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John Holbo - Editor
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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Young Man With Another Man’s Horn

Posted by Bill Benzon on 07/16/08 at 06:08 PM

I suppose I was somewhere between 11 and 13 years old when I saw Young Man With a Horn on TV. It had a powerful effect on me. I played trumpet, not terribly well in any absolute sense, though I was pretty good for my age. And I was discovering jazz.

A movie about a jazz trumpet player was thus a natural. The actual trumpet playing was superb, as it was done by Harry James, a man who knew the craft—though I didn’t know much about him at the time. The film starred Kirk Douglas as Rick Martin and told a standard tale of conflict between the requirements of commercial success and the need for artistic freedom. It also told a standard tale of a man caught between a mysterious woman who’s no good for him and the wholesome woman who’s just what he needs, though he doesn’t find that out until he’s all but destroyed himself pursuing the mystery woman.


hazzard observes.jpg

But this essay is mostly about the music, not the romance. And about the racial characterization, not only of the music, but, by implication, of one’s soul, one’s inner self. But let’s hold off on that for a moment while I continue to wax nostalgic.

There’s a scene early in the film where Rick Martin is sitting in bed playing his trumpet while his teacher looks on. I thought this was so cool that, as soon as the movie was over, I went up to my room, sat in my bed, and played my trumpet. That’s how it got me. I soon discovered, however, that cool though it may have looked, sitting in bed is no way to play the trumpet. It makes breathing and breath support difficult. Without breath, the trumpet is nothing. I thus learned to be skeptical about what you see in movies.

End of digression. This is not about what I learned from this movie when I was a kid. This is about how the movie staged the social relations of jazz.

Young Man with a Horn came out in 1950, and seems to have been set in that time period, though the music it features is a little old to pass for cutting edge at the time. Rick Martin is an orphan living with his aunt in Los Angeles; she’s more interested in going out on dates than in taking care of her young nephew. It is strongly implied that she’s a loose woman.

One day during Christmas season, young Rick is wandering around and hears singing in the mission house. He stands at the back listening and, when the men go to get their free meal (for which they dutifully sang), Rick goes up to the piano and starts pounding away. Eventually he manages to play “Come All Ye Faithful.” He’s discovered his vocation in church. Not in the run of ordinary secular living, but in a church, albeit a church dedicated to serving the indigent.


piano at the mission_5.jpg


But Rick’s not yet discovered jazz. That happens one day when he’s working as a pin-setter at a bowling alley. He hears jazz coming from somewhere outside. When work is over, he goes looking for the music and finds a jazz club. He climbs up into the transom and looks through the window, where he sees a jazz band playing for dancers. The musicians are black, the dancers are white.


outside looking in_5.jpg

That’s what this essay is about, how the film stages the interaction between black people, white people, and jazz. We have a motherless young white boy, who likes music, on the outside looking in.

Rick stays in the transom, transfixed, until the evening is over. The customers leave, the staff (all black) is cleaning up, and the musicians are relaxing after the gig. Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez), the trumpet-playing leader, spots him up there in the transom and invites him in. They hit it off and Mr. Hazzard agrees to teach Rick the ways of the trumpet.


lessons_5.jpg


Rick, of course, is delighted, and he learns well. (Just what his aunt is doing all this time is something of a mystery.) In time, Art informs Rick that he’s gotten the call to go back East and play in an important New York club. He can’t turn the gig down. Rick is crushed.

But he survives and hooks up with a big band; all the musicians are white. There he meets Smoke, a piano player (Hoagy Carmichael), and Jo Jordan, a singer played by Doris Day. (She’s the good woman; he’s with her at the end of the film, but it was tough getting there.) He wants to blow hot solos, the leader wants him to play what’s written. Things don’t work out.

And so Rick and Smoke travel from gig to gig and eventually make their way to New York. Rick’s now got something of a reputation and should be able to get a gig with a top band. Shortly after he arrives he sees Jo’s picture on a placard. He goes to the club where she’s singing and they have an amiable chat. She tells him that Art’s now playing downtown at Galba’s.

Rick goes down to hear him—& I think Jo’s with him, but I don’t remember. The club’s a very swanky joint. The patrons are all white, naturally. Art’s band is all black, just as natural. We’ve been here before. Rick sits in with his old teacher and they tear it up. He’s home. An uptown band leader hears him and offers him a commercial gig; its the band Jo sings with. He accepts the offer, naturally. All the musicians in the band are white, as is the clientele of the club where it plays.


just the two of us_5.jpg

Rick falls into a routine: He makes his money as a star playing the notes with the white band. He feeds his soul playing real jazz with Art and the boys, still in front of a white audience. Somewhere along the line life gets complicated. He meets Amy (Lauren Bacall), a friend of Jo’s. Amy’s an intellectual, studying psychoanalysis. He marries her; it’s no good. He becomes an alcoholic.

On the way down, Art Hazzard visits him in a bar and they have a heart-to-heart talk. Rick’s drinking whiskey. Art’s drinking milk—at the bar, at the bar! Mother’s milk? Who knows, but the movie makes a big deal out of that milk. The conversation deteriorates and Art leaves the bar. Both men are upset.


whiskey and milk_5.jpg


Art gets struck by a car right after he leaves the bar and is killed. Rick doesn’t find out until a couple of days later when he finds out about the funeral. Drunken sot that he is, he knows, nonetheless, that he has to attend the funeral.


sitting in the pews_5.jpg

And he does. The service is in a church, a church with black people in the pews, and only black people. This is the first time in the movie we’ve seen a room filled with black people. This is the first and only time the movie has taken us into black society. That the occasion should be a religious service, that’s most interesting. For it echoes the context in which young Rick discovered his love of music.

There’s a eulogy, some singing, and then Rick picks up Art’s trumpet from its spot on the lid of Art’s casket. He blows a beautiful solo: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Traditional, naturally, soulfully.

The movie’s not over. Rick still has to hit bottom. Which he does. Smoke finds him; Jo finds him. He finds himself and, of course, the good woman, Jo. As the movie rolls to a close the two of them are doing a duet; but that duet really features the trumpet player, though it’s Jo’s recording session.

End of film.

Now, let’s review. This is a film in which a white man finds his vocation, and his music, though black music. That is clear. It is also clear that there is a strong bond between Rick Martin and Art Hazzard. That bond, however, is isolated from all of Rick’s other social ties. The question of just what kind of life Hazzard has off the bandstand does not come up. Nor does the movie show any interaction between blacks and whites outside of a musical context and, for that matter, very little within that context. The only reason Martin went into that black church was so he could pay his respects to the man who had been like a father to him. The church, of course, is set apart from mundane life. In this movie, that functional segregation mirrors pervasive and all-but unstated racial segregation. As a public person, Rick Martin lived in a white world. The fact that Rick Martin finds himself and his vocation through a black man is utterly without wider social consequences.

By the time Young Man With a Horn was made, jazz had ceased to be the popular music it was when young Mickey Rooney and his friends decided to start a band. Big bands—where Rick Martin made his money—were still around, but not like they were in 1930 or 1940. Small groups playing in a traditional style, like Art Hazzard’s band, would spark a college-centered Dixieland revival. The music in this film was on its way to the museum and to the old folks home. Thus it was easy to take the social dichotomy between black and white and map it onto the dichotomy between private and public in such a way that black culture becomes the private expressive domain of a white man and black people have no significant public existence.

Mickey Rooney formed a band so he could take part in the adult world. Rick Martin turned to True Jazz so he could remove himself from an adult world identified with commerce. And it was safe for white folks to value True Jazz as Other People’s Music, precisely because those other people could be denied full participation in the public world. 


Comments

Nice.

You got it. The movie didn’t, of course. Or did.

Things were so much more complicated… would it be possible to go back and catch that reality?

Probably not… without falling into anachronistic projection. The Art Hazzard Rick Martin knew… a musical version of the black wet nurse… but with the same kind of subliminal subversive message--in what was left out.

The life of the musical mentor. The life of the humanizing nursemaid--an absence in retrospect we can’t help but read as a felt absence in the life of the white elite.

A felt absence recorded again and again in the imitation of young middle class whites of their perceptions of black culture.

One could make that movie now with a Big Name 90’s hip-hop rapper in the role of Rick Martin… and the divide of real understanding, no less vast.

By Jacob Russell on 07/16/08 at 09:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for this, Bill, it really moved me.

A similar racially isolationist reflection - though only in two short sequences - is evident in ‘The Glenn Miller Story’ when after Miller’s wedding and having played in an all-white theatre pit all night, the musicians head for Harlem to ‘swing’ with Louis Armstrong’s band, you’ll recall.

Clearly the musicians venerate this as ‘real music’ displaying ‘real talent’ but there’s no suggestion that Armstrong’s band could ever move beyond the ghetto despite this.

Later, the theme is picked up subtly when Miller’s band is shown filming a music track - ‘Tuxedo Junction’ - to accompany the sexy, black, nameless and silent (of course) dancers on film. And when the camera picks up black servicemen marching to Miller’s ‘jazzier’ marching band.

Makes you think of all those stories of Bill Robinson, Sammy Davis and Dorothy Dandridge - good enough to entertain the ‘white folks’ but not to sit with them.

A smashing piece, Bill, it will stay with me.

By on 07/16/08 at 11:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Russell: Yeah, we’ve got a similar racial dynamic in hip-hop culture. But there is a crucial difference: There aren’t a lot of white hip-hop artists. Jazz had a substantial body of white musicians from the beginning, as did rock-and-roll. Nor, as far as I can tell, has the hip-hop movie become a standard genre in the way big-band films and rock and roll films became standard. Thus it’s not at all clear to me that this film could be repeated in hip-hop dress.

Also, note that, though it was made well into the color era, Young Man was shot in black and white. I’m not familiar enough with films of that era to have a sure sense of what that signifies, but I’m guessing they were going for a sophisticated “arty” look. It’s got a very noirish feel, a lot of urban grit. I don’t think Young Man was made for a teen audience at all. It was made for adults. The sexual dynamics, which I didn’t go into at all, are certainly more sophisticated than you find in the Elvis films, for example, or the big-band biopics. Lauren Bacall plays a sophisticated urban woman who is studying to be a psychoanalyst and even dispenses a little of the lingo, as I recall. There’s also a suggestion that she’s a lesbian or bisexual. Just why she married Rick Martin is something of a mystery.

Sue: I’ve probably seen The Glenn Miller Story at one time or another, but I don’t recall it. Armstrong appeared in films from the 30s on through to Hello Dolly! (1969). He did quite a bit of work, both recording and films, with Bing Crosby and once remarked that, for all their work together, Crosby never once invited him to his home.

By Bill Benzon on 07/17/08 at 12:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’The Glenn Miller Story’ is definitely worth a look, Bill, if only for James Stewart’s performance, the sequence with Armstrong and guests like Gene Kruper, and the way it ties in with the idea of the movie as anachronistically divisive in the ‘glossy, white biopic’ genre(it’s entertaining, too).

What are your thoughts on Minnelli’s ‘Cabin in the Sky’ in this context? Undeniably a great movie and very brave for its time but could it seem to be almost an ‘Uncle Tom’, now, I wonder? After all, Stowe was also pioneering but is now derided, maybe a little unfairly if seen in temporal context? I’m not really sure about my own thoughts on this, you just got me thinking ...

That Crosby story certainly makes you reassess his skills as an actor - ‘That’s Jazz’, in ‘High Society’, will never seem the same again.

By on 07/17/08 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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