Dorothy Baker’s debut novel, Young Man With A Horn, opens with a dedication that functions as both a clarifying note and a sort of hint to the type of story that will be told. It reads, ” The inspiration for the writing of this book has been the music, but not the life, of a great musician, Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke…” Published in 1938, the book arrived seven years after the passing of the great cornet player. Beiderbecke’s era was gone as well, as traditional 1920’s jazz had shifted into big band swing. Yet Baker’s novel is firmly rooted in the music and feeling of the 1920s, and she manages to capture an authenticity of the jazz scene that I have rarely felt when reading or watching a film.
The story follows Rick Martin, trumpet player, from his childhood as a school-ducking kid growing up in lower-class Los Angeles. He first learns to play piano, then saves money from his bowling alley job to by a trumpet. Through his friend Smoke Jordan, Rick is introduced to black jazz musicians Art Hazard and Jeff Williams, and begins learning his craft and sitting in with the band. It’s obvious from the beginning that Rick has talent, and trumpet playing becomes his singular obsession.
As a young adult, Rick begins to move up the ranks of the white dance bands first in ballrooms in LA and then on to the big groups in New York. Having grown up playing more hot jazz Rick finds the watered-down dance band music not to his liking and often tries to rebel with his own style of playing. While playing with a Paul Whiteman-type orchestra in NYC as the lead trumpet, Rick visits other clubs after he gets off work to jam with Jeff Williams’ group. It’s though these late night sessions that he first meets Amy North, a beautiful yet distant college student. Rick becomes smitten with Amy, and the two end up in a rocky marriage. Amy is somewhat envious of Rick’s status as a top musician, as she claims she is still looking for the one thing is life that she can do well. But in many ways Rick isn’t satisfied with sitting on his talent and continues to strive for perfection while often drinking to compensate for what’s missing in his life and marriage. In the end, it seems that the only people who know Rick best are his fellow musicians. Through what is hinted at being caused by alcoholism, Rick dies from pneumonia with Smoke at his side.
Through dropping hints at song titles and other references, Baker sets her era well. As Gary Giddins mentions in the afterword of the New York Review Books edition, race plays a large factor in the story, and Baker’s African-American characters are given a chance to speak without racially stereotyped dialogue and appear as fully formed characters. That’s not to say the book, which is narrated by a mystery third person narrator, totally refrains from the use of derogatory racial labels and descriptions (it doesn’t), but there is something progressive about its main characters that was carried over in the 1950’s film adaptation.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. As Baker has dedicated her book to the spirit of good music, she seems to have a feeling for that world. Having sat in on late night jam sessions, it’s easy to catch on to the comradery, high level of skill and musicianship and joy that comes out of playing with and being challenged by fellow musicians. I think that’s what I took most out of Young Man With A Horn, that idea that while it’s a tragic story, music in Rick Martin’s life was something to continue to work towards and aspire to, and that it’s a universal language.
This post is part of my summer reading list for Out of the Past’s Summer Reading Challenge.