My third read for the 1938 club was Dorothy Baker’s first novel Young Man with a Horn. The novel catapulted Baker into the literary limelight – and for many years it remained her best known work having been made into a film starring Doris Day, Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. I read her later novel Cassandra at the Wedding (1962) a few months ago – and loved it. Cassandra at the wedding remains my favourite of the two – but Young Man with a Horn is a brilliantly assured novel, wonderfully atmospheric, it simply oozes jazz. Although not in any way biographical, the novel is said to have been inspired by the life of legendary horn player Bix Beiderbecke.
“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.”
The young man in question is Rick Martin – who we are introduced to by an unnamed narrator. From the prologue we know that Rick has already come to a sad end – and that the story of his all too short life is being told by someone who witnessed his rise and fall.
“There isn’t much to it, in its bare outline. Rick was born in Georgia five or ten minutes before his mother died and some ten days before his father checked out and left him with his seventeen year old aunt and her brother. These two worked their way to Los Angeles eight years later and brought him with them; and there he grew up in the way he apparently had to go. He learned to play the piano by fooling around with the pianos in churches and roadhouses – any place, in fact, where there was a piano that could be got at and fooled around with. And because he had right in his bones whatever it takes to make music, he became while he was still a kid a very good pianist. But a piano wasn’t exactly right for him, and he turned to brass finally; he earned enough money to buy himself a horn.”
We first meet Rick when he is just a boy, with no idea at all of playing music, no idea of jazz, and the musicians who make jazz their lives. With his aunt and uncle – who have charge of him (I won’t say care) Rick moves to Los Angeles. Although only young, Rick is left largely to his own devices, he has a bed of his own a cupboard for his clothes and that it seems is pretty much all he has. There is little mention of his uncle and aunt (a brother and sister who both go out to work) except to say that his aunt provides him with trousers from the factory where she works. Rick has struggled to get on at school – so many other kids already far ahead of him. After grammar school – from where everyone graduates no matter what – Rick has to enrol at High school – but for a year or so he simply doesn’t go.
Instead Rick takes to hanging round the All Soul’s Mission, which is empty for much of the day. Here Rick begins to mess around with the piano – and a musician is born. Rick finds he can pick up a tune quickly – he practises all day – until the mission becomes too dark for him to see. All Rick can think of is music, improving, trying new things – it develops into an obsession. Finding a job at the local bowling alley – for a time still skipping school, until they catch up with him, Rick is desperate to save up enough money to buy a trumpet – having decided he wants to play the horn. Here he meets Smoke Jordan, a jazz musician himself, Rick finds in Smoke a life-long friend, and through him enters into the world of jazz.
“After Rick came to Gandy’s, Smoke knew with the instinct of a compass where his audience was, and he came to sweep almost exclusively behind the bowling alleys where there was no great need of it. And there it was that the black one taught the white one what rhythm is, and not by precept, either. By example.”
The jazz world in the 1920’s is a very colour-conscious world. There are black musicians and white musicians and they generally don’t play together. Rick is white, Smoke Jordan is black, and the jazz musicians that he introduces Rick to are also black. While the white musicians are the ones who become famous – the black musicians play in relative obscurity. Rick just wants to play jazz. I had expected to encounter the unpleasant racial epithets of the time – and while they made me uncomfortable, I was cheered by Rick’s unconcern of colour. He chooses his friends and colleagues among the people who he admires, who can teach him something and with whom he shares a great passion.
The novel skips forward a few years, and we meet Rick at twenty – he has now become a gifted horn player. Jack Stuart a bandleader from Balboa – a seaside town thirty miles away – takes Rick on as first trumpet.
From Balboa Rick goes to New York, this time poached by another big time band leader. In New York Rick finds himself back with Smoke Jordan and the other musicians he had regaled his friends in Balboa with stories of. Playing and recording with whichever group of musicians want him, Rick plays jazz most of the night, and sleeps most of the day. Rick is destined for stardom it seems – still so young and at the peak of his brilliance. It is his meeting with Amy North which seems to herald the beginning of the end. Rick is bowled over by Amy, and rashly marries her, predictably perhaps the relationship is a disaster – and from here on the end really isn’t far away.
It is in the ‘voice’ of this novel I think that Baker really shines – so authentic it gives an extra dimension to the atmosphere of this novel. While some of the musical details might well go a little over the heads of those of us who don’t play or read music – the non-musician can still appreciate the all-encompassing obsession that truly gifted jazz musicians enjoy. The relationship between Rick and Smoke poignantly portrayed with subtle understanding is one of my favourite aspects of the novel.