|May 2 2023
I asked if you had a request. Never playing piano again as long as I live doesn't count.
Above is a cover for Harold Sinclair's Music out of Dixie, 1952, from Perma Books. The cover art—which we left out of our recent collection of jazz covers for usage today—is by Owen Kampen, and looking at the moment he's captured, plus the city backdrop seen beyond the shutters, we think he's done excellent work. Don't let our juvenile little quip fool you—this is a well-written and serious book (you can tell it's serious before even opening it because it's more than twice as long as the average paperback) that follows fictional jazz legend Dade Tarrant from his impoverished childhood through his rise to musical significance. It's also pretty much the most New Orleans book you can ever hope to read. Sinclair leaves no stone unturned, from funeral processions to whorehouses, from the beflowered Garden District to dirty and dangerous Storyville, with multiple passes—of course—at Mardi Gras, and even choosing to make a minor character of real-life jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton.
Sinclair loves this subject matter, clearly, and he gets so much correct, for example the fact that “jazz” was a synonym for “jism” or “jizz.” He also explains how black jazz musicians were frozen out of early recording opportunities so that late arriving white musicians could copy the form and profit from it. The concept of recording music for money is so new at this point (the book mainly takes place around 1920) that the New Orleans trailblazers don't even realize what they're losing. There's an obvious irony in a white writer getting an early crack at describing and profiting from the most black of art forms, and it must have crossed Sinclair's mind when he described Tarrant wondering who the hell these white musicians were that he never saw in town even once but who were selling New Orleans jazz. Tarrant goes on to experience many of the ups and downs you'd expect, and though none of it's new, it's usually not written with such confidence and sense of place.
If there's a flaw here, it's his heavy-handed approach to black vernacular speech. Sinclair goes so far that the dialogue is sometimes a bit of a slog. Modern writers use a light touch with accents because they've learned that once you describe a character's ethnic or geographical background, with a word here or there readers will supply accents in their own heads. With a character from France, you don't have to write, “Zees musique ees vairy niiice.” The problem with Sinclair's approach is especially noticeable when white characters from New Orleans speak unaccented English, which isn't the case in real life. So there's cultural bias in the book, which will sometimes creep in even when an author writes of others respectfully. But it's still great work. The New York Times called it the “first novel to have been derived from the rich materials of New Orleans jazz.” The first ever? Hmm... well, we won't argue. Music out of Dixie is a recommended read.