Nat(han Irving) Hentoff Robert Coles - Essay

Robert Coles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jazz Country is a novel directed at young people struggling to realize themselves; it is also a gem of a book that talks rare sense about the ambiguities of race, the difficulties of a child's growth, and the ironies of artistic life.

Tom, son of a New York corporation lawyer, plays the trumpet with near single-minded devotion. He is finishing high school and wondering whether to enter college or make a try at being a professional jazz musician. To do the latter means leaving white, middle-class territory for "jazz country," where creativity lives exceptionally close to tragedy and where racial stereotypes dissolve or harden as a profession now comes to terms with whites rather than Negroes. The boy meets up with himself by learning about lives differently lived. He begins to see that he cannot flee his past, even as he does not wish to be confined by its values. Eventually he will at least start at Amherst instead of working full-time in a band; by the time he makes that decision he (and the reader) have seen arrogance unmasked in many places, doubt and suffering revealed in many forms. No race or class has a corner on either virtue or evil.

The writing is clear and direct. Jazz talk is delicately worked into everyday language. The author will settle for none of the handy postures so fashionable today: racism of one sort or another; foul language as a substitute for art and thought alike; the latest social and cultural snobbery, that turns everything inside out, with each success in our nation considered a measure of our failure, and every accomplishment in a person held either a drawback or evidence of wrongdoing: and finally, that misty sentiment so common to portrayals of growing youth and jazz alike. Indeed, Tom's fight to be his own man is placed alongside the struggle of others whose racial identity has cursed them, yet also set the stage for their music, compelling, stunning, devastating—and enviable.

Mr. Hentoff has chosen not so much to compare or contrast lives as to let them be, separately and together. Such restraint, enabling a touching and real story, deserves our surprised, grateful recognition.

Robert Coles, in his review of "Jazz Country," in Book Week—The Sunday Herald Tribune (© 1965, The Washington Post), May 9, 1965, p. 5.