Donald Barthelme & The Jazz World

Donald Barthelme (Wikimedia Commons)
After a friend lent me his copy of Donald Barthelme's Sixty Stories a few weeks ago, I've been hooked. I'd known about Barthelme for some time, having read "The Balloon" after David Foster Wallace mentioned it in an interview as the first piece of fiction that really "rang his cherries." That was the only piece of Barthelme's I'd read and, at the time, I was relatively unimpressed. As a long-time fan of Thomas Pynchon, I'd also known about Barthelme as a kind of American postmodernist counterweight to Pynchon's urban sprawl: Barthelme as the enigmatic purveyor of fragments and pocket-sized fictions, polished to an extreme and sharing the same compact muscularity as Hemingway's writing. 

A native Texan and son of a famous architect (in whose shadow the younger Donald Barthelme would bide for years), Barthelme was enthralled by jazz at a young age. In a superb 1981 interview for The Paris Review, Barthelme mentions growing up with country music and classical music and being basically unimpressed; instead, he sought out the world of black music, which lay just within arm's reach but was also continually at a cultural, societal distance, " poor little pale little white boys were offered a generous sufferance, tucked away in a small space behind the bandstand with an enormous black cop posted at the door." He even admits to being jazz nerd: "After a time a sort of crazed scholarship overtakes you and you can recite band rosters for 1935 as others can list baseball teams for the same year."

Tracy Daugherty's 2009 biography of Barthelme, Hiding Man, is the first large-scale effort at tracing the life and work of the author; Helen Moore Barthelme, his second wife, previously wrote a memoir about her ex-husband, entitled Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound. Daugherty uncovers a lot here, including seemingly tall tales from the artist as a young man, e.g., the time a 16-year-old Barthelme, still in high school, spontaneously convinced a friend to join him skipping school to hitchhike to Mexico. According to Daugherty's reading of a later Barthelme story, the driver who finally took them across the border might have been a "black jazz drummer, steering a big Hudson." Whoever he was, he also smuggled hundreds of feet of copper wire on that trip. Barthelme and his friend were eventually picked back up by D. Barthelme Sr. and the other Barthelme Sr. 

Considering the different spheres of art and history that Don traversed in his lifetime—he started as a newspaper reporter, edited numerous magazines, was director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, wrote, and cofounded the University of Houston's Creative Writing program, all while living through the tumultuous '60s and '70s—Daugherty does the reader a great service by contextualizing the various streams of American culture and writing that informed and surrounded his work. 

As a young newspaper reporter, Barthelme also contributed essays about Monk, Dizzy, and even Stan Kenton. An amateur drummer himself, Barthelme, in response to a question about his "spiritual ancestors" in The Paris Review interview, includes Big Sid Catlett. Daugherty's jazz history chops might not be on the same level as Barthelme's, but he supplies a serviceable reading of this seemingly obscure influence: 
Versatility distinguished Big Sid—his ability to move from big bands to small combos, from swing to bebop...Don admired him for his capacity, and his willingness, to be a transitional figure, to carry the old into the new, to play the new against the old in ways that enriched the traditions and the innovations he pioneered.
All right.

Daugherty never lets go of the jazz thread entirely; Barthelme's intersections with the world of this music continue to recur in his life story, faintly marked coordinates for something not quite knowable. Concerning his time stationed overseas during the Korean War, Daugherty speculates that he might have seen trumpeter Webster Young (unfamiliar to me) and pianist Hampton Hawes, who also served in the military in Asia around Barthelme's time. 

Barthelme's 1978 story, "The King of Jazz," his most explicitly jazz topical fiction, can be traced to a sojourn in Japan, where he sought out the musicians on the burgeoning jazz scene; in the story, Barthelme describes how a trombonist named Hideo Yamaguchi challenges the reigning "bone man," Hokie Mokie," to become the fictive "King of Jazz." Early in the story, Hokie, king of jazz, greets all the other cats at a gig. You'll probably recognize some of them:

"'Hi Bucky! Hi Zoot! Hi Freddie! Hi George! Hi Thad! Hi Roy! Hi Dexter! Hi Jo! Hi Willie! Hi Greens!'"

The details cast a delicate patina of reality on a story that's more surreal than anything else. When one of the musicians calls "Billie's Bounce," another checks to make sure they're going to play it in F first. But the topic of the story is really just part of a pairing of scene and intent, letting Barthelme imaginatively evoke a world of subterranean social hierarchy, with its own mysterious gentleman's code. The story is basically an extended dialogue, like much of Barthelme's later work, and his trademark mischievous bent unfurls in a tour-de-force setup and the punch line:
"What's that sound coming in from the side there?" 
"Which side?" 
"The left." 
"You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mt. Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer wandering a montane of the Sierra Nevada? That sounds like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like witchgrass tumbling or a river meandering? That sounds like manatees munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coatimundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas? That sounds like—"  
"Good God, it's Hokie!"
Humor was a central affinity Barthelme's work shared with jazz. Michael Silverblatt, host of the American radio show Bookworm and past Barthelme colleague, recalls in an interview an encounter between Barthelme and Morton Feldman: Barthelme asked Feldman "if he led an orderly life, and asked Feldman for more messiness in his compositions." But as in all good humor, there's always truth being uncovered in Barthelme, whether you believe he's serious, half-ironic, two-thirds ironic, or full-blown trolling.

Barthelme's hipness is abundantly manifest in his fiction, but it wasn't just in his fiction: in fall '61, Barthelme had arranged for Trane's classic quartet to perform in Houston (the concert was ultimately cancelled due to the threat of Hurricane Carla, unfortunately). He lived in the Village for many of his prime writing years, and Daugherty, at the end of the biography, mentions going with Barthelme to the Vanguard in the summer of '84 to hear Woody Shaw's band: 
Don got very drunk. We both thought the drummer was a showboat; his pretensions and stylistic flair overwhelmed the music. As we left, Don stumbled on the steps leading to the street. He wouldn't let me help him up.
I'd be curious to know who Barthelme wasn't digging, but like most jazz beefs, probably best left unsaid. There is one other jazz beef in Daugherty's book that overshadows Barthelme's intersections with the jazz world: his one-time meeting with Miles Davis.

According to Karen Kennerly, an author with whom Barthelme had an affair and who claims to have dated Miles Davis from 1966-76 (Kennerly isn't mentioned anywhere in Miles's autobiography, however), the two were mutually aware of each other (Miles referred to Barthelme as "Texas"). The full story is in the book, but basically it was a meeting of egos. Kennerly describes her hesitation about setting up a meeting "...because I thought Miles would outcool Don, and Don had a very big investment in being cool." Barthelme goes with Kennerly to meet Miles for dinner, who arrived early and was already eating dinner, not being the type to wait on others. The conversation is stiff, and Barthelme possibly views Miles as a masculine threat; he loses his cool when he learns that Miles picked up the check after leaving early, and he ends up paying for the meal and giving the waiter Miles's money as a tip. He later tells Kennerly that Miles has a "tin ear, nowhere as good as Charlie Parker's." When she pushes back, he concedes, "Well, he's great, but he's not up there."

Like most artists (and most people, for that matter), Barthelme had his own hang-ups, some of which were more serious than others: alcoholism, his competitive but nurturing relationship with his famous father, his wandering eye, financial carelessness. But many who knew him remember him fondly in his various guises, whether as a light-hearted colleague, an encouraging teacher, or a fearless, young iconoclast. 

In college, I remember being fascinated by a small pattern of football goaltenders who went on to different career trajectories: both Vladimir Nabokov and Albert Camus, as well as Pope John Paul II, all of whom shared a not insignificant investment in the spiritual, the unknowable. Learning about Barthelme's early days as a drummer brings to mind an emerging pattern of drummer-writers, like Stanley Crouch and the New Yorker's James Wood. But of course writers have always known that it's the rhythm of the sentence that carries the day. 

Back to that interview, Barthelme is asked what he got out of checking out jazz musicians. It's clear that what he heard went a long way:

Maybe something about making a statement, about placing emphases within a statement or introducing variations. You’d hear some of these guys take a tired old tune like “Who’s Sorry Now?” and do the most incredible things with it, make it beautiful, literally make it new. The interest and the drama were in the formal manipulation of the rather slight material. And they were heroic figures, you know, very romantic.