The Best of Jackson Payne: A Novel
by Jack Fuller
Knopf, 321 pp., $25.00
reviewed by Jim Linduff
In The Best of Jackson Payne, Jack Fuller has written a brilliant description of jazz, perhaps the most vivid I have ever read. The novel centers on the chaotic life of Jackson Payne, a Black sax player who struggles with many demons and Charlie Quinlan, a middle-aged, white musicologist and biographer who desperately is trying to understand Payne's life.
Jack Fuller, one-time editor of the Chicago Tribune who also wrote jazz criticism for the paper, brings a combination of jazz history, music theory and years of listening to jazz in clubs in an effort to explain the essence of our music. The base story line describes the life of Jackson Payne from his early days growing up poor in Chicago, through a stint in a segregated unit in Korea, then into a career in jazz—all chronicled through the eyes of Charlie Quinlan who is attempting to write the perfect biography of a jazz musician.
Many writers stereotype jazz musicians as drug abusers—people unable to deal with "normal" lifestyles—and while Jackson Payne succumbs to many excesses which almost destroy his life, the journey he takes, and the music that results, is described by Fuller in a manner that almost allows the reader to hear the music.
Through friends, lovers and other musicians, the author follows Payne's search for musical liberation by describing a path from diatonic harmonies that form the basis of early Western music to the chromatic elements that can expand enormous, but shattering creative forces.
After hearing tapes of a final Payne recording, Quinlan explains, "Jazz is about feelings, emotions in the moment. It comes from the deepest self, not as memory so much as memory made new. The sound he got at the end was not a return to the life he had lived but rather the profoundest statement of who he had become."
I found myself hearing the music of Jackson Payne through Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and even Wardell Gray who, like Payne died under mysterious circumstances—both deaths given superficial investigation by the police. At times, it was difficult to remember this was a work of fiction and I was almost tempted to search for Jackson Payne LPs.
While the story of Charles Quinlan is secondary to that of Payne, we learn how Quinlan discovers himself as he tries to fully understand the circumstances of Payne's life and death. In addition, through the combination of Payne and Quinlan, the author describes the heart and soul of jazz in the most vivid manner I have ever read. When students or others new to jazz want me to explain jazz and how it differs from other music, I can now respond, "Read The Best of Jackson Payne."
Jim Linduff teaches jazz and blues history at the University of Cincinnati and contributes to several music publications.