Saturday, August 29, 2020

As it hits the air....

James Baldwin's story "Sonny Blues" was first published in Partisan Review in 1957, and then eight years later in Going To Meet The Man. The closing paragraphs are among the finest and most moving writing about music I've ever encountered.

Sonny's a young junkie and piano player living in Greenwich Village; his older brother, the story's unnamed narrator, is a high school algebra teacher in Harlem. Their shared history is fraught with racism, trauma, and violence—explicitly in the harrowing death of their uncle, implicitly in the low ceilings afforded each of them. The narrator's vocation is to teach kids how to solve for X, to recognize that abstract problems might have answers; to the narrator, Sonny's life looks, sounds, and feels chaotic. How to solve that? The friction emerges from this conflict, as both men speak different languages, seemingly at an unbridgeable divide, yet each wishes desperately to communicate to the other. The narrator's daughter dies of Polio, and in grief he resolves to make good on an earlier promise to his mother and to reach out to his brother, yet they remain estranged, each a stubborn, puzzled outsider to the other's calling.

In an early passage, the narrator, looking for Sonny in the city, deigns to poke his head into a local dive, absently hearing the "black and bouncy" music on the jukebox and insultingly assigning the barmaid a "battered face of the semi-whore," failing to see in her much dignity. Music is the soundtrack for low-lifes, for folks without aspirations. Near the middle of the story, the narrator's in his brother's room, resisting the urge to snoop, when he glances out the window and spies Sonny standing on the corner with a revival group. He notices something different in Sonny's walk, a kind of self-possessed strut, and that he's clearly enjoying himself down there on the street. Something focuses for the narrator, as if a lens has been changed. Following a halting if promising conversation between Sonny and himself about life choices, addiction, and pain, the narrator agrees to see Sonny play at a small club in the Village. There, he stiffly watches his brother on the piano, and listens to him—or tries to, the music's improvisations still alien and disordered to him. Yet he does recognize, and acknowledge, that what his brother's doing up on that stage is urgent, a kind of substitute, as Sonny's admitted, for the rush of a heroin high.

As Sonny plays, swapping solos with Creole, a fellow musician, the narrator ruminates on the mysterious power of music, admitting to himself that, "All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it."
And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal; private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is: hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of; another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.
As he watches Creole's face, the narrator has a "feeling that something had happened, something I hadn't heard." The band finishes, there's some light applause, and then, "without an instant’s warning, Creole started into something else, it was almost sardonic,"
it was "Am I Blue." And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face.
The phrase I love is without an instant’s warning. He's wildly unprepared for what's happened and for what's coming in that tiny, dark club, something enormous, and surprising, something that might narrow the distance between himself and Sonny, and, because it's life-altering, it's dangerous and scary, too. Baldwin's a master, of course, so this isn't felt by the narrator with sentimental clarity, as my summary might suggest, but with the intuitive feel of a dawning epiphany and its slow rise on the horizon. Their shared heritage as black men and as estranged brothers is now taking a different, more dimensional form, as is his brother's confounding miseries, and to the narrator's shock, his brother's playing is what's giving it all shape. And a name. "Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues," says the narrator. "He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air."
Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.
These passages never fail to astound me. The great cosmic joke is that we don't choose our family members, yet we spend the bulk of our lives defining ourselves by them, a microcosm for life's joys, agonies, successes, and failures. A powerful story about family becomes also a powerful story about music, art, and connection—for Baldwin, is was all one in the same.


Photo of James Baldwin via The New York Times; jacket photo via AbeBooks; photo of Baldwin on the street via The Guardian; photo of Cecil Taylor's hands playing piano via The New York Review of Books.

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