I first fell in love with a jazz album in college when a guy from my dorm brought it to a gathering on our floor. He was one of those awkward college kids always trying, and usually failing, to get the girls to bed, though he probably succeeded that night after turning down the lights and playing “Premature Autopsies,” a sumptuous composition by the 1989 record by Wynton Marsalis, The Majesty of the Blues.
I was a neophyte who had never drank alcohol and had barely been kissed, though I was quite ready to grow up when the melody crept into my eardrums with the flirtatious tickle of a piano and a lazy tapping of drums. I listened intently to the winding horns – sometimes whispering, other times howling – bringing the melody to a powerful climax, then settled into a kind of dirge as Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr. delivered a sermon written by the late Stanley Crouch who both lamented the presumed death of jazz and hailed Duke Ellington as its greatest teacher.
In Sweet, SweetI wanted to explore what that level of devotion looks like when offered to a “dying” art form, or at the very least an art form that fewer people know or appreciate.
No one in this dorm had ever heard such a record. Until then, we were all kids drinking cheap booze listening to EPs or Chili Peppers and groping carelessly on the rickety beds in our bedrooms. That night could have thrown away whatever was left of our teenage years, because we all seemed to inhabit future selves who knew how to have sex and had been through some serious shit in life.
We just sat there listening as we took slow puffs of cigarettes and really tasted the booze in our glasses. One of the girls lit a candle and danced so she could see her shadow on the wall, and although it was boring and pretentious, it clarified what we were learning, which was that jazz was a way to dig down to the emotional marrow, reflections in our senses that we didn’t know we had within.
The question I’ve heard more than any other since I started writing Sweet, sweet, lots of rhythm is ‘why jazz?’ The story itself makes sense to people as it follows playboy musician, Circus Palmer, as he dumps his most beloved bedfellow after she tells him she is pregnant and that she connects with new and old lovers. But why of all musical genres, does he play jazz? Do people still listen to jazz?
The artist, usually a man, who is primarily devoted to craftsmanship, has been one of the richest characters in storytelling, from the story of Robert Johnson to the obsessives seen in films like Mo’ Better Blues, Whiplash, ghost yarn, the list continues. Maybe we like these stories because so many great artists have access to a level of skill that most of us don’t. Often the women lovingly attached to these men suffer willingly because it is worth, we are told, feeding and bathing in the brilliance of their lovers’ talent.
The circus was born out of a doomed relationship I had with an elusive musician and although my guy nowhere had the talent or personality of my character, I still found myself admiring what I considered like this man’s intense commitment to his art, especially when I imagined such intensity directed at me. Sure, there’s a perverse pleasure in engaging with someone who will always put you second to a bigger vision they have for their life, a pleasure that probably requires some deep psychological work, but what I really coveted was the sensuality I heard in her singing. voice, the physique with which he played his guitar, his devotion. How does it feel to be loved by a man with these qualities?
In Sweet, Sweet, I wanted to explore what this level of devotion looks like when offered to a “dying” art form, or at the very least an art form that fewer people know or appreciate. My guy played neo-soul, rap and pop, familiar, easy-to-hum tunes, which I imagine heightened his appeal and sense of himself because his audience (and his lovers) was directly related to his work.
Some of the women in Circus’ life, including his teenage daughter, Koko, ask him the question bluntly – why jazz – giving him a little sting. I wondered what it would be like for this man to continue to be told that music is dead when he has spent his life making the kind of sacrifices necessary to become a music enthusiast. If someone can’t understand or love what I love, how can he understand or love me?
Perhaps his sexual partners’ apparent lack of appreciation for jazz, which Circus can extend to a lack of genuine appreciation for him, offers an excuse to go through their lives without landing, although it also explains why Maggie, the Circus’s most successful and erudite musician permeates, has a grip on his heart.
If part of The Elusive Lover’s appeal is uncertainty, which offers the opportunity to fill in the gaps in our understanding of him with hope and fantasy, then jazz becomes another arrow in Circus’s quiver. Every woman has a different feeling about her art, from seduction to indifference, but in many ways it’s the mystery of the music itself and her attachment to it that underlies her attraction.
In part, Sweet, sweet, wants to explore the mysterious effect of music on our hearts and kidneys, so I thought it would be fascinating to see what happens when art is both disjunction and lure in a relationship.
Jazz strikes me as the most literary musical genre because, like poetry and prose, an underlying logic and structure operate beneath what might appear to an audience as a particularly lofty, magically shaped beauty. Jazz’s reliance on improvisation and collaboration also contributes to this sense of magic as musicians come to a piece differently each time they play it; they simultaneously bounce off each other while managing to make the melodies recognizable and precise. The gamers themselves then seem to transcend the ordinary, which is monstrously attractive to potential love interests sparked by this stuff.
Yet the music sounded like a mess of noisy instruments when I was a kid and the adults around me listened to it. But as you get older, especially after being obsessed with The Majesty of the BluesI learned to detect these underlying melodies and perceive the textures and nuances that create wholeness.
Like many people, Miles Davis’ “So What” became the first piece of classic jazz that I “understood” in a very basic way, because I could hear how the opening phrasing of the bass and the response of the other instruments created a backbone upon which the rest of the song rests. I could hear the soloists taking variations on this original phrasing and recognized how the horns and piano could sound like they were running off in crazy directions, but were actually contained within a tone and scale . It’s this duality that I love in music and see in my character, an inner grounding beneath the surface of what seems untamed. For Circus, the root is music. The root is self.
It wasn’t long after I got involved with my own musician that I realized that his seemingly deep focus only showed when he was playing. Yet I continued to pursue him every time we got together and stayed in the relationship longer than I should have in hopes of being able to live in that intensity with him. Like Circus, this guy had a messy personal life but became a different beast on stage, as if there was a well of feelings within him, a rich mix of otherworldly pain and happiness that never did. surface than when he made music.
I imagine the women in Sweet, Sweet feel the same attraction to Circus after seeing him perform because, as often happens when we meet people through their art, they believe they are experiencing a more intimate articulation of his character, a sudden look into it. Some women want to save him. Some want to be chosen by a man they consider a star. Some just want to live inside the untouched sensuality he has stirred up in them. And some, of course, really like it.
There’s no greater thrill than imagining you’re accessing someone else’s soul and, in turn, feeling your own soul come to life through them.
The jazz artists I studied often spoke of music as where they lived most fully. Mingus said he came to understand who he was through this while, through singing, Billie Holiday was able to “express herself as she would like to be all the time”. Coltrane played as if he were “naked”, and it is perhaps this raw physique that we find in the jazzman that seduces us. Every part of the body (hands, mouth, legs, breathing) is involved in the sound and they often feel like they are having sex when playing, which can make it an erotic experience for everyone in the house. room.
When we watch and listen to jazz musicians, we experience their whole being, we watch them actualize themselves on stage, and we participate in setting our own bodies and minds in motion. You don’t need to get involved with a musician to experience this kind of spell, although that’s the most direct route.
And so, one of the questions I wanted to answer in the novel (and hell, in my own romantic life) was how the magic of art clouds the vision of people who usually see more clearly so well.
Crouch speaks of sacrifice in “Premature Autopsies” when he recognizes the amount of study that true mastery requires and how lonely it can be to embark on the task of a lifetime. He might also feel lonely, he suggests, seeking the nobility he thinks jazz possesses in a despicable culture and choosing hard work over life’s more temporary delights. I imagine that for those of us who fall in love with musicians, especially jazz musicians, what attracts us is the very human desire to alleviate the loneliness of others or even to inhabit and experience its textures unique. Maybe that’s what draws us to most people.
As a creator myself, I understand that level of devotion and admire it in Circus Palmer. As a designer lover, I understand why it’s so hard for women to Sweet, Sweet shake. There is great eroticism in witnessing such purposeful acts of creation.
I often think back to that dorm and the lush “Premature Autopsies” metamorphosis brought to my being. This is perhaps the main reason why I gave Circus jazz: there is no greater thrill than imagining that you are accessing someone else’s soul and, in return, to feel your own soul come to life through them. Love does that. Sex does that. But so is art, and the complexity and seeming mystery of jazz in particular engenders one of the deepest soul connections. The connection can be so deep that it is exceptionally hard to walk away from it.
Sweet, sweet, lots of rhythm by Laura Warrell is available now via Pantheon.