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July 10, 2007

Jazz in Literature -- Thriving on a Riff

Sunday's New York Times had an essay, a sort of memoir, by novelist Haruki Murakami, in which he describes his early obsession with jazz and how it later shaped his writing. Murakami opened a jazz club in Tokyo in the 1970's, before he became a novelist at age 29.

One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, “It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.” I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.

These words resonated with me, not so much because I write, but because there are obvious similarities in the way all artists approach their crafts. I am first and foremost a musician, though I don't gig anymore. (That's out of necessity -- jazz doesn't pay the bills.) One of my old teachers used to talk to me about the Zen approach to playing, about playing "the space between the notes" (breathing). Like Monk, he spoke about the importance of playing with conviction. In other words, even if you hit the wrong note (and don't believe the b.s. that "there are no wrong notes in jazz" because there definitely are) but you play it with full conviction, hardly anyone will notice that it was a wrong note. And he talked about how there are only a finite number of notes (12, in Western music) and we have to open up and listen in order to play the notes that are meant to be played in that moment, without forcing it. All these things reminded me of Monk's words.

Murakami's piece got me thinking about something else: the confluence of different arts, and where one may reference the other. Dance and music can rarely do without one another. Painters often depict music and musicians in their works. But it's rare anymore to find authors who actually weave the music of jazz into their narratives. Fitzgerald's early short fiction, Tales of the Jazz Age, is not a collection of stories about jazz. Instead, it encapsulates a period in time (the Twenties) where he uses the music as the backdrop for a series of tales about the amoral, selfish and self-absorbed young rich. It's a subject he mastered in The Great Gatsby.

So, where is the jazz in literature? Two books I read in college fit the bill. Although Jack Kerouac wrote a novel called The Subterraneans, where jazz is practically the main character, it's not that great a book. On the Road, written a year before, was not only the first book where he makes jazz part of the story, it became the "novel of the beat generation". Truman Capote, asked for his opinion of On the Road, bitingly said, "That's not writing, it's typing." He was sort of right. It turns out that although Kerouac had written the book over a period of seven years that he'd spent... on the road... he later typed it up on a long scroll 100 feet long in just three weeks time, and when interviewed, would stick to the more dramatic telling that he "wrote" the whole thing in three weeks. The novel winds through four different road trips with characters closely based on his writer pals of the day, including poets Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso. Because Kerouac wrote in an almost frantic (100 words per minute) freedom-of-consciousness style, where he never reworked the chapters (until an editor later got to it), but just kept moving forward, it earned him renown as an improvisational writer.

Something would come of it yet. There's always more, a little further -- it never ends. They sought to find new phrases after Shearing's explorations; they tried hard. They writhed and twisted and blew. Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men's souls to joy. They found it, they lost, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned -- and Dean sweated at the table and told them to go, go, go. At nine o'clock in the morning everybody -- musicians, girls in slacks, bartenders and the one little skinny, unhappy trombonist -- staggered out of the club into the great roar of Chicago day to sleep until the wild bop night again.

Those lines sound awfully cliche to me now, but since he wrote about going to jazz clubs, listening to Dexter Gordon and George Shearing, and the beauty of the music itself, that earned him extra cred with musicians. The book ends on a sad, lonely note, not unlike the mythology -- and caricature -- of jazz life at that time in America. One of the more interesting interviews Kerouac gave was on The Steve Allen Show in 1959, the year after On the Road was published. He reads an excerpt from the book while Allen accompanies him on piano. Watch the YouTube. It's great!

The other book is Ralph Ellison's masterwork, The Invisible Man. Ellison, a trained musician (on trumpet and piano), evocatively shapes a story about racism and alienation from a world that doesn't "see" its protagonist. The narrator searches for his identity, and, to an extent, liberates himself with his repeated listenings of Louis Armstrong's rendition of "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?" It's not only that Ellison writes about jazz, it's also his style of crafting the narrative that's prompted a number of people, including a Christian minister who used to blog as The Jazz Theologian, to conclude that The Invisible Man is actually a jazz text. The Jazz Theologian sees the narrative in strictly musical terms -- from the prologue, which he imagines as the bass notes and arpeggios (the separate notes that make up a chord), to the body of the story itself, where Ellison returns to the arpeggios, mixing up the notes to expand on recurring motifs.

For a somewhat differerent take, this is from a review of Eric Sundquist's book, Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man :

Sundquist makes the point by using a version of the durable comparison between the novel Invisible Man and jazz composition to declare that "Ellison's sense of history as a form of subjective temporality -- a constructed story, not a set of objective facts -- is perhaps the most profound" way in which the novel compares to jazz. In another place, commenting on the aural poetry of the novel, Sundquist quotes Ellison's own words about the technique of Romare Bearden to comment on the feel of fact. Bearden's juxtapositions on canvas, wrote Ellison, are "eloquent of the sharp breaks, leaps in consciousness, distortions, paradoxes, reversals, telescoping of time, and surreal blending of styles, values, hopes and dreams which characterize much of Negro American history."

Jazz isn't about facts. But it is about truth. It's also at least 50% about listening, and whether listening to the space between the notes or the notes themselves, the truth has to come through. The Fats Waller and Andy Razaf song "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?" was originally written for a stage musical. It's the lament of a black woman who loses her man, because he's lighter skinned than she is, and can pass closer into the white world. It's both about her loss of love and the realization that because of her too-dark skin she can never move beyond her world, in which case, she and her man can never be together. The way Armstrong sang it, and the way Ellison's Invisible Man heard it, the song is purely the cry of a black man who feels the sting of racism in America. Same song, slightly different meaning. Is Armstrong's version not factual? That's irrelevant. It's his truth, therefore it is the truth in that moment.

Posted by shoephone on July 10, 2007 at 01:50 AM in Miscellany | Permalink


What an evocative post, shoe, especially for someone like me, who is not much of a jazz fan, but is a voracious reader; I will listen to jazz with my ear tuned slightly differently and with a greater appreciation for the truth I may find in the music.

It strikes me that a lot of us have felt so little truth in the big picture of this country and this government, that we are paying more attention and listening a lot more carefully to our inner selves, struggling at times with what truth means and how to make our truths make a difference in the larger world.

Thanks again for making me think and learn!

Posted by: Anne | Jul 10, 2007 8:42:54 AM

Jazz don't pay the bills, but it surely does make them.


Writing about Jazz (even in the sense of using stylistic nuances that hint at the improvisational as a conceit within the work) is like talking about sports (...for me).

It's not 'in the moment', but apart from it. 'Like trying to tell a stranger 'bout Rock and Roll'.
And the squares will never really know, although they may be dying on the inside to wear the shoes of Deacon Blues.

Posted by: darkblack | Jul 10, 2007 6:31:08 PM

db - but, DO you believe in magic?

You're right about the inability to capture the essence of jazz improv, as it's happening. And it's even harder to sound legit when the writer doesn't have a true jazz background, as a player. I think that's why Kerouac ultimately fails -- not that I didn't enjoy "On the Road". I did, but for the characters, the inside knowledge that Moriarty was really Cassady, Carlo Marx was Ginsberg, etc. But I think that Ellison succeeds, particulary because, as Sundquist noted, his style was similar to the compositional style of the music, and it was "like" the music, more than it was "about" the music. I think Ellison's musical knowledge comes through loud and clear. "Invisible Man" feels timeless to me (whereas "On the Road" seems very dated and kitschy). I think it endures because Ellison is able to develop a groove, and the narrator's recurring memories are like motifs. Even his bitterness is a motif. "The Subterraneans", which fills me with some discomfort because of the patronizing racial attitude (and Kerouac's almost adolescent sexism) is a more interesting jazz read. Since all Mardou Fox does is hang out in the clubs, we get some pretty cool descriptions of Bird on the bandstand. But overall, Kerouac's portrayal of Mardou feels like an insult.

Now then, speaking of "Deacon Blues"... isn't it Phil Woods on the solo? Talk about thriving on a riff...

Posted by: shoephone | Jul 10, 2007 10:38:04 PM

'Product knowledge' is key, yes...It's the thing that saved Mingus' 'Beneath The Underdog' from wallowing in a sea of low rent proto-Iceberg Slim-ery, for example.

Agreed, Ellison loves the form...I think that (love) gives the work backbone.

I also agree that Kerouac loses his hipster cred a bit on 'Subterraneans'...One step away from boho bwanaisms so rampant in those ignorant days. I did enjoy the evocations of the City, though.

Deacon Blues?...No Bird watcher there, that was Pete Christlieb.


Posted by: darkblack | Jul 11, 2007 6:59:48 AM

Christlieb! I knew it was an oldie but a goodie. Of course, most all of my attention went to Carlton and Graydon.

Funny you mentioned Beneath the Underdog. I almost added it to the original post. That skinny little book saddened me and fascinated me at the same time, but that's Mingus for you. He delivers the one-two punch and makes you love him despite...

from the film (Triumph of the Underdog):


Posted by: shoephone | Jul 11, 2007 8:12:17 AM

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