The Good and the Bad of It

What’s interesting about the Head Butler’s love of Young Man with a Horn (1938) is that, for the most part, everyone else on the planet hates it. In fact, hating it seems to be prerequisite to becoming a Bixophile. (Here, Albert Haim, who runs a website devoted to Bix Beiderbecke, can’t resist the parenthetical assertion that Baker’s novel “failed.”) Baker conscientiously insisted that the “inspiration for the writing of this book has been the music, but not the life” of Leon Beiderbecke, but her mysteriously self-destructive, horn-playing, gin-swigging white protagonist Rick Martin will forever be one with Bix in the popular culture.

In true dime-store fashion, Baker populated her novel with shady black musicians with names like Smoke and Art (“In the first place maybe he shouldn’t have got himself mixed up with negroes”) and a barroom siren, the lovely Amy North, who is described by Clifton Fadiman, in his Foreword to my 1943 edition, as “a perverse hussy.” Ultimately, though, Baker aimed high, just like Rick, telling us that her story is about “the gap between the man’s musical ability and his ability to fit it to his own life,” about “the difference between the demands of expression and the demands of life here below.”

This is the sort of stuff drove that drove Benny Green nuts. In The Reluctant Art he grumbled, “Bix was obviously the greatest white jazz musician Miss Baker had heard about, so she grafted on to him the hack figure of the artistic genius who is romantically frustrated.” However, John Paul Perhonis, in The Bix Beiderbecke Story (a 1978, unpublished dissertation), notes that Baker had been tight with Otis Ferguson, author of the original article “Young Man with a Horn,” and that “she was not interested in Bix’s life, but rather . . . she wanted to say something about the music—the good and bad of it, and the built-in mortal hazards.”

And where she left off, Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, and Lauren Bacall would soon pick up.

[May 22, 2007]