By DAVID HAJDU
Photo by Christopher Felver/Corbis
By Nathaniel Mackey.
183 pp. New Directions. Paper, $16.95.
Nearly a century after jazz emerged as a musical form with profound cultural resonance, the jazz novel, like the theater of the absurd and radio drama, seems an archaism, a good subject for a third-year undergraduate elective or a Bravo documentary. When we think of jazz fiction, we think not only of books centered on the music but of work steeped in the jazz aesthetic — an implacably rigorous and cosmopolitan tradition rooted in the blues and the African-American experience, in which obedience to the moment has primacy. We also call to mind writers dating back to the Harlem Renaissance. We think of Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer; and of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose legend is inextricable from the age named for jazz; we think perhaps of Kenneth Rexroth; of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka; and of Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beats, among many others. We think of past eras in a montage of changing modes of headwear: top hats ... fedoras ... kufis ... berets. But we are unlikely to think immediately of jazz when we think of contemporary literature, and we may well conceive of the act of writing a jazz novel in the 21st century as akin to wearing a hat today — as an affectation, a mark of a retro obsession or a hint that one is trying to hide a certain lack of something up top.
It is a testament to Nathaniel Mackey’s stoutness of heart and mind that as an artist wholly devoted to jazz literature, he is virtually alone among important American writers of fiction and poetry. He is scarcely oblivious to the declining status of jazz fiction — or, for that matter, of jazz itself. To the contrary, the marginalization of jazz in all its most serious iterations is one of the major themes of his work. In that displacement, Mackey sees a path to refuge. Mackey is interested in the interests of the broader public only as points of opposition. He speaks to an audience definable not by its size nor even by its color but by its intellectual jazzhead zeal, and if he sometimes appears to be speaking only to himself, so be it; few people I know have the fervor for anything to match Mackey’s for jazz.
A professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Mackey has been writing poetry, fiction and criticism for 40 years now, and ever since his first book — a 1978 poetry collection titled “Four for Trane,” after a 1964 album by an earlier jazz multi-hyphenate, the saxophonist-composer-poet-essayist Archie Shepp — he has stuck close to the world of jazz. For the past two decades, Mackey’s major prose project has been an experiment in serial fiction called “From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.” (With its author’s fondness for wordplay, the title ends with the four letters of Mackey’s nickname.) So far, pieces of the continuing work have been published as four books: “Bedouin Hornbook” (1986), “Djbot Baghostus’s Run” (1993), “Atet A.D.” (2001) and the new “Bass Cathedral.” All of the books are episodic and essentially interchangeable, and they are equally fine.
Like the earlier volumes, “Bass Cathedral” is made up of letters from a multi-instrumentalist and composer called N. to a confidante he addresses as Angel of Dust. As Mackey explained in an interview with Chicago Review, he wrote his first letters as N. in response to questions by a friend and later published them in his poetry collection “Eroding Witness.” “I didn’t have a plan when I first started writing them,” Mackey said. “I just saw them ... as a way to speak without the constraints of verse. You can’t really just talk about how much you like Jackie McLean in a poem. Well, you can ... but I don’t write that kind of poetry.”
“Bass Cathedral” and its three companion books have their own kind of poetry that is kinetic and also contemplative, elegiac and mercurial, sometimes volatile. Mackey’s prose is essentially writing about writing — that is, about language and the act of using it. As a maker of such writing, he descends from a long line traceable from Whitman and Melville to the modernists and Mackey’s idol, Baraka, to the metafictionists John Barth and William Gass. Mackey has described himself as “post-bebop,” and his musical preference is for the freewheeling, overtly artful, contrarian jazz of the late ’50s and early ’60s. His prose is its postmodern counterpart.
Episodic, unpredictable, often self-referential and sometimes self-absorbed, “Bass Cathedral” is a virtuoso performance done for the glory of performing. The satisfaction “Bass Cathedral” provides is that of the moment. It feels, sentence to sentence and page to page, like a work in the act of being created. It is not simply writing about jazz, but writing as jazz.
The language in “Bass Cathedral” is ecstatic, although it expresses ecstasy with little interest in inducing it. Mackey’s idiosyncratic prose inspires wonder, even awe; still, the ecstasy expressed in “Bass Cathedral” is exclusionary. This effect is no doubt intentional, because the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion are among the major concerns of Mackey’s work. His fictive world is an insular one of musicians composing, playing and talking jazz in the private language of their art, sharing albums and trading in the special knowledge of obscure works by little-known artists (like “Easterly Winds,” by the pianist Jack Wilson, and “November 1981,” by the trumpeter Bill Dixon).
The events in all four books of “From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate” are an unstable mix of the quotidian, the surreal, the obtuse, the sensual and the arcane. In “Bass Cathedral,” it is the early 1980s and N. is working with his band, the former Mystic Horn Society, now called Molimo m’Atet, in preparation for the release of their new album, “Orphic Bend.” We follow N. as he composes, following the muse toward a new fascination with brass, and visits an instrument shop with his bandmate Lambert to be fitted for a new mouthpiece. While listening to a test-pressing of “Orphic Bend,” N. notices a comic-strip-style word balloon rising from the record grooves. Within it is a long, cryptic message beginning with the words “I dreamt you were gone. A pre-emptive dream I knew it to be even as I dreamt it, as if to dream it was to preclude its coming true.” From that evocation of a dreamscape, things get giddily weird, with word balloons appearing all over the place and, eventually, morphing into floating Schmoo-like trickster creatures.
Mingled with all that are nonfiction passages about real-life jazz compositions and recordings that represent some of the most acute writing about jazz by a living writer. In a section on “Pensativa,” a track on the 1964 album “Free for All” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Mackey writes:
“I heard the trombone and tenor’s choirboy whimsy yet again, the background embellishment and the low-key corroboration they allot, the lowing intent or insinuation they supply or ply the melody with. I wondered yet again how the piece can so border on show-tune cheer yet be so hip, mingle moments flirting with soap-commercial ditty with streetwise aplomb.”
There is a cliché about music writing, sometimes attributed to Thelonious Monk, among others: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” If so, Nathaniel Mackey is compelled, rather than deterred, by the multiform madness of the enterprise. He is the Balanchine of the architecture dance.
David hajdu is the author of “Positively 4th Street.” His book about comics, “The Ten-Cent Plague,” will be published next month.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company