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chapter 3 High Fidelity on the Black Atlantic Rocking Out with Langston Hughes and Nick Hornby Hans Janowitz passed away in 1954, the same year Johnny Hodges fired a young Coltrane due to the tenorist’s escalating heroin habit and began to contemplate a return into the Ellington fold. Nine years later, the Afro-kinesis of his endless searching had taken Trane to an entirely new musical as well as personal plateau. After Amiri Baraka went to hear him at the famed Village Vanguard, he wrote, “If you can hear, this music will make you think of a lot of weird and wonderful things. You might even become one of them.”1 And even if Janowitz himself might have declined to take the Coltrane, his Jazz reminds us that the stakes that this music amplifies, still, are nothing more and nothing less than our common humanity. Baraka’s experience at the Vanguard that night also echoes Langston Hughes’s travels around the world, where time and again he came face-to-face with these same stakes. Unlike Janowitz, Hughes felt compelled to let Bibi Black’s own voice, the voice of Madam Zajj—the human voice of blackness, in other words—be heard, even and especially in places where no African American had heretofore visited. In the famous opening scene of The Big Sea, the aspiring poet stands at the railing of the S.S. Malone en route to Africa and, in an act of literary emancipation , throws his entire personal library into the Atlantic ocean.2 Not just the beginning of his international adventure, but the entire autobiography is in many ways also a narrative of divestment: among the other “baggage” High Fidelity on the Black Atlantic 77 Hughes discards along the way is the revivalism of Auntie Reed, the dominance of his stern father, and, at the very end, the equally controlling interference of his patron, Charlotte “Godmother” Osgood Mason. How different, then, the traveler who, some years later, heads to the pier in New York City, “loaded down with bags, baggage, books, a typewriter, a victrola, and a big box of Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters records” about to cross the Atlantic yet again, only not to Africa, but this time bound for Russia. Throughout I Wonder as I Wander, the “Harlem victrola” is not only Hughes’s most constant traveling companion, but the race records it spins become the instant connection to the human race everywhere he goes, from the capital of the still-young ussr to the windswept steppes of Uzbekistan to the bustling metropolis of Shanghai.3 To Hughes, of course, African American music is perhaps the most profound expression of the human spirit in a world that often questions, and even threatens, that very humanity. I Wonder as I Wander ends in Paris on New Year’s Eve, 1938, with the world on the brink of war. Even so, Hughes reports, “All over Paris that winter was Negro music [. . .] and French jazz bands all over town were trying their best to beat it out like the Negroes.”4 But the last evening of the year finds him with an old acquaintance, Japanese theater director Seki Sano, in the Café de la Paix—an at once hopeful and defiant symbol of transnational harmony and brotherhood.5 The autobiography concludes with the poet on his way back to his hotel, musing about his travels over the previous few years: The year before, I had been in Cleveland. The year before that in San Francisco. The year before that in Mexico City. The one before that at Carmel. And the year before Carmel in Tashkent. Where would I be when the next New Year came, I wondered? By then, would there be war—a major war? Would Mussolini and Hitler have finished their practice in Ethiopia and Spain to turn their planes on the rest of us? Would civilization be destroyed? Would the world really end? “Not my world,” I said to myself. “My world will not end.” But worlds—entire nations and civilizations—do end. In the snowy night in the shadows of the old houses of Montmartre, I repeated to myself, “My world won’t end.” But how could I be so sure? I don’t know. For a moment, I wondered.6 This final scene, then, ironically juxtaposes two contesting visions of the world: the volkish nation-state’s rapacious quest for Lebensraum, on one hand, the 78...


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