It’s hard to imbue the written word with a sense of music, of real auditory music, perhaps because words are tied to the page and music is a physical thing, moving through your body in sound waves. Imagine if stories did that, physically reverberated through you!
“The Saxophonist’s Book of the Dead,” Gary Barwin’s sweet little story in the Christmas Issue of Taddle Creek, is about music. It’s about those reverbations, sort of, though it’s thankfully free from any cheap trickery aimed to make you mistake its rhythms for a sound coming out of John Coltrane. Instead, “TSBOTD” challenges you to embody the eternal promise of jazz music, ever young though the greats are long gone. The cosmic imagery in the story rings true, the isolation of these dead men in some sort of school for spirits amid “the chorus of the stars.” By situating Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and John Coltrane as pupils in a never ending lesson taught by an absurdly matronly Billie Holiday, Barwin rewrites their tragic ends. Instead he celebrates the spirit, if you’ll forgive me, of Jazz to come, the eternal promise of more even as the form remains mostly stopped up in time.
With the occasionally splendid but mostly pragmatic approach to language that Barwin’s using in this story, with some jubilant frission thrown in here and there, I feel like he comes pretty close to writing down sensation of the music, the endless practices, the pride bound up with talent and competence, and a sense of invention too. How lovely to imagine that there is a place where these musicians are ever playing on, how tragic to know that they are trapped there eternally, never developing further, dead rather than alive.
You can read this story on Taddle Creek‘s website. The image I’ve used at the top of this post also appears there.