Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Literature: Words About Jazz

I'm reading a great novel about jazz musicians in pre-war Berlin and Paris. Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan, tells the story of a group of American and German jazz players who had been successful playing in the clubs of 1930s Berlin but had to hide and eventually run from the Nazis. The group includes African American musicians who found less racism in Europe and Germany, some of them of mixed African and German descent.

The story, the history and the evocation of time and place are wonderful. But I was struck by this passage about playing the music. In this scene, a young, scrawny black German trumpeter first comes to play with an established group of musicians, who are skeptical that he can even hold his horn. The narrator is Sid, a bassist from Baltimore.
But when he lifted his horn, we gave him a respectful silence. His trumpet was a cheap-lookin thing, dented, like a foil-wrapped chocolate been in a pocket too long. He put his rabbity fingers on the pistons, cocked his head, his left eye shutting to a squint. 
"Buttermouth Blues," Ernst called back to him. 
The kid nodded. He begun to tease air through the brass. At first we all just stood there with our axes at the ready, staring at him. Nothing happened. I glanced at Chip, shook my head. But then I begun to hear, like a pinprick on the air -- it was that subtle -- the voice of a humming-bird singing at a pitch and speed almost beyond hearing. Wasn't like nothing I ever heard before. The kid come in at a strange angle, made the notes glitter like crystal. Pausing, he took a huge breath, started playing a ear-splitting scale that drawn out the invisible phrase he'd just played. 
The rest of us come in behind him. And I tell you, it ain't took but a minute more for me to understand just what kind of player this kid was. He sounded broody, slow, holding the notes way longer than seemed sane. The music should have sounded something like a ship's horn sounding across water -- hard, bright, clear. The kid, hell, he made it muddy, passing his notes not only over the seas but through the solid too. Sounded rich, which might've been fine for a older gate, but felt fake from him. The slow dialogue between him and us had a sort of preacher-choir feel to it. But there wasn't no grace. His was the voice of a country preacher too green to convince the flock. He talked against us like he begging us to listen. He wailed. He moaned. He pleaded and seethed. He dragged every damn feeling out that trumpet but hate. A sort of naked, pathetic way of playing. Like he done flipped the whole thing inside out, its nerves flailing in the air. He bent the notes, slurred them in a way made us play harder against him. And the more we disagreed, the stronger he pleaded. But his pleading ain't never ask for nothing, just seemed to be there for its own damn sake. In a weird way, he sounded both old and like he touching the trumpet for the very first time.

1 comment:

Susan Vento said...

Hi Mike,

I have a quick question regarding your blog. If you could send me an email when you get a chance, I would greatly appreciate it!

Best,
Sue

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