Thursday, August 2, 2012

Last weekend, while browsing through the best browsing place I know -- the Book Barn in Hillsdale, NY -- I found a slightly weathered copy of James Baldwin's short story collection Going to Meet the Man and bought it so I could pass along the story "Sonny's Blues" to my son Brett, who spent part of his formative years experiencing the joys and pangs of a musician.

My own musical "career" (clarinet and tenor saxophone in school bands from grades 5-12) was, at best, checkered. But I do remember one wonderful evening when I was 16 and asked to provide background notes for a small jazz group at an academic summer program in Georgia. The musicians in the group set up a dialogue in which they each took a melody line, molded it, refined it, expanded it, and then passed it along -- from saxophone to trumpet to guitar to piano to drums and back. Meanwhile, I played four notes -- middle to high to low to lower and back. I kept my eyes closed and just listened. I couldn't believe I was part of this creation, even in a passive sort of way. I didn't know how music could feel from the inside.

Then I read "Sonny's Blues," which is a story about brothers, love, missteps with drugs, and rebirth, all wrapped in a blanket of music that is both warm and scratchy. It's a loving story and a painful story. It's a story that makes you feel more than think. And it brought back that summer evening to me.

Here is the climax of Baldwin's story, as we English majors say. Or it's the crescendo, as Sonny or his brother might say:
photo by Jef Jaisun

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

I just watched Sonny's face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn't with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on a short rein. Up there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny's witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing---he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.

And, while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It's made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there's only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

And Sonny hadn't been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn't on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny I'd never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there. . . .

Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.

1 comment:

  1. First, amazing picture of Brett
    Second, very powerful story about Sonny and about your experience when you were 16. Shockingly I don't think I have heard that story.