Friday, February 01, 2008

Twelve O’Clock Tales

Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales
By Wanda Coleman
Black Sparrow Books

Jazz and Los Angeles have a lot of history together, but they have always been uneasy fit. While New York has been home to the grittier jazz of hard bop and Blue Note Records, L.A. is best known for the “Cool School.” Yet jazz in many different forms provides the soundtrack for many of the Los Angeles-based stories in Wanda Coleman’s Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales, a title which alludes to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”

Many of Coleman’s characters live in distressed South Central neighborhoods. By and large, they are just getting by, or beginning to fall behind. However, many are involved in creative endeavors of one kind or another, like a widowed studio musician, a self-centered actor, an aspiring film student, a gospel singer, and a journeyman jazz musician.

“Jazz at Twelve,” almost the title story, is the only selection which directly addresses the music itself. It uses the occasion of a sideman gig played by veteran drummer Frank Lattimore to foretell future hardships for him, the narrator, and her hero-worshipping husband. Coleman tells the story with frequent asides portending ill winds blowing. For instance she writes:

“What Frank doesn’t know is that there’s another young woman taking notes that night. She’s a reporter for the Times. She is pale, ashen blonde, and of lofty attitude. She will pen a rave review tonight. It’ll run tomorrow. It will praise every member in the Ditzi group … except Frank.” (Ellipsis in Coleman p.20)

While this revelation-in-context motif might be difficult to maintain in a longer work (and would probably get tiresome) in this story it is a very effective story-telling device. Coleman is clearly an accomplished writer. A few of the shorter pieces are too fragmentary for my aesthetic preferences, but they are still quite well written.

Her work also tends to be dark and pessimistic, with the literal death of innocence a recurring theme in this collection. Perhaps the only story ending anywhere near an optimistic note is “My Brain’s Too Tired Too Think,” which shows the benefits of seeking mental help through professional counseling. It does get a bit preachy though, when cataloging the evils of society.

Many of Coleman’s stories end imperfectly for her characters. Ironically, the grimmest might be another music story, “Dunny,” a jaded portrayal of the gospel music industry. The title character has business problems that end badly. He remembers what they told him when he signed with his label:

“You have to appreciate the difference between hard people and bad people. We’re not bad people. Not at all. But sometimes we’re hard.” (p. 139)

Coleman’s stories sometimes bring to mind the work of Raymond Carver. She often writes of common people in desperate situations. In these stories at least, many of her characters take consoling pleasure from music. She is an impressive writer, probably best published in short short-story collections like Twelve, where readers can digest her naturalism in manageable doses.