Nathaniel Mackey's 'Bass Cathedral' Bubbles With Jazz

Blowin' Balloons
Bass Cathedral bubbles with jazz

F. Scott Fitzgerald's “jazz age” aside, the relationship between America's “indigenous” music—as jazz is often mistakenly referenced—and American literature is symbiotic, but somewhat murky. Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through the Slaughter imagined the hardscrabble beginnings of “jass” through the life of New Orleans progenitor and cornet player Buddy Bolden. Beat groupie John Clellon Holmes' The Horn riffed on racial and artistic themes. The Beats themselves utilized the rhythms of bebop and something of its spirit as they shouted, “Go, daddy, go!” And Toni Morrison's 1992 novel takes the music's name and forms as its own. Some of the best jazz literature isn't fiction at all. Think of saxophonist Art Pepper's memoir of heroin addiction and its consequences, Straight Life. Then there's pianist Hampton Hawes' Raise Up Off Me or Charles Mingus' Beneath the Underdog, both of which address hardship (or inflicting it) and the creative process.

Jazz and literature share forms of theme and improvisation. We want literature, like music, to swing with tempo and feeling, to push boundaries and make something new. We don't mind jazz music being obtuse or challenging—in fact, we expect it. We want musicians to pursue risk, and that requires a quotient of failure. When language moves away from obvious meaning, when it takes risks, we're uncomfortable. What does it all mean?

That's a question I asked myself dozens of times during a reading of Nathaniel Mackey's Bass Cathedral. Mackey, winner of the National Book Award for his 2006 collection of poetry, Splay Anthem, likes to push and take chances. Sound, rhythm and meaning are as important to Mackey's prose as to his poetry. It's easier to read Bass Cathedral if you think of it as poetry, full of wordplay and symbolism. The book constantly presents us with images whose meanings are left open. It is full of seeming realizations, things occurring in the characters' minds and spinning of mental wheels, sometimes to actually get somewhere. A line from the book seems to describe its introspection and multiple layers: “Everything's odd, a bit off, curiously shadowed by syncopations not of time so much as of brightness, light as though brightness or light turned its head or turned around to inspect itself.” If Bass Cathedral were music, we'd call it avant garde.

Written as a series of letters addressed to the “Angel of Dust” and penned by the saxophonist and brass-tempted N., the book is a sort of secondhand stream-of-consciousness account of lives in which music is all. It's 1982, and recorded sound is still found mostly on vinyl LPs. The Molimo m'Atet have recorded a new album, Orphic Bend. The music turns out to be more Orphic and more bent than the group's members expected. During Miss Nancy's bass solo, from the point at which the stylus (or needle) hits the record's groove, balloons of poetry, like the speech or thought bubbles blown by comic book characters, manifest in thin air. What is said there—”I dreamt you were gone”—influences the shape of the ensemble's next live improvisation as well as what little plot can be heard in its riffs. The balloons don't appear with every playing. And sometimes they pop up unexpectedly, as during a live performance when they rise like a skirt from Miss Nancy's thigh to express profane acts as dancers are drawn to her grooves. Sometimes the balloons are literally empty.

There's little plot here. The ensemble members obsessively haunt record stores to see how their record sells and who is buying it. (The old Aron's Records, then on LA's Melrose Avenue, makes a cameo.) They try to answer existential questions by purchasing a new mouthpiece for a horn. They listen to recordings. A sexual attraction develops between group members, leading to envy and jealousy.

Wordplay spawned bop and beatnik lingo, and that's where most of the action is here. Like a jazz soloist, Mackey finds catchy riffs that he twists this way and that. The word balloons lead to a discussion of the ballooning of Dizzy Gillespie's cheeks. What is “missed” defines a “mist.” Looking for harmonies, the musicians find “accord” and “dischord.” Often the most inventive of these rants end in cliché; there's a lot of “upping the ante” and “sides of the same coin.” Much of this free association is fascinating, though as confused as life itself. Musical references abound: Sun Ra, Art Blakey, Bazoumana Sissoko and dozens of others are called up. Bass Cathedral should be in the back pocket of every aspiring hipster. What to listen to while reading? Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Art Ensemble of Chicago's Nice Guys, Ornette Coleman's Dancing In Your Head. You'll get the feel.

Bass Cathedral by Nathaniel Mackey; New Directions. Paperback, 183 pages, $16.95.

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