Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book Review: Jazz Country by Nat Hentoff (1965)

Sixteen-year-old Tom Curtis loves jazz, and he is desperate to find a way to get "inside" the primarily black community surrounding his beloved music. When he meets Moses Godfrey, one of the performers whom he admires, Tom  realizes that he has yet to experience enough of life to really express complex emotions in his music. Still, he spends time with Godfrey and his band, soaking up what they have to offer him while deciding whether to attend college or pursue music as a full-time career.

Published in 1965, this book is very much a reflection of the times. Civil rights issues are as important to the story as jazz music itself, and there is lots of commentary on the different attitudes different groups took toward being black in America and fighting for the rights of African-Americans. For example, Godfrey and his own son have a conflict between them because Godfrey believes his son would prefer to be white. There is an incident (which today would be called a hate crime) in which Godfrey is attacked by a group of white kids in a park, who leave him alone only when they realize he is famous. Tom, too, faces the difficulty of understanding why the people he admires are so ostracized even within their own city, and he comments more than once on how unfairly black people are treated in situations where no police officer would think twice about his actions. Certainly, these issues are still relevant today, but the way they are presented here - and Hentoff's use of the then-preferred term Negro -  leaves no doubt that the setting is the sixties.

From a musical standpoint, this book is a great crash course in jazz appreciation. Though Moses Godfrey is fictitious, many of the other musicians mentioned throughout the text are real. There are also a lot of details about the poor conditions many jazz musicians lived in, which sheds some light on the reality of "making it" in the music business during this time period. For teenagers like Tom, who might have unrealistic expectations of fame and fortune, this information is certainly eye-opening and it grounds dreams of becoming a jazz musician in the harsh realities faced by many people who sacrifice everything for their love of music.

Though Jazz Country is still likely to appeal to even contemporary fans of jazz, it is not surprising to me that not many libraries have it in their children's or teen collections anymore. Without an appreciation for its historical relevance, readers could easily dismiss the book as dated, and choose something with a more interesting cover to read instead. Interestingly, though, many of the questions the book explores - whether to follow a dream, how to decide what to do after high school, and how to look past differences in order to find commonalities - are timeless, and if they looked past the cover and the sixties references, today's teens might find more in common with Tom than they imagined.

I enjoyed this book and will be on the lookout for Nat Hentoff's other YA novels, which include Does This School Have Capital Punishment? (1982) and The Day They Came To Arrest The Book (1983).

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