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Edgar Pool came up with the big bands. He spent the 1930s crisscrossing the country, playing in only the finest dance halls. In those days, a saxophone player was expected to stay on the beat, to swing without getting too hot. But Edgar—whom the young men called “the Horn”—couldn’t help but rebel. His sound was always far-out, never pedestrian. When the bebop revolution came, Edgar was recognized as one of the vanguard. But by then it was already too late; the world had passed the Horn by.
This is the story of jazz in the transition years between swing titans Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and bop innovators Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Rich in the details of a musician’s life—the grind of the road; the flash of inspiration; the seduction of booze, drugs, and willing women—it is also a heart-wrenching portrait of the price an artist pays for being ahead of his time.
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About the Author
John Clellon Holmes (1926–1988) was an American novelist, essayist, and poet. He is best remembered for Go (1952), a roman à clef chronicling his experiences with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady in New York City in the 1940s. Published five years before On the Road and distinguished by its emotional honesty, its meticulous attention to detail, and its lyrical evocation of the restlessness that defined post–World War II Manhattan, Go is widely considered to be the first Beat novel and one of the finest. Kerouac coined the term “beat generation” in a conversation with Holmes, who in turn introduced it to the world in a seminal article published in the November 16, 1952 issue of the New York Times Magazine: “This Is the Beat Generation.” Holmes’s other works include the novels Get Home Free (1964) and The Horn (1953), the latter of which was declared by the San Francisco Chronicle to be “the most successful novel about jazz that has ever been published;” the poetry volumes Dire Coasts (1988) and Night Music (1989); and Nothing More to Declare (1967), a collection of essays.
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By John Clellon Holmes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 John Clellon Holmes
All rights reserved.
"Men will lie on their backs, talking about the fall of man, and never make on effort to get up."
Consider that it was four o'clock of a Monday afternoon, and under the dishwater-gray window shade — just the sort of shade one sees pulled down over the windows of cheap hotels fronting the sooty elevateds of American cities where the baffled and the derelict loiter and shift their feet — under this one shade, in the window of a building off Fifty-third Street on Eighth Avenue in New York, the wizened October sun stretched its old finger to touch the dark, flutterless lids of Walden Blue, causing him to stir among sheets a week of dawntime lying down and twilight getting up had rumpled.
Walden Blue always came awake like a child, without struggle or grimace, relinquishing sleep in accordance with the truce he had long ago worked out with it. He came awake with a sparrow stare, fast dissolving as the world was rediscovered around him unchanged for his absence. He lay alone — without moving in the way a man used to waking beside the body of women will move, either toward her or away; lay, letting his water-cracked ceiling remind him (as it always did) of the gullys of shack roads back home where he would muddy his bare black feet when a child, and where, one shimmering cicada-noon, he had stood and watched a great lumbering bullock careen toward him, and become a Cadillac-full of wild, zoot-suited city boys, pomaded, goateed, upending label-less pints, singing and shouting crazily at everything: "Dig and pick'-ninny! Dig the cotton fiel'! Dig the life here!"; to bump past him, gape-faced there in the ruts, and plunge on around the bend of scrub pines, where he had once mused over an ant hill in the misty Arkansas dawn — for all like some gaudy, led-astray caravan of Gypsies, creating a wake of rumor and head-shaking through the countryside.
Walden Blue slid long legs off the bed, and for a moment of waking reflection — that first moment, which in its limpid, almost idiotic clarity is nearly the closest human beings come to glimpsing the dimensions of their consciousness — he considered the polished keys and the catsup-colored neck of the tenor saxophone which, two years before, had cost him $175 on Sixth Avenue, becoming his after an hour of careful scales and haggling and of the gradual ease which comes to a man's fingers when they lose their natural suspicion of an instrument or a machine which is not their own, but must be made to respond like some sinewy, indifferent horse, not reluctant to be owned but simply beautiful in its blooded ignorance of ownership. For on this saxophone Walden Blue made music as others might make love a kind of fugue on any bed; Walden made music as a business, innocent (because love of it was what kept him alive) of just what others meant by their "business," implying as that might some sacrifice of most that was skilled and all that was fine in them. He considered his saxophone, in this first moment of waking, without pleasure or distaste, noting it with the moody, half-fond stare of a man at the tool he has spent much time, sweat and worry to master, but only so that he can use it.
Looking at it, he knew it to be also an emblem of some inner life of his own, something with which he could stand upright, at the flux and tempo of his powers — as others consider a physical feat an indication of manhood, and still others, a wound. To Walden the saxophone was, at once, his key to the world in which he found himself, and the way by which that world was rendered impotent to brand him either failure or madman or Negro or saint. But then sometimes on the smoky stand, between solos, he hung it from his swinging shoulder like one bright, golden wing, and waited for his time.
"Hey there," he said to himself reproachfully, dangling his feet in an imaginary brook, for it was nearing three-thirty, which meant the afternoon was slipping by; and so he got up, stretching himself with the voluptuous grace some musicians give to any movement, and went about coffee-making. The electric plate was dead in one coil, the pot itself rusty from weeks of four o'clock makings; and without troubling his head about it, he used yesterday's soggy grounds. Coffee had no taste or savor to him at that hour: it was merely hot and black. He started his day with it, and as though it poured something of its nature into him, by the swirling night hours, amid smoke and roar, he would be like it: hotter and blacker, if anything. The second scalding cup was as necessary to the beginning of the day as the second shot of bourbon or the second stick of tea was to its blissful morning end someplace uptown, where, for sociability and personal kicks, he would blow one final chorus for himself, with a rhythm section of hardy, sweating souls collected from a scattering of groups around town, and then, packing up, go home empty of it all again. He drank his coffee back on the bed, lean shanks settled down on it, naked as a child; and each gulp reestablished him in the world.
His mind was clear; in these first moments, scarcely a man's mind at all, for he had no thoughts, just as he rarely dreamed. One afternoon in L.A. — back nine years ago, when bop was an odd new sound, and a name for the jazz many of them had been blindly shaping, and something else as well (a miraculous, fecund word, because no one then really understood its meaning, only somehow knew) — he had sat on a similar bed over his first cup, just like now, and out of the sweet emptiness of his morning head a thought had come: that he was a saxophone, as bright and shiny and potential as that, and the night and his life would play upon him. Some afternoons since then, he recalled recalling this thought, and often giggled secretly at its foolish accuracy. But never troubled his head.
But this afternoon something else was there. This morning — three or four o'clock at least, up at Blanton's on 125th Street, where, in the back, and after hours, they served coffee, and the musicians gathered to listen or play or talk that shop talk without which any profession in America would be thwarting to Americans — Edgar Pool had been inveigled to sit in with the house group (nothing more than rhythm upon which visitors could build their fancies), and as everyone turned to him in the drab, low-ceilinged room, giving him that respectful attention due an aging, original man whom all have idolized in the hot enthusiasm of youth, something had happened. And now Walden remembered.
There are men who stir the imagination deeply and uncomfortably, around whom swirl unplaceable discontents, men self-damned to difference, and Edgar Pool was one of these. Once an obscure tenor in a brace of road bands, now only memories to those who had heard their crude, uptempo riffs (their only testament the fading labels of a few records, and these mostly lost, some legendized already, one or two still to be run across in the bins of second-hand jazz record stores along Sixth Avenue), Edgar Pool had emerged from an undistinguished and uncertain musical environment by word of mouth. He went his own way, and from the beginning (whenever it had been, and something in his face belied the murky facts) he was unaccountable. Middling tall, sometimes even lanky then, the thin mustache of the city Negro accentuating the droop of a mouth at once determined and mournful, he managed to cut an insolently jaunty figure, leaning toward prominent stripes, knit ties, soft shirts and suede shoes. He pushed his horn before him; and listening to those few records years later, when bop was gathering in everyone but had yet to be blown, Walden, striving more with his fingers than with his head at that time, first heard the murmur of the sounds they were all attempting. Edgar had been as stubbornly out of place in that era, when everyone tried to ride the drums instead of elude them, as he was stubbornly unchanged when bop became an architecture on the foundation he had laid.
He hung on through fashions, he played his way when no one cared, and made money as he could, and never argued. One night in 1938, in a railroad bar in Cincinnati, where the gang men came to drink their pay with their-dusky, wordless girls (something in them aching only for dance), he sat under his large-brimmed hat and blew forty choruses of "I Got Rhythm," without pause or haste or repetition, staring at a dead wall; then lit up a stick of tea with the piano man, smiled sullenly, packed his horn and caught the train for Chicago and a job in a burlesque pit. Such things are bound to get around, and when Walden saw him a year or so later (on another night at Blanton's), the younger tenors had started to dub him "the Horn," though never (at that time) to his face.
Edgar Pool blew methodically, eyes beady and open, and he held his tenor saxophone almost horizontally extended from his mouth. This unusual posture gave it the look of some metallic albatross caught insecurely in his two hands, struggling to resume flight. In those early days he never brought it down to earth, but followed after its isolated passage over all manner of American cities, snaring it nightly, fastening his drooping, stony lips to its cruel beak, and tapping the song. It had a singularly human sound — deep, throaty, often brutal with a power that skill could not cage, an almost lazy twirl on the phrase ends: strange, deformed melody. When he swung with moody nonchalance, shuffling his feet instead of beating, even playing down to the crowd with scornful eyes averted, they would hear a wild goose honk beneath his tone — the noise, somehow, of the human body; superbly, naturally vulgar; right for the tempo. And then out of the smearing notes, a sudden shy trill would slip, infinitely wistful and tentative.
But time and much music and going alone through the American night had weakened the bird. Over the years, during which he disappeared and then turned up, blowing here and there, during which, too late, a new and restless generation of young tenors (up from the shoeless deltas, like Walden, or clawed out of Harlem's back-alley gangs) discovered in his music something apt and unnamable — not the sound, but some arrow toward it, some touchstone — over the years which saw him age a little and go to fat, which found him more uncommunicative and unjudging of that steady parade of eager pianists and drummers that filed past behind him, the horn came down. Somehow it did not suggest weariness or compromise; it was more the failure of interest, and that strain of isolated originality which had made him raise it in the beginning out of the sax sections of those road bands of the past, and step solidly forward, and turn his eyes up into the lights. The tilt of his head, first begun so he could grasp the almost vertical slant of the mouthpiece, remained, the mouthpiece now twisted out of kilter to allow it; and this tilt seemed childishly fey and in strange contrast to his unhurried intent to transform every sugary melody he played and find somewhere within it the thin sweet song he had first managed to extract, like precious metal from a heap of slag.
Walden felt Edgar Pool threaded through his life like a fine black strand of fate, and something always happened. When he first heard him in the flesh — sometime back in 1941, in the dead center of war, after learning those few records by heart, after finding his own beginnings in Brahmin Lightcap's big band that came in with a smashing engagement in Boston, and went out six months later, a financial bubble, when the trumpet section grumpily enlisted in the Navy and most of the saxes were arrested on narcotics charges — after this, after waiting to hear Edgar, missing him in L.A. by a lost bus connection, getting hung up in Chicago, Walden had come into Blanton's one night, and heard a sound, and there was Edgar, horn at a forty-five-degree angle to his frame, playing behind Geordie Dickson as she sang "What Is This Thing Called Love?" with a tremble in her voice then that made you wonder. Something settled in Walden that night, and he decided to get out of the big bands, the bus schedules, the dance halls, the stifling arrangements; to get off the roads for a while; to stick around New York, which was his adopted pond after all; to give himself his head. It wasn't Edgar actually — just that aura of willful discontent around him: wanting a place, but not any place.
Since then Walden dug Edgar whenever he was around, puzzled and disturbed, but not until this morning in Blanton's had anything come out clear. Edgar had played with weary and indifferent excellence, noting neither Cleo — who played piano with Walden at the Go Hole every night but never got enough and, like so many young musicians (he was only eighteen), seemed to have no substantial, homely life but jazz, no other hours but night, and so hung around Blanton's till dawn with untiring smiles of expectation — nor the others who wandered in and out, listening to every other bar, gossiping and showing off their latest women. Edgar stood before them, down among the tables, for there was no proper stand, sax resting on one thigh, and Walden studied him for an instant with that emotion of startling objectivity that comes only when a man least expects or desires it. And for that moment he forgot his own placid joy at the night narrowing down to an end and to this hour among his own sort, at the sight of someone so inexplicably isolated from it all, though generally accepted as one pivot on which it turned.
Edgar fingered lazily, ignoring Cleo's solid, respectful chords, one shoulder swinging back and forth slightly, his chin pulled in. His hair was long over his large collar, he padded up and down on exaggerated crepe soles, and between solos he chewed an enormous wad of gum soaked in Benzedrine. They said he had "gone queer," but instead there was something soft and sexless about him. Then he smeared a few notes over a pretty idea — a crooked smile glimmering behind the mouthpiece, all turned in upon himself, all dark; and Walden alone seemed to catch the sinister strain of self-ridicule behind the phrase, behind the sloppy, affected suit, the fairy hip-swinging; and at that moment the presence of a secret in Edgar reached him like a light.
For if jazz was a kind of growing Old Testament of the Negro race — and of all lost tribes in America, too — a testament being written night after night by unknown, vagrant poets on the spot (and so Walden, reared on a strange Biblical confusion, often thought of it), then Edgar had once been a sort of Genesis, as inevitable and irreducible as the beginnings of things; but now, mincing, chewing, flabby, he sounded the bittersweet note of Ecclesiastes, ironical in his confoundment.
But just then Geordie Dickson flounced in with her cocker spaniel under one arm, two smirking white men guiding her, half-tipsy, between them. The sweaty faces around the room pivoted, and someone whispered hoarsely. For this was almost the first time in the ten years since something unknown had separated them that they had been in the same room. Their lives were fatefully, finally intertwined, for Edgar had found her singing in a ginmill in Charleston (no more than sixteen then) and, probably with only a clipped word of command, had taken her away and brought her North — a sturdy, frightened, bitter girl, one-quarter white, raped at fourteen on a country lane by two drunken liquor salesmen, thrown into reform school where she was chained to an iron cot while her child was born out of her dead, finally released to find her family vanished, thrown back for pickpocketing in colored churches, released again in the custody of a probation officer who tried to get her into a whorehouse, and trying to keep off the streets with her voice when Edgar first saw her. He taught her some sense of jazz, got her the initial jobs, backed her on the records that followed, and took money from her when, all overnight, she became a sensation to that dedicated breed of lonely fanatic which jazz creates. Walden, among the others, had often stood in the vest-pocket clubs on Fifty-second Street during 1942, as the lights faded away and one spot picked her out — mahogany hair oil-bright, over one ear the large red rose still wet from the florist's, candle-soft eyes, skin the sheen of waxy, smooth wood — and heard the opening chords, on grave piano, of "I Must Have That Man"; and also heard, with the others, the slur, the sugar, the pulse in the voice, and had known, without deciding or judging, that it was right; and been dazzled too.
Excerpted from The Horn by John Clellon Holmes. Copyright © 1988 John Clellon Holmes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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