HOW DOES a hobbyhorse turn into a bete noire ? How does interest in a subject turn successively into affection, love and paralyzing fear? Is research only a euphemism for procrastination? Is exhaustive research a euphemism for that painfully debilitating kind of literary constipation known as writer's block? Is it always merely a temporary inconvenience? Or can the Truman Capote Syndrome prove to be a terminal disease? Do the symptoms always include an unsightly rash of question marks?
And so on, as Kurt Vonnegut might say.
The above two paragraphs, of course, were devices for postponing the beginning of this article. All right then. Here goes:
This is a brief case history of the nonwriting of a novel about jazz -- the definitive jazz novel, a best seller with a consequent frenetic auction of paperback rights, foreign rights, serialization rights, book-club rights, motion-picture rights, television rights and the rights to convert the TV series backward into a lavishly illustrated book suitable for display on coffee tables. This nonbook is big.
Although I was slow to recognize the fact, the project really began 41 years ago. When I was 12 years of age, living in London, a school friend played me his record of "Singin' the Blues," by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra (New York, 1927).
"That's Trumbauer on C-melody saxophone," my friend pointed out in the condescending manner of a 13-year-old connoisseur. It's a manner that connoisseurs of jazz never grow out of. "Listen to that cornet! That's Bix."
I can still remember vividly the record itself, its Parlophone label of dark blue, light blue and gold, and its immaculate black shine. It was a moment of Zen enlightenment that dazzled the very soul.
Reading Martin Williams' notes on "The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz" in Washington recently, I was hardly surprised to learn that the late Lester Young, the great tenor saxophonist, "used to carry a copy of Trumbauer's 'Singin' the Blues' around in his saxophone case, explaining, "They were telling some stories that I liked to hear.'"
These nonverbal stories were habitforming. I was entranced; and, like other addictive habits, listening to jazz conducts one soon from trance to thrall. I collected records with the compulsive fervor of a stamp collector. As my appetite greatly exceeded my weekly allowance, I collected names as well. All of them were wonderful; some of them were magic: Miff Mole and His Little Holers, for example; Nuggsy Spanier and His Bucktown Five; Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven; Sharkey Bonano and His Sharks of Rhythm. There was poetry, symbols of the highest romance.
Then another genially satanic friend introduced me to the music of Duke Ellington. The first Ellington record I heard was "Jubilee Stomp" (1928), and I was really hooked. The titles of early Ellington compositions were deeply engraved in whatever part of the body constitutes the seat of a jazz lover's emotions -- "Black and Tan Fantasy," "The Mooch," "The Blues With a Feeling," "Saturday Night Function," "Drop Me Off in Harlem" and all the rest.
As many American jazz musicians have observed on tour abroad, foreign jazz aficionados work hard at their appreciation of the music. They evidently feel that to prove their devotion they must become human encyelopedias. While other books, such as school books, are neglected, the apprentices pore dedicatedly over volumes of hot discography. Living far from the fountainhead of jazz, they apparently believe that if they can't be where it's at, they must at least commit to memory the personnel of every band at every recording session since Year One.
Speaking for my contemporaries and me, I must admit that whenever two or more of us sat together by a record player it was hard to hear the music for the outcries of identification of every soloist, which was often loudly disputed. A phreologist examining our heads might have been puzzled by the large, unsightly lumps extruded by excessive accumulations of arcane data from the works of Leonard Feather, Hugues Panassie and other Jazz Experts. We studied them as faithfully and probably as usefully as a convert memorizing the genealogical catalogues of the Books of Chronicles, I and II.
In December 1940, Reuter news agency transferred my father from London to New York.We sailed aboard a Cunarder that was fast enough to cross the Atlantic alone, without a convoy. For me, the most thrilling event of the voyage occurred when a fellow passenger, a British journalist by the name of Rene Mac-Coll, produced a portable clockwork phonograph from his cabin and played Fats Waller's 'Loungin' at the Waldorf." Fats Waller loomed larger than the Statue of Liberty.
One of my father's colleagues kindly escorted me around New York on my first night in town. He showed me the lights of Times Square, fed me a T-bone steak and a chocolate malted and took me to Madison Square Garden. He was a fight fan. I forgot the names of the boxers. What I remember is that I was allowed one more treat, so I asked whether we could drop in at The Hickory House, on 52nd Street, because it was featuring Joe Marsala on clarinet, with his brother Marty on trumpet.
Being an enthusiastic 15-year-old jazz cognoscente and, I suspect, a rather pushy brat, when I got a chance to meet Joe Marsala between acts I seized the opportunity to tell him about all the records he had ever made, including some he had forgotten and possibly a few he wanted to forget. When he managed to get a few words in edgewise, he introduced me to Leo Watson and the Spirits of Rhythm, who were just coming off the stand inside the oval bar, and I was able to compliment Teddy Bunn on his fine guitar solo and vocal in the Tommy Ladnier Wuntet recording of "If You See Me Comin'."
At that time, just off the boat, I knew everything about jazz. That's when I should have written my jazz novel. From then on, the more musicians I met the more music I heard, the more I seemed to know less and less.
I decided long before I wrote my first novel, in 1962, that one day I would write a novel about jazz. One day. But first I would survey all the jazz everywhere from the beginning.
The survey has been no more orderly than the makers of the music and the music itself. I have read, or attempted to read, innumerable jazz histories and biographies and autobiographies, most of them written in collaboration with ghosts whose ponderous prose styles offer no hint of the joys of jazz. Whenever possible, and often when it was impractical to do so, I have gone out of my way for jazz.
To study jazz properly is to study 20th-century America in all its exuberance and anguish (show biz, prostitution, bootlegging, drug-running and other rackets); its economic opportunity and turmoil, its racial bigotry and awakening tolerance, and its social mobility, all the way from Lulu White's Mahogany Hall in Storyville to Carnegie Hall and the White House. The names are deceptive: Lulu wasn't white and the presidential mansion isn't racist. Jazz has always been progressive, in the fullest sense of the word. And to write about jazz is to risk stumbling into a morass of grandiose generalizations.
In the course of my survey there have been many memorable moments.
I remember listening to Jimmy Lunceford, Louis Jordan and His Timpani Five and Billie Holiday on the jukebox in a greasy-spoon diner in Oberlin, Ohio, when I was supposed to be majoring in English, or at least preparing to major in it. I remember more of what I heard on the jukebox than I heard in the classrooms; I never cut jukebox.
I remember Billie Holiday in the sadly enfeebled flesh near the end of her life, in a small musical bar in Baltimore, her hometown. She sang "Strange Fruit" with passionate indignation, a song about the southern lynching of a black. I was the only person in the crowded room who wasn't black. I felt uneasily aware of the angry bitterness of the lyric, and it was not possible to go from audience with table to table to present the rest of the my liberal credentials. Billie Holiday noticed me. When she finished the song she immediately came over and demonstrated acceptance and put me at ease by giving me a big, fat kiss on the mouth. We had never met before.
I remember drinking stingers with Robert Mitchum at The Hangover in Los Angeles after hours, while Joe Bushkin kept on and on playing the piano. I remember admiring Duke Ellington's elegant wardrobe in his dressing room at The Hurricane. I remember many times that Gerry Mulligan sat in with Thelonquin Hotel, when she looked like a smalltown grandmother, a plump little lady in a shapeless dark dress and thick glasses -- and hearing her in concert that night, scatting like a hip teen-aged angel.
I remember reading through transcripts of interviews with old New Orleans jazz musicians in Dick Allen's jazz archives in the library of Tulane University and, the same day, hearing some of the same old musicians blowing some of the good old good ones in Preservation Hall, in the French Quarter.
I remember Brooks Kerr, a blind pianist in his 20s, at Gregory's, leading Russell Procope, alto sax and clarinet, and Sonny Greer, drums, two elderly Ellington survivors. Having total recall of the entire Ellington oeuvre, Kerr would answer any request for an Ellington composition, no matter how obscure, by tilting his head to one side for a thoughtful moment and saying: "You mean the one that goes like this?"
I remember a conversation with Louis Armstrong before he took his All-Stars on their second tour of West Africa. By then, late in his long career, he seemed to personify the high status of jazz in the international cultural establishment. He and his band were playing under the joint auspices of government and big business, the State Department and the Pepsi-Cola Co. He said:
"Them cats down there, all the chiefs and all the ordinary people, everybody, they really dig our music and, daddy, I dig swinging for them. So, of course, what we want to do now is go on back down there and lay it on them again."
Thirteen books later, none of them about jazz, my survey haphazardly continues. There is something to be said for having an inexhaustibly dynamic, infinitely varied subject to work on. But is it too good, too rich, too complicated? Will I ever be able to handle it? Am I worthy? I am aware of another symptomatic outbreak of question marks.
Music is the most abstract of the arts, the most difficult to describe, let alone evaluate. Try analyzing the sounds of a single drum solo in plain language that can enable another person to imagine them. Doing that successfully is probably difficult even for Whitney Balliett, of The New Yorker. It's difficult even to write about writing about jazz. Hell, it's difficult even to write about not writing about it.