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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.In Albert’s argument, the blues motif serves as a reminder of unhappiness and repression.
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.
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 (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”.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.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.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.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 .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.