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A day in the life



Wesley Brown


Blue in Green: A Novella


Blank Forms Editions / 2022 / 68 pp / $20.00


Reviewed by Robin Lippincott / October 2023




 

As a writer, teacher, and critic, one of my favorite roles is as an admirer of artists whose art hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Wesley Brown, who has been writing high quality literary fiction for almost fifty years (Tragic Magic, Darktown Strutters, Dance of the Infidels, and others), and who briefly taught in the Naslund-Mann MFA Program in the early 2000s, is one of those artists. Enter his latest virtuosic work of fiction, the novella Blue in Green, titled after a track on Miles Davis’s seminal album Kind of Blue, which would go on to be the best-selling jazz album of all time—with around five million units sold.


The entirety of Blue in Green takes place on a single, significant day in the life of Miles Davis, August 25, 1959, as he’s taking a break outside Birdland, the Manhattan club where he’s currently performing. Just one week earlier, Kind of Blue was released. Miles has just escorted a woman (who happened to be white) to a cab and is enjoying a smoke when a New York City police officer approaches and tells him to move along. Miles responds that he’s working and points to the marquee, but the cop doesn’t believe him, and their exchange becomes increasingly heated. “I guess movies are the only thing you like to see in black and white,” Miles says. The next thing he knows, Miles is hit over the head by another cop who has sneaked up behind him, handcuffed him, and pushed him into a squad car. Before the car takes off, Miles tells bandmate Cannonball Adderley to go get his wife, Frances, ask her to meet him at the nearest precinct and bring him a change of clothes (his are bloodied). Cannonball and Frances show up at the police station, Miles is released on bail, the three return to the club briefly, Cannonball leaves, and then, though Frances hopes that she and Miles will go home, Miles wants to stay out, driving around Manhattan alone in his Ferrari.


As he drives, Miles flashes back on the last time he saw Lester Young, the great tenor saxophonist who had died the year before; and then he remembers the last time he saw Billie Holiday (who’s just died in July), when the two of them performed at a Columbia Records party. “But like Lady Day, he found his calling in fewer notes, fresh-squeezed through his horn without any trace of pulp.” Brown’s characterizations are pitch-perfect throughout. And just listen to the music of his prose!


As Miles continues to drive around Manhattan in the middle of the night, the scene and the point of view shifts to Frances, back in the apartment she and Miles share. And it is in giving Frances equal time and space that the novella lifts off to a higher level, because Frances Taylor was no mere appendage to the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis: she was a renowned dancer who had studied with Katherine Dunham and been a member of Dunham’s company; and she was also the first Black dancer to perform with the Paris Opera Ballet. Back home now, she puts on tights, her ballet shoes, and then goes through the five positions. She thinks about her first love, dance, and remembers early times with Miles: “He loved her olive skin and eyes that could thrill, blowing into the mute of his trumpet, like a puff through a dandelion ball, whispering across the floor of his breath in what he called ‘Fran-Dance.’” But she also recalls the occasion when she simply mentioned running into a male friend on the street, and Miles knocked her to the floor; that was the first time he hit her. It was around then, too, that she learned of Miles’s chronic hip pain, use of painkillers and cocaine. And in what reads like the sound of the death-knell to their relationship, Frances recounts the triumph of having been cast in West Side Story; but soon after the play opened, Miles told her that he wanted her to give it up, because he preferred her to be at home when he got there.


And so, the novella proceeds, with the narrative traveling back and forth between Miles and Frances. Brown packs so much life into the short space of his single-day novella, now sketching Miles’s formative years, his upper-middle-class background, and his parents’ expectations of their children to succeed. “Miles had a tendency toward shyness and keeping his head down. His mother broke him of the habit, making a fist and knocking him under his chin. He learned to look people in the eye no matter who they were, and adopted his mother’s unwavering stare. . . .” Here, the reader can’t help but think back to the novella’s catalyzing event: Miles’s encounter with the racist cop.


Other famous Black performers of the time are a part of the ensemble that play throughout Blue in Green, too. Frances recalls Lena Horne’s invitation to lunch. Described as having “sang words into steam with heat from her throat,” Horne is portrayed as maternal but tough, having been through the racist Hollywood mill; she was deemed too dark for some and too light for others. “I’m always interested in how Negro women in show business are doing, who’ve come after me,” Horne tells Frances.


As Miles continues to drive around in his Ferrari, he reflects back on his early years in New York City, especially on his mission to find Bird, Charlie Parker. “Bird breathed like anyone else, but when he inhaled and exhaled through his saxophone, ideas were harvested. There was no one like him.” But Miles also learned that “it wasn’t any easier to find (Bird) musically than personally. He was always somewhere else.” Dizzy Gillespie was much more straightforward, less unpredictable. Dizzy tells Miles that he needs to listen to Louis Armstrong, whose “clowning” Miles dismisses. “If it wasn’t for what he did,” Dizzy says, “you, me, and everyone coming after him would still be swallowing our own spit.” Miles reflects that his real education came from Bird and Dizzy, and not from Juilliard, “the only reason his parents agreed to support him.”


As she waits for Miles to come home, Frances, stretched out on the floor, still wearing her ballet slippers and tights, also recalls running into Eartha Kitt on the street; Kitt had studied dance with Katherine Dunham, too, and was also a celebrated former member of the Company. Called ‘Kitty’ “by those who knew her well,” Kitt is portrayed as feline, even feral, especially in her rivalry with, and jealousy of, Frances. “Still have those great legs, Franny,” Kitt says to Frances. “But mine are insured by Lloyd’s of London.”


Miles drives to the 30th Street Studio where Kind of Blue was recorded. He’s “mostly satisfied” with the album, as he thinks about the band’s members, too: Cannonball, who “could chill Miles out, helping him to calm the fuck down”; Bill Evans—Miles recalls the heat he got about hiring a white musician. “Evans never played ahead of himself, but stayed in the moment. There was a quiet intensity to his playing that didn’t shower the piano with notes to prove his virtuosity. This quality was in line with Miles’s belief in using fewer notes and filling the spaces with silence.” And, of course, Coltrane: “You could see the fierceness in his eyes. You also saw a kindness that made you want to make sure he ate regularly, and do whatever else you could do for him. . . .”


Miles finally begins to make his way toward home as “(t)he morning light was beginning to slice into the night.” But the novella ends on—and with—Frances. It’s the wee hours of the morning and she’s stretched out on the bed, still waiting for Miles to come home. She’s recalling the dream she had the night before, the gist of which was, as she puts it, “How I let myself get away from me.” Frances is returning to herself, remembering who she is, what she loves, and what she’s lost—or sacrificed: dance. And then she wakes up. It’s a somewhat ambiguous and yet hopeful ending to a gorgeous novella that’s not only about jazz but is, itself, jazz, with each player getting his or her own solo, his or her moment to shine, but coming back together to create a beautiful whole. And Frances Taylor has had the last word.


 

Robin Lippincott is the author of six books, most recently Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell. He has been teaching in the MFA Program of the Sena Jeter Naslund-Karen Mann Graduate School of Writing since its inception in 2001.




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