In a sense, a jazz performance is a kinship rite. Whether in the streets of New Orleans, or at clubs or concert halls, jazz has always given people cause to convene to forget their troubles and celebrate life.
That jazz offers a window into the full range of human sensibilities hasn’t been lost on writers, and across the twentieth century a body of texts emerged: poems, short stories, novels, essays, and memoirs. It’s to some of these texts that scholar Sam V. H. Reese turns in Blue Notes: Jazz, Literature, and Loneliness.
“In the world of fiction,” Reese writes, “jazz can offer pathways for negotiating loneliness, or new perspectives that allow solitude to be seen as a positive, life-affirming experience.” This is his task: to examine those pathways. It turns out there are more kinds of loneliness than piano keys, and all of them find expression in the literature of jazz.
Reese begins with some basic questions. What do we even mean by loneliness and how does this relate to sadness? How does gender come into play? What about race or nationality? The author looks into psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, and he agrees with the experts: “Loneliness is a product of our evolutionary drive toward socialization and connection.” Like a disease “loneliness can be transmitted.” It can wear down our health, mental and physical. Deprivation from our people — our tribe — can be a devastating thing, which is why ostracism is a universal punishment. The arts — such as jazz — not only bring us together, they provide a sense of purpose and a shared identity.
But what about the renegade soloist, the musician himself? How does he fare with social connection?
The mythology surrounding jazz has given a select few virtuosos the bittersweet position of misunderstood geniuses. They are tragic figures, from Buddy Bolden to Bud Powell. Think of Charley Parker at the edge of the stage, strung out on heroin, blowing minds with his horn, in the early days of bop. You couldn’t dance to Charley Parker. You had to sit with your thoughts and wonder how a human being could make such incredible sounds.
Indeed, much of jazz fiction focuses on the soloist, and Langston Hughes got there first. Whereas F. Scott Fitzgerald considered jazz a backdrop for white socialites, Hughes focused on the musician: her desires, her fears, what she gave up or gained.
In Hughes’ 1934 story, “The Blues I’m Playing,” a young African American pianist called Oceola dreams of playing jazz, while her white teacher insists she stick to Bach. But by the story’s end Oceola summons the courage to defy her teacher and she abruptly breaks into improvised jazz. “Her music is a way for her to assert her identity,” Reese writes, “against the attempts by her patron — and white society at large — to dictate what kind of art she can produce, and how she is allowed to live her life.”
Such ideas were radical in 1934 and became a model for writers to emulate (or critique) in the emerging canon of jazz-based prose. James Baldwin considered his own lonely pianist in his most celebrated story, “Sonny’s Blues.” Eudora Welty took up the theme in her story, “Powerhouse.” Ralph Ellison epitomizes the question of how an African American can find kinship and fulfillment in a racist America in his groundbreaking novel, Invisible Man. By the time we get to Michael Ondaatje’s 1976 Coming Through Slaughter and Toni Morrison’s 1992 Jazz, the trope of the lonely jazz artist is reduced to cliché. But we hardly notice in such works as these. Their verbal pyrotechnics seduce us. We willingly succumb to the fever dream.
Blue Notes follows Reese’s first academic study, The Short Story in Midcentury America, also on LSU Press, and a recent story collection titled Come the Tide. The book is divided into an introduction, four chapters, and an epilogue. The first section looks at how the short story developed in tandem with jazz lit. The second chapter considers gender. The third looks at identity more closely, in-groups and out-groups. And the fourth chapter takes on the autobiography.
The author hits his stride in the discussion on gender. Female jazz musicians tend to suffer from a deeper, “existential” form of loneliness, Reese writes. Their very personhood precludes their belonging. It’s the same old tune, and it hasn’t much improved. Reese analyzes Morrison’s Jazz, Zadie Smith’s story “Crazy They Call Me,” (which is loosely based on Billie Holiday’s life), and the novels Corregidora by Gayl Jones and Valaida by Candace Allen. Valaida is a fictionalized account of the life of Valaida Snow, a professional trumpet player “who rejects any expectations that she limit herself to the traditionally female roles of singer or dancer.” The book isn’t well known, but it gives a window in a fascinating subject: How does a woman survive in a boy’s club? In short, Snow has a tough go at it. But we empathize with her struggle along the way. Fiction seldom offers solutions, but there is no better way to explore complex worlds.
At times, Reese strays from loneliness and gets deep in the weeds of his texts. But like a good soloist, he eventually circles back to the theme. Perhaps the most fascinating section for me was how the jazz autobiography became a hybrid text. For the first few decades of its existence, everyone seemed to want to pin down jazz. Musicians finally entered the fray with their own literary contributions. A spate of “set the record straight” books emerged in the 1960s. Reese focuses on two: Duke Ellington’s Music Is My Mistress and Charles Mingus’s Beneath the Underdog. Reese positions these books as proto-autofiction. Rather than dispel the mythology of jazz with hard facts, these books paradoxically lean into the myths, even as they make claims to the truth.
There is so much to wade through in this densely packed book. We get Cortázar and Murakami and Geoff Dyer. We get critical theory and music history. It can be a bit daunting to read a couple hundred pages of close readings about books you’ve never read. This isn’t the fault of the author, but a challenge to the reader. And if you have read the works, then it is certainly a richer experience. This book is for scholars and curious readers with a whole-hearted penchant for jazz. It’s a worthy contribution and a reminder to the power of America’s most original musical art.
Blue Notes: Jazz, Literature, and Loneliness
By Sam V. H. Reese
Published Sept. 11, 2019
Jason Christian's writing has appeared in Country Roads Magazine, The New Republic, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans.