Short Story Review — Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin

James Baldwin was one of the most brilliant and influential writers of the mid-20th century. Of his many accomplishments, I consider his most prominent to be his contribution to the genre of literature known as Jazz Fiction. It can hardly be denied that jazz music plays a crucial role Baldwin’s short stories, essays, and novels, but I think the true mastery of his writing is the way in which he employs jazz to represent the progressive social attitudes of African-Americans during the 1950s. I can think of no greater example of such symbolism than “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin’s most anthologized short story. In the story, Baldwin uses jazz to depict the struggle of two brothers as they attempt to live righteously in a world of hatred and oppression. The resulting narrative is an incisive portrayal of human bonding and tolerance, set against a backdrop of racial turmoil in mid-century America. Masterfully conveyed through Baldwin’s stark and honest prose, “Sonny’s Blues” remains a powerful example of jazz as a literary language and is an indelible contribution to jazz history.

Written in 1957, Sonny’s Blues revolves around two central characters: Sonny, a young and beleaguered jazz musician, and his brother, an unnamed Harlem schoolteacher who narrates the story’s events. When Sonny is forced to move in with his older brother, the estranged siblings attempt to slowly and painfully repair their broken relationship. Together they dig through the memories of their childhood, trying to pinpoint the exact moment in their lives when they started to drift apart. In doing so, the narrator recalls a conversation they had in their youth, in which the two young brothers discussed their career aspirations. Sonny told his brother he wanted to be a jazz musician, convinced that music was the only thing in life at which he truly excelled. The narrator, however, fiercely objected  to his brother’s dream. He considered jazz music a worthless pursuit, citing the destructive lifestyle of jazz musicians as proof of the music’s degeneracy. The disagreement hammered a wedge into the brothers’ relationship,  driving Sonny to drugs and forcing the narrator into his current life of cynicism and guilt. Unfortunately, the re-emergence of those painful memories sends the two brothers back on their separate ways, and with their relationship on the verge of obsolescence, it seems as though the two brothers will never make amends.

This all changes, however, when the narrator’s daughter dies of polio. He is  compelled to reach out to his brother once again. When Sonny returns to live his brother for the second time, their attempts to reconnect prove  much more fruitful. Sonny, now a semi-professional piano player, invites his brother to accompany him to one of his shows at a Greenwich village jazz club. After much deliberation, the narrator agrees to go. What he sees and hears at the jazz club transforms his perception of his brother’s lifestyle.

Watching his brother on stage, the narrator understands that despite all of their differences, they share a deep and inexorable bond. As human beings they are both united in their struggle against the forces of suffering and pain. What distinguishes them is the way in which they deal with that pain. Sonny copes through his music; the narrator, through despair. Indeed, Sonny’s music becomes a statement of his will to live, and upon discovering this remarkable aspect of Sonny’s art, the narrator comes to accept the dignity of his younger brother’s way of life. He sees that it is an affirmation of life in the face of suffering.

Suffering, after all, is one of the most prominent themes in “Sonny’s Blues,” personified in no greater capacity than through the character of Sonny. A living paradox, Sonny suffers because he cannot fulfill his dream of becoming a professional musician.  Yet in an ironic turn, Sonny’s obsession with jazz also serves as his vehicle for salvation, his one true escape from the hardships of his life as a black man in Jim Crow America. As it would seem,  jazz has a dual purpose for Sonny: it is both a wound and a remedy, a torturer and a savior. The capacity for jazz to encompass those emotional opposites–  good and evil, saint and sinner — is evident throughout the story, and it is perhaps the most beautifully rendered aspect of jazz that Baldwin acknowledges. In that regard, jazz music can be considered a driving force in the story, one helping to define Baldwin’s message of freedom versus oppression, sympathy versus hatred, and hope versus despair.

Though “Sonny’s Blues” is just one of the many works of jazz literature, it has remained one of the genre’s most enduring. This is due, no doubt, to the fact that “Sonny’s Blues” is not just a story about jazz; it is a story told through. Baldwin’s uses jazz as a musical commentary to the words on the page, amplifying the story’s emotional weight and poignancy in ways that words simply cannot. Baldwin, whether consciously or subconsciously, must have understood this power of jazz to communicate human emotion at such a high fidelity, just as he must have known that in life, as in literature, some things cannot be expressed through words alone. But Baldwin was a master of bringing these unpronounced subtleties of the human condition into the harsh light of literary observation. They are present in Sonny’s Blues, pulsing beneath the surface like a big bass drum. And if you listen closely, you can hear Baldwin’s message loud and clear.

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