In "Sonny's Blues" what does Baldwin mean when he writes that Sonny's band was "trying to find new ways to make us listen"?
Near the end of "Sonny's Blues," by James Baldwin, the narrator goes to a nightclub to hear his brother Sonny play piano with a jazz combo. It has been a year since Sonny has played in public--a year in which he has struggled with drug addiction and imprisonment.
The narrator describes how the bandleader, named Creole, and "his boys" play a tune called "Am I Blue":
He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madnesss, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen.
This idea of "finding new ways to make us listen" is one of the hallmarks of jazz, which is primarily an improvised form of music. Jazz musicians typically take a fairly simple and well-known tune and "compose" variations on it as they play. In this scene from "Sonny's Blues," the tune is "Am I Blue," which the narrator describes as a "spare, flat statement." Jazz musicians try to find new ways to make us listen to old tunes, new ways that will help us find the deep meanings in what seem to be simple musical phrases.