Category Archives: Baker, Dorothy

Rick was a marked man, a lifelong sucker for syncopation.

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?

YMWAH

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.

Other reviews

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.

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Filed under Baker, Dorothy, US fiction

The bridge looked good again.

Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra and her identical twin sister, Judith, have been inseparable all their lives. Cassandra thought they always would be, but nine months ago Judith went to New York for a year leaving her behind.

Cassandra expected Judith to return and for them to build their lives together, sisters against the world. Instead Judith has announced she’s getting married to some doctor she met out East, and Cassandra’s been invited to the wedding.

And I knew right now … why I’d been asked to the wedding. I’d been asked because I could stop it in time, I could stage a last-minute rescue.

Cassandra

Cassandra and Judith grew up on a California ranch. Their family was close-knit: their father, a retired and politely drunk professor of philosophy, raised them using the Socratic method, treating his children as if they were adoring students; their mother, a famous writer, died a few years back but helped instill in them a sense of their own intellectual merit; their grandmother is a kind and loving woman but with a distinct preference for maintaining propriety rather than for seeing uncomfortable truths. As a family they were rich, artistic, elitist and above all self-contained (“we had our own pinnacle to look down from”).

When Cassandra and Judith left home, they left home together. They got an apartment in Berkeley, and because Judith was musical Cassandra bought a high-end piano for them to share. For Cassandra the piano is a symbol of the sisters, of their indivisibility.

I only listened and knew how good she was and what a piano we had, and later that night when she quit playing and came out onto the deck where I was looking at the lights and listening, she said, “We ought to live this way, don’t you think?” It was as if I’d been waiting all my life to hear her say it, and I said yes, oh yes, how could we imagine it ever being any other way? Let’s never get stuck with outsiders, just be ourselves and keep it honest, now we’ve got this piano.

When Judith moves to New York that’s bad, but marriage is much worse. The piano is beautiful, but cut in half it would be ruined. The parallel is obvious.

The book opens with Cassandra driving to the wedding. It’s first person voice, and immediately that voice is a troubled one. In a marvellously hardboiled line (so fitting for a book set in California) Cassandra glances at the Golden Gate bridge, noting that it looks good again. She means it looks tempting, like an exit.

En route she stops at a bar, drinks more than she should, and looks at her reflection. I have a pet hate of characters looking in mirrors and describing themselves, but here it works because of course Cassandra has spent her entire life looking at herself mirrored in Judith. Without Judith as contrast and support, Cassandra’s own identity starts to unravel.

my face in a blue mirror between two shelves of bottles. The bottles looked familiar enough, but I didn’t immediately recognize the face, mostly, I think, because I didn’t want to. It’s a face that’s given me a lot of trouble.

As Cassandra drives along you quickly get a sense of her: intelligent; brittle; impulsive; self-destructive. She sees a pumphouse spraying out water in the desert heat, stops, climbs a ladder to it and dunks her head straight into the jet to refresh herself; she wants to phone ahead to let the family know she’s arriving early, so calls from a phonebooth intended only to be used for emergencies. She drives with the top down on her car, the resulting sunburn leaving her uncomfortable in her own skin literally as well as figuratively. She’s fearless, except for her fear of living.

Judith later drives down the same road with her fiancé by her side, in a section of the book narrated by her. They don’t stop for a drink. They drive responsibly.

We were passing a pumphouse with a long pipe sticking out of it and throwing a beautiful head of white water into a cement weir. I wished I could put my head into it, but I laid it on Jack’s shoulder instead and thought about the door we’d open not so long from now.

“How would it be to phone ahead?” I said. “There’s an emergency telephone booth along here somewhere.” “This isn’t an emergency,” Jack said.

A book like this lives and dies by its characters. Cassandra’s narrative voice is intense, almost overwhelming, but also wry and observant of everything except the things she doesn’t want to see. Judith’s only emerges when Cassandra’s is briefly silenced. Judith is sensible, practical, normal. Cassandra, who it slowly emerges is gay, doesn’t even have the option of being normal (the book was published in 1962 – even without Cassandra’s emotional issues it’s not a period where a gay woman could aspire to a life of suburban married contentment).

Cassandra is writing a thesis she can’t finish, staying cocooned in the academic world she learned from her father. Her relationships are brief encounters only, nothing with even a hint of a future. In a sense she’s insisting on living forever as she did as a child, her and Judith sufficient and separate and aloof. Judith though, Judith doesn’t want to be separate and aloof. She wants to marry, to have a nice house, to settle down. This quote is from Cassandra’s section:

“You told me so many things,” I said. She waited a minute, looking back over her shoulder toward the pool; then she looked down at me, and said very quietly, “No, I don’t think I really told you anything. It was all you, you did the talking, you made all the plans, and I, I don’t know, but I think I got sort of drowned in it, or snowed under. When you hit your stride you’re—” “I’m what. Tell me. I absolutely have to know what I am when I hit my stride.” “You’re overwhelming. It’s some sort of crazy vitality and it goes out like rays. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be with you—kind of a circus. Only—”

A lesser novelist would have made Jack, Judith’s fiancé, unsympathetic. In fact though he and Judith are a good match and he’s a definite catch. He’s a handsome young doctor, friendly and polite, and he loves Judith as much as she loves him. He’s exasperated by Cassandra, but more because he sees her as self-indulgent than anything else. Where Cassandra talks about wanting to die, Jack replies “Quit talking about wanting to die,” … “Dying is a big thing.” Jack offers Judith an equal union, not a perpetual role as Cassandra’s ballast.

Dorothy Baker was a playwright as well as an author, and it shows here. Cassandra at the Wedding is in essence a three-part play (Cassandra’s section, Judith’s section, Cassandra’s second section). It almost all takes place in the same location, there’s only a handful of characters, and it features that classic dramatic motif of a family reunion leading to personal revelations and conflicts.

If this were a play, it would be an excellent one. It has sharply written characters and dialogue, cleanly delineated scenes and no fat. It’s packed with great little exchanges and observations (mostly Cassandra’s, Judith’s nicer and not looking from the outside):

“There’s probably a school for wives,” I said, “but you don’t need to go.” I felt better, and I looked at her obliquely to see if she felt worse, but there was no sure way to tell.

I don’t like things rumpled up. If there is tissue paper all over everywhere I shove it under the bed. I have ideas of order.

His hair was so clean that each single hair had its own halo.

He’d never known his mother, and his father died when he was twelve. No home life at all, which is probably why he turned out so well.

The heat hung in wavy layers above the road and made it look like water.

I could keep quoting, but I’ve done so too much already. I’ll wrap up then by just saying that this is a perfect example of exactly why I and so many others regard NYRB Classics as a go-to publisher for quality work.

On a final note, while the NYRB Classics edition is the one I read, while looking for a picture of the cover to add to this post I came across the alternative cover below. It’s just about the most misleading thing I’ve seen in ages.

Cassandra2

If you bought Cassandra at the Wedding hoping for a light pastel beach read about twins’ comic misadventures around a wedding, well, I think you’d be entitled to feel a little misled.

Other reviews

The review that persuaded me to read this was Jacqui’s at JacquiWine’s Journal, here. There’s also a great review at 1streading’sblog here, which went up back when I was still reading the book myself. Please feel free to link to others in the comments.

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Filed under Baker, Dorothy, US fiction