Novel Jazz Matinee Idol, with Feet of Clay

Novel Jazz Matinee Idol, with Feet of Clay

Blue Bossa
By Bart Schneider
Viking, 244 pages $24.95
by Don Rose
Copyright © 1998, Don Rose

Ronnie Reboulet was once one of those rare jazz players who became a matinee idol. He blazed to glory after Charlie Parker plucked him, a white musician, from obscurity to become his trumpet player on a California gig. His style was lyrical, he had ethereal, boyish good looks and he ultimately unveiled himself as a sensitive, romantic vocalist - a talent that, for many, eclipsed his playing. But Ronnie surrendered to hard drugs, the perennial malady of his breed. This, coupled with teeth that rotted in his mouth, pushed him so far out of the music business that some thought him dead.

As the novel opens, Ronnie has not played for several years. He is clean and supports himself by hustling golf. He has picked up with a strong, patient, admiring and admirable woman, Betty - a breast cancer survivor. The story unfolds in short, kaliedoscopic bursts that invoke the phrases of a modern jazz solo. We encounter his long-abandoned daughter Rae, an aspiring singer with no sense of rhythm, and her illegitimate four-year-old boy, Quincy. He is the product of a teen-age liaison with a ne'er-do-well but charismatic young black man.

We range back and forth in time - in sometimes confusing jump cuts - as the center of consciousness shifts among Ronnie, Betty and Rae. We meet Ronnie's slatternly,deserted wife - Rae's mother - who dies midway. We meet the sweet, adoring waitress from the golf club with whom Ronnie has a brief, strangely detached affair. Rae meets Wallace, a much older, courtly black man who is one of the book's most intriguing characters. He cuts off their affair in the bud - and later declines to raise Quincy when Rae wants to take to the road. Like her father, she is a wanderer - on the run.

Eventually Ronnie returns to his horn, first prompted by Rae, who has sought him out after years of separation and moved into Betty's home with Quincy. Suddenly Ronnie moves out to a friend's cabin where he secretly begins to practice rigorously, handicapped immeasurably by ill-fitting false teeth that cause lip problems and force him to develop a new embouchoure. He hooks up with a young pianist, Artie, and, without using his own name, begins a gig in an obscure bar and is eventually rediscovered. He triumphs in a come-back recording session and at the Monterey Jazz Festival. But he wanders back to drugs and is on the run again in the elegiac but wistfully optimistic conclusion.

These lives are counterpointed against the contemporaneous saga of Patty Hearst. Ronnie and his family regularly follow the news of the young heiress who is kidnapped by a militant radical group, winds up joining it, robbing a bank and going on the run herself. Ronnie believes he has had a brush with her in a national park. She is captured as the novel reaches its denouement. The parallel themes of running away and fractured familial relationships coincide and assume full contour and structure - like a masterful jazz solo whose riffs and glisses and jabs finally shape into a complete composition.

If Ronnie reminds you of Chet Baker, one of the tragic cases of modern jazz, it is completely intentional; however, this is not simply a fictionalized biography. There are many points of similarity, but most of the characters and the essential plot line diverge significantly from Baker's life. What Schneider - the editor of The Hungry Mind Review and an amateur sax player himself - has done in his first novel is take an outline of the musician's life and flesh out a new work of art as a tribute to both Baker and jazz itself. It is what Michael Ondaatje did in Coming Through Slaughter his more complex and poetic reinvention of the life of the seminal New Orleans trumpeter, Buddy Bolden; it is what John Clellon Holmes did in his morbid testament to Lester Young, The Horn. It is a million miles away from Dorothy Baker's sentimental, melodramatic Bix Beiderbecke as Young Man With a Horn. It stands on its own if you don't know Chet Baker from Russell Baker.

Unfortunately it has some of the problems and failings of that artistically difficult subgenre, the jazz novel. There is a plethora of references to real jazzmen and real musical events for the sake of verisimilitude - including an embarrassing, out of character speech Ronnie gives to a packed house, in which he places himself historically in the legacy of the music.

There is an equally embarrassing effort to describe verbally the course of a jazz solo. When Ronnie plays the song "Blue Bossa," a real composition by trumpeter Kenny Dorham, Betty imagines: "The theme . . . is as supple as a peasant's body. Ronnie outlines a bit of it each time through. He strips it of its clothes, dresses it slowly, beads it with simple ornaments, lets it trill a gaudy moment like a whistler in the quiet streets at dawn, then draws it back to its bare-bones self."

Such renderings could be omitted easily - just as Schneider wisely avoids any narrative or extensive dialog in hip talk or jazz slang without compromising the truth of the novel. He also could have omitted the ham-handed symbolism of Ronnie's dubbing himself "Phoenix," compounded by Artie's rehashing the myth just in case you didn't get it.

But once you are past worrying whether Chet Baker ever really did this or that - and get past some of the inherent flaws of the subgenre - you have a haunting portrait of a troubled musician and the complex relationships of his strangely loving extended family. There is an essential poetry here that mirrors the music in these lives.

Take, for example, the poignant comment of Hub Mosca, one of the many expressive characters who pass briefly through these pages. He is a bass player and long-lost friend who reunites with Ronnie after his come-back : "We're strange beasts, Reb. We're supposed to play music to calm the savage hearts. But who is there . . . who is there to play for us?"

Don Rose is a political consultant and former trumpet play who writes frequently about the arts. This review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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