Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Yaffe’s Fascinating Rhythm

Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing
By David Yaffe
Princeton University Press

David Yaffe’s Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing is written by an academic for academics, but it avoids the excesses of such writing. Despite the close readings of poems by Hart Crane Wallace Stevens, and Frank O’Hara, it is actually quite readable.

Refreshingly, Yaffe is willing to offer criticism of some well known figures of the left. He places radical poet Amiri Baraka in a fever swamp context for his hateful poem “Somebody Blew Up America” for the slanderous contention that: “Israeli forces were somehow complicit in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; knowing ‘the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed’ beforehand and warning ‘4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To Stay home that day.’” (p.15). Yaffe laments “It is unfortunate that Baraka is now better known as the conspiracy theorist who wrote those lines than he is as the music critic.” (p.16)

Yaffe also shows little patience with Norman Mailer for being obsessed with the outward trappings of jazz, but completely failing to relate to the inner soul of the music. He skewers Mailer for having “rented a saxophone to play along with Monk’s music despite his complete inability to play the instrument. Indiscriminately honking along with Monk’s music was ‘hip’ to Mailer.” (p.38)

Yaffe’s strength throughout Rhythm is that he clearly writes about great literature and great jazz in a way that suggests both art forms are important to him. This is particularly clear when he argues for a critical reappraisal of Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing. On the strength of his advocacy, I’m convinced I should catch up with this novel sometime.

Rhythm is not perfect. Yaffe, a little too offhandedly (albeit in a footnote) tosses off the standard charges of bigotry against T.S. Eliot, in an otherwise interesting discussion of the poet’s influence on Ralph Ellison. Overall, it is a readable, if not exhaustive look at jazz in American literature. Clearly, Yaffe is able to appreciate the music and the literature it inspires much more successfully than the honking Norman Mailer.