Saturday, April 01, 2017

`A Forceful Vitality'

All poetry and most fiction devoted to jazz, once the quintessentially American art form, is disappointingly bad. Poems that purport to emulate the rhythms of the music usually qualify as nonsense verse, and those that aspire to honor its practitioners tend to be sloppy and sentimental. Eudora Welty’s story “Powerhouse” is an exception, as are brief passages in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which describe less the music than its effect on listeners. Also worth reading is Julio Cortazar’s “The Purser,” about a Charlie Parker-like character and his would-be Boswell. Whitney Balliett dismissed most jazz fiction as “myth-making,” though he described Welty’s story, based on a performance by Fats Waller, as “an extraordinary mixture of surrealism and truth.”

Also good is Josef Škvorecký’s The Bass Saxophone, two novellas and an autobiographical preface translated from the Czech by Káča Poláčková-Henley and published in 1979. The title novella recounts the story of a young tenor saxophone player, based largely on the author, who must perform his forbidden music for an audience of Nazis in occupied Czechoslovakia. For Škvorecký and generations of us around the globe, jazz represents freedom and joy. He writes at the beginning of his preface, titled “Red Music”:

“In the days when everything in life was fresh -- because we were sixteen, seventeen -- I used to blow tenor sax. Very poorly. Our band was called Red Music which in fact was a misnomer, since the name had no political connotations: there was a band in Prague that called itself Blue Music and we, living in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, had no idea that in jazz blue is not a colour, so we called ours Red. But if the name itself had no political connotations, our sweet, wild music did; for jazz was a sharp thorn in the sides of the power-hungry men, from Hitler to Brezhnev, who successfully ruled in my native land.”

See Doug Ramsey at Rifftides for his tribute to Škvorecký after the author’s death in 2012. Ramsey transcribes the list of regulations imposed on Czech musicians by the Nazis and preserved by Škvorecký in his preface. Among them: “On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated.”

The other day I caught my youngest son, a fourteen-year-old guitarist raised on a steady diet of blues and rock, listening to the Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. In his preface, Škvorecký writes:

“. . . the essence of this music, this `way of making music,’ is not simply protest. Its essence is something far more elemental: an élan vital, a forceful vitality, an explosive creative energy as breathtaking as that of any true art, that can be felt even in the saddest of blues. Its effect is cathartic.”

1 comment:

Dick Cornflour said...

Back in the early 1970's, I had an interest in Cortazar that quickly came and went, but I have fond memories of reading his story "The Pursuer." This was published, in translation, in "End of the Game and Other Stories." Happily, I read the story just when my enthusiasm for jazz was growing. That year, I moved to New York, where I was able to indulge myself with lots of live music.

A minute ago, I ordered Cortazar's book through interlibrary loan. Not the first time that's happened, so I thought I should send a note of thanks.