Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker
One of the fascinating things about reading from 1938 is seeing the different world viewpoints that were about at the time; knowing what was to come shortly in the way of world conflict kind of predisposes you to expect everything published in that year to be tinged with foreboding. However, of course, that wasn’t the case, as my next read proved!
Dorothy Baker’s “Young Man with a Horn” comes highly recommended – Jacquiwine in particular has sung its praises. Baker also wrote “Cassandra at the wedding” which I’ve read good things about, although her work was not really rated that highly during her lifetime, after the initial success of Horn.
The book tells the story of the short life of the jazz musician Rick Martin, set mainly in the 1920s. The book opens with the narrator introducing us to Rick and talking about his funeral and so we know from the start things will not end well. An orphan, Rick is raised in Los Angeles by a young aunt and uncle – although raised is a generous word, as he seems to have been clothed, housed and fed, but then left to his own devices. A bit detached from things, school is not something that appeals to Rick and he’s directionless till he discovers music. Practicing on a church piano when he can steal into the building, Rick discovers a natural talent and pursued this with monomania. A job at a local bowling alley, skipping school and trying to earn money to buy a trumpet, brings Rick into contact firstly with Smoke Jordan (who will be his best friend for life) and thence to a whole jazz community.
Here Rick really learns his trade, while coping with the requirement to attend school, holding down the job and playing in every spare moment. We don’t see the complete trajectory of his rise to fame – between sections the story skips on a few years sometimes – but Rick ends up in Balboa, a Californian beach town, playing with an orchestra. He’s obviously the star and soon gets picked out by a big bandleader and shipped off to New York for the big time. Playing and recording with whoever will have him, whenever he can, he seems destined to stay a big star. But fate enters, in the form of the complex Amy North, whom he marries. The relationship is a disaster, Rick’s star begins to wane, and it’s not long before the end is in sight.
He talked man to man with Rick without making the mistake of assuming that he might be a college boy himself. You wouldn’t have made that mistake about Rick at twenty. He dressed like a college boy, his hands were clean, and there was nothing much wrong with the way he talked, but there was something in his face that marked him as no college boy. It was the tight, nervous face of a man who knows something, the kind of face that goes with passion of whatever sort. You see it in revolutionaries, maniacs, artists – in anyone who knows he will love one thing, for good or ill, until he dies.
“Young Man with a Horn” turned out to be a remarkable and perceptive read. The subtle portrayal of the relationship between the black and white musicians, which could have been a major stumbling block, is skilfully done. Despite most of the talent lying with the black players, it’s the white musicians that are more often the bandleaders and the public faces. The racism is there, reflected in the casual derogatory terminology that some characters use about Rick’s friends. But he never displays that racism himself, holding his friends and fellows in great esteem, acknowledging them as the source of the best playing, and always displaying a great sensitivity in his early relations with them.
The writing is wonderfully evocative, capturing the early 20th century jazz scene, the prohibition, Los Angeles and New York, quite brilliantly. And something needs to be said about the narrator and the style of the book. The narrator is an odd one – presumably male and white, from some of the things said, this person is one of three people who was at Martin’s funeral, yet apart from that fact we know nothing about who they are or what relationship they had to Rick. Instead, they tell the story as an omniscient narrator and I found myself wondering if we were meant to think this was almost Rick’s spirit telling his own life story! The tone of the narrative is quite wonderful; loose, conversational and almost musical itself, the rhythm of the prose adds much to the jazziness of the tale and is always compelling.
After an endless time of standing, he went down, lay back and let the night fall over him, and he was cured, then, of inward rocking. He lay still on his back, looking up, aspiring, and without any fanfare about it he knew everything at once. He thought it out without words, the way music thinks – in depths and currents that have nothing to do with linguistics. In these gracious terms he knew that there was good in the world, and tenderness, and sadness; and when it can be said of you that you know anything at all, you will know what these things are.
When I embarked on this book, straight after “Homage to Catalonia”, it was perhaps something of a shock; to go from a narrative grounded in the reality of the recent present in 1938 to a stylised story with no relation to present world events had me wondering if this was the right time to read “Horn”. But it didn’t take long for the wonderful writing and characterisation to draw me in to the story of Rick Martin and I ended up loving the book, Even if you’re not a jazz fan, YMWAH is a fantastic read and really gets you to understand what it must be like to be a driven musician. Yet another fabulous read from 1938 – what a year it was for books!