Kinds of Blue: the Jazz Aesthetic in African American Narrative
By Jurgen E. Grandt
Ohio State University Press
Jazz artists have often been compared to literary figures, usually for their storytelling talents, while some acquire mythic status for their larger than life exploits. In Kinds of Blue
, Grandt conversely argues that literary artists like Anne Petry and Toni Morrison exhibit jazz qualities in their own field of art.
Grandt starts his analysis with an actual jazz musician and memoirist, Sidney Bechet, who “links not only music and storytelling, but also history and memory, the past and the present.” (p. 3) In his autobiography Treat It Gentle
, Bechet creates a fictional grandfather Omar, a freed slave who meets his tragic fate as a result of pursuing his love for Marie, Bechet’s grandmother, herself a slave still held in bondage. Bechet’s Omar becomes a touchstone for Grandt throughout the book, who while a fictional construct, expresses truth through jazz technique, arguing:“As a jazz musician, Sidney Bechet improvises over the fixed melody and chord progression of a song; that is, he superimposes a new melody (fiction) on an already existing melody (fact) . . . Bechet improvises the fictitious tale of Omar over the historical fact of chattel slavery in America.” (p.8-9)
Grandt handles issues of race largely with scholarly reserve. While trying to avoid the provocative, he is forced to deal honestly with the extremism of Amiri Baraka’s “many transformations—from Bohemian Beatnik to Black Nationalist to crude Marxist-Leninist.” (p. 67) Baraka, who gained notoriety for the poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” with its infamous anti-Semitic libel that Jews were warned to by Israel to avoid the World Trade Center on September 11th, is analyzed for his revolutionary story “Answers in Progress.” Grandt provides historical perspective on Baraka’s chaotic life, including the break-up his marriage, getting a young dancer named Bumi pregnant, and then moving on to another lover. According to Grandt:“He even attempted to persuade the two women of the righteousness of a polygamous marriage, justified, so he claimed, by the tenets of Maulana Karenga’s Kawaida ersatz-religion that he had espoused. Conveniently for Baraka, already the disinterested father of three children, Bumi fell suddenly ill and died in the hospital. Even though this freed him to marry Robinson, who adopted the name Amina, later that same year, their relationship, too, would prove to be calamitous at times, mostly due to Baraka’s virulent sexism.” (p. 75)
While that might be brutally honest context, it is not inappropriate, in that it certainly makes Grandt’s case that much of the story, particularly the domestic bliss of the narrator, is wish-fulfillment on the part of Baraka. The one part of the book that shows some confusion is his comparison of novels by Toni Morrison and Hans Janowitz, both named Jazz
. Grandt argues that in ways both reflect jazz elements in the structure of their language. It seems that Grandt goes back and forth as to whether Janowitz’s Jazz
can really be considered a jazz novel, ultimately (I think) deciding no, because it lacked the historical perspective to truly grasp the music. However, it was a heck of a good try for a German in 1927.
Ultimately, this shows some of the pitfalls in the act of classification. British jazzman Johnny Dankworth would probably assume, if nothing else, his memoir Jazz in Revolution
is a jazz narrative. However, as the product of a white European, who relates the events of his jazz career with unembellished honesty (as far as I know), but in straight forward language, would probably not be so-classified by Grandt.
Despite its title, Kinds of Blue
makes only incidental references to Miles Davis, and no mention of his Kind of Blue
album. Grandt does make effective and informed comparisons of literary works and recorded jazz sessions, Toni Morrison's Jazz
and “The Chase” by Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, for instance. Those unaccustomed to recent academic writing however, may have difficulty with the frequent use of binary opposites and other such terms. Grandt is well versed in jazz, but Kinds of Blue
is really written for an audience steeped more in critical theory, than the music itself. General readers interested in the relationship between jazz and literature would probably find David Yaffe’s Fascinating Rhythm