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The Jazz Fiction Anthology by Sascha Feinstein & David Rife

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James Baldwin
James Baldwin

From the beginning, it seems obvious that when Sashca Feinstein and David Rife titled their anthology, The Jazz Fiction Anthology it was a little inaccurate. It suggests that this collection of stories is “it” or as they assert, the “most definitive collection” of jazz fiction ever. But this loose collection of jazz themed tales is hardly the alpha and omega of the literary genre known as jazz fiction.

It does represent jazz fiction from their perspective and there are good stories here – James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Ralph Ellison’s “A Coupla Scalped Indians,” Wanda Coleman’s “Jazz at Twelve,” and some others. But the chances taken here by the collectors are few. This is, in other words, Ken Burns’ jazz fiction; it sounds very good at times, holds onto tradition, and rarely ventures off the main drag where some things are also happening.

It is certainly good to see Julio Cortazar here with two stories both of which are enjoyable, and Toni Cade Bambara is here as well. But the decision by the editors to avoid what jazz poetry (the experimentation and definition expansions) has always done (Feinstein and Rife think jazz poetry is full of stereotypes) probably kept some other approaches out of this anthology.

What would have been more impressive would have been the inclusion of stories that don’t necessarily talk about jazz but are jazz. Stories that are driven less by the music in it but are the music and its creative elements: call and response, repetition, improvisation, changing voices, etc. Reading these stories, I kept wondering where is one of those great pieces of flash fiction by Jean Toomer from his classic 1923 book, “Cane.” An excerpt from Toni Morrison’s novel, Jazz, a literary experiment that is “jazz” as opposed to about jazz, would have opened up possibilities (and other fiction that does this), and, of course, something by Albert Murray, a writer who admits to trying to write jazz, should be here whether one likes his style or not. These are just a few writers (who do it another way) who came to mind.

But give Feinstein and Rife their just due. They try to tell a story of jazz with fiction. They also update a genre that lacks the tradition of jazz poetry or the now emerging hip-hop poetry.

Two stories also worthy of mentioning here specifically: William Henry Lewis’ “Rossonian Days,” and John Edgar Wideman’s “The Silence of Thelonious Monk.” Of course, while these stories are about jazz; it is the fact that the literature is trying to become the literary equivalent of jazz that is most important especially in Wideman’s case. His well known meandering fiction style is a perfect counterweight to some of the sluggish tradition jazz fiction found here; it made me want more.

Originally Published