Wednesday, March 30

Jazz Country

by Nat Hentoff  
Harper and Row  1965  

A teen boy wants nothing more than to be a jazz musician and that being white puts him on the outside, but time an exposure to one of his jazz idols teaches him that character, not color, defines who you are. Well, sort of.  

I love how every once in a while a library sale will unearth relics from another layer of the children's literature archaeological strata.  Books that have finally reached their expiration date due to lack of circulation are given one last chance on a library cart where, for a mere quarter of a dollar, you can get a glimpse into what was published for a teen audience over 10, 20, 30, sometimes (as in this case) over 45 years ago.  

Tom Curtis is a high school senior who, for the last five years or so, has wanted nothing more than to become a jazz musician. On weekends, and some weeknights, he heads down to the Savoy club and stands outside (because he's under age) listening to his idol, Moses Godfrey, take the stage and direct the most idiosyncratic jazz Tom has ever heard.  Godfrey is an innovator, a band leader along the lines of a Charles Mingus (to whom the book is partially dedicated), an important figure in jazz who may nonetheless be part of a dying breed.  Listening to him, Tom is full of doubts about whether he's good enough, or ever will be good enough, and whether or not he should go to college or instead try to make a go of it as a jazz musician.  

Oh, and Tom is white.  Moses and most of the other jazz cats are black.  And it's no small thing that one of Tom's biggest hang-ups is how he's ever going to "cross over" and make it as a jazz musician because he's certain that, being born white, he just doesn't have what it takes to ever really make it.  Seems kind of quaint, doesn't it?  

Early on Hentoff presents Moses as a sort of zen master, questioning all assumptions and doling out his own version of zen koans to all around.  In his first meeting Moses asks if Tom is a musician and his fumbled response reads almost like Luke Skywalker's first encounter with Yoda. Having been so quickly shut out Tom becomes determined to prove that he is a musician, and worthy, grafting a sort of zen apprenticeship onto the monomyth of the hero's journey.

This being the mid 1960s Hentoff is eager to make sure the story resonates with its intended audience who would be hip to current events.  There are the beginnings of black militantism, and the Southern freedom marchers.  There's passing reference to hippies and an acknowledgment of failed attempts at integration. The divide between poor and rich is presented mostly as a black vs white issue, and the police are never where you need them and always where you don't want them.  From the perspective of the 21st century it's difficult to know if this is an accurate perception of the times, or simply the beginnings of what we know recognize as a collection of stereotypes.  My sense is that Hentoff was trying to include as many views as he could and in doing so created an amalgam of types to give the 1960s reader a general, but all too convenient, sense of the political landscape.  

As interesting as the question of whether or not race matters in a musical form created and popularized predominantly by African Americans, Hentoff stumbles on the main story question regarding what Tom should do with his life. He has plenty of examples about what a rough life it is to make a living as a musician – not just a jazz musician, or a black musician, but just as a musician – and he can see that the jazz world still has a lot of external hostility in the form of business and press criticism, so when Tom finally lands an paid offer to join a band we really feel he should know what to do. 

But he doesn't.  Hentoff has dragged his main character across town, through fights and police brutality, in decrepit tenement buildings, to social gatherings, in and around hipster areas... but we have no sense of Tom's other life, the one he's trying to choose between.  He has a few school friends who get mentioned, and a set of parents who are mentioned only briefly and are "cool" with their son exploring his options, but for the most part his white world is a mystery. He's teen without a girlfriend or a desire for one, a teen with no interests outside his jazz life?  He's got good enough grades to get into colleges, Amherst eventually becomes his school of choice due to its proximity to NYC, but it's all treated as a casual aside, a white default. Its the beginning of the escalation of the Vietnam War and boys are starting to realize that a college deferment is the way to avoid the draft, but that never occurs to Tom when deciding whether he should defer the college or the jazz life.  His fears about falling out of the scene and not making it in jazz if he goes to college ignores the reality that by refusing college he risks his life, not just his jazz, by getting drafted.  This feels like a huge blind spot in the story.  

But in the end what is most frustrating is that, once given the option to join a band Tom goes around to every major character in the story and asks them for their opinion about what he should do.  At this point the reader will have made up their own mind, but Tom should know, he should have an opinion of his own, and it should reflect some sort of growth in his character. The mere fact that he still has to ask, is still looking for acceptance and permission, suggests that he has a long way to go and probably should pack it up and go to college. 

"I can't tell you when I decided to try college for a while," Tom explains, then justifies his turning down the offer to join a band because he didn't like the band leader.  That might have been clearer before and when he got the offer but it wasn't for the simple fact that for the entire story we have never seen a shred of emotion from Tom. Given how so much of the story is filled with jazz musicians talking about getting the feeling into the music it might have been nice to see Tom get a little feeling into his own life. And given that Hentoff was and is a premier jazz historian and critic, you'd think he'd have been able to show us what Tom's "song" looked like before and after he found the music within him.

Writing about a white teen looking to enter the predominantly African American world of jazz in the mid 1960s, we're going to have to forgive a lot of Hentoff's pedantic narrative as a record of its time, an historical document of another era. His use of the word Negro gives the book a slightly off taste to the modern palate. And Hentoff quickly dismisses a large number of influential white jazz musicians of the day as possible role models for Tom simply so he can make his case about race, jazz ideology, and class differences in 1960s New York City.  I had hoped that Hentoff would be able to deliver a sound story of a teen musician trying to navigate the waters of the race and class in the 1960s, something we could hold on to as an historical novel of the time.  Sadly, I understand now why it might have gone neglected on the library shelves.

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