1929: A Novel of the Jazz Age


By 1929, the brief, brilliant career of Bix Beiderbecke -- self-taught cornetist, pianist, and composer -- had already become legend. His genius had blazed forth with doomed incandescence, reflecting the tragic impulses of a country suddenly awash in wealth, power, and profound cynicism. Colored by some of the age's most popular characters -- Maurice Ravel, Bing Crosby, Al Capone, Duke Ellington and Clara Bow -- 1929 illuminates a period in history, personified in the gifted, compelling, and melancholy figure of ...
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By 1929, the brief, brilliant career of Bix Beiderbecke -- self-taught cornetist, pianist, and composer -- had already become legend. His genius had blazed forth with doomed incandescence, reflecting the tragic impulses of a country suddenly awash in wealth, power, and profound cynicism. Colored by some of the age's most popular characters -- Maurice Ravel, Bing Crosby, Al Capone, Duke Ellington and Clara Bow -- 1929 illuminates a period in history, personified in the gifted, compelling, and melancholy figure of Bix Beiderbecke and the highlights of his meteoric career: a Capone-controlled nightclub in 1926; grueling cross-country tours with Paul Whiteman's "Symphonic Jazz" orchestra; the disastrous Whiteman trip to California to make the first all-color musical talkie; the stock market crash of 1929, which finds Bix in an asylum, victim of the era's signature product, bootleg gin; and finally, Bix's dying efforts to combine his piano compositions into a suite that would be the pinnacle of his brief life's work.
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Editorial Reviews

Jim Harrison
Frederick Turner's 1929 would be one of the most remarkable novels published in any year of our time. I found the book a stunning performance of grand dimension. The writing is beautifully controlled and elegant, giving ever-greater tension to the often lurid and violent contents. Historically, I can think of no finer portrait of an American artist and his times.
Paul Winter
A Faulknerian chronicle of American adolescence and how one voice, one clear-toned transcendent horn, drew us closer to the promise of the dream... 1929 is such a great slice of the American journey. So beautifully rendered, I gave it five stars before I was halfway through.
Peter Matthiessen
Frederick Turner's 1929 has many moving and exciting episodes and wonderful period detail.
The New Yorker
The hard-drinking, sweet-tempered cornettist and composer Bix Beiderbecke has held a fascination for jazz fans ever since his death, in 1931, at the age of twenty-eight. (There was a popular novel based on his life as early as 1938.) Turner's novel weaves this mystique into its own fabric, framing the events leading to Bix's downfall with the story of two characters -- a brother and sister, both associated with Al Capone's Chicago racket -- who become entangled in the jazzman's messy life. Written in a period-appropriate overheated, romantic prose, and incorporating memorable appearances by Capone, Bing Crosby, Maurice Ravel, Paul Whiteman, and Clara Bow, the book is by turns corny, intoxicating, and ineffably sad, like the "hot" music it is designed to evoke.
Publishers Weekly
Bix Beiderbecke was one of the great jazz musicians of the 1920s. A brilliant cornet player with an amazing ear, he drank himself to death at the age of 28 with illegal Prohibition liquor. Although Beiderbecke isn't as well known as some of his contemporaries, much has been written about the enigmatic Iowan. Literary journalist Turner offers a fictional take on Beiderbecke's life, giving readers an invigorating picture of what life was like for jazz musicians in the years leading up to the Great Depression. The story is hardly linear; it darts from one scene to the next, beginning with one of Bix's friends leaning on the musician's grave, reminiscing about his old pal, then flashing back to when Bix was alive, tearing through the streets of Chicago with Al Capone's gang. Though there's no plot per se, Turner does present a sequence of events that add up to a portrait of Beiderbecke's life and musical contributions. Despite its brevity, Beiderbecke's career took him across the country, bringing him in touch with such legends as Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington and Maurice Ravel. Turner's style is dense, although his pace varies from balladlike to racing. His descriptions of Beiderbecke's music are evocative (the notes from his cornet fall "like stardust over all of us" and listening to the music feels like "waiting for something terrifically important that is already happening, that will keep on happening, only you couldn't predict or anticipate exactly how it will happen next"). Long-winded and at times frustratingly circuitous, this is nonetheless a rich tribute to a Jazz Age icon. 9-city author tour. (June 15) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Turner, the author or editor of 13 nonfiction works, uses jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke's brief (1903-31) but celebrated life as a frame for this richly atmospheric novel of Chicago during the Depression, Prohibition, the rise of gangsters, and jazz. Beiderbecke is not the only legend who appears in this densely populated novel: gangsters Al Capone and Dutch Schultz, musicians Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Maurice Ravel, and boxers Jack Johnson and Mickey Walker are also here-as is the advent of the talkies. The book slows a bit after its first third; how much can you say about a group of young men working 330 days a year, fueled largely by alcohol, so that when Bix and a pal try working out at a gym their sweat smells of juniper? At the heart of 1929 is "America's insatiable thirst for novelty, sensation, more of everything: more speed, more fads, more home runs, bootleg booze, noise-jazz, the radio, and the roadster's unfiltered roar. And now talking pictures." Those who enjoyed William Kennedy's Ironweed, the film Cotton Club, or just about anything concerning the endlessly fascinating and turbulent 1920s will enjoy this book. Here's one novel so rich in detail that one might have liked an index.-Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The short, brilliant life of jazz legend Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, in a yeasty first novel by the veteran poet and nonfiction author (The Culture of Hope, 1995, etc.). 1929 is a richly detailed story of an age of excess, framed by the memories of aged Henry Wise (born Hermann Weiss), a survivor who had worked as road manager for Bix's touring band in the late 1920s, and whose sister "Hellie" had, like Bix, been caught up in the period's fractious, perilous energies. Initially, we see the somewhat opaque Bix as others see him: a "natural" musician of unprecedented gifts, a hopeless alcoholic since adolescence, adored and egged on by admirers, driven both by a manifest death wish and by his dream of composing "serious" music (" . . . something to be remembered for, not that ... other stuff"). Turner, whose inspiration by E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is everywhere apparent, creates some terrific set pieces, ranging from 1926 Chicago under the murderous thumb of "Scarface" Al Capone and minions like "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn (who'll become Hellie's lover, and nemesis) to Hollywood, where the Paul Whiteman orchestra (in which Bix labors) is engaged for the first all-musical talking picture, to the several drying-out facilities where Bix's Iowa parents and concerned colleagues try, and fail, to divert him from his self-destructive path. There are notable cameo appearances by, among others, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. ("Peter Pan with muscles"), Maurice Ravel (who, in a splendid scene, is taken to the Cotton Club to hear the Duke Ellington band), and "It" Girl Clara Bow (whose seduction of the probably virginal Bix raises the novel's already elevated temperature several moredegrees). And the elegiac final 50 or so pages have the soaring, surprising intensity of a honey-throated Beiderbecke solo. Rip-roaring, entertaining image of a bygone era that deserves Pulitzer consideration. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781582433097
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • Publication date: 5/10/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 4.68 (w) x 8.76 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Table of Contents

I. Hudson Lake 1
II. Astoria 79
III. Hollywood 143
IV. Sunnyside 305
V. Davenport 359
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2005

    Turner has captured THE ESSENSE

    I read this novel from an 'advance reader copy' in Hawai'i in late 2002. I was stunned at how well Turner was able to get into the haed of a musician (like Bix) who does not read music, but is brilliantly creative nonetheless. That is the take I had then. Having re-read the novel recently, I was more struck by Turner's own brilliant (and, yes, occasionally overdesciptive, perhaps...) portrayal of characters, history, uniquely American mindsets and energies, and his ability to write both descriptively AND with amazing 'stream of consciousness' clarity. While the novel certainly centers on, and nails, Bix the creative genius; the plot line is never secondary to him. Turner weaves a masterful storyline within and around his central figure. I have read a many a great 'historical fiction' novel, but this one stands alone in its own right. Brilliant.

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