Historical Context

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794


In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a new form of jazz music was being developed. The style, called "bebop," "bop," or later, "hardbop," centered on a very complex and abstract type of soloing during familiar tunes. Often in the solo, only the chords of the original melody would remain the same, and the tune would bear no resemblance to more traditional versions. The soloist would also play at blistering speeds. The earliest bebop musicians were trumpet players Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, pianist Thelonious Monk, and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Parker is often credited as the originator of the genre.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Sonny's Blues Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Bebop became very controversial at a time when jazz was gaining respectability, and many of the traditional jazz musicians opposed it. Where traditional jazz music and its more popular subform, swing, encouraged audiences to dance and enjoy themselves, bebop focused attention on the soloist and on his technical virtuosity. In this way, it was akin to other forms of modernist art, which exalted difficulty and formal experimentation. The English poet Philip Larkin expressed this association between bebop and modernist art when he condemned what he considered the three main figures of modernism, "Picasso, Pound and Parker," referring to artist Pablo Picasso, poet Ezra Pound, and musician Charlie Parker. Bebop was intellectualized where jazz and swing were pleasant and sensual, and the emotions that bebop expressed were often dark and brooding.

Contributing to bebop's somewhat dangerous and seamy reputation were the highly publicized drug problems of many of bebop's central figures. Charlie Parker, Art Pepper, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and many other important bebop innovators suffered from addictions to drugs; heroin was the most common drug in the jazz world. Most of bebop's important figures lived in New York City by the late 1940s, playing clubs in Greenwich Village and on 52nd Street where heroin was easy to find. By the 1950s, bebop and heroin were virtually synonymous.

In Baldwin's story, the character of Sonny represents bebop in both its positive and negative aspects. The brother thinks of jazz as "clowning around on bandstands," while for Sonny music is deadly serious, life itself. When the brother finally does go to see Sonny play, he begins to understand what bebop is all about. The "clowning" that he previously felt was the essence of jazz is nowhere to be found, and in its place there is the blues. The deep emotional expression of the song Sonny plays—"Am I Blue"—connects with Sonny's brother. "He hit something in me, myself."

Race in New York City

James Baldwin grew up in New York City and therefore was spared the brutal racial oppression of the South in the 1930s and 1940s. Baldwin's neighborhood, Harlem, had by the 1920s become a haven for blacks coming north from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Although the North did not have the racist Jim Crow laws that characterized the South, it was by no means a land of equality. Blacks in the North suffered from limited educational and economic opportunities. They were the "last hired and the first fired'' for most jobs. Harlem was often a rude shock to poor blacks fleeing the South.Expecting a friendly reception from a proudly black city, they were often greeted by crime, poverty, and the infamous New York attitude that disdains newcomers and country people.

However difficult life was in Harlem, though, it was better than life, in the South. For that reason many of the leading lights of African-American culture congregated there, and in the 1920s the neighborhood enjoyed a cultural high point called the"Harlem Renaissance.'' Writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and many other artistic and intellectual figures made Harlem and New York City a haven for culture.

Baldwin was born into this world, where extreme poverty and deprivation were often overshadowed by the achievements of a few of the neighborhood's inhabitants. "You see, there were two Harlems," Baldwin said in 1969. "There were those who lived in Sugar Hill and there was the Hollow, where we lived. There was a great divide between the black people on the hill and us. I was just a raggedy, funky black shoeshine boy and was afraid of the people on the Hill, who, for their part, didn't want to have anything to do with me."

Although New York was often difficult and daunting, throughout his life Baldwin continued to feel most at home in Harlem. The city of New York, with its extremes, retained a central importance in Baldwin's work until his death. In Harlem, he said in 1989, "people know what I know, and we can talk and laugh, and it would never occur to anybody to say what we all know."

Social Concerns

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361

As is the case with many of Baldwin's more than twenty works of fiction and non-fiction, the perceived need to escape from a threatening and oppressive environment is a central concern in this tale of an aspiring jazz pianist growing up on the "vivid killing streets" of Harlem in the late 1950s. Narrated by his unnamed older brother through the use of multiple and extended flashbacks, the story chronicles Sonny's life from his return to New York after a stint in the Navy to his fall into addiction, his arrest for peddling heroin, and his appearance on the stage of a downtown nightclub. Sonny's downfall and subsequent redemption are set against larger social issues of racism, poverty, drug abuse, and crime: Baldwin suggests that these problems are endemic in a community unable to offer other, more positive and liberating outlets to its denizens.

The narrator recognizes that his brother's self-destructive proclivities are not unique, but rather representative of an entire generation of young aimless black men who "were growing up in a rush" and "whose heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage." This rage gets channeled into solipsistic and nihilistic practices, and the implication is that Sonny's retreat from the world around him is engendered by a whole host of external forces which prevent social mobility.

While racism is not explicitly identified as the primary source for Sonny's feelings of alienation, impotence and isolation, a story told by the narrator about the death of their uncle at the hands of a group of drunken white boys illustrates how a perception of racism governs these brothers' view of the world they inhabit. Racial strife is subordinated in this text even as it provides the ground upon which the more visible social problems of drug abuse and urban blight are witnessed daily by those living in Harlem's housing projects.

What comes through most forcefully in the story, however, is the idea that one may break free of the shackles of an oppressive society by channeling anger and pain through creative outlets and in the process recognize the importance of forging familial and communal bonds.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 225

1950s: Jazz innovators, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Bud Powell either live in or spend a great deal of time playing in New York City. Clubs such as the Village Vanguard and Birdland are world-famous for their revolutionary jazz offerings.

Today: After a long period of drought, bebop-influenced jazz (now viewed as "traditional") is again popular in New York City. Players such as Joshua Redman and Roy Ayres, known as "Young Lions," bring the old sounds back to the old clubs like the Vanguard and the Blue Note, while jazzman Wynton Marsalis has an office at Lincoln Center, the epitome of musical classicism.

1950s: Heroin is an underground drug, synonymous with jazzmen, beatniks and low-lifes. Although many artists, musicians, and urban dwellers are addicted to the drug, the general population is primarily unaware of its existence.

Today: Heroin use is surging among young people after decades of unpopularity. Musician Kurt Cobain of the group Nirvana kills himself in 1994 after battling unsuccessfully with a heroin addiction.

1957: In Little Rock, Arkansas, federal troops are needed to integrate Central High School after Arkansas governor Orval Faubus refuses to let black children enter the building.

1997: President and former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton seeks to integrate his White House Cabinet, hoping to make his closest group of advisers "look more like America."

Literary Precedents

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 181

When asked in interviews about his formative influences and literary forebears, Baldwin has claimed a debt to many nineteenth and twentieth-century authors—Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner among them. Certainly the social issues which concerned the realist writers of the past century—particularly the degradations faced by the urban poor and the oppressive environment which inhibits creative and intellectual growth—resonate in Baldwin's work, while Faulkner's representations of race relations, if not necessarily his modernist formal techniques, have informed Baldwin's sensibilities.

Baldwin's work has obvious affiliations with Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son, a text which, like "Sonny's Blues," chronicles the rage of a young black man caught up in a hostile urban landscape. Despite his many reservations about the novel, Baldwin saw himself as participating in a tradition of which Wright is a central figure, as is evident from the title of his 1955 collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin has also talked at length about Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and the humiliations and degradations faced by Ellison's black characters in this text find a renewed expression in "Sonny's Blues."

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading

Explore Study Guides