Book Review: Blue in Green
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
On August 25, 1959, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis escorts a white girl to a cab, lights a cigarette outside Birdland, and a city policeman harasses the black man. Bitter words were exchanged. Davis refuses to back down, defiantly standing his ground. Nevertheless, he becomes fearful that the officer’s blackjack would damage his lips or hands. While the cop held his arms, a plainclothes detective roughed him up. Bloody, the musician is taken to the precinct and booked on charges of disorderly conduct and assault.
Playwright, novelist, and teacher Wesley Brown takes this confrontation and extends it into an evening full of drama and historic value in his new novella, Blue in Green. While this fiction is based on documented fact, the writer realizes his mission is to fashion a lucid, unflinching vision of reinvented narrative. This is a clash of art, culture and politics, exaggerated by the tragedy of the times, when Jim Crow prevailed. Politics have long haunted Brown. In the 1960s, he joined the fight by working with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1965 and later became a member of the Black Panther Party in 1968. Refusing induction in the armed services, he was sentenced to three years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. A veteran professor for 26 years, Brown was a much admired instructor at Rutgers University and now teaches literature at Bard College.
Edited his debut novel, Tragic Magic, by the editor Toni Morrison, Brown followed with more ooks, Darkman Strutters, Push Comes to Shove, and Dance of the Infidels, a collection of short fiction. And now arrives Blue in Green, a wholly original experiment in historical fiction. It succeeds because of the reputation of Miles Davis, a person who sucked all of the air from a room, whether performing or holding court. As one of his friends said about him, he summed the man up: “Miles just don’t like people getting close to him. He is tender and sensitive deep inside. Anybody who doesn’t really know Miles comes to the conclusion that he’s just a black SOB who doesn’t give a shit.”
As a novella, Brown selects the highlights of the trumpeter’s day, cherry-picking choice dialogue to flesh out the brief scenes. He is presented in a series of revealing newsreels, the colors and rhythms of the talk and action very spare but loaded with feeling. No sleaze or fanzine gossip. Other than police brutality, certain themes are covered: the loneliness and isolation of being a celebrity in show business, the pressure to top one’s previous work, the rigors of competition, and the occasional self-destructiveness of the jazz world.
Readers get a chance to eavesdrop on the topsy-turvy relationship between Davis and his wife, Frances, an elite dancer with the Katherine Dunham troupe. He is jealous of her. Love in all of its chilling phases. She knows he is addicted to pian killers from his hip injury and coke. He chuckles about his memories of the legendary Lester Young (Prez), who nicknamed him “Midget” and the tenor man’s friendship with Billie Holiday. There is also some spicy talk between Davis and Lady Day, before her tragic period of being handcuffed to a hospital bed in her final hours.
“Speaking of the ‘show’ in the business, I’ve heard about you turning away from the audiences when you ain’t playing,” Lady Day says. “Now that you up close, I get it. You a pretty muthafucka. I see why women and men get their noses wide open, begging for more. But with your back turned, you telling ‘em — your eyes may water, your teeth may grit, but none of the rest a me is you gonna get.”
We get lucky to hear the high-toned voices of Miles’ parents, a dentist and a teacher living the good life, lecturing him about class, race, self-image, and identity. Also, Frances and Eartha Kitt, two students of Dunham, recount the past with the mild-mannered Davis sweetheart marveling at “Kitty’s” feline grace and a razor tongue. More flashbacks abound as Davis recalls how he burrowed Clifford Brown’s horn and amazed the crowd after Max and Brownie dazzled them in a concert. Other jazz bigshots appear in brief vignettes such as Charlie (“Bird”) Parker, Dizzy, Satchmo, and Clark Terry, who lectures the unpredictable Davis about the art of being gentlemanly.
Two segments of the book were gems; one with the ultra-sultry Lena Horne and another with the hard-charging John Coltrane. First, Lena, with her well-modulated voice, advises France about the wear-and-tear of stardom, noting the dancer was more grounded than she was. “When I was hardly ready. Totally confused. Didn’t know my ass from my elbow…You weren’t under siege the way I was- a star in Hollywood. That was unthinkable for our people. We played maids and underlings for white folks…As a so-called ‘first,’ I had responsibilities, representing our people, doing right by them, and making them proud.”
But Brown is a true jazz lover in how he features the music and the personalities of the music throughout the book. He knows it inside and out. “Miles asked Trane why he played so long. Trane had said, “It took that long to get it all out.”…Miles felt that Trane played backwards, like from the get-go of a tune, already knowing how he heard it so many times before, but wanting to find out how he might hear it if he tries to follow what was hidden in what he didn’t know.”
This is a worthy, exceptional project. Some critics will falsely compare it to Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, or E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Brown’s use of on-target dialogue and clever interior terrain of the people surrounding Davis elevate this brief tome, making it real and immediate. This book might ruffle the feathers of sticklers for fact and accuracy, but others will crave more. It’s pure, distilled literary magic.