Academic journal article American Studies

Ann Petry, Ralph Ellison, and Two Representations of Live Jazz Perfomance

Academic journal article American Studies

Ann Petry, Ralph Ellison, and Two Representations of Live Jazz Perfomance

Article excerpt

This article is a comparative study of Ann Petry's 1947 short story "Solo on the Drums" and segments of Ralph Ellison's Three Days Before the Shooting . . . that were almost certainly drafted several years later.1 I believe Petry's masterful "Solo on the Drums" could have been Ellison's inspiration for the jazz club scene in Book One, chapter ten, which is a culmination of the action that begins in chapter nine (a long, coherent flashback sequence). This claim can probably never be proved one way or the other. But if Ellison arrived at the scenario-in which jazz induces a reverie in a recently love-jilted man-completely on his own, then his mind was working much like that of Petry, and their representations of jazz-induced reverie could be taken together as significant statements about one way jazz may have been apprehended and experienced at this time.

Both narratives portray the effects of a jazz performance on an emotionally troubled character. Attempts to relate the effects of live jazz on the psyche go back to at least the 1920s. Rudolph Fisher's short story "Common Meter" and Zora Neale Hurston's essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" furnish good examples. But Petry adds another dimension to the representation of the experience of the music and explicitly explores the effect of a jazz performance on a character who has suffered a personal romantic loss earlier in the day on which the performance takes place. The character experiences a reverie that drifts from personal heartbreak into commentary on a wider sense of political and cultural loss. Ellison portrays a similar scenario across chapters nine and ten. What could this mean for the study of Ellison's influences, especially those that have gone unacknowledged or have not been explored adequately? And what might it suggest about Petry as a sort of "alternative" jazz critic?

First, I consider the question of whether Ellison could have read Petry's story when it appeared. Next, I note how jazz writing opportunities were generally closed to women, especially African American women (and were not especially open to African American men). Furthermore, I raise the question of how Petry's oeuvre might have looked had she had the opportunity to use her knowledge of jazz in nonfiction feature pieces, as Ellison did (following the success of Invisible Man). I then discuss what Petry's parallel exploration and representation of jazz performance might mean for the phenomenology of listening-the sense of being "in music"-that Ellison began to develop in Invisible Man, where he focused on recorded music.2 He appears to expand upon this idea of being "in" music in Three Days Before the Shooting . . . in one of the most significant representations of live music in his oeuvre. I then discuss Petry as a possible literary precursor of Ellison (with regard to the representation of jazz performance) and ask what this could mean for understanding the influence of women writers, particularly African American women writers, on Ellison's work.

In his second novel, Ellison takes up the theme and imagery of music performed live in a way that he does not in Invisible Man. Music in general plays a more significant role in his second novel. Reverend Alonzo Hickman, a cen - tral character, is a former jazz musician and is nicknamed "God's Trombone." There is a section about Hickman's early days as a trombonist.3 Chapter four of Book One is about a jazz bassist.4

In his 1955 essay "Living With Music," Ellison writes of purposefully distancing himself from music (in which he'd majored at Tuskegee) during his early years in New York so that he could focus on becoming a writer.5 During this period, the late 1930s and 1940s, he "tried to break clean" with music, and, in general, this effort is reflected in his writing.6 In "Living With Music," he writes of reengaging with music seriously in 1949.7 Invisible Man initially did not have much, if anything, to do with jazz.8 The famous passages in the novel's prologue about Louis Armstrong were late additions. …

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