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Authors: Dorothy Baker

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Young Man With a Horn

BOOK: Young Man With a Horn
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DOROTHY BAKER (1907–1968) was born in Missoula, Montana, in 1907 and raised in California. After graduating from UCLA, she traveled in France, where she began a novel and, in 1930, married the poet Howard Baker. The couple moved back to California, and Baker completed an MA in French, later teaching at a private school. After having a few short stories published, she turned to writing full time, despite, she would later claim, being “seriously hampered by an abject admiration for Ernest Hemingway.” In 1938, she published
Young Man with a Horn
, which was awarded the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942 and, the next year, published
, a novel whose frank portrayal of a lesbian relationship proved too scandalous for the times; Baker and her husband adapted the novel as a play in 1944, but it was quickly shut down because of protests. Her final novel,
Cassandra at the Wedding
(also published as an NYRB Classic), examined the relationship between two exceptionally close sisters, whom Howard Baker asserted were based on both Baker herself and the couple’s two daughters. Baker died in 1968 of cancer.

GARY GIDDINS was the jazz critic for
The Village Voice
, where his column “Weather Bird” ran for thirty years, and is presently director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has contributed articles about music and movies to
The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, Esquire, The New York Sun
, and
Vanity Fair
, among other publications. He has written twelve books, including
Visions of Jazz
, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998, and
Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams
. His most recent book is
Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema



Afterword by



New York


Biographical Notes

Title Page




Book One

Book Two

Book Three

Book Four


Copyright and More Information

To Raymond Branson Dodds
and Alice Grady Dodds

The inspiration for the writing of this book has been the music, but not the life, of a great musician, Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke, who died in the year 1931. The characters and events of the story are entirely fictitious and do not refer to real musicians, living or dead, or to actual happenings.


What I’m
going to do is to write off the story of Rick Martin’s life, now that it’s all over, now that Rick is washed up and gone, as they say, to his rest.

There isn’t much to it, in its bare outline. Rick was born in Georgia five or ten minutes before his mother died and some ten days before his father checked out and left him with his seventeen-year-old aunt and her brother. These two worked their way to Los Angeles eight years later and brought him with them; and there he grew up in the way he apparently had to go. He learned to play the piano by fooling around with pianos in churches and roadhouses—any place, in fact, where there was a piano that could be got at and fooled around with. And because he had right in his bones whatever it takes to make music, he became while he was still a kid a very good pianist. But a piano wasn’t exactly right for him, and he turned to brass finally; he earned enough money to buy himself a horn. And then he learned to play a horn—a trumpet, if there’s anybody here who doesn’t know what kind of a horn a horn is—and that was his proper medium. He learned a lot from Art Hazard, the great negro trumpeter, but that doesn’t explain what made him so good.

He played in five- and six-piece bands around Los Angeles, and one day he was discovered for what he was worth by Lee Valentine, who could scarcely believe his ears. Valentine, playing a cross-country tour of moving-picture houses, had been put on Rick’s trail by Jeff Williams, the negro band leader, who had known Rick as a boy in Los Angeles and had kept him in mind as a future bright light for a good white band. Lee Valentine didn’t need to be told twice; he signed Rick and took him back to New York with the band.

He was a sensation, particularly among musicians. He was such a sensation that it wasn’t long until Phil Morrison, who ran the best big orchestra of the day, bought him, and then he continued to be a sensation for Mr. Morrison. He loved his work. He had something and he knew it. He never got tired, kept it up night after night, and after he got through with the night’s dance he’d get together with other men from other bands who were interested in seeing how far they could go, and then he’d really play the rest of the night.

He pushed it too far. He didn’t sleep and he didn’t eat, because he could do so many other things. He could drink, for instance, and before he knew it he was drinking almost constantly in order to keep everything else going. It didn’t work out that way, however, and he finished up his time in this life before he was thirty. He was mourned, I might add, by almost nobody except me and two negroes, Jeff Williams and Smoke Jordan. There was a woman, named Amy North, but there’s no telling how she felt about it. I dare say Rick’s death was regretted by musicians here and there, but it will only be a question of time until he’s forgotten completely. One of these days even his records will be played out and give forth nothing but scratching under a steel needle. When that time comes Rick Martin will really be dead, dead as a door-nail, and I hate to see it happen.

That’s the story, and it could never be called a grand tragic theme; it does not depict the fall of a noble person from high to low estate—Rick Martin never got anywhere near high estate, though he did make a lot of money for a while. But it is a story that has the ring of truth and an overtone or two. It is the story of a number of things—of the gap between the man’s musical ability and his ability to fit it to his own life; of the difference between the demands of expression and the demands of life here below; and finally of the difference between good and bad in a native American art form—jazz music. Because there’s good in this music and there’s bad. There is music that is turned out sweet in hotel ballrooms and there is music that comes right out of the genuine urge and doesn’t come for money.

The story ends with death. Our Mr. Martin, from the moment he began fooling around with pianos, was riding for a fall. I shouldn’t have said fooling, because he wasn’t fooling; he meant it. In Rick Martin’s music there was, from the first, an element of self-destruction. He expected too much from it and he came to it with too great a need. And what he expected he never quite found. He might have found it in another kind of music, but he had no training or any way of coming to know another kind of music. So he stuck to jazz and to the nervous, crazy life that goes with it. And he made a good thing of it; he made an amazing thing of his own playing; he couldn’t even keep pace with it himself. He was, in his way, like Tonio Kröger, Mann’s inspired and bewildered poet, who ‘worked not like a man who works that he may live; but as one who is bent on doing nothing but work; having no regard for himself as a human being but only as a creator.’

Now these are strong words and should surely apply much more truly to a poet like Tonio Kröger than to the man who played hot trumpet in Phil Morrison’s band. But I don’t think they do, and that’s the thing about Rick’s story that moves me. The creative urge is the creative urge, no matter where you find it. Rick did what he could do so well that I, for one, won’t be likely ever to hear his name without feeling my hair rise.

But if you choose to look at it this way, you have to go easy or somebody will say you’re arty. Dance music should be criticized in its own terms, and its own terms are such inbred shop-talk that no one outside the trade could understand them. How could you say what it was that Rick had and what he stood for without getting out of bounds in one way or another?

You could, of course, twist Rick’s life into a fiction and write off a clear-cut commercial story about a good-looking young man who went to a good school and then, being musically inclined, went to New York and joined a big-time dance band. You could have him smoke Marihuana once or twice, just for the hell of it; and tell whom he loved and all the rest of it. He could be playing at one of the place-names of capitalism, say the Waldorf-Astoria, and between dance sets he could meet the daughter of some kind of magnate, and it would be love and our man would never have to play another night’s dance music, but just lie happily married on the deck of his wife’s yacht night after night for the rest of his life, which would be protected and long.

But this can’t be that. This one has to be the story of a young man who, without even knowing what it was, had a talent for creating music as natural and as fluent as—oh, say Bach’s. Rick Martin never would be put down to playing exactly what was written for him; he’d just sit there and fit himself into the heavy going, but when his own turn came, or whenever he saw his chance, he would take off and invent, extempore, some of the freshest, most imaginative music that ever occurred to anyone.

Our man is, I hate to say it, an artist, burdened with that difficult baggage, the soul of an artist. But he hasn’t got the thing that should go with it—and which I suppose seldom does—the ability to keep the body in check while the spirit goes on being what it must be. And he goes to pieces, but not in any small way. He does it so thoroughly that he kills himself doing it.


first place maybe he shouldn’t have got himself mixed up with negroes. It gave him a funny slant on things and he never got over it. It gave him a feeling for undisciplined expression, a hot, direct approach, a full-throated ease that never did him any final good in his later dealings with those of his race, those whom civilization has whipped into shape, those who can contain themselves and play what’s written. But whether he should have or shouldn’t have doesn’t matter much now.

He lived in Los Angeles from the time he was eight years old—in a part of Los Angeles that was not notably class-conscious, or indeed conscious of anything. He lived in an apartment with his aunt and uncle (brother and sister, not husband and wife) and he had a bed of his own in an empty storeroom down the hall. He was alone a good share of the time. His uncle worked in a meat-packing plant and his aunt worked in a pants factory. He got, when the occasion demanded and other things worked out right, some nice pants out of his aunt’s job, and his uncle paid the rent and bought part of the food. Neither aunt nor uncle was home more than a night or two a week. They led their own lives.

Rick, on the other hand, was almost always at home. He read library books constantly and indiscriminately. He read them fast, one after another, and subject-matter was beside the point. It was as if he’d been told that if he didn’t read at least one book a day—any book—something pretty bad would happen to him. And it would have. If he hadn’t kept himself busy reading, he’d have worried himself sick about how he hardly ever went to school and about what would happen to him when he did show up again.

The truth is, anybody who knew him would tell you the same thing, that he just wasn’t very bright in school—he never could remember, off-hand, what seven times seven mounts up to. He wasn’t especially good at putting his finger on the spot where the Nile rises, either, or at saying with any conviction which way it flows and which lands it drains; and he wouldn’t even make a guess at how many cubic feet of sediment it leaves around on the delta in a year’s time. He had the same trouble with the Mississippi, what’s more. He could memorize like a flash, though. That is, he could memorize anything that had any swing to it, anything that he could take hold of rhythmically. But it didn’t help him to get along any better. The time his teacher assigned the first stanza of ‘The Children’s Hour’ to be memorized by the next day, he read through the whole poem four or five times and there he had it. And the next day everything went fine for a while; he stood up in his turn and recited the first stanza faultlessly, only he forgot to stop there; he went right through the second stanza and was warming up to the third when the teacher said, ‘Sit down. You must have learned it in some other school.’

BOOK: Young Man With a Horn
3.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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