Young Man With A Horn, by Dorothy Baker
Most people like music. They like it to dance to; they like it in the background at a restaurant; they like something to listen to while at the gym. Most people will have a few favourite acts and some favourite tunes; songs that spark memories of important moments or that years after adolescence still get them jumping up to throw some ageing shapes on the dance floor.
All of that’s important, but it’s not the whole story. For some of us saying we like music isn’t right because like is too mild a word. Music is integral, essential, part of who we are. If I can feel that even though I can’t play a note, how much stronger must it be for those who can create sounds nobody’s ever heard before?
Young Man with a Horn is the story of the life of Rick Martin, a fictional jazz trumpeter who died at the age of thirty burnt out by a talent greater than his life could contain. It’s about that tension between just liking music and living it, made vastly more acute by a gift that allows no compromise and yet which is so advanced most people can hardly recognise it.
While still a schoolkid Rick Martin wanders one day into an empty church. He looks at a hymn book and sings a couple of the hymns, then he notices a piano and decides to see if he can work out how to play them on it.
It worked out, all right. It started to work itself out that very day. Rick stood there, head on one side, forehead in pleats, figuring it out. And after a while he dragged up one of the benches vertical to the piano, and sat on the end of it. He stayed there until dark, and I can scarcely believe it myself, but the story goes that he could play the piano by dark; he could play number 14 on the piano by dark. He couldn’t find the light switch, then, and so he went home and went right to bed, so that he could think about just how it was that he had done it, and how maybe it might sound better if he made a change or two here and there.
Rick’s a poor white kid. He lives with his aunt and uncle neither of whom is much home and he’s about as low on the social scale as you can get without being black. Race matters here. That little lack of melanin is the only status Rick and his people have. These are racist times and even the lowliest white is still viewed as superior to any black.
Music though, music doesn’t recognise those distinctions. Musicians may, but the music doesn’t. Rick falls in with Smoke Jordan, a kid who sweeps up at the bowling alley where Rick works and Smoke is friend to Jeff Williams who plays piano and leads one of the best jazz bands in town. Smoke and Jeff are black, the whole band are, but all Rick can hear is the music and the music’s too good to be ignored. This quote captures jazz for me as well as anything I’ve ever read:
Jeff led them to it with four bars in the key, and then the three horns came in together, held lightly to a slim melody by three separate leashes. Then Jeff left the rhythm to the drums, and the piano became the fourth voice, and from then on harmony prevailed in strange coherence, each man improvising wildly on his own and the four of them managing to fit it together and tightly. Feeling ran high, and happy inspiration followed happy inspiration to produce counterpoint that you’d swear somebody had sat down and worked out note by note on nice clean manuscript paper. But nobody had; it came into the heads of four men and out again by way of three horns and one piano.
At first Rick and Smoke just hang out outside, listening through the window. It isn’t long though before they’re invited in and Jeff learns that Rick can play a little piano himself. He recognises Rick’s innate talent, and while it would have happened somehow anyway from there Rick’s path is set.
Jazz music is born from black American talent and experience. It came from a fusion of the emotion of the blues with the precision of the New Orleans classically trained Creole bands put out of work by the Jim Crow laws. The history of jazz is inseparable from the history of race in the US.
When Rick first meets Smoke, Jeff and the others in the band he’s the only white kid there. His language, his interior monologue, is profoundly racist but that’s a function of vocabulary and upbringing rather than true feeling. He can’t hide from himself the talent of these men or the friendship and guidance they offer him and Smoke goes on to be the only true friend he’ll ever have.
A few years later Rick’s working the coast playing trumpet in a white jazz band, Jack Stuart and his Collegians. The Collegians have taken that music of black origin and now play it for white crowds, cleaned up and not too challenging. They’re good, but nothing great.
Rick turns up for the job bearing a box of LPs featuring Jeff Williams and his band. He can’t leave that music, the true music, behind. He plays them for Jack and his boys who’ve heard of Jeff Williams but assumed because he was good that he was white. I was reminded of Nick LaRocca’s (I believe all white) Original Dixieland Jass Band who were the first to popularise jazz with a mass white audience and who helped kickstart the craze for jazz music as dance music.
Jeff Williams starts with similar base tunes to LaRocca’s crew, but he builds on them and his music is too deep, too complex to be just something to dance to:
Inseparable as music and dancing fundamentally must be, it is only the layman who prefers to dance to, rather than listen to, really good jazz. Good jazz has so much going on inside it than dancing to it, for anybody who likes the music, is a kind of dissipation. Bach’s Brandenburgs would make good dance music, but nobody dances to them; they make too-good dance music. The improvisations of Jeff Williams and his band weren’t anybody’s Brandenburgs, but they had something in common with them, a kind of hard, finished brilliance.
For Rick jazz is much more than something fun to pass an evening with. The musicians he plays with recognise his talent, but the crowds only see that he’s good and while he’s a definite commercial draw at the end of the day most of what he’s doing soars right over their heads. It raises a question as to what his talent’s for. It eats his life – hours of practice every day; playing all evening for the crowd then all night with the other musicians for fun after the gig’s done. He doesn’t take holidays, he barely spends the money he earns. Rick Martin just plays, practices, and then plays some more.
A few years later and Rick’s hit the big time, or as big as jazz allows. He’s now with Phil Morrison’s orchestra, another white band because while it’s largely blacks who’re advancing the form it’s whites who’re packing in the big audiences.
[Phil’s] orchestra held the established first place among society orchestras for years and years. And for a big orchestra, and a society orchestra, it was good. The way Rick Martin’s trumpet used to spring up above the rest of their heads would make you think it was a great orchestra, and Rick wasn’t the only good man in it, either; there was a fiddler who made you think twice, and a man who blew as good a trombone as you’ll hear anywhere in public. But it wouldn’t do to call it a great orchestra because it pandered to all tastes and there was always that grandiose ending. It was just a good big orchestra, playing out its nightly schedule at one big hotel or another, working for money, drawing a crowd, getting people out on the floor. But when that thin blond boy stood up in his place and tore off sixteen bars in his own free style, filling in the blank that was allotted to him on the score, it was a surprise forever, like seeing an airplane take off from the deck of a good solid ship. To hell, please, with the law of gravity.
It can’t last. Rick finally meets a girl who’s more than just a casual fling and has a short lived and disastrous marriage. “When she came into a room, Rick felt it and his knees went cold. When she bent her head to light a cigarette from the match he held, he was lost until the flame burned his finger.” His drinking gets worse and worse, until after a while nobody can tell anymore how much he’s had as it’s always too much. His talent outgrows his audience, his desire to do more getting to the point where his horn can’t make the sounds he wants it to and if it did hardly anyone would even recognise them as music any more.
What do we know except that he had a way of doing a thing, and that he had a love of the thing so strong that he never in his life compromised it, or let it down, or forgot it?
This is a novel about music, about race, and about having a talent so great that it eclipses the life that carries it. Rick Martin’s talent isn’t so much a gift as a demand. By the end of the novel he’s dead (the novel opens with this so it’s not a spoiler) leaving behind a few recordings and only a handful of musicians who understood quite how good he was.
Young Man With A Horn is a novel inspired by the music, but not the life, of Bix Beiderbecke. As the afterword makes clear, Beiderbecke’s life didn’t have much in common with Martin’s save too much alcohol, too much talent and too early an end. This is a novel about the music rather than the man. Because that music is jazz music it’s also a novel about race, and because jazz at its best is truth with a trumpet it’s a novel about truth in art and in life and the price you pay for it.
YMWAH was published in 1938 and so falls into Kaggsy’s rather good 1938 club. As a result Kaggsy has reviewed it here and Vulpes Libres here (and me here for that matter) and others are reading it and their reviews should be linked to from Kaggsy’s 1938 club page. There’s also a review by Jacqui of JacquiWine’sblog here. I’m sure I’m missing some so please let me know in the comments.
Edit: Tom of Amateur Reader’s rather good post is here, with some nice quotes showing quite how well Baker writes about the actual practice of playing music.
On a related note, I reviewed Dorothy Baker’s marvellous Cassandra at the Wedding here.
The best Bix Beiderbecke recordings I know of are on the four disc Bix and Tram box set featuring Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer. There’s a Discogs description here and I highly recommend it. I also listened while reading this to Bix Beiderbecke with Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra which (despite a somewhat glitchy initial track) is very, very good. There’s an Allmusic description of that album here.