illo by John Orr. Click for larger version

Note of hope
Bart Schneider takes us on a trip
through the inspirations and ways
of a musician rising from the ashes

"Blue Bossa"
By Bart Schneider
Viking, 244 pp., $24.95
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By John Orr

There is something to be said for having lived a few decades before writing a first novel.

Almost any 24-year-old writer might have something in the way of clever ideas and witty style, but subtle and gracious understanding of humanity, and developing something worth saying, usually take a while longer.

Taking a guess based on his dust-jacket photo, Bart Schneider waited until, at the earliest, his late 40s to produce "Blue Bossa,'' a story of a jazz musician that is crafted more like a symphony than a jazz improvisation.

He has the major statement and theme of trumpet player, crooner, golf hustler and sometimes junkie Ronnie Reboulet, whose jazz career crashed when he lost his teeth; that theme is echoed by the minor statement and theme of Reboulet's daughter Rae, who, at age 20, already has a four-year-old son and a heart full of hurt from a life with an alcoholic mother and a mostly absent famous father.

The novel opens a couple of weeks after Patty Hearst's kidnapping, and uses her as a kind of reminder melody now and then, the same way Tchaikovsky might use a little trumpet call in the third movement to remind us of some melody in the first movement.

"Ronnie shares a desire with Mr. Hearst -- to be reunited with his own daughter. And yet, in the year he's been back in the Bay Area, he's made little effort to find her."

Ronnie gets his wish long before Hearst, after Rae shows up on his girlfriend's doorstep with her son Quincy in tow. It's Quincy's fourth birthday, and Rae -- who pretty much has no other place to go -- has found a good place, because Ronnie's girlfriend, Betty Millard, is about as nice a human being as they come.

But, Ronnie is not there. Earlier that day something unpleasant happened on the golf course where he works, and he went for a drive with a young waitress, vaguely seeking a little personal comfort.

Sure, he has lost his looks, but not what has always drawn women to him: "His easy neutrality was mistaken for charm. A woman attached to the idea of love will give away plenty if she's allowed to think what she wants."

When he finally rolls in at 2 a.m., Betty can smell the skin of the other woman on him, but spoons around him and holds him the rest of the night, somewhat fearfully: "She can see their carefully prescribed life of mild comforts and affections coming apart."

When last he was an at-home father for Rae, Reboulet was a practicing junkie, which means his parenting skills weren't much; and, he was on the road a lot. Rae's mother, Cat, was interested in being beautiful and drunk.

Now, Reboulet, clean for five years, has a chance to try to be a good father to Rae, and they begin a tenative dance, neither wanting to ask much of the other, but both wanting to find out about the other, and themselves; and to do right by each other, and for themselves.

Rae is the one who encourages him to sing again; and it is her presence that finally gets him to pull out his trumpet again. They are both endlessly helped by Betty, who is accepting, wise and nurturing. Rae doesn't actually ask much of either ... but their acceptance of her and Quincy gives her the freedom to deal with some issues in her life, if not always maturely, at least creatively. (When her drunken mother dies, how she disposes of her ashes is delightful and hilarious; I don't want to take away the fun of reading that episode by revealing it here.)

But, Rae has rekindled music in Reboulet; and whereas everything -- music, golf, women, drugs -- had always come easily to him in his youth, now, with false teeth, he must truly struggle to regain his embouchure and ability to play. And that is the meat of this novel: Whether this man has the strength and character to return from his derelict life to making something again of his gift for music.

I wasn't too far into reading this book before I wanted to see if Schneider himself was a musician; he writes with such understanding of musicians that I knew he had to have had at least a lot of time talking with professional jazz musicians. By the time I finished the novel, and read up about Schneider, I found he had been a jazz buff and musician for decades, but not a professional player. He is editor of the Hungry Mind Review, and is a former playwright and college English teacher. That explains a lot, because there are few musicians who can write this well about what they do.

I don't know what Schneider's drug history is, but he has known junkies and musicians, that's for sure. He writes about Reboulet -- before he returns again to making music -- listening to his fellow musician Dexter Gordon, a junkie sax player, performing a tune by Billie Holiday, a junkie singer:

" 'You've changed'... it used to be Billie Holiday's song. Dexter knows that. You can't play the song without playing it as a tribute to Billie. He knows that it's a junkie's song more than a love song. When you're a junkie, everybody's watching, asking questions. Has she changed? Can she change? Will she change? What happens if she doesn't change? Billie changed every time she sang it. Dexter changes whenever he plays it. Ronnie Reboulet's changed for good --he doesn't sing or play anything."

But, Reboulet does return to playing and singing, and he returns to heroin, and it is then that we are all watching. To see if he has changed.

Jazz fans will recognize some similarities between the fictional Reboulet and the real Chet Baker, who was also a beautiful young trumpet player and crooner who had a drug habit, and whose career crashed when he lost his teeth (when he was beaten up in San Francisco).

But, Baker fell to his death from a window in Amsterdam, and Schneider has imagined a different course for Reboulet's life. Baker has to be mentioned; but let go of it as an idea; this is not the story of Chet Baker.

Schneider writes well about the dynamics between players, and about the kind of thinking that goes on in a musician's head as the music is taking shape and finding its tempo. This is a very rare thing. I have interviewed and otherwise spent a lot of time talking with some brilliant musicians, and only the really experienced, mature ones -- the survivors -- speak as honestly yet subtlely about the process as Schneider writes of it here.

"Blue Bossa" -- its title taken from a tune by Kenny Dorham -- reminds me a little of the film "After Midnight," which stars the aforementioned Dexter Gordon, in that it is not judgmental about musician junkies. It doesn't romanticize them, it doesn't condemn them.

But even more than "After Midnight," "Blue Bossa" makes real the character and strength some of those people must produce their art, even while the needle tracks on their arms glow milkily in their dark nights.