Musicologist Charles Quinlan -- white, middle-aged -- has spent half his life immersed in jazz, and now he thinks he is ready to explain the life and work of one of its masters. The music, he believes, will show him the way past the accidents of birth and the disparities of experience that divide him from his subject, Jackson Payne.
Payne appeared on the scene a fully formed jazz artist not long after returning from service in the Korean War. For two decades his tenor saxophone burned its way through a series of increasingly complex musical ideas. And then he flamed out. What had driven him? What had destroyed him? Is it possible for someone like Quinlan to break through the walls of race and poverty to an understanding of someone like Payne?
In his quest, Quinlan listens to the men who served with Payne in combat, the women who loved him and believed his lies, the musicians who shared his addiction to hard bop and heroin. He discovers the family secrets that tortured Payne, the musical and spiritual doubts that haunted him. And in the end he has to struggle not only with Payne's obsessions but also with his own.
Jack Fuller's novel works like the music it embraces. The voices of people close to Payne move in and out of the foreground like horns blowing solos in a dark nightclub. They take us into the world -- into the birth and the art -- of jazz, and into the lives of the extraordinary Americans who created it.
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Published June 13, 2000
Literature & Fiction.