''STRUTTIN' WITH some barbecue" was one of Louis Armstrong's earliest hits. When an amateur jazz band of young Czech musicians living under the thumb of the Nazis tried to translate the title of Armstrong's piece, they were stumped: "the definition of the word 'barbecue' in our pocket Webster didn't help at all. What on earth could it mean: 'walking pompously with a piece of animal carcass roasted whole'?"
If the words didn't make much sense to them, the music did. The band's name was "Red music." Josef Skvorecky, author of The Bass Saxophone, was the group's 16-year-old sax player.
Skvorecky took a chance: jazz was a dangerous habit to indulge in under the "orwellian masters" (first the Nazis, then the Russians) who ruled Czechozlovakia. The Nazis called jazz "judeonegroid music" and considered it a threat to "Aryan" culture. The Third Reich went so far to issue a set of the strings" was prohibited, "foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing)" could not exceed 20 percent of a band's prpertoire, and the double bass had to "be played solely with the bow.
The Nazis were smart enough to recognize the threat of this revolutionary music. As a political statement, jazz was an assertion of individual freedom and spontaneity. It was a rejection of orthodoxy, an affirmation of human vitality. Or, in other words, it stood for everything the Nazis hated and wanted to crush: "Totalitarian ideologists don't like real life (other people's) because it cannot be totally controlled."
The Bass Saxophone includes three parts: a memoir called "Red Music," and two novellas-the book's title piece and a story called "Emoke." "Red music" is really a brief preface to the stories, but in some ways it is the more interesting section. In it, Skvorecky outlines a short history of jazz under Hitler. If jazz musicians sometimes met with misunderstanding and resistance in America, under the Nazis they faced total suppression. To play jazz became an act of courage and rebellion, a moral statement. And somehow the music and what it stood for "not only endured, it prevailed-even, for a short time, in the very heart of hell, the ghetto at Terezin." Terezin had a band called "The Ghetto Swingers." Buchenwald too had a swing band.
"emoke" is set not in Terezin or Buchewald, but in the Kafkaesque locale of "K," at a socialist vacation resort. It is the tale of a 30-year-old Czech intellectual's infatuation with a beautiful Hungarian woman named Emoke. Both are guests at the resort. Skvorecky is a highly metaphorical writer who gives Emoke considerable symbolic weight: the narrator calls her "Emoke, that story, that legend, that poem, the past, the future." But Emoke is not a vivid or forceful enough character to bear the burden of all she is asked to represent. And ultimately this story of "the lunacy of disappointed love" is unconvincing.
Much more successful is the second novella. "The Bass Saxophone"-perhaps because music, Skvorecky's real passion, is central to the narrative. In some ways, the saxophone of the story's title is a more authentic character than Emoke.
In "The Saxophone," an 18-year-old boy living in a provincial Czech town called Kostelec is invited to replace the incapacitated bass saxophonist of a pedestrian, oom-pahph German band called "Lother Kinze and his Entertainment Orchestra." The band is scheduled to play a concert for Kostelec's German citizens and its Nazi overlaods. The boy accepts, risking condemnation by his fellow Czechs for fraternizing with the Nazis. But his obsession with music, and the pressure he is under to do what he is told, mollify his guilt in the matter.
The story's climax occurs when the original sax player reappers during the concert and reclaims his place in the band, almost dragging the boy off the stage in the process. As soon as he has re-established himself in his old position, the sax player begins to play jazz, sabotaging the "automatic oom-pahpah" of the other musicians and inviting the wrath of the Nazis in the audience.
But plot summaries don't say very much about Josef Skvorecky's work. He is a poetic writer whose work depends more on the interplay of words and images than on story-line. The saxophone, for example, is much more than a mere instrument-it is a "memento" of "dream, truth, incomprehensibility" and is likened to Venus, a beautiful mistress, a temple, a washbasin, a cross, and a "mammoth hookah," among other things.
But above all, the saxophone is a metaphor for "the senseless happiness of music." Skvorecky calls music "a faith without ideology" whose "unattainable message...will always be no more than this craving to communicate, to understand." The narrator realizes that, although "there are no complete answers in this desperate gore of life," the jazzman who replaced him on stage "at least succeeded in giving a cry, in shaking the complacency of a dark hall somewhere in Europe."
Louis Armstrong once saod, "