Horn, The

by John Clellon Holmes
(1958)
   The Horn is John Clellon Holmes’s masterpiece, his most internationally popular novel, and one of the most underappreciated classics of the Beat Generation. The idea for the novel, originally called “The Afternoon of a Tenor Man,” started in the early 1950s when both Holmes and jack kerouac desired to write novels about jazz. The Horn focuses on a neglected, great saxophonist Edgar Pool and tries to capture the authentic world of black jazz. Pool is based partially on the jazz legends Charlie Parker and Lester Young. kenneth rexroth, writing for the Saturday Review of August 2, 1958, praised Holmes’s novel and compared it favorably to Kerouac’s on tHe road, which had appeared a year earlier: “[T]he characters in On the Road don’t have to live that way. The Negroes of The Horn do, and they don’t like it a bit.” Kerouac considered The Horn an excellent novel and Holmes’s finest work Though the publication of The Horn allowed Holmes to share some of the attention that the Beats were receiving in the late 1950s and received positive critical reviews, there has been very little scholarly attention given to the book.
   The chapters of The Horn are divided into two forms: the chorus and the riff. The chorus chapters are major installments in the work as a whole, while the riffs take the form of extended soliloquies or monologues by characters. The book ends with a coda. It opens with quotations from Herman Melville and Charlie Parker. The Melville quotation links jazz greats with the writers of the U.S. Renaissance, a scheme that is developed throughout the book. The Melville quotation celebrates the democratic ideal of the nobility of the outcast. The Parker quotation is a key one for the Beat philosophy. There is no line between life and art, says Parker: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
   Holmes says that he wrote the first chorus, “Walden,” in five nonstop installments in 1952. It was the “easiest” writing he had ever done up to that point. The tenor saxophonist Walden is obviously linked to Henry David Thoreau—although the connection between the two is vague. The chapter begins the “morning” (which for jazz men is the afternoon) in New York following an epic horn battle on stage at an after-hours club called Blanton’s (a clear reference to the popular afterhours 1940s jazz spot called Minton’s). Walden, a young saxophonist who is still finding his style, “cuts” in on the great Edgar Pool, known simply as “The Horn.” In the process of overcoming the older player, Walden finds his true style for the first time. That next afternoon when he awakens, he realizes that he has now chosen a path in life, just as Pool had at one point. This choice will make him one of the outcasts in America “selfdamned to difference,” as the narrative warns. The soundtrack for all outcast Americans at this time is the emerging musical form known as Bop. The chapter introduces Geordie Dickson, a vocalist who is discovered by The Horn when she is just a 16-year-old girl living in the South. She runs away with Edgar, and he teaches her the techniques of jazz vocalizing. Cleo is a young man playing piano for the band in which The Horn sits at The Go Hole (a club central to Holmes’s first novel, Go). In the riff, Cleo follows Pool out of the club and listens to an afternoon-long, Benzedrine-fueled monologue by The Horn. To Cleo, Pool is a jazz legend incarnate, and in his mind he rehearses the 60-odd years of jazz history in which Pool is such an important figure. Pool’s thoughts reveal that although men did not “cut” one another in his time—as Walden had done him that morning—he does not resent Walden’s act because Walden truly “blew.” Still, the act has struck a final chord in him somehow, and he begins his quest, which will last the rest of the novel, to raise enough money to go home to Kansas City, Missouri (where two of the real-life counterparts to Pool had lived, Charlie Parker and Lester Young).
   In the “Wing” chorus, Walden is frantic because he knows that his “cutting” of Pool may have finally sent Pool over the brink into selfdestruction. He goes looking for Pool’s old friends, hoping that they can tell him of Pool’s whereabouts and alerting them to the potential danger Pool faces. He first looks up Wing Redburn, whose name links him to Melville, author of Redburn. Wing, as Melville did in the mid-1850s, retired from the pure, artistic life and took a day job (Melville in the Customs House, Wing as a studio musician). Walden’s presence is thus a reproach to him for having “sold out,” but his presence also reminds him of the old days when he, Junius, and Curny were all in a band with Pool. Pool tells the younger musicians that they are competent players, but they do not understand the blues, lacking life experience. When the band breaks up because of Pool’s notorious unreliableness, Pool perversely heads South and meets a girl named Fay Lee (whose name recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee just as Edgar Pool recalls Edgar Allan Poe). She represents for him his chance at capturing the “pure line” of music, the spontaneous, natural tone that Pool has captured, but he turns his back on her and returns North. When Walden shows up, all of this floods back to him as he watches a young vocalist have to sing his lines from a carefully scripted score. The moment signals within him a generational change: Pool was a father figure to him during a time of social disruption in which many young men needed such father figures. Now, he is that figure. Pool and Cleo, in the riff, drink in a Times Square bar around the corner from the Go Hole. Pool schemes ways to raise the $50 he desperately needs to buy a bus ticket but refuses to sit in at the Go Hole for a quick $25: Pool has lost his confidence. Instead, he decides to con all of his old friends for money. The first friend Pool hits on in the “Junius” chorus is Junius Priest. Several attributes of Junius connect him with Thelonius Monk (including the name). Monk was one of the founders of Bop, and, like Junius, he worked out his revolutionary sound on keyboard and collaborated with a saxophone player (Dizzy Gillespie). As did Monk, Junius lives at home with his mother. Monk, who created the dark-shaded persona of the Bop artist, withdrew from the scene in the 1950s, and so does Junius, but here Holmes shows Junius withdrawing because of a fear that he is overly influenced by Pool and because he fears that he will succumb to the self-destructiveness that seems inevitably to characterize rebels and pioneers such as Pool. Pool and Junius’s meeting in Los Angeles (Holmes transplants the East Coast scene to the West, just as Kerouac does in The suBterraneans, no doubt for legal reasons) reveals the appeal of these Bop pioneers as role models for the Beat Generation writers, whose coming together resembles the revolution described as follows: “For, like Junius, all their ideas were running on that way, Edgar’s way, and they instantly recognized in each other that same rash and exhilarating discontent that was so like the sudden cool storm-smell that often hung, motionless, in the air those afternoons, and was somehow so prophetic of a new and imminent reality.” The idea that there could be a revolution in art created by such outsiders must have been of great inspiration to the Beats. Certainly, Bop was the soundtrack of their early lives. In the following riff, Cleo meditates on the 60-year rise of jazz in America. The riff gives Holmes a chance to showcase his remarkable ear for tracing ideas from song to song.
   In his scheme of associating each major character with a writer from the U.S. Renaissance, Holmes connects Geordie Dickson with Emily Dickinson in the “Geordie” chorus. The real-life jazz counterpart to Geordie is Billie Holiday. The chapter recounts Geordie’s thoughts immediately after Pool, still searching for money, has left her apartment. She is 35, and Pool makes her feel it, having first met him when she was barely in her teens. She was a young girl in the South, the victim a year earlier of a white gang rape, and he was a sideman in a swing band. She follows him up North, and he encourages her to sing, to “blow” her own song and forget her terrible Southern past. He coaches her as a singer until one day she realizes that “the singing had become important in itself.” They hit their stride during World War II, playing the jazz clubs along 52nd street in New York. Pool’s success, however, has come too late: He has worked in obscurity for too long to now face his success with anything other than irony-an attitude that links Pool with the fate of Kerouac, Holmes’s close friend, who also experienced success too late. Success also breaks up Geordie and Pool. Their lives become an endless series of “hip” parties. They begin to shoot heroin as well. Still, she follows him out to the West Coast where the heroin makes her lose interest in life, including singing. One day she chains herself to a bed and kicks her habit cold turkey in the course of three days. Pool continues to get high, however. One night, she wakes up to find him poised with a needle at her arm, attempting to readdict her. Pool is eventually committed to a hospital for treatment, and Geordie moves back to New York where she builds a solo career and only occasionally sees Pool. As she thinks back on their life and times, she realizes that she has lost the outrage she felt at her Southern upbringing, whereas Pool can never lose his outrage; in fact, it is this rage that inspired his music and kept him going. In the riff, Pool and Cleo continue searching for money for Pool’s ticket home. They hit on Billy James Henry, a Julliardeducated musician who plays in a combo with Cleo at the Go Hole. Henry is on to him and coldly refuses any money. Pool realizes that there is one last old friend to whom he can turn.
   The epigraph to the chorus “Curny” is from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “Goodness sakes! Would a runaway nigger run south?” Curny Finnley presents a similar contradiction, as he is a jazz musician who dresses the part of a Southern aristocrat and even adopts their mannerisms, albeit ironically. Curny, a name derived from Colonel, is a character whose energy and sense of humor hides his musical genius. He, Wing, and Junius had played with Pool in the early 1940s, and now Pool finds him at a recording session that is being produced by his manager, Mr. Willy Owls. Curny tries to make commercial music but always lets his wit and sense of humor get away from him, leading jazz aesthetes to dub him “a comedian with a trumpet.” Still, he is a favorite with the young and hip listeners. Holmes contrasts him with the gloomy “poet” Pool (think of Edgar Allan Poe). This chapter is an excellent inside look at a recording session, even if the session is spoiled by Pool’s inappropriate and disruptive behavior—which Curny brilliantly deflects. Curny keeps telling Pool that he can cash a check for him when he is done recording, but Pool does not want him to think that the money is to “lush” (drink), and he suddenly leaves. The chapter ends on the revelation that Pool has hocked his horn, a sign of just how serious his situation is. As Wing and Walden continue looking for Pool in the “Metro” chorus, their search leads them to the man who knew Pool before any of them did, the tenor saxophonist Metro Myland. The quotation introducing this chapter is from Walt Whitman, and Myland turns out to be the most visionary and spiritual musician presented here—a true transcendentalist. Metro is several years younger than Pool, and they first meet one bitterly cold night when they are both hoboing across America and hop the same freight car. Pool is 18 and tells the boy his story of how he has run away from home rather than take his father’s advice and become a railroad porter. His plan is to return home with the money he has saved, buy a horn, and turn his mother’s woodshed into a practice studio (thus the term woodshedding to describe a player’s practicing). The freight car is freezing, and Pool teaches Metro to stay warm by singing and dancing. Later, in one of the novel’s most remarkable scenes, a young white girl jumps the same freight, and to stay warm, she makes love to both men. Metro never forgets the sight of a tear frozen in the corner of her eye, and the clearness with which he sees that next morning remains a revelatory vision to him throughout his life. At Kansas City, Missouri, Pool makes Metro jump off with him, and thereafter, for a year, he tags along behind Pool. Back at home in Kansas City, Pool moves in with his mother, who fails to understand how serious he is about becoming a horn player. Pool buys his first horn at a pawnshop. At the time (early 1930s), for a variety of reasons, Kansas City had become a jazz capitol of America. In this respect, his story resembles that of both Charlie Parker and Lester Young, both of whom grew up in Kansas City and began to play there at about this time. Pool studies the famous jazz players and imitates their fingering on his leg. His woodshedding is progressing when, unfortunately, his father returns once again to live with his mother. His father tells Pool to get a job that is appropriate for a black man, and Pool tells him that horn playing knows no black or white. Metro first realizes how much Pool wants to play when he watches him onstage, desperately repeating the one song he can play (“Comin’ Virginia”) but playing it to each new rhythm as it changes. Pool’s humiliation makes him give his horn away—to Metro. The end of this chapter makes the point that Pool’s rage, which has been his source of inspiration, ultimately fails him. The riff takes place in the kitchen of the Go Hole, where Pool negotiates to play two sets for $130 and a bottle. A young trumpeter named Kelcey Crane refuses to play with the clearly drunk Pool. In the “Edgar” chorus, Pool is insulted by Kelcey Crane’s refusal to play alongside him, but Pool realizes that Crane’s refusal reminds him of himself as a younger man. The scene turns comic as the drunken Cleo falls off the piano bench while playing; the Julliard-trained Billy James is beside himself at Cleo’s and Pool’s lack of professionalism. The audience of young listeners flings Pool’s own sneering, ironic attitude that they have learned from him back at him. Pool realizes that without the sympathy of the audience, he can no longer play. He tries mightily to blow something that will show the crowd that he still has “it,” but he only briefly reaches what was once effortless brilliance on the tenor sax. Billy James walks offstage in disgust, and the set ends. Pool cannot remember having ever “pulled a five” (walked out) on another musician. Between sets, in the second “Edgar” chorus, Pool sets out to recruit a crowd of sympathetic listeners for his second set at the Go Hole. He goes to the Paradise Club next door and almost gives up on finding anyone among the unfamiliar crowd of young faces when he spots Geordie, having dinner with one of her ubiquitous, young white escorts. He tells her that he is sick and needs help, and she thinks that he is suffering once again from drug addiction. This misunderstanding causes him to be rude to her, and he leaves the club. Almost immediately he thinks that he could have said something nice to her instead, and he realizes that Cleo has also been trying to help him, and he could have thanked him, too. Such thoughts show that as Pool comes ever closer to physical collapse, his fierce pride—that has both created him and destroyed him—begins to break down. Pool stops off at a bar on the way back to the Go Hole for a second set, and once again his request for money is misunderstood, this time by Curny’s manager, Mr. Owls, who believes that Pool wants “lush money” (drinking money). Pool leaves the bar after a drink that will be his last. He enters the Go Hole and hears that the trio has started without him. He suddenly realizes that his body can take no more, and he feels himself collapsing. Still, the brilliant solo being played by Kelcey pierces the fog in his brain. He sees two young white listeners (could this be the apparition of Holmes and Kerouac?) hearing the same brilliance, and this ties him to them: “They loved the thing he loved.” Then, dismayingly, he hears himself onstage: Walden is playing his own solos, note for note, on a cover of “Junius Sees Her.” Wing holds Pool back from going onstage. Pool listens in shock as he is paid tribute to as if he is already dead. It is at this moment that the years of self-abuse catch up to him, and he collapses with a stomach hemorrhage. All of his friends converge on him as he goes down. In the last section of the book, a coda called “Cleo,” Holmes draws conclusions about the significance of jazz and the situation of African Americans in a segregated America. Cleo seems to see in Pool’s fading eyes the knowledge that all of the race hatred in the United States will fade only when “the two sundered halves are yoked again: the male, the female; the black, the white, yes.” “Yes” becomes the refrain of the chapter and is indeed the refrain of the book. It is the “yes” of neal cassady in On the Road, the primal yes of Walt Whitman. Holmes concludes: Jazz captures American desire and American protest. Jazz celebrates America. At the end of the book, Cleo finds The Horn’s pawn ticket for his tenor saxophone, but he does not redeem it. He leaves the horn there as a legacy for some future musician who will purchase it just as Pool had bought his first horn in a Kansas City pawnshop in the 1930s.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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