- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 14, 2003

“We have now this fellow Beiderbecke,” the band promoter Jean Goldkette tells a doubtful club manager. “He is wonderful. He cannot read well at all, and so must play the third trumpet part. But when we spot him he makes us very hot.”

The manager, still anxious, hires two additional bands for the opening night, but there is nothing to worry about. The Goldkette musicians play “Clementine,” and “this time [the dancers] can hear the golden ray from the back row, Bix, triple-tonguing through the verse …

“And where is he, the golden-toned guy. They can’t pick him out until after a reeds passage when a single horn makes a sort of reprise of the melody, a nod in its direction, as if the player were saying, ‘Thanks for the melody, but now, listen to this’: a suspended note that veers away from the melody and into regions of blue invention, speaking of worlds only dimly suspected here on the Charles …”

Such is the tone and mood of the novel, “1929,” latest in a string of eclectic, finely wrought books by Frederick Turner that range in interest from baseball after World War II to the nature writer John Muir, to American literature, to the American West and closest to this one, “Remembering Song: Encounters with the New Orleans Jazz Tradition.”

Bix Beiderbecke, the cornet player and pianist from Davenport, Iowa, who in a short lifetime (1903-1931) became known for his lovely tone and improvisational lyricism was the subject of Dorothy Baker’s novel “Young Man With a Horn,” and has been featured on film and in other books. Mr. Turner’s novel, with much polish, portrays Beiderbecke in the self-absorption with music that was his life while slotting him and his jazz into the giddy American scene of dancing, bootlegging, prize fighters and more in the years leading up to the Crash.

Present that evening on the Charles River is Herman, who by the novel’s end has become Henry Wise. He first feels the spell of the Beiderbecke horn at the Blue Lantern, another Midwest club, and now is wowed again. His lasting devotion to the younger man is a principal means by which Mr. Turner’s story gets told with another big slice of the Twenties, gangster life, woven in.

Anyone working the dance clubs of the time has to deal with gangsters, there is no way around it. The Blue Lantern is one of Al Capone’s operations, and Herman, good at fixing cars and trucks, is combining the work with driving for the Big Boss. Setting out on a trip north one day to fetch a load of illegal liquor, he gives a lift to a young man wearing an oatmeal-colored sweater and carrying a book which turns to be “Revolt In the Desert,” T.E. Lawrence’s classic. Asked later about Lawrence’s appeal for him, Beiderbecke says it was his “style.”

In a manner that has become something of a vogue in recent decades (E.L. Doctorow’s writing for example) some of the characters in this novel are created while others are taken from life. Either way, they appeal more the brighter the light they throw on Beiderbecke’s life in music and other players with whom he spends his time. (How many now forget that Bing Crosby started out as a jazzman, or that Louis Armstrong loved Bing’s scatting.)

Beiderbecke’s mother, Agatha, is a pianist and Bix begins playing at three. He takes up the cornet when he is 13. A moving episode in the story occurs when the composer Maurice Ravel visits New York:

“Ravel is fascinated to discover that the young man’s fingering appears to be completely wrong. He looks more closely and can’t figure out the relationship between the movements the fingers make on the valves and the notes produced. Everything seems backwards to him, or as if the player had heard in his head the sound he wanted, then hunted along the valves and dark interiors of his instrument’s contours for the passageway that would give him that sound, like a sort of miner, deep in the earth, picking towards some rich and undiscovered vein. At last, the player executes a filigreed coda Ravel is sure has never been played before — its too fresh, too full of surprise — and then it’s over.”

That is a long quotation, but it gives some feeling for the novel at its most fetching. The great French composer wants to visit Harlem and hear “real Negro jazz,” so Beiderbecke takes him up to the Cotton Club, presided over by Duke Ellington. The one disappointment in their New York meeting is Ravel’s telling the restless Beiderbecke that he is a “‘gifted improvisor’” and should settle for that, stop trying to be anything else.

Beiderbecke is hard to get to know well in the novel, happy enough in the early years partying with his jazz colleagues but otherwise a shy young man occasionally prone to manic scenes.

Such is the onetime high school boy who was always taking too much time off for his music, even after his parents sent him to Lake Forest, a Chicago area prep school. He plays in a number of bands, his first job as a leading attraction being with the Wolverines of Hamilton, Ohio. He joins Goldkette with the saxophonist Charlie Truambauer, his longtime friend and collaborateur, and spends the later years of his career with Paul Whiteman and his band.

Gangsters are very little part of Beiderbecke’s life directly, and that part of the book, while good reading, makes less of an impression. One such tie Beiderdecke does have is to Herman’s sister Hellie (Helen), who in the persona of one Lulu Rolfe become the girlfriend of Machine Gun Jack, one of Capone’s hit men. Young Bix flirts with her on the jetty at the Blue Lantern and then runs into her years later after she has fallen on hard times at the hands of Jack’s toughs and is hiding out as a maid in the Hollywood home of the actress Clara Bow.

Beiderbecke, still not normally much for the women, gets involved with the It Girl on that extended trip when the talkies are just coming in, and Whiteman’s band has come out to make the first talkie musical, devoted to Whiteman “The King of Jazz.” The project fizzles, but the musicians, each of whom is given a car for the length of their stay, have a wild time of it, making for more of the novel’s colorful scenes.

The Hollywood stay is a break for the jazzmen, for whom life is usually grueling, much of it lived on trains and in hotels, doing shows in different cities and towns night after night. It isn’t long before Beiderbecke’s powers begin to fail him, a result of drink and the stress of his limitless aspiration for his music (he envies, for example, his friend Armstrong’s “stratospheric Cs”). The golden sound becomes erratic, and then Beiderbecke is showing up for performances unable to work. Whiteman, become something of a father figure, sends him home to his family to get his health back, but nothing works for long.

During his lifetime, Beiderbecke was not widely known outside of enthusiasts, but in the aftermath his contributions to American music became deservedly celebrated. He understood, as Mr. Turner puts it, that, “If any jazz could be part of the sound of America, it would be that blue-toned sort that Armstrong and [King] Oliver and Ellington played … even Ravel with no American background had sensed that blue-toned jazz expressed something essential about the country, even in the midst of its long euphoria …”

By the time Beiderbecke dies in the early ‘30s, the “long euphoria” is over. But the memory of the music and the man will live on, and the book’s closing pages (like the opening ones) find an elderly Herman living in very different times but still visiting the Beiderbecke memorial in Davenport.

1929

By Frederick Turner

Counterpoint, $25, 390 pages

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