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Larry Strauss

Larry Strauss

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Can a White Guy Tell a Story as an African American Woman?

Posted: 04/22/11 02:25 PM ET

I didn't set out to tell a woman's story. What inspired Now's the Time was something told to me by a guy I met in the used jazz aisle of Rhino Records on Westwood Boulevard in Los Angeles about twenty-five years ago -- about a bootleg tape of a legendary trumpet player recorded the night he and his pianist and the pianist's wife died in a car accident and how a legendary drummer wound up in possession of that tape but was so heartbroken he could not bring himself to listen to it for thirty years.

The trumpet player, most jazz enthusiasts can probably figure out, was Clifford Brown who crashed along with pianist Richie Powell and Powell's wife on a rain-slick road outside Pittsburgh in June of 1956 and the drummer who couldn't bring himself to listen to that recording was Max Roach -- except that the story is probably not true. At least I've never been able to verify it and in fact it was the realization that this was jazz myth, handed down from one generation to the next, a melancholy riff like a Miles Davis ballad that made me want to write a novel about it.

Bebop jazz of the 1950s was very much a man's world -- all the great innovators of that time were men. The women who made significant contributions were mostly singers along with a few rhythm players. Even fewer women played a horn back then, but fictional trumpet player Didi Heron asserted herself into this story. Didi came to life as I struggled to conceive a plot out of jazz myth. She materialized with her ax and her angst about whether she had the chops to really play with authority that thing from which Louis Armstrong and Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, and so many other men have coaxed such rapture. Didi came to life and said, "What about me?" And said, "What about my father?" Her father, it turned out, was the pianist who was also in the car when it crashed and who also died that night, the tragedy no one ever seems to remember.

So Didi Heron just picked up her horn and started blowing it in my imagination as I plotted this novel -- which is a romantic way of saying that I thought the daughter of the forgotten pianist was a really cool perspective from which to tell this story. Didi was only four years old when she lost her father, Billy Heron, and her only real connection to him is in his music. She's listened to all his records and learned to play the trumpet along with them. Now she wants to find that tape because someone has told her it is out there and also that her father, his last night on earth, played like he'd never played before. She isn't sure she will ever play the trumpet with enough power and beauty to live up to his musical legacy but in the meantime she can do honor to that legacy by finding the tape and setting the musical record straight about her father and who he was and where he belongs among the great players of that era.

But what business do I have thinking I can tell Didi's story? My favorite answer to that question is the most poetic and pretentious one:

I didn't tell Didi's story. She told it -- I just wrote it down.

Or, perhaps more pretentious: the music spoke through me and it told the story (I can't tell that one with a straight face).

Oscar Wilde once said, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

I don't believe that is true for everyone but perhaps it is true for me and as a writing teacher I often tell students to assume a perspective very different from their own. I think it can be a transformative experience. Writing Now's the Time felt that way. Certainly many writers have successfully assumed the perspective of people unlike themselves -- James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, for example -- and reading those works has, at least for me, been transformative.

At a time when readers are increasingly demanding some certificate of authenticity with their stories -- when memoirs, even dubious ones, and other non-fiction have increasingly marginalized much of the fictional world -- I wonder if such transformations will become obsolete. I hope not.

 
 
 

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