I first read “Young Man With a Horn” when I was 10. I read it again at 12. At 14. At 22. Every few few years it still gives me a pleasurable evening. You don’t have to love jazz or the Jazz Age to adore this book, you just have to love a great story that gives you a movie you make as you read.
“What I’m going to do now is to write the story of Rick Martin’s life, now that it’s over, now that Rick is washed up and gone, as they say, to his rest.”
That’s the first line. You can guess what happens in these 192 pages.
At 20, Rick is bound for glory.
Before his 30th birthday, he’s dead.
“Young Man With a Horn” is the fictionalized story of Leon Bismarck “Bix” Beiderbecke (1903 – 1931), who rocketed out of Davenport, Iowa with a sound so distinctive his only competition was Louis Armstrong. Bix was as shy as he was talented, damaged in a way that’s still not quite clear. But he could play. Lord, could he play.[To buy the paperback — happily back in print — from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. To buy “In a Mist: The Music of Bix Beiderbecke,” click here.]
In a big band, Beiderbecke was the trumpet player with the spectacularly clear sound. As a pianist, he was an innovator. On both instruments, there’s a combination of cool distance, hot jazz and the new kind of music coming from Europeans like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Louis Armstrong said it best: “Lots of cats tried to play like Bix; ain’t none of them play like him yet.”
No one could pin Bix down. An 8-measure solo here, a short phrase there — he seemed to be making it up as he went along, but he couldn’t be, no one was that inventive. Listen for yourself:
Dorothy Baker, who also wrote Cassandra at the Wedding, conjures all of it — the life, the music, the recklessness, the shyness, the loneliness, the booze. She writes wonderful scenes:
— the afternoon in a mission that young Rick Martin teaches himself Hymn 14 (“He stayed there until dark, and I can scarcely believe it myself, but the story goes that he could play the piano by dark; he could play number 14 on the piano by dark”)
— how he sits outside the Cotton Club night after night, in his early teens, listening to bands and memorizing their songs (“It wasn’t that they were loud; it was that they were so firm about the way they played, no halfway measures, nothing fuzzy”)
— the night he gets to sit in with professionals (“Rick laid his cigarette in a groove above the keyboard where another cigarette had been laid sometime, sat down again, and said, ‘What do you think of this?’”)
— how he gets hired to play in a band that caters to college kids in the California summer (“Rick dressed like a college boy, his hands were clean, and there was nothing much wrong with the way he talked, but there was something in his face that marked him as no college boy”).
From there, it’s the top of the mountain and down the hill.
Baker can see what’s discordant in Rick Martin: “the gap between a man’s musical ability and his ability to fit it to his own life.”
She can editorialize: “He expected too much from music and he came to it with too much of a need.”
And she can nail a truth in the fewest possible words: A bandleader is “handsome in a way that doesn’t mean anything.”
And she knows the price of fame. Imagine the white version of Jimi Hendrix — a good-looking lad in a world dominated by black artists who do it, he feels, just a bit better than he ever will. That’s Bix Beiderbecke’s relation to Louis Armstrong, and that’s Rick Martin’s sense of himself in comparison to his black idols. Is it surprising, then, that he never sleeps? That he drinks and drinks and drinks? That his romances are duds?
I first read this book when I was 12. I loved it because it did not condescend or sugarcoat. It took me inside the music — it made me want to find an instrument and learn it. So I got myself a trumpet and tried to be Bix. Never made it. But then, no one ever has.
Got a kid who’s into music? This is the book. Interested in the Jazz Age? Ditto. Or just looking for a short novel that you can’t put down? Here you go.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.
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