When I opened Hopscotch, I happily discovered that the Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar didn’t just dig jazz; he dug Bix Beiderbecke, writing about the dead cornet player as if he were still alive and “sparring fraternally” with his bandmates, writing about music (gasp!) as if listening to it & understanding it still mattered. Take this moment, from page 40 of the Pantheon edition (translated by Gregory Rabassa):
But then an incisive guitar came on which seemed to signal a transition to something else and suddenly (Ronald had alerted them by holding up his finger) a cornet broke loose from the rest of the group and blew the first notes of the melody, landing on them as on a diving board. Bix took off with everything he had, and the clear sketch was inscribed on the silence as if it had been scratched there. Two corpses sparred fraternally, clinching and breaking, Bix and [short-lived guitarist] Eddie Lang (whose real name was Salvatore Massaro) played catch with I’m Coming Virginia, and I wonder where Bix is buried, thought Oliveira, and Eddie Lang, how many miles apart are their two nothings that one future night in Paris were to fight, guitar against cornet, gin against bad luck, jazz.
Oh, man. I read for moments like that, and I listen to music to feel the feelings that inspire such writing.
Bix shows up again 29 pages later, deep inside a sentence that would make Henry James or W. G. Sebald or Leonid Tsypkin proud, a sentence that may begin as a chore but I’m telling you will end as a privilege . . .
No one seemed disposed to contradict him because Wong had quietly appeared with the coffee and Ronald, shrugging his shoulders, had turned loose Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians and after a terrible scratching they reached the theme that fascinated Oliveira, an anonymous trumpet followed by the piano, all wrapped up in the smoke of an old phonograph and a bad recording, of a corny prejazz band, all in all like those old records, showboats, Storyville nights, where the old only really universal music of the century had come from, something that brought people closer together and in a better way than Esperanto, UNESCO, or airlines, a music which was primitive enough to have gained such universality and good enough to make its own history, with schisms, abdications, and heresies, its Charleston, its Black Bottom, its Shimmy, its Fox Trot, its Stomp, its Blues, to label its forms, this style and the other one, swing, bebop, cool, a counterpoint of romanticism and classicism, hot and intellectual jazz, human music, music with a history in contrast to stupid animal dance music, the polka, the waltz, the zamba, a music that could be known and liked in Copenhagen as well as in Mendoza or Capetown, a music that brings adolescents together, with records under their arms, that gives them names and melodies to use as passwords so they can know each other and become intimate and feel less lonely surrounded by bosses, families, and bitter love affairs, a music that accepts all imaginations and tastes, a collection of instrumental 78’s with Freddie Keppard or Bunk Johnson, the reactionary cult of Dixieland, an academic specialization in Bix Beiderbecke, or in the adventures of Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, or Thad Jones, the vulgarities of Erroll Garner or Art Tatum, repentance and rejection, a preference for small groups, mysterious recordings with false names and strange titles and labels made up on the spur of the moment, and that whole freemasonry of Saturday nights in a student’s room or in some basement café with girls who would rather dance to Stardust or When Your Man Is Going to Put You Down, and have a sweet slow smell of perfume and skin and heat, and let themselves be kissed when the hour is late and somebody has put on The Blues with a Feeling and hardly anybody is really dancing, just standing up together, swaying back and forth, and everything is hazy and dirty and lowdown and every man is in a mood to tear off those warm girdles as his hands go stroking shoulders and the girls have their mouths half-opened and turn themselves over to the delightful fear and the night, while a trumpet comes on to possess them in the name of all men . . .
The rest of that sentence, in which Ella Fitzgerald appears in Vienna and Oscar Peterson in Perpignan, in which “man is always more than a man and always less than a man,” is hereby reserved for those of you who seek out the book.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I read the first passage to my wife. Her reaction was approximately as follows: “I didn’t know, when you were reading it to me, if I was supposed to like it or hate it. But I liked it . . . I mean, at least until he started describing Bix’s music.”
[August 7, 2006]