Book review: Bard College prof's short stories bring jazz era to life

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Anyone who loves jazz, or anyone who ever wanted to know what the fascination is all about, will find fulfilling new territory to explore in the new collection of stories by Wesley Brown, "Dance of the Infidels."

Playwright and novelist Brown is professor emeritus at Rutgers University and currently teaches literature and creative writing at Bard College at Simon's Rock. These stories frame the lives of great jazz musicians like Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Coleman Hawkins, Cab Calloway and a whole host of other great names in jazz history whose art and inspiration are intertwined with the stories of others.

Brown's astoundingly in-depth knowledge of these jazz greats, and some of those who were part of the scene in that era, brings the music and the talent to life in ways that define what music can do for people. Each story is a masterfully rendered truth and characterization that comes from love and deep appreciation for jazz.

The collection is made up of eight stories, blending at times through the characters' relationships and involvement with jazz.

The first story, "Women From Mars," is a coming-of-age tale of a young trombone player named Florence Gatling, who is hired by Claude Biddle to join an all-female jazz band. At the end of the story, Florence encounters the legendary and elegant Billie Holiday and receives sage advice.

In the story, "Oop-Pop-a-Da," an insecure Russian immigrant girl, Anna Danova, is taken to a jazz concert by her father, Jacob, and when The Duke Ellington Orchestra launches into its first number, a whole new world opens up for her.

After that, she attends jazz events on a regular basis. She learns that she has talent for dancing, she meets Sarah Vaughan, for whom Anna and her mother, Lila, make dresses, and later in the story, Anna gets advice from the jazz vocalist Billy Eckstine.

In another story, "Zazz Zu Zazz," Cab Calloway famously de-escalates riot category tensions in the street by getting his band to perform outside the Savoy, where African- Americans were not allowed, and a little boy learns that people do not always tell the truth, but some have a way of making real peace through music.

All of these stories are set against the brewing influences and consequences of World War II. The careers and popularity of the music are chronicled in the musicians' lives and the people who love them.

These stories are rich in the number of jazz musicians included and in the powerful ways this music is rendered by them and how powerfully it affects the lives of those who listen, dance, and dream to its seemingly infinite possibilities.

Brown will be at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar at 5:30 p.m. Friday to read from his stories and sign copies of the book.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. He welcomes reader comments at charrington686@gmail.com


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