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The Improviser

Novelist Bart Schneider Loosened Up in 'Blue Bossa,' Winning Critical Acclaim for a Tale Whose Lead Character Is Roughly Modeled After Jazz Legend Chet Baker

April 13, 1998|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

AN FRANCISCO — The jazz station fills the rental car with music as soon as Bart Schneider twists the key into the strange ignition.

It's been more than five years since he's put away the trumpet, but he can't stop the tunes from drifting through.

Schneider drives from his Van Ness Avenue motel down the slope from the apartment where he used to live, detours by the three-story house he grew up in, corners around the junior high school and high school where he played saxophone in jazz band and dreamed of spending his life blowing music for a living.

He tries to hold a middle A with a makeshift embouchure, picturing a wave of oscillating curves untangling into a straight line, a man muttering as he drags his wooden leg up a crooked staircase.

Finally, he reaches the edge of the city: The Cliff House looks over the ruins of Sutro Baths, a once-grand spa all but lost where the frothy Pacific crashes over the jagged coast on a blustery spring day.

Because he doesn't want anybody to hear him, Ronnie starts blowing the trumpet in old caves and tunnels he knows around the city.

Schneider walks into a tunnel that he used to scamper through as a kid and comes out onto a bluff misty with spray from the exploding surf below.

"This is what I miss most, not the city, the ocean," he says. "I like the idea of writing stuff set in San Francisco; it's a great sensual location. And there's something wonderful about writing from memory, which holds all that longing. I was here. I can still taste it."

Critics seem to agree, praising Schneider's debut novel, "Blue Bossa" (Viking), for its lyrical evocation of San Francisco, jazz music and, most important, the fascinatingly and frustratingly flawed man at the center of it, Ronnie Reboulet.

"The parallel themes of running away and fractured familial relationships coincide and assume full contour and structure--like a masterful jazz solo whose riffs and glisses and jabs finally shape into a complete composition," wrote Don Rose in the Chicago Tribune. Booklist called it the best jazz novel written in 40 years, adding, "but Ronnie Reboulet is more than a jazzman: The unresolvable contradictions of his life, the pushing and pulling in opposite directions, speak to all of us and give his story its irresistibly melancholy soul."

Loosely modeled on jazz great Chet Baker, Reboulet is a gifted and formerly famous horn man shuffling through middle age as a golf hustler. He's kicked a heroin habit but not before losing his chops, his family, even his teeth, his trumpet hiding in a sealed box in the basement.

Then one day in the early '70s during the media frenzy over Patty Hearst's kidnapping, Reboulet's estranged daughter shows up to surprise him with her bastard son. He goes to fetch some old photos from a box. . . . Soon Reboulet is trying to learn to play his trumpet with false teeth and stage an improbable comeback, which proves easier to accomplish than finessing the relationships with his daughter, his devoted girlfriend and his old, comforting buddy--heroin.

"What fascinates me about this character was that he could make this fabulous, intimate music, but he couldn't be very intimate with anyone else," Schneider said. "As soon as people got close to him, he started to back away. It could be 99% of the men in this culture, myself included. Men find it easy to get very close to their work or art or whatever, but not to other people."

The wind lofted his straight, bleached-bone white hair into the air like an exclamation point. Schneider, 46, has a salt-and-pepper mustache, writerly glasses, which he removes as they film over with salt and stuffs into the pocket of his maroon sport coat, worn over a casual shirt that doesn't quite match.

"The real joy of writing this book," he continued, "was the impossibility of writing about music, taking the impossible leaps that jazz takes in language. I really paid attention to sound and rhythm."

Music, it seems, always has surrounded Schneider. His father played violin with the San Francisco Symphony, and his mother was a trained opera singer. Although he grew up in the birthplace of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and attended the Rolling Stones' infamous Altamont gig in 1969 ("I did take a tab of acid that was being passed around on a Frisbee"), Schneider's first love has always been jazz ("I wasted a lot of opportunities to like other music"). He picked up the sax at 12 ("I'm a rank amateur") and still plays weekly with a group of friends.

Although an indifferent high school student, Schneider went to St. Mary's College across the bay in Moraga and then picked up a master's degree in creative writing at San Francisco State.

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