The Jazz Fiction Anthology
Sascha Feinstein and David Rife, Editors
Softcover; 500 pages
This fine anthology of jazz fiction is a treasure trove of stories and characters that illuminate the multicolored world of jazz. The editorsSascha Feinstein and David Rifeare to be commended for their impeccable judgment in selecting the short stories and two novellas that comprise the collection. In the introduction, the editors state their ambitious aim: "to present the most definitive selection [of jazz fiction] ever published." And they succeed beautifully: the book is a generous five hundred pages that includes an impressive range of authors and stories, including writers famous and not so famous, writers black, white, male, female, dead, alive, French, Argentinean, Czech, Kiwi, a range as diverse as jazz itself. And like jazz, the stories range from early twenties to right now, giving a comprehensive view of the history of this music.
One of the choices that editors of a jazz fiction anthology have to make is whether to include, as the editors say, "fiction about jazz versus jazz-like prose." The editors wisely include both, stating, "We don't believe one point of view should negate the other." And anyway, the two often overlap: writing about jazz, particularly when describing the music, is more often than not jazz-like. The famous quote, of course, is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (a quote attributed to many people, including Gertrude Stein and Elvis Costello). That may be so, yet it's exciting to delve into the writers' descriptions of jazz, to see what adjectives they pull out and what rhythms they create. The anthology is bursting with dynamic, often stunning prose, sometimes when describing music, but not always. Here are a few examples:
"The notes of the horns bursting like bright metallic bubbles against the sky" (Ralph Ellison, "A Coupla Scalped Indians").
"A goddamn compost heap breeding near the stove, garbage gardens on the grill" (Toni Cade Bambera, "Medley").
"I played a four-bar intro, notes slipping effortlessly off my fingers (long-stemmed flowers trailing from a crystal vase)" (Don Asher, "The Barrier").
"The sun comin' pale and weak down the airshaft and crawlin' into his funky room on its weak knees" (Sam Greenlee, "Blues for Little Prez").
And of course the great master James Baldwin, in perhaps the most famous jazz story ever written, "Sonny's Blues": "For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."
The heart of the anthology is, naturally, jazz musicians. It's a fact that jazz musicians are often unusual, colorful peoplethink of Monk, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, just to throw out a few names. To get close to them is a matter of wonder, dissipation, and sometimes vigilance. The stories are full of insights that the reader will recognize and resonate with, such as Wanda Coleman's story "Jazz at Twelve," where she drolly comments, "Early is a word foreign to Frank's vocabulary." The stories are also full of the many people whose lives intersect with jazz musicians, including wives, friends, girlfriends, band mates, children, biographers, fans, the enormous range of people who play and listen and live by this music. The anthology manages to capture many facets of this kaleidoscope, whether it's the inner world of the musician on stage, the guy standing next to you at the bar, or the child or wife waiting at home. The reader will surely find themselves somewhere in this book, sometimes with amusement, sometimes with discomfort.
Another interesting aspect of the stories is that they explore the full range of musicians' success: coming up, on top, going down, coming back, barely hanging on, and completely defeated. Characters include a clarinetist who has a family and teaches in public schools; a tenor man plucked from obscurity by academics; a pianist on the edge of success who resorts to demeaning schmoozing; Baldwin's Sonny, who stopped playing due to personal excess; and an alto player at the top (based on Charlie Parker) who is unraveling his success as fast as it comes. One of the most touching stories is "The End of Bull Mácha" by Nobel-Prize nominated Josef Škvorecký, set in Prague in the early 1950s when playing certain kinds of jazz was tantamount to challenging the Communist government, which created great danger for musicians who refused to conform. And there's also John McCluskey, Jr.'s wonderful story "Lush Life," which revolves around two musicians composing a song as they drive from Dayton to Cleveland, showing how the old traveling bands could be both fun and functional.