In his review of Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn, the Head Butler mentioned the fact that the novel’s title was taken from a pair of articles by Otis Ferguson. “Young Man with a Horn” (1936) and “Young Man with a Horn, Again” (1941) were both paeans to Bix Beiderbecke. So who was Otis Ferguson?
Alfred Kazin described The New Republic’s reviewer as “a sandy, caustic, wild ex-sailor,” a “desperate man, a sorehead, a fatalist” who “despised high culture,” a proto-gonzo who “radiated a desire for ‘kicks,’ for some ultimate sensation.” He found that ultimate sensation in Beiderbecke. For Ferguson, Bix was less an actual historical figure than a convenient extension of the author and his politics: he was a “born natural,” “swinging free and bold,” a “kid with a prank, riding down the whole length of a chorus like a herd of mustangs.” He was the archetypical everyday American, “so generally hardy that an old sweater was all he found necessary for an Iowa winter.” “Jazz was the country where he grew up,” Ferguson wrote—and this is when Bix first ascends to godhead—“the fine high thing, the sun coming up to fill the world through morning.” Such prose is exhilarating in its way (the Head Butler can only say wow) but it also set back jazz scholarship for years and led to Baker’s legendary bit of typecasting. In the end, Bix died young and so did Ferguson, who perished in World War II.
[May 22, 2007]