I’m enjoying the #NYRBWomen23 reading project this year, hosted by Kim McNeill, and have read a couple of wonderful novels as a result – Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet and Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel. Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn was slated for the second half of February; I was impressed by her Cassandra at the Wedding, and so was really looking forward to this one. I liked it, didn’t love it, and yet there is much to enjoy in the novel, particularly Baker’s terrific writing on jazz and music.
Part 1 Chapter 6 of Young Man with a Horn is a special chapter and a turning point in the way the story moves forward and Rick’s music path branches out. It’s late into the night and after the clientele of the Cotton Club has left, Rick Martin and his friend Smoke Jordan enter the club to meet pianist extraordinaire Jeff Williams and his jazz band, a group of black musicians. They are friends of Smoke’s, but Rick is meeting them for the first time, experiencing both anticipation and awe. Rick is introduced, one of the band members brings in bottles of alcohol, and the rest of the night until the wee hours is devoted to nothing but jazz; Jeff and his band artfully play various numbers in a continuous stream punctuated by breaks filled with banter and chat. In between, the bottle gets passed around, Rick keeps suggesting pieces for the band to play which highlights his musical knowledge although he is yet to master the technique of actually playing, and Smoke is given a chance at the drums by Ward, the original drummer.
It’s this portrayal of music, banter, and camaraderie between friends, who are also serious practitioners of their craft that forms the nucleus of Young Man with a Horn, the kind of writing that makes the book unique despite certain shortcomings (elaborated later on).
Young Man with a Horn has been inspired by the “music of Bix Beiderbecke”, an influential jazz soloist and composer in the 1920s, although the life and music trajectory of its protagonist Rick Martin has not been modeled on Bix’s life.
The prologue at the start of the novel gives the reader a fair idea of Rick Martin’s short but dramatic career as a jazz musician – his gradual ascent in the world of music to become the golden boy of jazz only to culminate in a string of disappointments, heavy drinking and death.
Our man is, I hate to see 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.”
Rick is first introduced to us as an eight-year-old orphan residing in Los Angeles with his aunt and uncle (“brother and sister and not husband and wife”). Not much information has been given about his parents, but at the outset, Rick is an increasingly lonely child, left pretty much to his own devices with his aunt and uncle leading “their own lives.”
From the very beginning, Rick displays talent and flair for music with not much opportunity to harness that passion largely because of his circumstances. He manages to somehow trudge through grammar school and high school but only because he is forced to; studies are of no importance to him whatsoever, his interest clearly lies elsewhere – in music, in jazz.
One day hanging around pawnshops, Rick is enamoured by the array of musical instruments on display in windows, particularly a series of trumpets, and this sparks an idea in his mind to get a job so that he can afford to buy one. Initial attempts to find employment mostly fail but his persistence is finally rewarded, he gets hired on the spot at Gandy’s Pool Hall, Billiards and Bowling (“It gave him something to get away from and come back to, the tie that makes freedom valuable”). There he meets Smoke Jordan, a black aspiring drummer and a tentative employee; he is frequently fired but also subsequently rehired because he just happens to be around when Gandy needs an extra hand.
Smoke and Rick immediately slide into an easy friendship, fuelled by their love for music and Rick expresses his wish to master the trumpet, while Smoke talks about his dreams of being a drummer. Meanwhile, Rick and Smoke’s family could not have been more different. While Rick’s is pretty much non-existent, Smoke complains about being surrounded by his extended family all the time, with no room or time for himself or to practice his music, although Rick comes to like Smoke’s family, envying the closeness between the family members, an anchor in his own life that is sorely missing.
As they get talking, through Smoke, Rick learns about the great pianist Jeff Williams and his band which includes the trumpet player Art Hazard, and their series of performances at the Cotton Club. Wishing to hear their music and familiarize themselves with their sound, Rick and Smoke are hesitant at first about actually being present at the jazz club, and so most evenings, post work, they sit outside listening and marveling at the sound of music streaming to them outside. Smoke is close to Jeff and his band members so that eventually they meet, and Smoke introduces Rick to them. After some initial awkward moments on account of racial differences (Rick is white, while Smoke and the rest are black), Rick begins to gel very well with Jeff and Art; the two are deeply impressed by Rick’s potential talent and struck by his ability to learn fast. Under their training and guidance, Rick begins to gradually master playing the piano and trumpet.
These are some of the most transformative days in Rick’s life; the crucial stepping stone that will catapult him into the world of jazz, as well as deep, solid friendships that will last a lifetime. In a way, this becomes a new and welcoming family to Rick, who otherwise hardly has a real family to boast of.
That absence of familial bonds does affect Rick’s ability to communicate on matters or life generally unrelated to music. For instance, early on, when Jeff’s drummer Ward dies, his post is immediately offered to Smoke, but Smoke is deeply affected by that death, guilty about replacing a man whom he considered a friend; a stance that Rick fails to comprehend.
He did the best he could, considering that this was the first time he’d ever handled any tenderness directly. His knowledge of the jargon was limited to the lyrics of popular songs. He made it work, though, well enough to make Smoke stop crying.
As the book progresses, Rick goes on to play the first trumpet in a couple of bands and as news of his talent reaches far and wide, he travels from Los Angeles to the jazz dens of New York re-uniting with his friends and mentors, and also forming new friendships and finding love (where Amy North makes an entry)…until a fatal slip-up occurs from whence things begin to go wrong.
Young Man with a Horn, then, is an exploration of music, male friendship, ambition, obsession and transcending racial boundaries.
Whether she is describing practice sessions or live recordings, Baker writes brilliantly about music, jazz in particular, its rhythms and improvisations, whether it’s the piano or the trumpet, the instrument Rick eventually settles on. The theme of male friendship is wonderfully depicted in the way Rick and Smoke bond and this to me was the highlight of the book. I liked the comfortable, warm rapport between the two, the way they could easily talk about their primary passion (music), and the way they could be themselves in each other’s company with no pretense involved.
The book is also a meditation on ambition, the desire to become the best in the business. Even though Rick’s ascent as a jazz musician par excellence brings him much fame, he is not content with resting on his laurels. An obsession to hone and perfect his craft persists; that single-mindedness to innovate, to manufacture something entirely new even at the risk of likely failure. It is this overzealousness that ultimately precipitates his downfall (we are informed of this in the prologue), but while the world is quick to write him off, only Jeff and Smoke understand the real value of Rick’s ambition and what he was striving to achieve even if the result was a fiasco.
It never occurred to anyone that he really wasn’t slipping, he wasn’t played out: he was only getting so good that he couldn’t contain it. Nobody but Jeff Williams realized why he’d mugged up the record.
We now come to the race aspect of the book. Throughout the novel, there were racial terms used that made me uncomfortable, but I was reluctant to judge Baker by today’s sensibilities given that the book was published in 1938. It’s dated in that sense, but I do think that the message Baker ultimately wanted to convey was how racial backgrounds were unimportant when it came to making music; how talented individuals and artists (in this case Rick, Smoke, Jeff, art et al) aiming for perfection in jazz managed to overcome race barriers.
Another interesting feature in the book is the narrative voice; the slangy tone and manner of speech suggest a musician narrating the tale or someone who was abreast of the jazz milieu and who’s who of the music business at the time. At first, I thought the narrator is possibly a character in the book, but that turned out not to be the case and so it may be Baker herself who is donning the persona of a musician, or she has just created an omniscient narrator.
Rick’s relationship with Amy North was to me the least interesting aspect of the book; Amy somehow didn’t come alive in the way other characters did, and those pages devoted to their relationship felt a tad clichéd.
In a nutshell, Young Man with a Horn is not always perfect, but Baker’s rendering of the jazz world – practice sessions, recordings, the kinship between musicians – and her beautiful portrayal of male friendship alone make it well worth reading.
“The good thing, finally is to lead a devoted life, even if it swings around and strikes you in the face.”