Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing

Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing

Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing

Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing

Synopsis

How have American writers written about jazz, and how has jazz influenced American literature? In Fascinating Rhythm, David Yaffe explores the relationship and interplay between jazz and literature, looking at jazz musicians and the themes literature has garnered from them by appropriating the style, tones, and innovations of jazz, and demonstrating that the poetics of jazz has both been assimilated into, and deeply affected, the development of twentieth-century American literature.


Yaffe explores how Jewish novelists such as Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, and Philip Roth engaged issues of racial, ethnic, and American authenticity by way of jazz; how Ralph Ellison's descriptions of Louis Armstrong led to a "neoconservative" movement in contemporary jazz; how poets such as Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, and Frank O'Hara were variously inspired by the music; and how memoirs by Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis both reinforced and redeemed the red light origins of jazz. The book confronts the current jazz discourse and shows how poets and novelists can be placed in it--often with problematic results. Fascinating Rhythm stops to listen for the music, demonstrating how jazz continues to speak for the American writer.

Excerpt

In Donald Barthelme's short story “The King of Jazz,” attempts to describe a trombone solo by Hokie Mokie demonstrate the folly of jazz writing. The story narrates a cutting contest between Mokie, the former “King of Jazz,” and his Japanese contender as onlookers grasp for superlatives. The dethroned trombonist, whose playing had earlier been described as having an “epiphanic glow” with a style known as “English Sunrise,” emerges with a solo so thrilling that it inspires a series of questions that build to their own absurdist crescendo:

You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of
life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans?
That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That
sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea?
That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mount
Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through
the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees
in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus
growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer
wandering a montane of the Sierra Nevada? That sounds
like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like witch grass tum
bling or a river meandering? That sounds like manatees
munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coat
imundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas?

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