This Thing, the Bass Saxophone, Is Anything but Ordinary

By Jarab, Josef | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

This Thing, the Bass Saxophone, Is Anything but Ordinary


Jarab, Josef, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Josef Skvorecky's fascination with jazz is no new story for anyone who knows the author or has read his work. His writings and his private perception of the genuinely American musical phenomenon made it only logical and proper that he should be present at the Reduta Jazz Club in Prague during Bill Clinton's visit in January 1994, when the president of the United States brought his idea for a project called Partnership for Peace and was given by the Czech head of state, Vaclav Havel, a shining brand-new saxophone in return. The American statesman showed his appreciation by playing the instrument not only in Prague but later in the Kremlin for the president of Russia. All participants in this political game gave jazz a role as an opener of doors needing to be unlocked. I daresay that for Skvorecky, the jazz-loving Czech-Canadian fiction writer, it must have been exciting personally to witness these bits of history, if only to enjoy the importance of that jazziest of musical tools, the saxophone, which he himself used to play.

For Skvorecky, jazz has never been just entertainment. Like most of the musicians whom he has admired since his youth, he always found the music "an elan vital, a forceful vitality," and he believes, indeed knows, that its effect can be cathartic. This notion was of true relevance to the author and his own generation as much during the Nazi war as it was during the Communist regime in the decades after the takeover in 1948. Having watched closely and covered widely, in the American and Canadian press all through the seventies and eighties, the dramatic story of the jazz Section in his former country after the Soviet occupation in 1968, Skvorecky has had good reason to believe that jazz retains some of its original vitality. In a recent interview, during his visit to the Czech Republic, Allen Ginsberg expressed the daring conviction that African American culture in general and jazz in particular may have contributed to the ending of the Cold War, and I believe that his old friend Josef Skvorecky would not, in principle, disagree; Skvorecky certainly knew and wrote about many Czechs and Slovaks "who liked syncopation more than their government" and behaved correspondingly.

The world of Josef Skvorecky and of his fictional alter ego, Danny Smiricky, is, in fact, unthinkable without jazz, and for the latter, as he was first introduced to us in The Cowards in 1958, the history of our civilization even falls into two ages, "before and after jazz." Profane as this may sound, it reflects accurately the nature of Danny's appreciation of jazz as something thing divine, something ideal and omnipotent. However, it was in the novella "The Bass Saxophone" that Skvorecky's passion for this kind and mode of music was expressed most eloquently and elegantly.

Although the narrator remains nameless in this long monologue, nobody would be surprised at his identification as Danny Smiricky; he mentions the tantalizing Irena who was the lady of his heart, he speaks of the same friends, Benno and Lexa, with whom he played in the local jazz band, he lives in the same small town of Kostelec, located in German-occupied Bohemia, and we hear of the same Messerschmitt airplane factory that was located there. The young man who, like Danny in The Cowards, was "seventeen eighteen" at the time of the story, shares some of the emotions and views of the protagonist in Skvorecky's first novel, including the conviction that the life experience that is most real feels "like a movie." Paradoxically then, this extreme dreamer can call himself "an absolute realist." And consequently, the narrator's story in "The Bass Saxophone" is more than real, it is surreal; it is a vision of the world that the ostensibly existing "Kostelec would not believe." The man's statement that he "was a person strictly of this world" is meaningfully qualified with his afterthought, "and my only myth was music."

But it was exactly this myth that made the story happen and helped shape it into one piece.

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