Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

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.

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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 rise. 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.

51 thoughts on “Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Glad you like that final quote. It’s an excellent book, very atmospheric. Quite different to Cassandra in some ways, more traditional in its approach to storytelling.

      Reply
  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Oddly enough, I have this winging its way to me from an online seller – and I can’t think what triggered my ordering it. But I’m very much looking forward to it now!

    Reply
  2. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    I have wondered what people with, as sad as it sounds, no interest in jazz, will get out of this book. A lot, I hope. But I have doubts.

    I had no idea Beiderbecke’s given name was Leon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would hope they’d get a lot out of it too, there’s a great story here. The jazz element is important, but the themes of harnessing a talent and the single-minded pursuit of a passion could apply to other forms of music or other endeavours (sport, for example?). I loved the relationship between Rick and Smoke, the way music can break down the barriers between people of different races.

      ‘Leon’ was news to me too – I’d always thought of Beiderbecke as ‘Bix’!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I thought Young Man with a Horn was very fine indeed, rather different to Cassandra but superbly written all the same. Glad to hear you rate it too. I’ll head over to yours in a little while to read your review of Trio – the mere fact that Raymond Chandler loved the novel and wanted to turn it into a film has piqued my interest! Thanks for the link.

      Reply
  3. roughghosts

    I am not a great fan of much contemporary jazz but I adore this era and the music. Such a rich context for a novel and this sounds wonderful. I really must dive into more NYRB Classics. My favourite indie store carries a vast selection but they are all spined and colour coded. Makes browsing more challenging!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a very evocative era, isn’t it? Baker really gets the period and mood here. (Well, I’ve no way of telling for sure, but it certainly feels very authentic!) The passionate but troubled musician is such an absorbing subject for a novel…it didn’t want this one to end. It’s good old traditional storytelling, but Baker’s prose is superb.

      I love what NYRB dig up; they always have something tempting to offer, and their books are beautifully produced. Who knows, I might have another NYRB review lined up for next week. ;)

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    I’m glad this didn’t disappoint, Successful novels about musicians are relatively thin on the ground despite (as you say above) being a great way to explore talent and creativity.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It definitely lived up to expectations, Grant. I loved the themes, and the relationships between the musicians are beautifully rendered. Do you think you’ll read it at some point?

      Reply
  5. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book)

    Lovely review! I’ve had Cassandra and this on my shelves for ages, but never quite got around to reading them – but you have convinced me to pick them up. And that NYRB edition is such a beauty; I have an old hardback, which is very plain in comparison.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon! Dorothy Baker’s great – I can’t recommend these two novels highly enough. Hope you enjoy.

      The NYRB Classics editions are lovely, but there’s something rather attractive about owning a seasoned hardback edition.

      Reply
  6. Guy Savage

    I have a reading friend who loved this, and since our tastes are similar I think I’d enjoy it too–plus I always give releases from NYRB a close look.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent – I think this would be a good bet for you, Guy. There’s a film adaptation with Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael – not sure if it’s any good, but it might be worth a look.

      I’m hoping NYRB might reissue Dorothy Baker’s Trio at some point just to extend the set.

      Reply
  7. Max Cairnduff

    Well, I’m a fan of Beiderbecke and I loved Cassandra so it won’t surprise you that this is already on my TBR. I thought I owned a copy until recently in fact, though it turns out not, so it’s one for the post #TBR20 pile for sure. As you say, hopefully they’ll release Trio again too so we have the trio.

    Great review as ever.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. Hurrah – this should be a banker for you, then! It’s a little different to Cassandra, good old-fashioned storytelling in a way, but Baker’s prose is top drawer. I think it’ll make my end-of-year highlights.

      I really do hope NYRB republish Trio at some point as Raymond Chandler had his eye on it for a screen adaptation. It never came off, sadly. Still, I’m sufficiently interested to try and track it down.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        There’s nothing wrong with a good story well told. For all my love of Modernism and experimental fiction and whatever that still remains a powerful thing.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Exactly. Sometimes you just want that. The storyline and main characters (with the possible exception of Amy) really hold it together here.

          Reply
  8. Bellezza

    I have just had my eyes opened to the wonders of the nyrb classics (by reading Alberto Moravia’s Contempt). It sounds like this one is every bit as fascinating in its layers and study of the individual.

    By the way, please feel free to join a few of us in reading Moravia’s Boredom this July 3-5. You know, if you’re not reading anything else. ;)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I love the NYRB Classics range – they always seem to have something interesting to offer. (I don’t know who curates their selection, but whoever it is, they’re doing a damn fine job.) This is the second Dorothy Baker I’ve read, and while they’re very different novels, both focus on complex, troubled characters.

      I’ve been intrigued by the reviews of Moravia’s Contempt and its focus on the psychological. The Boredom readalong is very tempting, but I’m trying to read from my TBR at the moment, and I don’t have a copy. Ah, well…I’ll certainly keep an eye out for your review, though. Moravia’s Agostino is next on my ‘write-up’ pile, so my review should be up next week (if you’re interested). I thought it was excellent, so I’m sure I’ll pick up another Moravia at some stage once the TBR pile is a little more under control!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m so glad NYRB republished these novels. She’s such a great writer when it comes to character, mood and ambiance – well worth exploring!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Loved Young Man with a Horn, Seamus. I hope you have a copy – if so, you have a real treat in store. It’s wonderfully evocative, a great novel for a sultry summer’s evening.

      Thanks for the link to the Ondaatje – not one I’m familiar with so I’ll head over to yours to check it out!

      Reply
  9. realthog

    Great writeup, Jacqui! I’ve had the 1950 Michael Curtiz in my sights for coverage for quite some time now. I really must try to get round to it soon. And I must now (j’accuse!) try to track down the novel, too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John. I was hoping you would drop by as I was wondering whether you’d seen the film! Glad to hear it’s on your list – I shall keep an eye out for your review. The novel is absolutely wonderful, very authentic, which leads me to believe that Baker must have spent a fair bit of time hanging out in jazz clubs. Hope you enjoy! :)

      Reply
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  12. Emma

    Thanks for this very thoughtful review. It goes on the virtual TBR.
    I like jazz music even if I have trouble remembering the musicians’ names.

    Have you read Novecento by Alessandro Barrico? I haven’t, I’ve seen the play version and this reminded me of it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I loved this one – it just seemed to capture a particular time, place and lifestyle so well.

      I haven’t even heard of Novecento! I shall have to investigate. There’s a film adaptation of Young Man with a Horn, but I’ve no idea whether it’s any good or not. Baker writes great dialogue, though – I could see this one and Cassandra working well on the stage.

      Reply
  13. Scott W

    I’m staring to become eager to read Baker. That description of the jazz being played in the Cotton Club is marvelous. And I thought of Chandler in that quotation about Rick meeting Amy before you even mentioned him!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just? Baker’s so on good at capturing both the dedication of the musicians and the rhythm of their music. There are several great passages just like the one I quoted in my review.

      That description of Rick meeting Amy is so Chandler-esq, isn’t it? Interestingly, the afterword in the NYRB Classics edition mentions that Chandler wanted to turn another of Dorothy Baker’s novels (Trio) into a film. Sadly it didn’t come off, but he must have been a fan of her writing.

      What more can I say…I can only encourage you to hop to it on Dorothy Baker! Cassandra is my fave of the two (an absolutely brilliant novel), but Young Man with a Horn is very fine indeed.

      Reply
      1. Scott W

        I had no idea Chandler was a fan – and that he wanted to make a film of one of Baker’s books! That I would have dragged myself out of the house to see. Anyway, very much looking forward to getting to know Baker’s work.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Haha! The novel in question was Trio, which features lesbian themes. Here’s the relevant snippet from Gary Giddins’ afterword:

          “Raymond Chandler loved Trio, and implored Paramount Pictures to buy it for him, boasting to a friend that when he got done, no one would know there were any lesbians in it.
          The movie didn’t happen, but after months of controversy and accusations of censorship that turned it into a cause célèbre, a Broadway theater agreed to mount the play. It opened to disapproving reviews at the end of 1944, lasted sixty-seven performances, and is remembered, if at all, as a notable credit for Richard Widmark.”

          What a tantalising prospect that film would have been! I’m quite keen to get hold of a copy of Trio, but it’s out of print and copies are rather scarce. One to look out for in the second-hand bookshops. Anyway, I think you’ll love Dorothy Baker – you must read her, Scott!

          Reply
          1. Scott W

            What a story! Sounds like high time some one resurrected the novel and the Broadway play (?!). I’m clearing some space on the night table for Baker’s books, as I expect that once I start I’m going to plunge right in.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Definitely – I’m hoping NYRB might publish Trio, especially given the interest in Cassandra and Young Man. And it would complete the set rather nicely. I can imagine these books working really well on the stage – she’s so hot on dialogue. Start clearing that space on your night table as Baker is very addictive!

              Reply
  14. naomifrisby

    Thanks for alerting me to this, Jacqui (I’ve seen the date on your review now and realised why I missed it before). It sounds exactly like something I’d love; I really like the quotations you’ve selected, I love it when a writer can go some way to capturing the essence of music, it’s not an easy thing to do. You’ve also reminded me that I need to read Cassandra at the Wedding. I bought a copy after you reviewed it. I’ll add both to the pile for after Christmas.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome – I thought you might like the sound of it! I loved this book when I read it earlier this year, and it’s held up very well in my memory. You can tell that Baker must have spent many an evening listening to jazz musicians as she really captures something of the rhythm of their music. Let me know what you think of her work once you’ve had a chance to read one of these novels – I’d love to know. :)

      Reply
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