Monday, January 26, 2009

Rhythm: a Novel

Rhythm: a Novel
By Robin Meloy Goldsby
Bass Lion Publishing

For many jazz musicians, music is the family business. For instance, Chico O’Farill, Ellis Marsalis, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey, Jackie McLean, and John Coltrane all had children who followed in their footsteps. Add to their ranks the fictional example of Latin jazz percussionist Helen Bowman, whose daughter Jane finds her place in the world as a funk drummer in Rhythm (book trailer here), a new novel by Robin Meloy Goldsby, the author of Piano Girl, an entertaining and often hilarious memoir of her career as the house pianist in Manhattan’s big Midtown hotels.

Goldsby is still a snappy writer who infuses her work with verve and energy, but there are not as many laughs in Rhythm due to the heartbreaks life has in store for Jane Bowman. At thirteen, Jane loses her mother in a freak night-club fire, which understandably leaves deep scars. Due to the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, the young musician also feels partly responsible for her mother’s death. It is not logical, but intense emotions rarely are.

At first, music is the only outlet for the young drummer’s grief, but she refuses to play with other musicians or perform in public. The turning point in her development comes with the arrival of Olivia Blue, a music therapist who recruits Bowman for her R&B band at the Allegheny Gatehouse School for disadvantaged boys. Drawing insight from her own psychic scars, Blue helps Jane process her pain and reclaim the music she loves. At first a mentor, she eventually becomes her step-mother as well. Breaking the chain of abuse becomes a major theme of Rhythm, and for a while it does appear Blue has escaped her own tragic past. However, Goldsby has a symmetrical bombshell to drop late in the book and deftly weaves in the horrific events of 9-11 shortly thereafter.

Goldsby has a distinct talent for conveying the life of a musician, which is not surprising given her own experience. After recovering as best she can, Jane pursues a career that places her in the drummer’s chair of S.O.S., a talented all-women funk band trapped in the purgatory of novelty bookings, and backing up Bobby Angel, an R&B singer on the cusp of superstardom. There she learns at least one important life lesson: “Never, ever eat anything while you’re being filmed.” (p. 224) Jane gets this learning experience courtesy of an unflattering plate of mashed potatoes and gravy, but her musician friend takes mischievous glee in a similar experience with more suggestive food. Ah yes, life on the road.

All of Goldsby’s details about the gigging life of a professional musician ring with authenticity, and suggest both familiarity and affection for the sort of James Brown-inspired funk and soul Jane’s bands play. Often the dialogues zings in Rhythm, but the stresses and tribulations Jane endures regularly tempers the overall mood of the book. I guess that’s life, which for Jane is deeply entwined with music. As in Piano Girl, Goldsby again demonstrates she is one of the best at expressing the intangibles of music in the harsh black-and-white of the printed page. Believe me, it is not an easy thing to do.