Sam Reese Talks About Jazz Studies

Sam V. H. Reese is an acclaimed teacher and writer—his first book on mid-century fiction won the 2018 Arthur Miller Institute First Book Prize —but, like all of us, he has a little music in his soul. His second book,Blue Notes: Jazz, Literature, and Loneliness, explores the connections writers and musicians make between soulful jazz music and loneliness.

A jazz band plays in a nightclub
A jazz band plays in a nightclub. Photo by Lucas Allman.

There’s a story jazz saxophonist and bandleader Ornette Coleman used to tell about one of his best-known pieces, the beautifully unsettling “Lonely Woman.” Working in a department store in the early 1950s, Coleman noticed, “this white lady in a picture with the most shattering expression you could see on her face. In the background there was everything you could imagine that was wealthy—all in her background—but she was so sad. And I said, ‘Oh my goodness, I understand this feeling. I have not experienced this wealth, but I understand the feeling.’ I went home and wrote ‘Lonely Woman.'”

It’s a powerful anecdote, and says something important about the way that jazz musicians communicate with their audience. Of course, jazz can be sensual. It can be uplifting. It can ring with political protest, or drag you up by the arms and pull you dancing into the street. But more than any other emotion, jazz is consistently associated with the feeling Coleman described: a “shattering” sense of loneliness. At the same time, listening to jazz does more than make you feel lonely. Through a wordless conversation between musicians and audience, listeners catch a shared emotion and, almost paradoxically, in recognizing this intense loneliness they feel more connected.

A pair of ready hands rests on the keys of a piano.
Hands on a piano’s keys. Photo by

Coleman’s story turned out to be the key I needed when writing Blue Notes: Jazz, Literature, and Loneliness—a book that sets out to unpack the complex relationship between writers and musicians through the motif Coleman himself used: conversation. I trace the tradition of literary appropriations of jazz, both as subject matter and as aesthetic structure, in order to show how writers have insistently returned to this genre of music as an avenue for exploring aspects of human loneliness. In turn, as I discovered, jazz musicians have often looked to literature—sometimes obliquely, somhetimes centrally—for inspiration. And as Coleman did with his story about the photograph, and writers like Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Charles Mingus, and Duke Ellington did in autobiography, many revolutionary jazz artists used the written word as a way to express, in concrete terms, something their music could only allude to or effectively evoke.

The cover of Blue Notes; black and white text in front of a blue background with a single musical note.

In both cases, I was aided by the insightful and exciting scholars who have already done such important work exploring the relationship between jazz and literature. Below are some of the texts that proved particularly useful, and which offer a good introduction to the relationship between literature and Jazz.

Krin Gabbard’s edited volumes Jazz Among the Discourses and Representing Jazz

The cover of Jazz Among the Discourses; purple text on a grey background.

Krin Gabbard’s two collections of essays, published in 1995, are landmarks in jazz studies and form the foundation of so much contemporary scholarship. They bring together a dazzling (and sometimes eccentric) series of topics and questions, and make important claims about the relationship between jazz and other disciplines and forms, alongside detailed analyses of specific case studies.

Brent Hayes Edwards’ Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination

The cover of Epistrophies; a man looks at photos hung above a record player.

Like many of the critics who write on the intersection between writing and jazz, Brent Hayes Edwards is a brilliant, illuminating author in his own right; the relationship he unfolds here, between writing informed by jazz and the work jazz musicians did (whether in writing or compositions) that was informed by literature, is textually rich and compellingly told.

David Yaffe’s Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing

Another lucid and engaging writer, David Yaffe approaches a similar question to Edwards: how has jazz influenced, even driven, the development of American literature. Where Edwards’ focus is more on jazz musicians as writers, Yaffe is working squarely in a literary tradition—but the lines of influence and poetic resonances he unravels are always nuanced and rich.

Ajay Heble’s Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance, and Critical Practice

Long after I finished work on Blue Notes, I found myself returning to Ajay Heble’s radical study of jazz as a potential form of practice. Unlike the other books on this list, Heble does not simply offer parallels between jazz and writing—instead, he suggests that the dynamic, dissonant, and improvisatory poetics of jazz can be, and have been, applied to the act of writing.

Sam V. H. Reese is a lecturer in English and creative writing at the University of Northampton and the author of The Short Story in Midcentury America: Countercultural Form in the Work of Bowles, McCarthy, Welty, and Williams, winner of the 2018 Arthur Miller Institute First Book Prize.

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