Kenneth Rexroth wrote this review of Holmes’ “jazz novel” for Saturday Review, Aug. 2, 1958…
A Jazz Novel
John Clellon Holmes is famous as the inventor of the Beat Generation. But if he is himself a Beatnik, he is a Beatnik with insight, a coherent Beatnik. His novel Go was not so ambitious as a “work of art” as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, let alone The Subterraneans. But it is far more comprehending. I know the point of beat literature is precisely its lack of comprehension — oh, I dig — but if you want to understand the little group of Greenwich Villagers Allen Ginsberg so pathetically called “the best minds of my generation,” Go is the book.
The Horn is about Negroes and jazz, subjects about which the Beatnik, by definition, knows very much less than nothing. So The Horn is hung up on its own dilemma, but not badly hung up. Holmes shares the jazz mystique, the fascination with jazz as a way of life common to all — American and foreign — bohemia today. If (as Norman Mailer has characterized him) the hipster is an imitation Negro, the characters in The Horn are the kind of Negroes the hipster tries to imitate. Holmes is a conscientious craftsman, with considerable understanding of humans and their motives, and his fictional honesty redeems him. He says, “Finally Negro people are forever out of reach of white people, no matter how the whites strive or how they yearn.” This is certainly the worst sort of Negrophile mystique. In jazz they call it “Crow-Jimism.” The only answer to it of course is, “Well, what are you doing writing this novel?”
Nevertheless, his people are, for many pages at a time, simply people, with rather special conditions of tragedy, but finally with purely human tragedies, like you and me. The mystique distorts; this is not the life of Negro jazzmen, but it is remarkably close. As a matter of fact, The Horn, like Go, is a roman à clef, and the distortion of Negro life and of the jazz world is proportionate to Holmes’s inventions and departures from the facts in the lives of his originals.
His people are close enough to real life for one powerful conclusion to come through and slap you in the face. What a horrible life! Now the hipster, the Beatnik, imitates the horror. He likes it. The characters in On the Road don’t have to live that way. The Negroes in The Horn do, and they don’t like it a bit. As a social document The Horn is a shocking exposé of working conditions of the Negro in the entertainment business.
The writing is pretty dithyrambic. Algren and Kerouac are not the best models for Holmes, with his more pedestrian talents. In spite of this, the mystique slowly drains out. What finally emerges is a novel of tragedy and disgust — “The Jungle” of the life of a jazzman in the days of bop. What a life for artists to lead! Thousands of Modiglianis and Soutines and Utrillos and Artauds in all the ugly jazz joints of America. No center possible for life at all except the immediate act of art which is jazz — so beautiful and gone in an instant into a smoky, noisy, drunken room, like Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight” in Doré’s “Inferno.”
On one point the mystique does not catch Holmes out. Carried away by the fervent bop propaganda, he does attribute far too much to the music as music. All the storm and stress of the bop revolution was about nothing more than the introduction of a few chords which were commonplaces to Beethoven, the use of the saxophone as a woodwind, which is what it is, rather than as a novelty instrument, and a slightly more flexible treatment of the standard jazz beat — 8/8 or 12/8 instead of always 4/4. Even today the new “1958 Harlem Hard Bop” sounds like nothing so much as very simple, extra loud Berlioz. Like almost all jazz buffs, Holmes shows no signs of knowing what goes on musically in jazz — he digs it — it sends him. It doesn’t really send the musicians, they just tell the customers that. They know what they are doing. The real touchstone of musical appreciation in modern jazz is the young bassist — called Billy James in the book, but obviously a real person well known to all modern jazz fans — whom Holmes puts down with a series of sneers. To be brutal about it, he has something of the tone of “Who’s this uppity nigra with his Juilliard education?” Holmes is still looking for that jungle note.
It so happens that in real life this man [Charles Mingus] got his first date as a high-school boy with Kid Ory, who is jungly enough for anybody, was brought out in New York by Oscar Pettiford, who is pretty funky still, was known all through the bop era as “The Bird of the Bass” though still just a kid, and today is the foremost single pioneer of the kind of modernist jazz that Holmes mistakenly thinks bop was. He is anything but a snob and if he did walk to the mike once in Minton’s and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is not jazz; these are very sick men,” nothing shows how right he was more than the retelling of the episode in this very book. (But then, what is a novel for? Revenge is sweet. He — the original — recently drove a bunch of noisy Beatnik would-be “jazz poets” out of the club where he was performing. They were friends of Holmes’s.)
Fortunately, things are no longer quite so bad as they were in the days of this novel, the Thirties and Forties. A period of minor musical revolution in the till then extremely hidebound world of jazz happened to coincide with humanity’s worst world war and with the concomitant social and cultural breakthrough of the American Negro. The story of Lester Young’s persecution in Army stockades is far more awful than any of the episodes from his career reworked in this book. Los Angeles or Harlem, Buddy Collette or Don Byrd, the young Negro musician coming up today will never comprehend just how awful it was, what a cruel price, the price of life itself, older jazzmen paid to put him where he is. The Horn is a pretty accurate picture of that life — that life and that death. They can read about it there. I don’t think they are going to have to live it. If some of them do, it will be because they want to — like the Beatniks who think it’s kicks.