The Jazz Fiction Anthology
Another joy of the anthology is how it brings to life the long-lost worlds of old jazz clubs. Many of these writers saw musicians and scenes that the reader never will, but through these stories these worlds comes to life once more. It's a great treat to read Amiri Baraka's short story "Norman's Date," which takes place in the legendary hotspots the Five Spot and the Cedar Bar; Eudora Welty's "Powerhouse," based on her experience seeing Fats Waller; Julio Cortazar's "The Pursuer," set in the jazz world of Paris in the 1950s; or Don Asher's "The Barrier," where the reader has a front-row seat at a cutting session in a 1940s Harlem club. The magic of prose is the way it fills in historical detail and breathes life into places and names, and even goes so far as to envision and flesh out the inner world of great musicians, such as Monk in John Edgar Wideman's "The Silence of Thelonious Monk," and Buddy Bolden in Yusef Komunyakaa's "Buddy's Monologue."
Another theme that is thoroughly explored in several stories is the relationship between black musicians and their white fans. There's Terry Southern's deeply disquieting, "You're Too Hip, Baby," where a black jazz musician and his girlfriend eventually see through a sycophantic white fan. Equally disturbing is "A Really Good Jazz Piano" by Richard Yates (best-known these days as the author of Revolutionary Road), where a white fan is so entranced by his idea of who a black musician should be that he is unable to see the musician as a human being. And Langston Hughes' "The Blues I'm Playing" concerns a white patroness trying to mold her black protégé, who manages to carefully slip away from her grasp. Certainly the most full-bodied treatment of this theme is found in the anthology's excellent novellas. David Huddle's "Tenor man" shows how people can avoid their own issues by living vicariously through artists, and he also explores the comic futility of academics trying to get inside an artist's head and define the indefinable. Julio Cortazar's brilliant novella "The Pursuer" describes a biographer's complicated relationship with his subject, a self-imploding genius based on Charlie Parker. The story is a deep exploration of the attraction geniuses hold for the rest of us, full of piercing insights such as, "The hard thing is to circle around him without losing your distance, like a good satellite, like a good critic."
The editors have arranged the stories alphabetically by author, but of course one of the joys of an anthology is that the reader can jump around as they wish. No matter how you read the stories in this excellent collection, they work together beautifully, the themes bouncing off each other and echoing throughout. The stories are rounded out by a first-rate introduction and comprehensive author biographies, which give the reader a place to start if they want to delve further into any of these writers' works.
The Jazz Fiction Anthology is sure to stand for years to come as a definitive work, a place for readers to enter and enjoy, as well as a place where those wishing to write about jazz can learn the history and subtlety of the craft. One of the wonderful things about art is how it breeds more art: this anthology shows how music can inspire writing, and the collection itself is bound to give birth to even more art in the future.