I’ve read two novels this holiday in which jazz plays a part. Sometimes subversive, always arousing emotions, inspiring the writer. When I wrote about jazz in my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey”, I described a music that could be many things, with improvisation at its heart. Another world to the one I usually inhabit. More subtle, mysterious, spiritual. A voice without words. A beautiful scream. But music you could dance to too, and music, because of its flexibility and its range was capable of some wonderful fusions with other genres. Think of all the times music is referred to as jazzy. It can mean so many things. It might be a mellow, sultry beat, or a time signature that is just that bit different, or something that is truly spaced out. All these things denote that feeling of jazziness.
And the jazz in the two novels, while rooted in the swing of the 1930s and 40s, brings out many of those feelings.
Both books have been sitting in my to-read pile for a while. They felt right for a holiday. Sitting on the terrace, overlooking the sea, or listening to the chorus of cicadas, a beer or white wine by my side, and maybe some music, even some jazz music, on the iPod. Not too loud to annoy anyone else.
The first book was “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. One of those books you know you should have read. If it inspired Bob Dylan, you know you’ll get something out of it. I enjoyed it. Had I not known when it was written, I’d have assumed it was about the sixties. All the partying, the boozing, drugs and pursuit of girls seemed very representative of that hedonistic era. But Kerouac was actually writing about experiences mainly in the late forties. Just shows what affluence the USA already had , when most of the world was still in shock from the devastation of World War Two. I liked Kerouac’s portrayal of time and place – it made me want even more to visit some of those cities I’ve not been to, like San Francisco, Denver, San Antonio and New Orleans. But I got a bit bored with the endless desperate partying – basically lads on the piss by any other name. And while the central character, Dean Moriarty, was a life force, he was clearly also a selfish pain in the arse and in the end not that easy to sympathise with.
Dean’s empathy with jazz though, was wild and true. Jazz in “On the Road” is the music that sends the characters to new heights of frenzy and communion with the sound and the players. This was about a time that pre-dated rock’n’roll. The jazz that Kerouac celebrates is absolutely the music of black people, a music of the spirit, of losing yourself, of protest and the blues. For the white kids, no doubt, it was the music of subversion. Until Elvis came along…
The Czech writer, Josef Skvorecky’s novella, “The Bass Saxophone”, is about subversion of a different, and braver, kind. First published in Czechoslovakia in the sixties, it’s one of three pieces in the volume I read, all about Czech people living under the yolk of the Nazis. Skvorecky’s prose is fluid, discursive, quite hard to keep track of at times. Many a time a sentence will meander into a stream of consciousness before coming back to join up with the first part, which may have introduced a character, or a theme. But it’s a rewarding read. An introductory piece, “Red Music” writes of how, both under the Nazis and then the Communists, music like jazz was seen as a threat to the established order, an invitation to people to express themselves, think for themselves, and by definition, break free from the tyranny imposed on their daily lives. There’s an extraordinary set of regulations imposed on dance orchestras by one Gauleiter. This is number 3 of 10:
As to tempo, preference is to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated.
You can bet your life that the Gauleiter, or his musical adviser, was a massive jazz fan on the quiet.
But you know, edicts like this weren’t exclusive to the Nazis. You can read similar pronouncements in the Stasi museum, in Berlin, today.
And so the theme in a love story called “Emoke” and then “The Bass Saxophone” itself, is about people finding escape in music, and specifically, in the latter, jazz, as the owner of the bass saxophone turns up late to a concert of traditional music in front of the assembled German dignitaries in a Czech town called Kostelec and blasts the inexplicable, plaintive, subversive cry of his instrument through the dross that went before. The author, a young man, has been standing in for him, in bizarre circumstances, on an alto sax – he can’t handle the magnificent bass machine. He is allowed to escape as the authorities take control. But he is there in frustrated spirit with the doomed bass saxophonist.
Music, and especially jazz, is therefore a form of rebellion against the totalitarian forces. In village halls across Czechoslovakia, bands subvert old-fashioned waltzes with swing and the blues. People come from all around to enjoy it. The music of black America, in a small way, helping people to resist, if only for a fleeting moment, the joyless oppression of the conqueror. And we know those oppressors like a little bit of that Swing themselves. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that…
The subversion in subjugated Czechoslovakia is of a different, deeper quality than the anti-establishment vibes of the youngsters in “On the Road”. But in both books, the power of self and communal expression that music – jazz – can create runs deep and true.