Jazz and Twelve O'Clock Tales
Folks interested in reading Wanda Coleman's fine short story collection Jazz and Twelve O'Clock Tales should do themselves a big favor and first listen to "Lush Life," Billy Strayhorn's mellow, melancholy, soulful song of lost love, a jazz classic if ever there was one and the source of Coleman's title. For best results, they should try the John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman version. Like Strayhorn's ballad, Coleman's stories are filled with heartache, heartbreak, loss, regret, loneliness. These are burnt-out cases, to be sure, but these are also tales of struggling souls clinging to hope and searching for love.
Jazz plays a central role in the collection, but it would be a mistake to think Coleman's stories just concern music and musicians. The stories are more clearly vignettes, slice-of-life glimpses into the often sad, sometimes violent lives of the down-and-out of Los Angeles. They are tales of single moms, junkies, ghetto kids, struggling artists. Often, Coleman explores the vast, stark differences in the lives of blacks and whites; at times, and just as powerfully, she focuses on fragile relationships of men and women, especially the poor, the hated, the ignored, those mainstream society chooses not to see.
Coleman is often called the unofficial poet laureate of South Central Los Angeles, a title used mainly by book reviewers, I suspect, but it's an apt one all the same. Coleman is a prolific, award-winning poet, and her prose style reflects that. There is poetry present in each story. In "Joy Ride," for example, the story of two young couples whose afternoon drive leads to an encounter with an abandoned baby in a burlap bag, the narrative can be highly lyrical: "The mental sanctuary of their shock is violated as the brass section pours it on and the trumpet player's shrill wail is nearly drowned in the slam of brakes and the shriek of tires. The sedan swerves and stops on a diagonal, coughing out the two men" (3).
One of the collection's strongest pieces is "Jazz at Twelve." Babe, the narrator, is at a jazz club with her husband, Kevin, to hear a quintet featuring [End Page 83] Kevin's friend Frank Lattimore, a great jazz drummer who has seen better days and who is fighting a host of demons. Early in the story, Babe recalls when she first met the musician: "The man was already a legend where I grew up. Then one day here he is marching into my living room, trailing Kevin. Stumbling yet. High as in cosmic, his blue-ringed brown irises juiced out at me from under savvy lids. I took one look at him, got instantly evil, and hissed at Kevin" (12). Through leaps in time and logic, and with self-scrutiny that is often painful, Coleman's protagonist reveals lives tangled and untangling. It is a fine, fine work.
Coleman's other characters include a doomed gospel singer, organized crime figures, cabbies, professional people, the working poor, beaten wives, boozy husbands. She gives us Los Angeles stripped bare, exposed and vulnerable, painting a portrait of racism, fear, poverty, dashed dreams, and sudden death. She sings us a throaty, smoky, aching tune about people fighting to find their way home.