Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing by David Yaffe

David Yaffe analyzes the relationship between American literature and jazz in this tome made to order for the English majors (or ex-English majors) out there. This short book is rich with trenchant literary analysis but a bit short on narrative thrust, as befits such a highbrow project. Discussing the connection between these two remarkable and vibrant artforms is much less interesting than actually experiencing either one, unless of course you’re an English professor, like Yaffe himself. Few of us would prefer reading about the relationship between Norman Mailer’s fiction and Thelonious Monk’s music to reading the former or hearing the latter.

My own anti-academic bias aside, there is much to recommend in Fascinating Rhythm. Yaffe is an excellent writer-crisp, intelligent and graceful. Throughout most of the book, he covers how jazz directly and indirectly influenced literary lions such as Mailer, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, J.D. Salinger and Hart Crane. Yaffe’s discussion of Ellison and his affinity for jazz is probably the highlight of the book. In a fascinating later chapter, Yaffe ironically finds much literary fiction in the autobiographies of Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. Yaffe writes that in telling apocryphal versions of their lives, they “were practicing literary versions of the hustle.” He shows why, in the case of jazz musicians, truth is neither stranger than fiction nor particularly great for sales. If Yaffe accomplishes nothing but inspire readers to re-experience great fiction (even within an artist’s autobiography) or great music, he’ll have succeeded admirably.