Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Copacetic Props: Wesley Brown's Dance of the Infidels

I can't think of many short story collections that delve into the world of jazz as affecting or guileless as Wesley Brown's Dance of the Infidels. Recently published by Concord EPress (full disclosure: also my publisher), these stories-  title taken from Bud Powell's famous  composition (see YouTube clip below)- weave together the lives of iconic jazz musicians with a handful of mainly fictional characters. It's a mix that produces situations and interactions that go some way to defining not just the music, but the era, not to mention  the lives of those affected by the music and the era. Of course, there have been numerous writers who have taken jazz as their subject matter or utilized as a backdrop, from Albert Muarry, Dorothy Baker, Toni Morrison, John Clennon Holmes, Rafi Zabor, Ishmael Reed, Josef Skvorecky and Michael Ondaatje to Lou Cameron and Harold Flender. For me, Brown is every bit as good as most of them, particularly when it comes to depicting the historical, musical and personal shifts during a particular era, in this case the years just prior to and after World Wear Two, when the music was moving from swing to be-bop, from dance music to something more cerebral.  

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
In between are a couple stand-alone stories, one featuring a teenage  Dexter Gordon, in Harlem for the first time, having just been hired by Lionel Hampton. Interestingly, Brown, the author of three novels, and lauded by none other than James Baldwin, was meant to work with Gordon on the tenorman's  autobiography. Unfortunately  Gordon would  pass away before the book could be written.  Another stand-alone features Coleman Hawkins. Set in 1936, Hawkins has just returned from five years in Europe and in need of replenishment, musically and spiritually. After reluctantly facing down Lester Young, and searching the contours of Body and Soul, Bean in an adjoining recording studio comes across ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his not-so-dummy Charlie McCarthy. An incongruous meeting as hilarious as it is fortuitous. And, of course, touching, something which could be said for all the stories in this collection, each related in a bop prose that specializes in some incisive descriptions of the music:

A young Dexter G.
"Not wanting to step on anyone's toes, Dexter stamped his foot and blew a yelp from his sax like he'd stepped on his own toes, hoping to put himself on a good footing with the two left feet that were so neat of Sweet Georgia Brown. He gave props to Prez's light throaty hum and Webster's breathy growl, letting them know that, like Georgia Brown, he was still in the shade where they were concerned. But not wanting anyone to think that he came up to the bandstand with nothing to say for himself. Dexter blew into Sweet Georgia Brown, catching some of her high-toned sweetness and low-down sass."

"...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."
Ella Fitzgerald

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.


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