Friday, November 16, 2012

*Young Man With a Horn, by Dorothy Baker

NYRB Classics, 2012
originally published 1938, Houghton Mifflin
185 pp

"Music, for him, wasn't a business; it was a passion, and he was ready to give up to it."

There's a problem when readers stick to what's hot, trendy and popular in today's reading market -- they miss a lot of good older, mainly-forgotten books like this one.  Kudos to NYRB for bringing this book (and other fine novels) back to the attention of the reading public, or at least to me.

The Young Man With a Horn is Rick Martin, who, we discover as the prologue opens, is dead at a young age not long after reaching the peak of his musical genius.  Despite this, the narrator assures the reader that the story has no "grand tragic theme," but rather it is the account of a man who "had a talent for creating music as natural and fluent as -- oh, say Bach's," who would never be "put down to playing exactly what was written for him." Martin chose instead to live a life in devotion to his art; he's a man with the soul of an artist who "goes to pieces," and ultimately suffers for life's intrusions into his great passion.

The novel is divided into four books, beginning with Rick's childhood and teen years  in Los Angeles, where he meets "his first, last and always friend," Smoke Jordan. Rick Martin is a poor kid growing up in LA -- he is often truant from school; although he'd learned to read music there, school held little interest for this boy.  One day Rick wanders into the All Souls' Mission where he finds himself alone, and picks up a hymnal and starts singing the tunes (not the words -- just the music). He transfers picking out the songs in his head to the piano there, and goes back to practice until his peace is intruded upon. Although he loves the piano, he's thinking that perhaps a trumpet is more his m├ętier. It is when he takes a job that he meets Smoke -- black to his white, and they become fast friends in a space and time where there is a racial "line that can't be crossed,"  a line Rick didn't know existed.  Smoke introduces him to the music of Jeff Williams, the bandleader at the Cotton Club -- not the Cotton Club, but the less famous one in Vernon, California south of Los Angeles.  At first the two boys would sit outside, and "let the music come to them" in the darkness of night, and it is here that  Rick's deep-seated passion music really began; the sound that he would try to recreate over the course of his short lifetime originated within the small confines of this little club whose clientele was "mostly negro with a light mixture of Mexicans and Filipinos."

 a scene of young Rick in "Young Man With a Horn," directed by Michael Curtiz, 1950

 Ultimately  taken in by this group of musicians  he considered musical geniuses and in some sense of the word, the family he never had, Rick learns how to play in earnest.  It was the rarity of the band's music, that beautiful, "pure thing put out fresh by the Cotton Club ensemble" that really grabbed hold of his soul and penetrated his psyche to the point where he came to know the band's playing style  "from the inside out."  Soon
  the fascination of making music was on him like a leech. He'd sit at the Cotton Club piano and practice until his fingernails ached from being sent the wrong way, and he'd play his trumpet until his lip crumpled up on him and shook miserably in the face of further discipline.
It takes Rick no time to realize that the tune is less important than the improvisations and the variations it inspires; even as a boy he had daydreams of the popular bandleader Paul Whiteman grooving on his talent for improvising and creating something new.  He held to this ideal even after his career started -- in Rick's mind, there was little meaning to be drawn from the dance music de jour to which the bandleaders pandered. Yet his passion and flair for improv and originality went unappreciated by his bosses who reminded him that he'd be "playing to our own kind of a crowd."   He came alive at quitting time however -- "after his good work was done, he did better work," hanging out with his friends and jamming, just playing for fun. It was in this space that he could let himself go and play for the sheer love of  music, here where he could feel that unbridled sense of being alive his music produced that little else could. Popular in his professional life, privately he "had a way of doing a thing, and ... a love of the thing so strong that he never in his life compromised it."  But when the real world intrudes, including a tempestuous marriage that further hones his drinking skills,  his drive for purity and perfection combine with his fondness for booze and eventually become the instruments of his downward slide.

Movie poster for "Young Man With a Horn," directed by Michael Curtiz, 1950

Thematically, the book touches on a number of issues: race, the question of art as opposed to commercialism;  jazz as a form of undefinable personal experience, expression and meaning; one's inner drive and the need to remain true to one's principles.

Baker writes at the outset that the inspiration for her book is "the music, but not the life, of a great musician, Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke." Rick Martin in  Young Man With a Horn is definitely not Bix Beiderbecke -- when Ken Burns' documentary Jazz re-aired a couple of years back I read Jean Pierre Lion's bio of Beiderbecke (Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend) and while there are a couple of similarities, Baker's book is not a borrowing of Beiderbecke's life made fiction. And I have to say that in 1938 the addition of  obviously lesbian characters was pretty gutsy.   It's also a shame that this book isn't as well known as the film that came out of it starring Kirk Douglas, Doris Day and Lauren Bacall.  It's an awesome film if you're into older movies, filled with great music if you're into old jazz,  but now that I've read the novel, it seems that the screenwriters took quite a few liberties in getting it to the big screen.

 Personally I just don't get why people don't seem very fond of this novel.  Okay, it's a bit melodramatic at the end, which comes rather quickly when maybe there might have been more buildup toward the last scene. At the same time, it's the journey through Rick Martin's short life and career in the first three books that drives this narrative as it leads up to Rick's final moments, as his love for music and his need for creative freedom take hold of him setting the stage for the direction his life will eventually take. By the time you get to the end, the final outcome should actually be of little surprise, considering the author's skill in framing Rick Martin's life up to that point. Young Man With a Horn is an appealing and compelling novel; I highly recommend it to anyone well rounded enough in their reading who can pull themselves away from the New York Times bestseller list or other currently popular novels to enjoy something from the past.

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