me in, rather than making me annoyed; her writing about music and musicality is entirely unpretentious. Instead, I found it infectious:
Smoke had the thing under the control all the way through. He didn’t pay much attention to the snare – he could play a snare any time he wanted to. He played the bass direct with padded sticks and kept it quiet but very clear, a deep washboard rhythm with constantly shifting emphasis. And to vary it further he played the basic beat with the pedal and went into double time on the cymbal, playing one-handed and holding the edge of the cymbal with the other hand to steady it and mute the tone. He was tearing it up so well – and everybody knew it – that the band simply quit for sixteen bars and let him work; and he stayed right there double timing one-handed on the cymbal and never repeating himself, keeping it sharp and precise and making it break just tight for him.
Something about reading Young Man With a Horn made me feel as though I were in the band myself, or at least in the audience; Baker welcomes you into the circle. Jazz fills the air, and somehow the prose. And the prose is very winning – it has a certain naivety to it, as though told by a friend of the group who is unused to storytelling (yet who does it extremely well). The style is informal. Indeed, it feels anecdotal – the whole novel is rather like somebody sitting next to you in a 1930s bar and telling you all about their friend Rick and his amazing ability with a trumpet.
If the novel has some flaws – it ends a little abruptly, and that prologue was perhaps a mistake, though it gives the apparatus of biography that helped fool me – Baker writes with an authenticity and naive charm that make Young Man With a Horn a 1930s jazz joy. I’m very glad the 1938 Club helped me pull it down from the shelf.