- Rim-Shots on Reading, Rhythm, and Fascination
You know you ought to slow down.S.O.S Band
In the middle of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing, David Yaffe points out that "'inspiration' literally means 'to breathe in,' to be full of the spirit of the muse" (141). I'd never thought of it quite that way. That's what readers do: we inspire the book. Listeners inspire a song: we take it into ourselves. Critical writing, then, would be a matter of expiration. In Fascinating Rhythm, Yaffe expertly inspires musical performances by Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, and a few others. His expirations about the music instruct an attentive reader in ways that could make us better listeners. Yaffe rarely writes directly about music, however, instead devoting most of Fascinating Rhythm to writing and literature about jazz. His conclusion is that jazz "has appeared in a number of guises in American writing...but seldom as itself" (196), although he admits to excluding texts "because they simply did not fit into my rhetorical strategy" (5). Placed at the close of the book, the comment, "Many a misreading has produced memorable writing, and many accurate readings have not" (197), certainly sounds an alarm. The central problem in Fascinating Rhythm is that when Yaffe's attention strays [End Page 304] from the music, he simply doesn't inspire deeply, thoroughly, or, above all, accurately. In fact, the errors (big and small, meaningful and not) in Fascinating Rhythm—a book published, after all, by Princeton University Press and stamped with the praise of noted scholars—come at such a rapid pace that they begin to destroy the trust an attentive and knowledgeable reader could have in the author as a textually, contextually, and historically conscious and conscientious commentator. As I'll begin to demonstrate, dozens of statements in this book are well-deserving of queries, rebuttal, or simple deletion. I wish I could have written these comments as reader's notes about the submitted manuscript.
Early in his discussion of Invisible Man, Yaffe notes Ralph Ellison's echo of "Buddy Bolden's Blues": "Open up the window and let the bad air out" (67). If one's interested in inspiration, it's good advice. And a good accompanist knows how to leave a window open to let the soloist do his or her thing. An introduction and four chapters comprise Fascinating Rhythm. Chapter 1, "White Negroes and Native Sons: Blacks and Jews in Words and Music," reads the work of J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Richard Powers and considers the convergence of blacks and Jews in writings that deal with jazz. Chapter 2, "Listening to Ellison: Transgression and Tradition in Ellison's Jazz Writings," grapples with the disjunctions between Ellison's above- and underground personae and their clashing ways of being in the music and the world. Chapter 3, "Stomping the Muse: Jazz, Poetry, and the Problematic Muse," looks at the way American poets such as Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, Frank O'Hara, and Yusef Komunyyakaa have positioned references to jazz music and performance in their work. Chapter 4, "Love for Sale: Hustling the Jazz Memoir," assesses how jazz artists Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus used sex as a vehicle for publicity in selling their literary wares. The book's overall approach is reasonable, but inaccuracies in reasoning, historical documentation, quotation, and interpretation radically inhibit the usefulness of Fascinating Rhythm to informed students of the overlap between jazz and American writing. More significantly, the book's readings might well instill dangerously reductive impressions of works by important authors. I'll attend to two such reductive readings, of the work of James [End Page 305] Baldwin and Yusef Komunyakaa, and then point toward complexities absent from Yaffe's consideration.
In the course of dismissing James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," Yaffe informs the reader that "Sonny [is] a bebop pianist." Is he? Baldwin doesn't specify. Of the pathos of Sonny's quest and the complex weave...