Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Charles Beaumont's NIGHT RIDE and Other Journeys and Jazz

The title story in this collection--first published in March, 1960--is neither very sinister nor very fantastic.  Some of the others in here fill that bill nicely and were adapted into episodes of The Twilight Zone.  Nay, the story "Night Run" is better described as gritty noir, and in my opinion, it is the best piece of fiction that Charles Beaumont ever published during his entire career.

Here's the opening, narrated by the trumpet player in a jazz band:

He was a scrawny white kid with junkie eyes and no place for his hands, but he had the look.  The way he ankled past the tables, all along by himself; the way he yanked the stool, then, and sat there doing nothing; you could tell.  He wasn't going to the music.  The music had to come to him.  And he could wait. . .

The kid's hands crawled up and settled on the keys.  They started to walk, slow and easy, taking their time.  No intro.  No chords.  Just, all of a sudden, music. 

The music is the blues.  The kid plays with the band, and the band plays jazz, but the kid turns everything into the blues, deeply felt and infinitely sorrowful.  He doesn't hit all the notes, just the right ones.

The kid swung into some chestnuts, "St. James Infirmary" and "Bill Bailey."  But what he did to them was vicious.  St. James came out a place full of spiders and snakes and screaming broads, and Bailey was a dirty bastard who left his woman when he need her most.  He played "Stardust" like a boy scout helping a cripple across the street.  And you want to know something about "Sweet Georgia Brown"?  Just another seedy hustler too tired to turn a trick.

Beaumont's narrator goes on to describe the kid's methods, an impromptu college course on the blues, replete with the bebop slang of the 1950s.  The band's signature tune is "Night Ride," but the only horse the kid has anything to do with is heroin.  Like many of the blues artists of his time, his personal life is a nightmare, caught in the vortex of addiction, spiraling downward.  His only outlet is the piano.

The first plot twist is that, after the kid falls in love again, his new lover helps him to regain balance in his life.  But then his deeply felt blues talent starts to dry up as well.  With a normal life, he can still be a journeyman musician, just not one of the greats.  There are plot twists after that, but I'll not spoil it for you.

I also recommend Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.  As if picking up exactly where "Night Ride" left off, Dyer's jazzy descriptions of jazz zing with colorful metaphors and snazzy similes.  He creates amazing riffs on the lives and music of jazz greats, including Art Pepper, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Duke Ellington.

I read Dyer's book back when it first came out.  I touted it to everyone, amazed that it didn't immediately become a bestseller.  I can recall first reading Raymond Chandler as a kid, being charmed by his figures of speech.  That memory arose soon after beginning this book, as Mingus's "bass marched everyone along like a bayonet in a prisoner’s back.”  Monk “played each note as though astonished by the previous one,” often leaving the feeling that “the song seemed to have turned inside out.”

These are not rare examples; Dyer does this stuff page after page.  Although the prose is rich, the cream on top is balanced by a sense of timing, insights that make you shake your head in wonder, and that beauty offset by the deep tragedy of its players, strung out on drugs, riding the nightmare too.

But what a beautiful book!

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