YOUNG JACKSON PAYNE is in the congregation when the Rev. Elijah Corn gives his annual "Song of Satan" music-theory sermon early in Jack Fuller's new novel:
"Close your ears to the Devil's melody, my friends. And open your hearts to the Lord."
"Tell us how."
"The first note of the scale is C, the Christ child come down to redeem us from our sin."
"But C is also the cross where they nailed Him. There has never been an evil greater than C."
"Save us, brother."
But Rev. Corn's saving is better in theory than practice. The first C he should save Jackson from is his own concupiscence. This is a call-and-response book; Payne responds by going on to other evils on his own.
Drugs, sex, race, the diminished seventh, transcendence ... The Best of Jackson Payne is a riff on the short, intense life of a jazz musician.
Fuller--author of five previous novels, a former editor, and jazz critic of the Chicago Tribune--clearly appreciates his music. This novel amounts to a sort of musical-literary love affair.
It's refracted and collaged. The point-of-view character is an academic who's preparing a biography of the musician. He pieces together Payne's life with interviews, and interprets them through Payne's recordings. Fuller's characters speak directly to the interviewer--complete with references to tape recorders and ingenuous or disingenuous interaction with the interrogator. Voices vary, attitudes shift, and stories morph.
When 12-year-old Jackson wants to learn music, his protective and devout mother buys him a used tenor saxophone, but also takes him for piano lessons to the Rev. Elijah Corn at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Rev. Corn introduces Jackson to both the unusual harmonies of Wagner and the sensual and driving strains of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young ... but he exacts some personal payment from the boy in return. The pastor's housekeeper sets Jackson onto the route to sexuality and heightens it with drugs, and the map is drawn for the rest of his life.
Jackson goes to Korea, earns two medals, and meets new drugs. He then hooks up with a piano, bass and drummer, and sets out to make his own way in the jazz world. He starts with standards, but Payne soon begins to test convention. He experiments with new harmonies, pushes himself and his group to new technical heights, and gains fame. Fame attracts followers and suppliers; musical experimentation spawns more experimentation. A cycle establishes itself. He's periodically in control, but thugs, drugs and the drive to explode musical constraints collude to spin him away.
Fuller's narrative structure is jazz-like. It's a melange of voices on a few common ideas: race, freedom vs. constraint, addiction, the search for spiritual fulfillment.
The realities of race pervade the novel. Payne is assigned to an all-black unit overseen by white officers that trains in 1950s Georgia and then fights harder, faster and longer in Korea than white units. In Payne's musical world, agents and producers are white; musicians are black. At one point, Payne and his crew flee to the purported freedoms of Paris, only to be viewed as a sort of Rousseauian oddity.
Questions of musical experimentation, addiction and spiritual transcendence all weave into Fuller's theme of freedom vs. constraint. Establishing that Western music is based on metrical and harmonic order with a clear and powerful center core, Fuller has Payne compose music that dissolves the center and breaks up received diatonic harmony, slicing through it with chromatics. Drugs, too, break down constraints. Drug addiction, the biographer muses, is a two-sided phenomenon: The need controls but it simultaneously offers freedom from the control. It's when he's clean that Payne most nearly achieves spiritual transcendence. Driving music and emotion beyond constraints--beyond listeners' capacity to comprehend--brings Payne closest to the divine. But he meets his own limitations, and falls.
Fuller has attempted a book that itself challenges convention, and most of it works. The documentary-like voice collage is effective: It paints Payne from varied angles and communicates the complexity of his character's life. Fuller's use of narrator is less successful. He has tried to activate an interesting over-plot with his researcher's life, but it's too thin; Payne's story overpowers and trivializes it. Finally, while Fuller's attempt to structure a novel like a jazz composition is admirable, it doesn't come off quite like music. It begins and finishes strongly, but sags a bit in the middle, and the medium does not really translate; this prose describes but does not replicate sound.
It's clearly a product of love, however: mostly engaging; informative, richly researched, thoughtful. It's a bit of a celebration of America, as well. Fuller has a character relate Payne's philosophy of American potential as innovative jazz: "He said that everybody was at home in America because nobody was. Each of us is out there every day creating himself for the crowd. The ones that start out knowing who they are, they are just repeating what they've been told. But you don't have to accept that. In America all they give you is the chords."