Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding was one of my reading highlights of 2014 and ever since then I’ve been looking forward to trying her debut, the jazz novel, Young Man with a Horn. I’m glad to say it did not disappoint, far from it. This novel is a modest triumph, finely crafted and deeply felt.
First published in 1938, Young Man was inspired by the music, but not the life, of Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke, the legendary cornetist and pianist of the Jazz Age. The novel opens with a prologue in which an unnamed narrator, possibly an observer or biographer, offers an overview of the story of Rick Martin’s life. Rick was a jazz musician, a young white guy with a rare talent for creating some of the sweetest, most imaginative music known to man. But we know from the outset that Rick’s life is over, he’s ‘washed up and gone’. His passion for music was so great that he struggled to keep pace with his own ability – here’s how the short prologue ends:
Our man is, I hate to say it, an artist, burdened with that difficult baggage, the soul of an artist. But he hasn’t got the thing that should go with it – and which I suppose seldom does – the ability to keep the body in check while the spirit goes on being what it must be. And he goes to pieces, but not in any small way. He does it so thoroughly that he kills himself doing it. (pg. 12)
The remainder of the novel is divided into four sections, each one covering a key phase in Rick’s story.
Orphaned as a baby, young Rick is raised by his (largely absent) older sister and brother. By the age of fourteen, Rick is skipping school and teaching himself to play the piano at the All Souls’ Mission church in Los Angeles. Around this time, he meets an eighteen-year-old black guy, Smoke Jordan, at the local Pool Hall. Rick is fascinated by Smoke’s natural sense of rhythm; he can see it in the way Smoke moves across the floor as he sweeps up at Gandy’s Pool Hall. At first, Smoke is a little wary of getting too close to Rick, but a lasting friendship soon develops between the pair as they bond over a mutual love of music.
First there was his absorbing interest in the music, and next there was his deep feeling for Smoke Jordan, the only person in the world he knew and loved. Or it may have been first Smoke and then the music. Whichever came first, the two had to be bracketed together. (pg. 38)
This deep relationship between the two young men (one white, one black) is one of the most touching and affectionate features of the novel, it’s beautifully rendered by Baker.
Smoke and Rick spend their nights sitting outside the Cotton Club listening to Jeff Williams and his Four Mutts. This band is hot, the players know what they’re about both collectively and singly, and Rick soaks it all up. Smoke knows the band and one evening the two boys are invited into the Club. Rick is in his in element; he is entranced by the music, not only the piano but the trumpet too. The way Art Hazard plays that horn simply blows him away.
It may have been the gin; something had him fixed up so that he was playing constantly right up to the place where genius and madness grapple before going their separate ways. It was Hazard’s night. (pg.53)
Jeff Williams agrees to teach Rick a thing or two about the piano and Art Hazard does the same with the horn. Rick’s world revolves around the music. He practices piano in the afternoons followed by a couple of hours on the trumpet, and in the evenings he heads to the Cotton Club to hear Jeff’s band. Rick just gets better and better; he’s on his way.
By the age of twenty, Rick is playing first trumpet in Jack Stuart’s dance band for a summer season in Balboa. Jack, a traditionalist by nature, wants the band to play straightforward arrangements of crowd-pleasing tunes, but Rick is itching to improvise a little; he needs an outlet for his creative juices. There’s a great scene where Rick gets to play things his own way for one dance number. He doesn’t show off, he’s respectful about it and lets the music speak for itself; out comes a sound that ‘could be tender and still hold its own shape’. Four choruses later and Rick has the crowd, they won’t leave the dancefloor. From that point on, every fourth number features a Rick Martin trumpet solo.
The final section of the novel moves to New York where Rick shifts up a gear to play in Lee Valentine’s band. Four years on and he’s working in Phil Morrison’s outfit, the leading society orchestra in NYC, playing hotels, drawing a crowd and earning more money than he has time to spend. When his stints with the orchestra are through for the night, Rick heads over to Louie Galba’s, a musicians’ hangout. Here he is reunited with Smoke, some of the guys from Jeff Williams’s band and other great musicians he has met along the way. By the age of twenty-four, Rick has become the big name; he’s the leading trumpet player in America.
It is here in New York that the tension between Rick’s creative drive and his ability to keep his life on an even keel starts to increase. His personal life gets complicated when he meets and falls for Amy, a bright and intelligent society girl.
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. When she stood in her long white robe in front of the fireplace, propping an elbow against the mantel and crossing her feet in the classic attitude of insouciance, he couldn’t let himself look at her; the sight of her twisted him. (pg. 137)
I love that quote, it could have come straight out of a Chandler novel (or the film, Casablanca).
Rick and Amy are happy for a little while, but it doesn’t last. Rick continues to push, to give himself up to the music, and when the fall comes he takes it hard.
Young Man with a Horn is a very fine novel; there is much to enjoy here. Baker writes so vividly and realistically about jazz musicians and their music; it’s one of the many pleasures of this book. As an example, here’s a passage from the scene where Rick is inside the Cotton Club listening to Jeff’s band.
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. (pg. 49)
Baker also nails the ambience of the Harlem speakeasies, the clubs and hangouts where players congregate after hours. She captures the bond and sense of kinship between these musicians so well. At a time when racial tensions remain present in America, it’s refreshing to see just how natural it is for Rick and one or two other white musicians to jam alongside Smoke and his compatriots.
Ultimately though, this is the story of a young man’s fall from grace, of an artist so talented he couldn’t contain it.
In Rick Martin’s music there was, from the first, an element of self-destruction. He expected too much from it and he came to it with too great a need. (pg. 11)
Even though we know the arc of Rick’s life from the opening pages, the narrative remains compelling and engaging to the very end. I’ll finish with a favourite quote from the novel, one that conveys something of the wistful tone of the closing section.
They played hard and they played well and it wasn’t all solo either. Toward daylight they had built up a blend of melody and harmony that was older and emotionally deeper than the brave virtuosity of the first hours. It was the music of men who look backward with wisdom rather than forward with faith. They were tired now, and dependent on each other, not so ruggedly individualistic. They brought the dawn in with sad and mellow music. (pg. 154)
Young Man with A Horn is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.