In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a new form of jazz music was being developed. The style, called “bebop,””bop,” or later,”hard bop,” centered on a very complex and abstract type of soloing during familiar tunes. Often in the solo, only the chords of the original melody would remain the same, and the tune would bear no resemblance to more traditional versions. The soloist would also play at blistering speeds. The earliest bebop musicians were trumpet players Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, pianist Thelonious Monk, and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Parker is often credited as the originator of the genre.
Bebop became very controversial at a time when jazz was gaining respectability, and many of the traditional jazz musicians opposed it. Where traditional jazz music and its more popular subform, swing, encouraged audiences to dance and enjoy themselves, bebop focused attention on the soloist and on his technical virtuosity. In this way, it was akin to other forms of modernist art, which exalted difficulty and formal experimentation. The English poet Philip Larkin expressed this association between bebop and modernist art when he condemned what he considered the three main figures of modernism, “Picasso, Pound and Parker,” referring to artist Pablo Picasso, poet Ezra Pound, and musician Charlie Parker. Bebop was intellectualized where jazz and swing were pleasant and sensual, and the emotions that bebop expressed were often dark and brooding.
Contributing to bebop’s somewhat dangerous and seamy reputation were the highly publicized drug problems of many of bebop’s central figures. Charlie Parker, Art Pepper, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and many other important bebop innovators suffered from addictions to drugs; heroin was the most common drug in the jazz world. Most of bebop’s important figures lived in New York City by the late 1940s, playing clubs in Greenwich Village and on 52nd Street where heroin was easy to find. By the 1950s, bebop and heroin were virtually synonymous.
In Baldwin’s story, the character of Sonny represents bebop in both its positive and negative aspects. The brother thinks of jazz as “clowning around on bandstands,” while for Sonny music is deadly serious, life itself. When the brother finally does go to see Sonny play, he begins to understand what bebop is all about. The “clowning” that he previously felt was the essence of jazz is nowhere to be found, and in its place there is the blues. The deep emotional expression of the song Sonny plays— “Am I Blue”—connects with Sonny’s brother. “He hit something in me, myself.”
Race in New York City
James Baldwin grew up in New York City and therefore was spared the brutal racial oppression of the South in the 1930s and 1940s. Baldwin’s neighborhood, Harlem, had by the 1920s become a haven for blacks coming north from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Although the North did not have the racist Jim Crow laws that characterized the South, it was by no means a land of equality. Blacks in the North suffered from limited educational and economic opportunities. They were the “last hired and the first fired” for most jobs. Harlem was often a rude shock to poor blacks fleeing the South. Expecting a friendly reception from a proudly black city, they were often greeted by crime, poverty, and the infamous New York attitude that disdains newcomers and country people.
However difficult life was in Harlem, though, it was better than life in the South. For that reason many of the leading lights of African-American culture congregated there, and in the 1920s the neighborhood enjoyed a cultural high point called the “Harlem Renaissance.” Writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and many other artistic and intellectual figures made Harlem and New York City a haven for culture.
Baldwin was born into this world, where extreme poverty and deprivation were often overshadowed by the achievements of a few of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. “You see, there were two Harlems,” Baldwin said in 1969. “There were those who lived in Sugar Hill and there was the Hollow, where we lived. There was a great divide between the black people on the hill and us. I was just a raggedy, funky black shoeshine boy and was afraid of the people on the Hill, who, for their part, didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
Although New York was often difficult and daunting, throughout his life Baldwin continued to feel most at home in Harlem. The city of New York, with its extremes, retained a central importance in Baldwin’s work until his death. In Harlem, he said in 1989, “people know what I know, and we can talk and laugh, and it would never occur to anybody to say what we all know.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, James Baldwin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.