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William Palmer on the novels of Josef Škvorecký

The Sound of Youth

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The music that accompanies our youth and first loves remains with us all our lives. It may not be the greatest music, but it is the first and is anchored in our hearts.

It’s odd to recall that until the rock and pop revolution of the early Sixties, most British towns had at least one band, usually consisting of a trumpet and trombone, drummer, bass player and out-of-tune pianist thumping out rough versions of New Orleans and Dixieland jazz to young audiences in the back rooms of pubs. This was good drinking and jiving music, although as a young smart alec in those days I snobbishly preferred modern jazz. However, in no forms of jazz did I ever see anyone playing the bass saxophone, the instrument celebrated in Josef Škvorecký’s wonderful novella The Bass Saxophone.

The bass saxophone is so large that it has to be played standing up, or tilted sideways if sitting. (There is actually an even larger saxophone, the 7-foot-high contra-bass, which looks like the heart of a Gothic plumbing system and gives out what can most politely be described as a series of deep gastric rumbles.) Only one man ever produced good jazz on the bass sax, and that was the American Adrian Rollini in the 1930s (he also mastered something called ‘the hot fountain pen’).

Rollini is mentioned in The Bass Saxophone, and the instrument itself acts as a gigantic and glowing symbol of the freedom and individualism that Škvorecký found in jazz; what he calls ‘an élan vital, a forceful vitality, an explosive creative energy’ in his autobiographical introduction to the novel. And when we know something of Škvorecký’s life we can see that the romantic, naïve 18-year-old who narrates the story is his alter ego.

Josef Škvorecký was born in 1924 in Nachod, in the region of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. He has described his reaction to the first jazz record he ever heard:

that terribly scratch

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The music that accompanies our youth and first loves remains with us all our lives. It may not be the greatest music, but it is the first and is anchored in our hearts.

It’s odd to recall that until the rock and pop revolution of the early Sixties, most British towns had at least one band, usually consisting of a trumpet and trombone, drummer, bass player and out-of-tune pianist thumping out rough versions of New Orleans and Dixieland jazz to young audiences in the back rooms of pubs. This was good drinking and jiving music, although as a young smart alec in those days I snobbishly preferred modern jazz. However, in no forms of jazz did I ever see anyone playing the bass saxophone, the instrument celebrated in Josef Škvorecký’s wonderful novella The Bass Saxophone. The bass saxophone is so large that it has to be played standing up, or tilted sideways if sitting. (There is actually an even larger saxophone, the 7-foot-high contra-bass, which looks like the heart of a Gothic plumbing system and gives out what can most politely be described as a series of deep gastric rumbles.) Only one man ever produced good jazz on the bass sax, and that was the American Adrian Rollini in the 1930s (he also mastered something called ‘the hot fountain pen’). Rollini is mentioned in The Bass Saxophone, and the instrument itself acts as a gigantic and glowing symbol of the freedom and individualism that Škvorecký found in jazz; what he calls ‘an élan vital, a forceful vitality, an explosive creative energy’ in his autobiographical introduction to the novel. And when we know something of Škvorecký’s life we can see that the romantic, naïve 18-year-old who narrates the story is his alter ego. Josef Škvorecký was born in 1924 in Nachod, in the region of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. He has described his reaction to the first jazz record he ever heard:

that terribly scratchy Brunswick seventy-eight spinning on a wind-up phonograph, with the almost illegible label ‘I’ve Got a Guy’, Chick Webb and His Orchestra with Vocal Chorus . . . we had no way of knowing this was the great, then seventeen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald. But the message of her voice, the call of the saxes . . . they all came across. Nothing could ever silence them in our hearts.

There were certainly those who tried to silence them. Škvorecký’s youth coincided with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia from 1939 to 1945. There was not much doubt as to the Nazis’ view of jazz – many of its tunes were by Jewish Americans and its finest instrumental exponents were black Americans. Instructions were issued to all dance orchestras that their playing must be ‘commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) . . . be tolerated.’ The swing band in which Škvorecký played had to disguise its sheet music as Czech folk tunes, and a watch was kept from the taverns where they played. If a German hove into sight, the band would slip smoothly into a sweet Viennese waltz. The Bass Saxophone opens quite magically at dusk, when the light forms ‘a puddle of honey’. We are in a small town in Bohemia, occupied by the Germans and inhabited by their enemies and a few collaborators. The unnamed young man telling us the story is standing in front of the town’s hotel when a small grey bus draws up. An old man pulls out an enormous case. It drops to the ground and opens a crack so that the evening sun glints ‘on the immense, incredible bell of a bass saxophone, as big around as a washbasin’. On the side of the bus are the words Lothar Kinze Mit Seinem Unterhaltungsorchester – a German entertainment band, certainly not a jazz band. But the young man is transfixed by the sight of this instrument. The old man cannot manage the case and asks for help to carry it inside. There is a difficulty. Much as our hero would like to touch the instrument, the hotel is for Germans only and across the square a local, Mr Kana, is watching the two men. The last thing the young man wants to be taken for is a collaborator. His dilemma is resolved when a German soldier roughly tells him to help the old man and he staggers into the hotel with the case. Up two flights of stairs they stop at room 12a and, as they enter, he sees a man asleep on the bed. The old man invites him to look at the saxophone, even try it out if he wants to. He leaves him alone with the sleeping man and the instrument. From the next room the young man can hear the hectoring voice of Kühl, a German officer of whom he has run foul when playing jazz records in the local cinema. What follows can only be described as a semi-erotic embrace of young man and saxophone. The parts lie in the case and he lifts the main body out of its plush bed.
Then the second part: I put them together. I embraced the body with gentle fingers . . . I could not resist . . . I just stood there with the mouthpiece in my mouth, my fingers spread and embracing the immense body, my eyes misty . . . I had never held one before: I felt as if I were embracing a mistress.
And he thinks of the two girls that he is in love with but who (so far) have not succumbed to his advances. Inevitably he has to play the instrument.
I blew into the mouthpiece, running my fingers down the valves; what emerged from the bell . . . was a cruel, beautiful, infinitely sad sound.
The man on the bed does not wake, but the single note, reverberating through the hotel, summons a memorable, not to say grotesque crew to room 12a. A ‘haggard little fat man’ is followed by an elderly woman with a bulbous nose and bloated body, then a good-looking man with the head of a Roman emperor but with no legs below his knees, then a blonde and very beautiful girl, who looks odd by virtue of her relative normality, then a one-eyed giant leading a hunchback with black glasses on his nose. The little fat man bows and introduces himself – he is Lothar Kinze – and his orchestra: in order of appearance in the room, they are the leader and violinist, pianist, trumpeter, singer, accordionist and drummer. The man drunkenly asleep on the bed is the bass saxophone player. Sadly and comically the band tell him tales of their past before the war, recalling days of love in this time of hate, and good food and wine in a world of rationing and ersatz substitutes. None of them is a Nazi; the band is their refuge from the horrors of war, a band ‘possible only in wartime, dragging its weepy and incomprehensible message from the glories of one ornate municipal hall to the next, in distant towns on the periphery of battlefields’. They need a saxophone player. The band cannot go on stage without one. The young man agrees, trying to hide his obsessive desire to play this rarest of jazz instruments. So that none of the local collaborators in the audience will recognize him he is disguised with a ludicrous Groucho Marx moustache and thick eyebrows. In one chilling passage amid the comedy he looks through a peep-hole at the audience of occupying Germans and their wives and sees: ‘A velvet gown; and behind it other satined and brocaded German ladies with a mobile jewellery exhibition . . . little shining stories ending in death.’ They are wearing the jewels looted from deported Jews. The audience laps up Lothar Kinze’s syrupy sentimentalism and lumpy village dance rhythms. And our hero joins in, losing himself in the ecstasy of playing the great melancholy instrument, despite the deplorable music they are playing. But then, at the end of a number, the band’s own bass saxophone player, now awake, plucks him off the stage, takes his place and plays a thunderous jazz solo. The audience is appalled. The evening disintegrates and the young man flees the theatre. Luckily he gets away. In the morning there is no sign of the grey bus or the band: it is as if they were parts of a dream that has dissolved. The Bass Saxophone is an ecstatic hymn to freedom, rich with the stolen victories of the tyrannized. Škvorecký stayed in Czechoslovakia until 1968 but left when the Russians invaded. He has lived in Canada since then and has written many novels and other works, but it is the studies of the enchantment of youth and young love in the midst of the horrors of the war and the grinding misery and cultural wasteland of the Communist dictatorship that followed, to which I return. The mixed fortunes of his jazz-playing hero can be followed in the novel The Cowards and in a wonderful collection of stories, The Swell Season. There is a sweetness and an innocence about the would-be knowingness of his very young men, their forbidden music and their innocent and tantalizing girlfriends that are quite unlike anything else in twentieth-century literature.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 37 © William Palmer 2013


About the contributor

William Palmer’s new novel, The Devil Is White, has just been published. His The India House (2005) is still in print and awaiting eager buyers.

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