Sonnys Blues Essay On Music

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Sound is inescapable. In the city, it permeates everything. In that soundscape, there is music, and if one truly listens, within that music there are stories. When I was a young girl my father lectured at Columbia, and for a brief time we lived in a small apartment off 145th street in Harlem. It was in Harlem I learned to appreciate street music. Improvisational impromptu hip-hop erupted from every corner. I distinctly remember holding onto my father’s hand as we rode the B train home after nights at the symphony, and hearing a different kind of music, a music that felt more tangible and intertwined with the surroundings, though I didn’t yet have the words to articulate what I felt. On the train, young men rapped and improvised, telling their stories in melodic lyrics imposed over the sound of the subway moving along the tracks. Closing my eyes, I could feel the vibrating rhythm of the train rising through the soles of my feet, and I could hear the melodies of the voices and the surrounding conversations – all those stories blending into one sound.

Over the years I spent time studying music, learning classical piano and attempting to teach myself guitar. In struggling to compose and perform music, I learned to appreciate improvisational hip-hop composition on a structural level – taking note of its origins in the rich history of jazz, the hard jazz of the forties and fifties. This style of jazz, better known as be-bop, was quite influential on artists of the time, and this “new” jazz idiom greatly influenced the arts scene in Harlem, playing a key role in the works not only of musicians, but also painters like Beauford Delaney, and young writers like James Baldwin for whom jazz was an important mode of expression. In 1945, (at about the time that Baldwin was starting out as a writer), one of bebop’s best known recorded sessions was put to vinyl. The session, known as The Savoy recordings, was led by the “messiah of modern jazz” Charlie Parker (better known as Bird), and included the great Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillesspie, and Max Roach.

The outstanding piece from that recording, “Now’s the Time”, exemplifies the blues-form jazz that influenced Baldwin’s writing and that he employs as the story form for “Sonny’s Blues”. The first few charged fast-passing piano chords and soft brush hits of high jazz cymbal in “Now’s the Time”, set a rhythmic (composed) melodic head for the tune. The melody is underlined with repeated bass tones, and it is then electrified by the improvised rising harmonies of saxophone and trumpet. Closing one’s eyes and listening to the head of the piece – the tune recalls the sounds of a train or trolley, struggling and then steadying along its route. Rising above that steadying sound are the bright harmonizing melodies of conversations between sax and trumpet – all riding along over that composed melodic train of rhythm. “Now’s The Time” is composed on a twelve bar blues form chord progression, different from the thirty-two bar song form jazz form chord progression of popular jazz-age players. Charlie Parker was a new breed of musician, taking from the old standards and improvising upon them, giving jazz a new voice. It is this new form, (bop or blues form jazz) that bears great importance in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”

In “Sonny’s Blues”, Baldwin’s language conveys the rhythm, melody, and heavy mood of the jazz music of the late Harlem Renaissance. Baldwin uses music as a lens or controlling metaphor to examine questions of heritage, race, the African-American experience, and societal limitations and expectations. Through Baldwin’s careful construction of language and use of symbolism, jazz within the story becomes not only a forceful sonic medium but also a higher language relating more than the story of Sonny, or his brother (our unnamed narrator). Through the story’s structure and diction, Baldwin intones an underlying strain of music for the reader to hear. He composes a story that functions structurally like a jazz tune. Employing the basic components of compositional structure including: rhythm, melody, and harmony, along with the more complex jazz constructs of polyphony and improvisation, he creates a piece with tension and vocalization. It helps us to visualize this comparison if we break down the story alongside a work like Now’s The Time (which I will return to later).

Critics have made much about the use of music in Baldwin’s writing the use of music in “Sonny’s Blues”. While music is of great importance to the story, interpretations of how Baldwin uses music as a metaphor (or otherwise) has been a rather murky area of study, with varying ideas of what role Baldwin intended the music to play within the piece. Literary critics like Richard Albert claim that Baldwin uses too many mixed musical allusions in “Sonny’s Blues”, and that it is unclear what he is trying to accomplish through switching between jazz and blues as motif within the story. Albert claims that “a closer examination of Baldwin’s use of jazz and blues and of Luis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, the character Creole, and the song “Am I Blue” [at the end of the story] reveals some solid support for basic themes, as well as some possible thematic and structural flaws that might cause some readers to question whether Baldwin really understood the nature of the jazz/blues motif that he used” (Albert, 175).

Albert claims that Baldwin uses the blues motif as an important signifier in the story because “the blues are synonymous with low spirits” and that “both the narrator and Sonny have had their fair share” (Albert, 175). In Albert’s argument, the blues motif serves as a reminder of unhappiness and repression. He states that the jazz motif within the story “emphasizes the theme of individualism” through its adhering to ideals of improvisation that Sonny embodies as a jazz musician. He sees that individualism as causing the brothers’ alienation from one another (Albert, 175). Albert’s assertions separate jazz and blues into two different motifs and do not take account for their entire meaning/function in the story, when viewed together as a whole. Separating the two in such a way does not illuminate their overall use and importance in the story.

Baldwin was a lover of music and a singer, and I believe that he knew what he was doing in bringing together (what Albert refers to separately as) the blues motif and the jazz motif.  Baldwin pulls into the story varied musical allusions and metaphors. By incorporating gospel, hymns, and blues metaphor as influences on jazz, and in creating a compositional tune structure for the story, he ties together the history of the evolution of jazz with the history of the African-American experience into an all-encompassing form.

Other literary critics, for example Susanna Lee and Suzy Bernstein-Goldman, have looked at the symbolic use of music and have considered musical structure within the story, but like Albert have also separated each use of musical metaphor (or structural element) into divided camps, and contracted (or confined) interpretations that do not fully examine the role of music in the story.

In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," music is the central focus of Sonny's life—it is the only thing that seems to release him from his suffering: his addiction, growing up black, feeling alone and cut off from others, and a feeling that he has no one to love or understand him.

Baldwin believed in the power of art to save people from suffering, or at least to minimize their suffering.

It is not surprising that Baldwin...

In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," music is the central focus of Sonny's life—it is the only thing that seems to release him from his suffering: his addiction, growing up black, feeling alone and cut off from others, and a feeling that he has no one to love or understand him.

Baldwin believed in the power of art to save people from suffering, or at least to minimize their suffering.

It is not surprising that Baldwin gives Sonny's character the ability to play jazz—the blues—to better deal with his own suffering, including the awareness that he and his brother cannot communicate and therefore have no connection.

Sonny tries to verbalize to his brother just how important music is to him:

"Sometimes you'll do anything to play, even cut your mother's throat." He laughed and looked at me. "Or your brother's." Then he sobered. "Or your own."

The difficulty is that Sonny wants to make his living in a non-traditional way, one that his brother does not understand. The narrator knows nothing about jazz: he believes it is simply men sitting and fooling around with music. The narrator cannot see that it is so much more to the serious musician—and to Sonny, who has music in his soul. The narrator has been charged by his mother to care for Sonny, but he doesn't know how—certainly not in a way that will help Sonny.

Ironically, the music that Sonny's brother knows nothing about ultimately creates a bridge between the two men. And while the narrator may not completely understand jazz or the blues, while he may not know anything about the big names of this movement in music, he suddenly is able to better know his brother by seeing his connection to song.

...Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others... Then he began to make it was no longer a lament...Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.

Not only does the music help the narrator better know his brother, but the blues bring to him the sources of his own suffering:

I saw my mother's face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father's brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel's tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise.

Perhaps in losing his daughter, the narrator could never quite understand Sonny's suffering because it was different than his own; but Sonny's music illuminates the truth of suffering—a common feeling for a different reason. He understand life better, and death; and most certainly, he sees what a miracle music is to Sonny, and even how much it matters in his own life.


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