The Best of Jackson Payne

Overview

When Charles Quinlan, an academic obsessed with jazz, starts exploring the life and death of Jackson Payne, a fictional tenor-sax player, he can't imagine where his research will lead. Told in a series of dazzling riffs by everyone from Payne's lovers to his fellow musicians, The Best of Jackson Payne is a ...
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Overview

When Charles Quinlan, an academic obsessed with jazz, starts exploring the life and death of Jackson Payne, a fictional tenor-sax player, he can't imagine where his research will lead. Told in a series of dazzling riffs by everyone from Payne's lovers to his fellow musicians, The Best of Jackson Payne is a novel that swings unlike any other.

Originally published by Knopf
2000 ISBN: 0-375-40535-6

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Tenor saxman Jackson Payne's life reads like jazz tragedies' greatest hits, rife with drugs, sex, crime, violence and self-destruction, all vices and desires put to the service of jazz by the gifted and obsessed visionary. Readers may think they've already heard this story of addiction, race and passion, but Fuller's (Fragments) unflinching and searing novel tells it like never before. Narrator Charles Quinlan, a white, 40-year-old musicologist researching the life of the jazz icon in order to write Payne's biography, is also a man obsessed, neglecting his music students at the university, further alienating his ex-wife, even missing visitations with his children in his single-minded quest to glean the facts behind the legend, especially the events surrounding Payne's mysterious death. Though even his editor questions his need to delve ever deeper, Quinlan listens to the men who served with Payne in the Korean War, the women who shared his bed, the musicians who shared his love of hard bop and heroin, the daughter whose life he saved by giving up his own. The story unfolds in first person interviews, speculative flashbacks and traditional narrative form. If the characters are at first confusing, one quickly falls in step with Fuller's rhythm, grooving in mind and spirit as he keeps the story jumping like a hot sax solo. Quinlan's personal story is occasionally intrusive (an affair with a private investigator is superfluous) but the narrative device generally works and the story remains Payne's. Fuller, one-time editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, also wrote jazz criticism for the newspaper and his command of the scene, from Chicago to Harlem, is as evident as Payne's rejection of the diatonic scale. Fuller depicts Payne's demons and guardian angels, his desperation and inspiration, with pathos, compassion and seamy, reckless truths that will pull readers into his musical world. Agent, Gail Hochman. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
"Jazz is about feelings, emotions in the moment. It comes up from the deepest self, not as memory so much as memory made new." These two sentences capture the essence of Fuller's latest novel, itself a kind of jazz improvisation, with multiple voices playing within a structured plot line, trying to define a life that defies explanation. Jackson Payne was a musical genius, searching for truth in his saxophone. He was also a liar, philanderer, and heroin addict who died under mysterious circumstances. Charles Quinlan is an academic, a musicologist on a mission, determined to write the definitive biography of Payne and get to the heart of his music. His search leads him from one end of the country to the other as he tracks down Payne's associates and family, slowly weaving together the story of his life, his music, and his death. As anyone who knows the world of jazz might expect, Quinlan encounters a colorful cast indeed. Digging deeper, he also begins to discover some truths about himself and the realities of race in America. While some of the musical detail may be beyond the unindoctrinated (if appreciated by aficionados), Fuller never allows it to become cumbersome or to detract from the main story. This work plays well on several levels and can be appreciated by a wide audience. Highly recommended for the serious literature collections of most public and academic libraries, especially those in larger metropolitan areas.--David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Jeff Waggoner
While the richness of the novel is in the story of Payne's jazz, the plot of Payne's life is played straight ahead. . . . Fuller brilliantly makes authentic all the voices telling the stories, from drug addict's to doctor's, while assembling them into a sensible whole . . .
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Chock-a-block with religious imagery, mystical epiphanies, rhapsodic lectures on music theory and splendid evocations of the tawdry-but-hip jazz milieu, this sixth novel from Fuller (News Values, 1996, etc.), a journalist who is now president of the Chicago Tribune Company, reconstructs the life of a brilliant but doomed black jazzman through the eyes and ears of his quixotic biographer. A composite drawn from the best, and worst, of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and Ornette Coleman, Fuller's fictional tenor saxophonist Jackson Payne remains a musical enigma to Charles Quinlan, a white, middle-aged, recently divorced college professor on leave to write what he hopes will be the ultimate biography of an American jazz musician. Quinlan feels he knows Payne's music well enough to hear honesty, despair, confusion, drug-induced euphoria, religious revelation, and lots of pain. But what of the man himself? Digging up Payne's Army buddies, agents, sidemen, lovers, wives, and rivals, Quinlan predictably gains some insights, but they're not enough to settle the disturbing ambiguities: Did Payne, born poor in Chicago, die of a drug overdose, or was he murdered by those he had betrayed? What relationship did a sexually abusive Baptist minister and a prison cabal of homosexual Muslims have on his bitter affairs with women and on his last-chance attempt to redeem his daughter from prostitution? Quinlan embarks on an awkward romance with Lasheen, the secretary of a private investigator he'd hired. A frustrated concert pianist who favors Bach over Basie, Lasheen can't let Quinlan forget the subtle racism that taints hisvision.Quinlan's meandering interview transcripts and quirky notebook jottings end as an ironic metaphor for his endeavor: biographers will never know why artists do the things they do, but the truth-seeker's journey offers enough even to make the failure worthwhile. An optimistic, intricately layered rewrite of The Aspern Papers, with grimy jazz clubs standing in wonderfully for James's sinking Venice.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375405358
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/13/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.67 (h) x 1.29 (d)

Meet the Author

Jack Fuller is the author of five previous novels, including Fragments, and one book of nonfiction. At the Chicago Tribune, where he served as editor and later as publisher, he often wrote jazz criticism, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Fuller is the president of the Tribune Publishing Company. He lives with his wife and two children in Evanston, Illinois.
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Read an Excerpt

The first time I heard Jackson play, he was doing "Taps" on the E-flat alto saxophone. It wasn't his natural instrument, but the way he played it could have raised the dead.

Behind him the drummer didn't have but a pair of marching sticks and a raggedy old practice pad. And the piano in the colored Service Club was so funky you couldn't tell where in Hell the man at the keyboard was trying to take the chords. But Jackson was in a groove, and we were right there with him. The 11th Boogie Woogie Infantry, smack in the middle of redneck Georgia, getting ready for war.

Only a few minutes before I'd been lying up in my bunk, with Jackson sitting on his footlocker, a butt in his mouth, shining up some brass. Then all of a sudden I heard the sound of the blues coming across the company square.

"Ain't bad," I said.

He didn't say it was or wasn't, but he did go with me to have a look.

The Service Club was sorry, no matter how much crepe paper the ladies from the local AME hung from the rafters. I stopped at the punch bowl for a taste of something sweet, but the brothers had already killed the Kool Aid. All that was left was a little green pool in the bottom with some butts floating in it.

The tables were pushed back and the chairs were in a basic straggle formation around the piano. Next to it a guy on an alto saxophone was doing something real basic. It wasn't much of a tune, but I noticed Jackson's fingers moving along with it on the buttons of his fatigue blouse.

"You play?" I asked.

"A little," he said.

So, just to make things interesting, I called out: "Somebody here say he can blow that thing better'n you."

"He do,do he?" says the alto player. "Who?"

"It's Payne," I say. "Jackson Payne."

"I know this man?"

All I can think of to answer with is the truth: "Nobody do."

But sure enough, the alto nods Jackson up front and lends him the horn. Then Jackson turns to the piano player and asks do he know "Taps."

And the brothers say: "Man think he got a bugle."

And: "Wake us up come morning, hear?"

The piano player don't look any too sure, so Jackson goes over and picks out a couple of the chords for him. Then he turns back to the crowd, and suddenly he's on the note as sweet as nightfall when the air begins to cool.

Gone the sun. One day over, another to come. Until all your days are done and the tune rises over your flag-draped box and some sweet thing throws the dust then pockets the insurance check. That's what he said on that old horn.

"Well lookee here," say the brothers.

"Talk to me, Jackson Payne."

Then just when it seemed the sun was gone forever, all of a sudden it's Resurrection morning, Jack. You never heard so many notes. It was like he'd inhaled the saxophone and blown it out in a million pieces like stars in the sky.

You know, I always wondered why Jackson never played that tune after Korea, when he got big.

He did at least once.

Say what?

Played it.

How you know a thing like that?

They say somebody sneaked a recorder into the performance.

I'd've given my one good leg.

If I ever locate the tape, I'll make a copy for you.

Where'm I gone play it in this shithole here?

Wardell Flowers, so animated only a few moments ago, now slumped in his wheelchair in the VA room equipped with nothing but an auto parts calendar and an old AM radio. His face, which had darkened to health with the telling of his tale, now seemed as gray as ash.

There's another cut I'll send. It's from Art Pepper's album recorded live at the Village Vanguard years later. He quotes Payne at the end of a tune called "Goodbye." Payne was already dead by then and Pepper wasn't long for the world himself. Day is done. It was like he was telling Payne he'd see him somewhere soon.

Art Pepper was a fucking racist.

Not his music.

You a regular expert, ain't you, the man in the wheelchair said.

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