Opinion: The first book
There is something remarkable about firsts in one’s life: first step, first words, first crush, first hand-in-hand, first kiss. After a recent conversation about literature with a colleague, I tried to remember the first book I ever bought, as sadly I do not remember the first one I read.
I think I was 13 when I randomly decided to buy it. I clearly recall it being my mother’s birthday and the plan of action was to get her something in celebration. I walked into a florist’s shop on the road now known as Nelson Mandela Drive in Mafikeng, picked out a bouquet of flowers and a kitsch art-deco-like vase and made for the till. Just as I was about to pay, I saw a stack of second-hand books in the corner. I ventured forth, curious as to what interesting read I might find, and there it was: John Clellon Holmes’s The Horn – “one of the best jazz novels”, the back cover quote from the Chicago Tribune stated.
Young and uninitiated as I was, the book captured my attention with its black and white photographic cover of a saxophonist, black beret slanted to the side of his head, a little shadowed by the streaks of smoke rising from the depleted cigarette in his hand and his eyes betraying a lack of rest. I was hooked and overly excited, my first very own book. As soon as I got home I tried to jump straight into it but for some odd reason found its language altogether unfamiliar. It was nothing like the books I read during English class at school nor, it seemed, was it as frivolous.
To be fair, it was never a difficult book but the style of it simply did not endear itself to me or I to it when I was young. Years passed and all I had to show was the first chapter as evidence of my occasional attempts at reading it. By then I was at university and in a moment of guilt-free clarity I relinquished all responsibility over it. I offered it to my roommate, who was the son of a legendary South African jazz musician. I figured that he would certainly be interested in it and would hopefully give me a summary after reading it. I do not recall if he ever did. In an almost fateful but twisted kind of way, the book found its way back into my hands.
By this time I had done my bit of growing. I read (not always by choice) what I considered dense and unnecessarily difficult academic theory. I had also properly discovered jazz music, thanks mostly to my roommate, and I felt the time had come for me to revisit The Horn – almost seven years since I bought it. During one of those varsity weekends where being broke served as the motivation for staying in, I read the whole book.
About the book
The Horn is a fictional account of a jazz musician dangerously faithful to his craft – to the extent that nothing else matters. Its protagonist, the tenor-saxophonist Edgar Pool, is the doomed figure whose wayward genius ushers in the generation of bop jazz or Bebop, changing the face and history of jazz music in America.
It was a powerfully written presentation of the life of an artist and the true beauty of an art form. It was structured by the author as if he were creating his own jazz standard, "choruses" replace "chapters" and in between them, "riffs" with "melodic devices, relentlessly repeated, their primary function being rhythmic".
Pool, though the fictional character and protagonist, had about him a life that seemed to mimic that of real jazz masters and innovators such as the late and great Charlie Parker and Lester Young, whose personal lives were in chaos but whose music came across as nothing but ordered genius. Jazz legend Archie Shepp provided a captivating foreword to the book – hinting at the parallels that Holmes carefully drew between the fictional and the real; the music, the musicians, the history and the critique thereof.
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