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Jazz and L.A.'s back alleys

Early Bright A Novel Ami Silber Toby Press: 350 pp., $24.95

October 12, 2008|RJ Smith | RJ Smith is the author of "The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance." He is a senior editor at Los Angeles magazine.

Kinda blue is the shelf of jazz lit, where few writers have managed to keep their cool when engaging with the music. Jack Kerouac championed a spontaneous bop prosody, but plotted out or living in the moment, the prosody has rarely harmonized with the bop. John Clellon Holmes' "The Horn," a character study of a saxophonist, deserves respect, and Rafi Zabor's "The Bear Comes Home" has a shaggy, lovable soul. Bassist Charles Mingus wrote the unparalleled "Beneath the Underdog," which is, strictly speaking, an autobiography but one so packed with boast and B.S. that it is best read as a courageous, postmodern black parable, the essential truths about a life with none of the conventional truth.

Over the years, the story of jazz has been so tied up with the story of dense Eastern cities and with up-from-the-delta myth-mongering that a place like Los Angeles has seemed off limits. It doesn't fit the conventional tales. Now comes Ami Silber's "Early Bright," a book that takes the plunge, a novel immersed in the life of those making music in 1940s L.A. The book follows a spell in the life of Louis Greenberg, a bebop-loving white pianist, as he plays in African American Central Avenue clubs and unspeakable Long Beach dives. Greenberg seeks to finish a composition that's been rolling around in his head for a while; more than that, he seeks to find some way to project himself, an outsider, onto an audience that doesn't know he exists.

In other words, "Early Bright" is an artist's tale in the broadest sense. And, if making the protagonist a Jewish kid from the Bronx yearning to establish himself in a black milieu weren't steep enough, Silber also makes him a grifter. Greenberg learned his hustling ways on a sojourn that starts with him running away from a judgmental dad and a shame that he is eager to escape. He meets a well-spoken mentor in the Midwest who takes him under his wing. Greenberg arrives in Los Angeles well-tutored in a variety of swindles; a specialty is conning Gold Star mothers and war widows to give him their cash, he explains, to retrieve their lost family member's personal effects from bureaucratic limbo. Greenberg himself is a draft dodger who pulled his first hustle stealing an asthmatic recruit's 4-F papers. His story, and that of "Early Bright," is one of an unlikely -- and sometimes unlikable -- protagonist vamping toward . . . what? Honesty? Courage? A great jazz record?

The artist-as-swindler seems unlikely only at first blush. Trickeration delights us in art; invention overflows all vessels. Surely there is a quiet room where beauty and illusion meet. Perhaps it's the kind of room where strangers full of drink meet in the "early bright" hours of the day. Silber's book floats the intriguing proposition that great artists are great grifters -- that to hold an audience under your spell is de facto a con and that a sucker no less than a listener transported by a transcendent solo submits to a power that is cruel and beautiful.

That's the long view. But if "Early Bright" wisely never makes a big deal about the notion, it also could have made more noise along the way. The writing only intermittently sings. Silber is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop making her mainstream literary debut here; writing under an alias, she has published several successful romance novels. That background is overdrawn in her descriptions of Greenberg's late-night duets. Silber overuses comparisons to period films and actors as a way of establishing the era; too many times a moment or person is described with a Hollywood reference. And yet the writing can feel a little under-heated, uninspired sentence by sentence. There's a modesty to the storytelling that, up close, diminishes the book's power. She's done enough homework on griftology and jazz to casually render believable descriptions. There is also a great deal of terrific descriptions, including a swell sketch of Culver City's growth in the 1940s and a virtuoso hike up an Echo Park stairway that offers a view of the entire city.

Nonetheless, an overall modesty serves Silber well here; themes like race-crossing, the high price of improvising through life and escaping the past might well have overwhelmed this book, as they tend to overwhelm most who have taken on the music as subject. Here they never do. In the end, "Early Bright" has a light, keening quality. Its matter-of-fact, close-up storytelling never shouts its ideas but shows mature confidence and trust in them. After Greenberg gets his long-delayed comeuppance in a street beating administered by a war veteran, he drags himself into the studio for a chance to record the song he's been jotting down for days. The work in the studio that day, like this promising debut novel, is flawed and unfinished yet unexpectedly moving.

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