The political implications are clear, and Brown is able to tap into them. As well he should, having, during the 1960s, worked with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, before joining the Black Panthers. Eventually he would serve 18 months of a three year sentence for refusing to be inducted in the armed services. Perhaps that's also partly why he can make his subject matter move so seamlessly in that direction, depicting musicians as no less vulnerable than those who follow the music, with all concerned subject to the function and drift of those transitional years. All of which is apparent from the very first story, Women From Mars, about a young female trombone player who, for economic reasons, joins an up-and-coming female wartime big band. But as excellent and perceptive as that story might be, it only the opening salvo for what will follow. In the second story, The Land of Oop-Pop-La-Da we're introduced to four young music enthusiasts: Anna, Danny, Sylvia and Wardell. Anna is Jewish, Danny Catholic, while Sylvia and Wardell are black. Anna and Danny meet in high school, and, bonding over the music, become regulars at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, one of the few places where blacks and whites could openly dance and socialize together. It's where Sylvia spots Wardell- "a smooth talker whose words were as slick as his processed hair"- on the dance floor. The four become friends. But, while Anna is hungry to learn the latest dance steps from Sylvia and Wardell, Danny simply wants to get lost in the music. As the book progresses, Brown fills out the stories of each of these characters, culminating in the final entry, In the Mood to Be Moody. Of course, the four teenagers have their ups and downs, and eventually go their separate ways, but not before encountering young versions of Bird, Dizzy, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and King Pleasure, as well as seasoned veterans like Count Basie, Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Billie Eckstine.
|Billie and Hawk|
|A young Dexter G.|
"...a horn player named Lester Young was introduced; and, unlike Danny's father, he had a lot to say. Danny listened to what sounded like a humming breeze, dancing a slippery soft shoe on top of the horn player's breath. He couldn't help but wonder if this was the kind of feeling his father didn't want to talk about? A long yawn followed that went on the prowl in Young's throat and mouth and then sneezed through the radio like he was coming down with a head cold. But if Lester Young wasn't feeling well, Danny wanted to get closer to whatever was making him feel under the weather. And he got his wish as feverish puffs of breath, egged on by hoots from the band, ballooned out of the horn, and burst in a splash of heat over Danny's face."
If I have a criticism it isn't that the last story closely gumshoes the second, or that he tends, like many of us, to romanticize the music (though hardly when compared to, say Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful), but only that this collection is so enjoyable that it really should have been twice as long. No wonder Baldwin admired Brown's writing. For me, Dance of the Infidels is one of the best books of short stories I've read in a while, and something anyone who loves the music, from young adults to elderly but avid listeners, can't fail to appreciate.