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Melancholy Baby

DON'T THE MOON LOOK LONESOME A Novel in Blues and Swing By Stanley Crouch; Pantheon: 544 pp., $26.95

May 14, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI

Stanley Crouch is a musician and a scholar. A sometime jazz musician and critic, Crouch has made a name for himself in recent years as the resident intellectual behind trumpeter and impresario Wynton Marsalis' series "Jazz at Lincoln Center." His sparkling and provocative essays, delivered on TV as often as in print, have ranged over the vast plains of American history, from the writing of the U.S. Constitution to the filmmaking of Quentin Tarantino. But always Crouch returns to the subject of race and always he scores it with music--blues, swing, jazz--that records, in its squeals and its moans, the story of our nation.

Maxwell Davis is also a musician and a scholar. "He knew entire recordings and could pick up his tenor, play the saxophone solo, the trumpet solo, the piano solo, the bass solo, and whiz very close to the drum solo. . . . The obsessive posture of his studying meant that he would examine new rhythms, melodic ideas and harmonic intervals over and over, making himself into an aesthetic juicer that left nothing behind, not even pulp." Nevertheless, Maxwell is also one hell of a sax player. A life of obsessive reflection on the work of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins has not frozen his ability to create solos of startling originality and passion.

But Maxwell Davis is a fake or to be more precise, a creation of the imagination. For the first time, Crouch has decided to tell his stories through fiction, in the novel "Don't the Moon Look Lonesome." Once more the subject is America and once more the soundtrack is jazz. And as always, the intersection of the two is race. Maxwell is black, or Negro, as Crouch his creator would have him. And though it is he who lays down the harmonic changes of "Don't the Moon Look Lonesome," it is his girlfriend, Carla, a white woman from South Dakota, who sings the melody.

"Don't the Moon Look Lonesome" is Carla's book. For 544 pages, Crouch struggles mightily to get inside the head of this former cheerleader from the Plains, trying to figure out what a nice girl like her is doing hanging with a bunch of Negroes in a jazz cellar. It's a remarkable coming of age story, taking Carla from the Lutheran church of her childhood to the Baptist church of Maxwell's parents in Houston. It's a story that transforms her from a groupie into an artist when, at a party in the West Side New York apartment of one Toots Celestine (Crouch's stand-in for the New Orleans-born trumpeter and impresario Wynton Marsalis), the cheerleader becomes the chick singer--with a tenor and a trumpet behind her in place of a pair of halfbacks--and she's calling the plays.

At the center of the novel is a visit by Carla and Maxwell to his parents' home in Houston, a visit that proves to be the Rubicon of their five-year relationship. Sprinkled between the family barbecues and the trips to the mall and the church and the blues shack just outside town are flashbacks and reminiscences, love stories and ghosts of dead brothers and lost sisters.

*

All these memories are borne on the italicized wings of memory that evoke the spirits of William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison, for Crouch clearly aspires to the seamless rhythms and time-tripping paradiddles of Ellison. Unfortunately, there is some bad philosophy--Carla's black women friends philosophize on the benefits of integration ("it helped ugly white women get handsome Negro men and ugly black women to get handsome white men. The exotic is damn sure erotic")--and some even worse writing: "Bad luck had fallen like a storm of excrement. It was as though she were swimming upstream in raw sewage."

But Crouch is a powerful thinker and word-meister, so the sins are balanced by moments of grace. Occasionally the fiction-maker and the scholar meld in that perfect forge of the novel and create passages of intellectual and poetic power. "One time, in the middle of the night, she [Carla] heard Maxwell playing the Liebestod in unison with Leontyne Price. He got his tenor saxophone into her range and, instead of squealing, made this voluptuous blue tone of melancholy and transcendent grief take its place in the air, as if the burial earth itself were speaking to the waters of the world and to all the fire the heart ever held dearly and felt diminish when a loved one crossed over into the perpetual night of extinction."

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