Creole is a bass player who leads the band that Sonny plays in at the end of the story. He functions as a kind of father figure for Sonny; he believes it is his purpose to guide Sonny through his blues and teach him how to turn them into music. He also attempts to show Sonny’s brother how to understand Sonny.
Although the story is narrated by Sonny’s unnamed older brother, Sonny is the most important character. Sonny is described in a common stereotype of the time, a stereotype that his own brother holds until the end of the story: the heroin-addicted jazz musician. Sonny has just been arrested for “peddling and using heroin” and must do time in a prison upstate.
As the story progresses, however, the reader learns more about Sonny’s life before the arrest. He was the “apple of his father’s eye,” but in his youth he always had a tendency to stray from what his family thought would be the safe route. He decides that he wants to be a jazz musician, a choice that his brother finds regrettable. Sonny takes his music very seriously, and for a time he lives with his sister-in-law’s family while his brother is in the army. He takes his music so seriously that the family finds him strange—”it wasn’t like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound.”
Sonny and his brother fight periodically and are utterly unable to understand each other until Sonny returns from prison and his brother finally goes to Greenwich Village to hear Sonny play. A man named Creole leads the band, and Sonny admires his control of the music they play. As Sonny plays the piano in the jazz club, his brother begins to understand the deep suffering and the blues that have always preoccupied Sonny.
The experiences of Sonny are shown through the eyes of the story’s narrator, Sonny’s brother. The unnamed narrator is a high school algebra teacher who grew up in Harlem but has made an attempt to escape its cruel streets by getting a good job and integrating himself, as best he can, into white society. In subtle ways, however, he has internalized many of the prejudices of that society. When Sonny tells him that he wants to be a musician, his brother immediately assumes that this means a classical musician. After it becomes clear that Sonny wants to play jazz—a traditionally black genre—his brother thinks that “it seemed—beneath him, somehow.”
While Sonny has allowed his blues to dominate his life, his brother has internalized his own blues; only rarely do they make it to the surface. He is married to a woman named Isabel and seems happy, although one of their children dies while Sonny is in jail. He looks upon the streets of Harlem as a place he has left behind, but he is still comfortable there. He feels the blues that possess Sonny, but his moderate success has allowed him to keep them deep down inside himself.
Sonny’s father dies “during a drunken weekend in the middle of the war” when Sonny is fifteen. Little is revealed about him except that he was very strict with Sonny because his younger son was “the apple of his eye.” The father’s own brother was killed by a drunken group of white men long ago in the South. After that point, the mother tells Sonny’s brother, “he weren’t sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother.”
Sonny’s mother dies while Sonny is in school and his brother is still in the army, but she had already charged Sonny’s brother with Sonny’s care. “You got to hold on to your brother,” she tells him in their last moments together, “and don’t let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him.” Sonny’s brother accepts her request until Sonny begins to spend time downtown with jazz musicians.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, James Baldwin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.