Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668
This novella has an autobiographical significance, for when he was sixteen or seventeen, Josef kvorecký played a tenor saxophone rather badly fora band called Red Music—modeled after a Prague group called Blue Music.He and his companions, living in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, did not know that in jazz, blue was not a color. Although the name itself had no political connotations, their music did, for jazz was condemned by the Nazis for being a creation of American black musicians and Jews. Jazz had to go underground, becoming, in effect, a protest against the Nazi’s restrictions on creativity.
In The Bass Saxophone, kvorecký tells the powerful, apocalyptic story of a jazz-obsessed lad, the narrator, whose passion for this “forbidden music” carries him into the center of an almost hallucinatory experience. Written in the first person, the novella shifts between the present and the past, mixing personal reminiscence with social and political history, fact with symbol, in a stream-of-consciousness dynamic.
As the story begins, at twilight, the young narrator is near a hotel in Kostelec, a town occupied by the Germans. A frail old man struggles off a gray bus with a big black case, and when the clasps fall open, the narrator sees a monstrous bass saxophone. He is urged to help the old man carry the instrument to a hotel room, where a man sleeps with his mouth open. Suddenly, the boy finds himself locked in the room, with nothing for company except the sleeping figure and a solitary fly which is about to die in the bell of the bass saxophone. The boy hears shouts from an adjacent room and recognizes the voice of Horst Hermann Kuhl, the Nazi chief of Kostelec—the very man who had tyrannically confiscated one of the narrator’s American jazz records some time earlier. Unable to contain his curiosity, the narrator plays the bass saxophone, frightening himself with its powerful, primitive, melancholy sound. The voice of Kuhl is silenced, but the sleeping man does not awake.
The narrator is then surprised by a haggard little fat man and a procession of circuslike freaks. These characters turn out to be Lothar Kinze and his traveling orchestra. They offer to allow the lad a practice session with the fascinating saxophone. The narrator accompanies the orchestra to an auditorium, where he discovers in playing with the group that they lack imagination and genius. He is startled when Kinze and the blonde girl, the girl from Moabit, who is the band’s vocalist, plead with him to play in the concert that evening, despite the evident threat this poses to both the narrator and the orchestra should the boy’s real identity become known to the Nazis. Kinze disguises the narrator in the orchestra’s garish green and purple uniform with white shirt and orange bow tie. After the practice, the narrator shares a meal with the orchestra, whose members launch into personal anecdotes which have a strange reality to counterpoint the dreamlike state of their collective appearance as a Spike Jones comic band.
At the concert, packed with Nazi dignitaries, the narrator ruminates about his own presence in this world of absurdity, danger, and disguise. Suddenly, he feels a hand on his shoulder and a loud, hoarse voice ordering him backstage. He recognizes the man as the sleeping figure from the hotel room. This stranger is the real bass saxophonist, come to reclaim his position in the orchestra. The boy listens as the bass saxophonist plays and is transported into a jazz hallucination, from which he is awakened by the abrupt arrival of Kuhl. The boy is recognized by Kuhl, who orders him to leave.
Upon arriving at the hotel room, the narrator experiences another mysterious vision. Left without a key to this puzzle, he walks the dark streets, acknowledging the reality of his own experiences and reaffirming his spiritual alliance with Kinze’s orchestra as it moves across war-torn Europe. Dream, truth, and incomprehensibility are his mementos.