Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 11 Aug 2019

Young Man With A Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker was an American novelist who died from cancer at the age of 61 in 1968. I start with these bald facts because, like me, you may never have come across her name before. You might, however, have heard of her first and most famous novel, Young Man With A Horn (1938) which is generally acknowledged as one of the first novels to focus on the world of the jazz musician and the emerging culture of swing and big band jazz. It’s also possible that you will have come across the film adaptation of the book that was released to some success in 1950 and which starred Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Doris Day.

The short paragraph preface to the book tells us that the story of the precocious musician Rick Martin is inspired by but not based on the life of the great cornet-playing jazzman Bix Beiderbecke. Although we follow the progress of Martin from his very early awakening to music all the way through to his self-destructive end at the age of 40, this really isn’t any sort of fictionalised biography.

Dorothy Baker was a novelist prepared to take on difficult and often controversial topics – her later books dealt with lesbianism and the issues facing identical twins and she contributed an episode to Playhouse 90 that imagined life after a third world war. So it’s probably no surprise that YMWAH takes on a range of social issues, including alcoholism, race relations, sexuality and the nature of the creative impulse, or, perhaps more accurately, the creative obsession.

The story Baker tells is one that might seem a little clichéd in an age that’s now used to the idea of the doomed, self-destructive musician. Young white boy, Rick Martin knows nothing much other than an uncontrollable desire to surround himself with music – he teaches himself to play piano but really wants to swap that for a ‘horn’ (a trumpet or cornet to me and you). He makes his first friend in Smoke, a black colleague who works alongside him and the two sneak off together to sit outside the local Cotton Club (no, not that one) listening to the black house band ripping it up on stage.

Through Smoke, Rick finds himself adopted by the musicians and his journey has begun. Step by step Martin reveals himself as a uniquely talented horn player and he gets increasingly prestigious gigs with big name bands, spreading word of his talent. But he’s also starting to drink and he finds himself in a relationship with Amy North, a young woman who is, it is implied, probably bisexual. Rick’s single-minded mission to perfect his musical skills is undermined by a combination of the drink and the ill-advised marriage and it will eventually be his downfall and nemesis.

Writing in the London Review of Books in 2013, reviewing reprints of Baker’s novels, Emily Cooke gives this excellent insight:

“Young Man follows a poor white boy from a desultory background (he’s more or less an orphan and not especially good at school), through an apprenticeship with black jazz musicians in Los Angeles, to the flowering of his skill and corresponding fame. Rick Martin may be pliable in the rest of his life – ‘he always did what somebody else thought up’ – but in playing the horn he ‘shed the husk of indifference’, and he becomes purposeful, even headstrong. He suffers no spasms of self-doubt: he knew ‘he was good and wanted to be better,’ and at the age of 20 his talent is obvious to the big-name band leader who plucks him from obscurity. Genius, in Baker, never falters, and everyone recognises it when they see it. The awful thing about it is that it can’t be sustained. Rick wants to succeed on an ever greater scale, and he wants it with a tenacity that must, by Baker’s rules, result in ruin. He ‘expected too much’; he comes to the ‘nervous, crazy life’ of jazz with ‘too great a need’. The prologue states the problem baldly: fully submit to art, and it will kill you.”

But Baker wasn’t only interested in the workings of the creative impulse – she’s also prepared to confront issues of race prejudice and to make Rick confront his own prejudicial stereotypes and the language and culture that separates black from white. For modern readers there’s a use of language here that will be uncomfortable to read but to deny it’s common usage back in the Thirties would be stupid and it really has to be there to help explain just why Baker was breaking taboos.

Writing convincingly and engagingly about music is a thankless task – an unattributable quote puts it this way: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  But in this case Baker has had a really top notch go at getting across both the intensity and the experience but almost by not trying to do too much. She doesn’t get too technical or overly metaphorical but has enough of an understanding of the art form to know what works when words come up short.

Baker was rather bitter that her skills as a novelist were modest and perhaps even more annoyed that everyone seemed to agree with her about this. But I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I was going to and it deserves to be remembered for breaking the ground it did.

A newish paperback for under a tenner published by NYRB Classics is available and even hardbacks aren’t prohibitively costly.


Terry Potter

August 2019