Some years ago I attended an improv jazz concert at the Jule Collins Smith Museum in Auburn, Alabama. The performance was part of the museum’s “A Little Lunch Music” recital series. The group were highly skilled and professional, but improv jazz is often thought of as more akin to Western contemporary art music–the experimental, post-classical tradition–than to “real” jazz. As a result, their efforts proved too much for several of the fans of more traditional music, and I was somewhat embarrassed to see them trickling out whenever the performance got raucous. This also made me think about rules in music and elsewhere, and the unspoken contracts between musicians and their audiences.
In the end, I wrote a story, “Improv,” about a young clarinetist who is improvising in her life when she becomes entangled with a visiting improv jazz group. This story proved to be difficult to place and has been hanging around here and there for a long time. So long that I started to wonder what was wrong with it.
Did they object to the sex? I haven’t seen a lot of sex in the more fashionable tales I’ve read lately. Are all those hipster editors out there secretly prudish? Or perhaps we’ve advanced so far beyond prudery that the details of sex are considered literarily boring. But maybe it was the hints of romance genre they objected to, or the fact that the sex was rough, though consensual.
Or worse, I thought, descending further in my paranoid spiral, perhaps they thought the story was racist. Partly because I was not fully aware of the European roots of improv jazz when I wrote the story, and partly because it seemed to me racist not to have musicians of color in my portrayal of a professional jazz group, I made two members of the group African American. Then I made my white protagonist have romantic fantasies about one of them.
I decided not to change this because, as far as the improv jazz group is concerned, even though the ensemble I saw was all white, it seems perfectly possible that there might be some traditional African American jazz musicians who wouldn’t mind picking up an improv gig, and I like the inclusivity and cross-fertilization inherent in this possibility. As far as the romance goes, although my protagonist is naively romanticizing the exotic other, I’m just describing a phenomenon that occurs, like the rough sex. So I left it.
I also wondered, at times, whether editors felt I spent too much time describing music, but that was crucial to the story’s examination of freedom. When I learned through a newsletter of the Jerry Jazz Musician contest, which is free to enter, by the way, I thought, “Well, at least they’ll appreciate my descriptions of the jazz.”
And they did! While I do not normally enjoy communications that begin, “It is with regret that I write to inform you . . . ,” the news that although I had not won, I was a finalist in the contest and they wanted to publish my work (sometime this month, the editor informs me) was highly consoling.
So I look forward to the story’s appearance in print, and in the meantime I shall enjoy reading the winner’s story and other articles in Jerry Jazz Musician.
Photo credit: hds, Bohren & der Club of Gore performing at Hamburg, Nochtspeicher. 27 Feb. 2014. Wikimedia Commons, Bohren dcog (12843586343).jpg; original at https://flic.kr/p/kyWJKR. CC by 2.0.