In the stories about Jazz Musicians, "The Blues I'm Playing" and "Sonny's Blues," compare and contrast the themes present in each story. What struggles do the musicians face?  How do they view...

In the stories about Jazz Musicians, "The Blues I'm Playing" and "Sonny's Blues," compare and contrast the themes present in each story. What struggles do the musicians face?  How do they view their music and/or themselves as musicians?

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One theme shared in both works is how the artist struggles with the external reality that surrounds them.  Sonny and Oceola both find themselves struggling to make sense of the world around them.  There is an external world within which they struggle to find some level of comfort.  For Sonny, this is a world in which "control" is lacking.  It is a world in which there is a constant pain.  The pain from which one cannot find alleviation of suffering is the reality with which Sonny struggles.

"It's terrible sometimes, inside," he said, "that's what's the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there's not really a living ass to talk to, and there's nothing shaking, and there's no way of getting it out- that storm inside. You can't talk it and you can't make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody's listening. So you've got to listen. You got to find a way to listen."

The pain of "nobody's listening" haunts Sonny. It is this pain that causes him
to feel a sense of discomfort with the world around him.

In Oceola's case, the suffering comes from the lack of understanding that Mrs. Ellsworth displays.  The dissonance that resonates from the chord that she and Mrs. Ellsworth strike represents a powerful theme of the pain intrinsic to her
being in the world, caused by the aspersions case by Mrs. Ellsworth:

"I believe you, Mrs. Ellsworth," said Oceola, not turning away from the piano. "But being married won't keep me from making tours, or being an artist."

"Yes, it will," said Mrs. Ellsworth. "He'll take all the music out of you."

"No, he won't," said Oceola.

"You don't know, child," said Mrs. Ellsworth, "what men are like."

Both characters find that the world outside of themselves is filled with pain, insecurity, and doubt.  There can be little release from this condition, one that   causes intense pain within both musicians.

The pain of being in the world is a critical theme that exists in both works.   Both musicians struggle with this condition of consciousness.  This struggle is  alleviated through their art.  Music becomes the way in which both artists are able to find a level of comfort in the world in which they live.  The narrator  realizes that there is a chord filled with redemption as he hears Sonny play the piano:  “For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”  The light that is in Sonny's music is how peace is made with the world in which Sonny
struggles.  The narrator realizes that music is not something that "many people ever really hear." To "hear" such music is the gift that the musician gives to the world, one that represents all one has in the midst of "darkness."

In a similar way, Oceola finds that music is the means through which her world can make sense.  When she plays her music to Mrs. Ellsworth for the final time this becomes clear.  Mrs. Ellsworth derides the syncopated rhythms of jazz that Oceola begins to play, and through this, one sees the light in the darkened setting emerge:

"No," said Oceola simply. "This is mine. . . . Listen! . . . How sad and gay it is. Blue and happy -- laughing and crying. . . . How white like you and black like me. . . . How much like a man. . . . And how much like a woman. . . . Warm as Pete's mouth. . . . These are the blues. . . . I'm playing."

Music is the means through which Oceola can forge unity and harmony in her world.  Mrs. Ellsworth's continual antagonizing of Oceola is placed in its proper context through the power of art.  The musician is able to set right, if only for a moment, what is wrong in their world.  The pain of insecurity, doubt, and uncertainty that is present in their world is soothed through music.  Hughes constructs this as the primary way in which Oceola views her music, her craft and the gift she possesses:

Louder than the voice of the white woman who cried that Oceola was deserting beauty, deserting her real self, deserting her hope in life, the flood of wild syncopation filled the house, then sank into the slow and singing blues with which it had begun.

For Sonny and Oceola, music becomes the "cable box" that clears up the scrambled signal which is being in the world.  They view their music as a temporary moment of redemption in a world that is filled with condemnation. It is a moment in which a major key can be heard amidst a world filled with minor.  The struggle to balance both harmonic elements becomes an experience seen in both musicians' narratives.

Read the study guide:
Sonny's Blues

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