Category Archives: Baker Dorothy

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.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra at the Wedding (first published in 1962) will make my end-of-year highlights, no doubt about it. As this novel opens, Cassandra Edwards, a graduate student at Berkeley, is preparing to drive home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith. From the opening pages, she seems in two minds as to whether to take the trip, and as she looks at the Golden Gate Bridge, we begin to sense that something is desperately wrong:

Besides, my guide assures me that I am not, at heart, a jumper; it’s not my sort of thing. I’m given to conjecture only, and to restlessness, and I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I’d go home, attend my sister’s wedding as invited… (pg 4, NYRB Classics)

Cassandra narrates the first section of the novel, and as she travels home we learn more of her relationship with Judith. The two twins used to share an apartment in Berkeley and seemed inseparable, content to live their lives for each other with little need for outsiders. But then Judith departed for New York leaving Cassandra cut adrift and in a state of procrastination over her thesis on French novels. In this respect, Cassandra is also living in the shadow of her deceased mother, Jane, a famous writer and influential figure in the twin’s lives.

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Identity is a key theme in this novel. As the twins were growing up, their parents, Jane in particular, refused to have the girls dress alike. And as Cassandra tells her grandmother (at a later stage in the novel) “they were concerned to have us become individuals, each of us in our own right, and not be confused in ourselves, nor confusing to other people.” (pg. 65)

But despite her parents’ best efforts there are hints that Cassandra is losing a sense of her own identity. During her journey home, Cassandra stops as a bar and catches her face in the mirror, and at first she sees the face of Judith looking at her very thoughtfully:

By a firm act of will I forced the face between the shelves to stop becoming Judith’s and become mine. My very own face – the face of a nice girl preparing to be a teacher, writing a thesis, being kind to her grandmother, going home a day early instead of a day late or the day I said, and bringing something decent to wear. But it can give me a turn, that face, any time I happen to catch it in a mirror; most particularly at times like this when I’m alone and have to admit it’s really mine because there’s no one else to accuse. (pg. 8)

Moreover, Baker develops this theme of identity as the novel progresses. On Cassandra’s arrival home, we meet her amiable, brandy-soaked father, her slightly befuddled but well-meaning grandmother (Rowena) and Judith, of course. In this scene, Cassandra asks her father what he thinks of her sister’s fiancé, Jack Finch – Judith is not present here:

“Rowena,” my father said to my grandmother from behind me, “Cassie is very much concerned to find out what Jack Finch is like.”

“He’s all wrapped up in Judy,” gran said in a fluty voice, “and that’s the most important thing.”

[…]

“Is Jude wrapped up too?” I said. I said it possibly a little too loudly or pointedly just to let her know how a phrase like wrapped-up sounds to the sensitive ear; but though I meant it only for her, it was my father who answered.

“I don’t think we need to be too much concerned,” he said. “They seem to understand each other.”

This was the second time he’s used the word concerned, and I considered asking him why he kept using it on me. Was the implication that what Judith did was no concern of mine, because if that was what he meant I should make it very clear that I could not possibly be less concerned. If a person of her stature and of her gifts chooses to sell herself short and go all the way of suburbia, who am I to speak up for what I think of as virtue? Who am I? Or possibly, who am I? Make it who was I, because once I was somebody. (pgs. 39-40)

Cassandra is a very complex character. She is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel. Her thoughts and actions are full of contradictions, and at times she deludes herself. At heart, Cassandra is emotionally dependent on Judith, and deep down her sister’s departure to New York (some nine months ago) and imminent marriage feel like acts of betrayal. The presence of a grand piano in Cassandra’s apartment – an instrument jointly purchased by the twins – remains a constant painful reminder of Judith’s desertion. The twins were meant to live their lives together, travel to Paris and beyond. How could Judith ever imagine life being any other way?

As the story unfolds, it appears as if Cassandra is all set to derail her sister’s wedding. In this scene, Cassandra is alone with Judith following a kerfuffle over their wedding outfits:

I twitched and got her arm off my shoulder quite fast and quite suddenly. After all, I didn’t have to sit here with some bride and listen to her saying wedding dress over and over.

“Will you just do this,” she said, and she was pleading now – “wear the dress you bought? Let me get something else, but you wear that one, will you please – for me?”

I turned and looked at her. The pounding was very strong now and my eyes felt as if they’d caught fire. I had my glass in my hand, about a fourth full.

“For you?” I said. “Who’s that?” and I drained the glass at a shot and threw it as hard as I could down onto the terrace between us and the pool. It shattered with a real smash and I felt one of the pieces hit me in the leg. (pg. 77)

And here we see how Judith – who by contrast to Cassandra is calm, reasonable, sensible yet vulnerable in her way – finds her sister rather overwhelming and draining on occasions:

“I’m going alone,” she said. “I thought I told you.”

“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 –”

She stopped, and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to prod her. Maybe the best would be to keep her stopped, but before I thought how to do it it was too late.

“The trouble is that just when it’s all fun, all high and wild, you do a switch and have to be rescued all of a sudden…” (pg. 121)

That’s about as much as I’m prepared to say about the plot, save to say there’s plenty to come. In the second section of the book, Judith takes up the role of narrator and we hear a very different voice, one that is mature and measured.

Cassandra and the Wedding is a brilliant novel; so layered and nuanced I’m already on my second read. It’s a novel about the process of maturing as a young adult. Cassandra has to balance the pull of her relationship with Judith against the need to break free to establish her own identity, and the reverse applies, too. There are allusions to Greek mythology; the girls’ father is a retired philosopher, and their names are not insignificant. And the novel’s ending has an air of ambiguity about it, one that makes it all the more intriguing.

Cassandra, with her distinctive voice, is one of my favourite characters from literature, and while the novel exposes her, replete with flaws, Baker adds some wonderful comic touches. I’ll finish with one of Cassie’s one-liners – of which there are many – following her grandmother’s declaration that it’s ‘God’s plan’ for Judy and Jack to be together:

“What do you suppose God’s planning for me?” I said. “Besides poverty, chastity, obedience, brain damage and death?” (pg. 96)

Cassandra at the Wedding is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.