Inventing musicians for use in novels can be a tricky business. Music-loving readers can be an unforgiving audience. And it is easy enough to think of examples where writers have got things horribly wrong. It is harder to think of occasions where authors have conjured up musical lives that seem implausibly convincing. Perhaps one of the very best examples of a novelist getting it right is The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez, which came out as a UK paperback in 2007.
In the novel the narrator Bruno Cadogan, a Borges scholar, goes in search of the tango singer Julio Martel. This was in late 2001, at a time of political upheaval in Buenos Aires, and when the world was in its precarious state immediately after the 9/11 attacks. The singer Bruno seeks is elusive, illusive, intangible, and has never recorded a single line commercially. Martel is tormented by a twisted, sick body but remains an incredible singer with a faultless memory who turns a lost tango “into a mystic lament on mortal flesh and the solitude of the soul without God”.
In 2001 he was singing only when and where he felt like it. He showed up in absurd locations, unannounced, singing for himself, recovering a past city. His performances were extravagant and sporadic, like dramatic gestures. In this way he tried to recover what the past put out of reach, by ceremoniously evoking old friends, the dead. He says he never stopped singing, but simply declined to give recitals for people who did not understand: his singing being an incantation against cruelty and injustice. Bruno never gets to hear Julio perform, but in a way that suits the book’s theme. Bruno admits he only wants to remember what he’s never seen.”
John Murray’s Jazz etc. is another great example of where an author conjures up the lives of musicians that seem so real and appealing that it is hard not to resist checking on Discogs or Wikipedia to see if they really did exist. In the book John’s narrator is Enzo, and the great (unrequited) love of his life is Fanny Golightly “the canonised jazz guitarist”. They met as teenagers at the end of the 1960s while studying at Oxford. They both loved jazz and were both from Cumbria. Enzo was from Whitehaven, while Fanny was from the Salterbeck council estate, near Workington.
Fanny’s initial influences were Hank Marvin, The Beatles, and later Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Clapton, and then John McLaughlin. Fanny introduces Enzo to the newly released and to them extraordinary Extrapolation by John McLaughlin, a record which presumably had a massive impact on her own playing. In the early performances Enzo sees by her, the terror and tenderness Fanny experienced in her upbringing seems reflected in the music she made leading a power trio, which was heavy but not quite the thing for fans of Sabbath, Jody Grind, Blodwyn Pig.
As her music evolved, in her later ECM phase, Fanny’s playing took on a choir-like nature, sounding almost medieval. And it is tempting to imagine her recordings in the label’s catalogue alongside ones by John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, Pat Metheny, Egberto Gismonti, Terje Rypdal, for example.
Without giving too much away, Fanny’s path through life inevitably leads to that of Toto Cebola, the electric jazz violinist, a Portuguese gypsy virtuoso, who was born in 1945. As a kid in Coimbra (where the fado is even more melancholy and regretful than in Lisbon), working for peanuts as a shoeshine boy, Toto hears jazz for the first time in a café. What he hears, accidentally, is West Coast Cool, and it changes his life. The music he hears is “like fado highly formalised and extremely solemn but that was where the similarity ended.”
Using his cunning and persuasive powers Toto gets free violin lessons from Vesuvio the Clown on the local municipal rubbish dump. He amazes a character called Joey Conto, who loves his jazz and runs an English school in Coimbra, and he becomes Toto’s patron, and arranges his musical education. Toto is sent away to study formal classical playing and composition, and at the same time receives training in jazz informally. He later makes waves in the late 1960s jazz era with his spiritual electric violin playing, and he is fated to play with Fanny, which sounds suspiciously as if John Murray intended someone to use that line.
Fanny and Toto play in a trio with the bass player William Joy, whose name somehow suggests the extraordinary recording of ‘Mr Joy’ by Karin Krog and friends including Jan Garbarek and the bassist Arild Andersen whom it is easy to imagine was a hero or rival of Mr Joy. William makes only a fleeting appearance in the book, towards the end, but pretty much steals the show.
What happens is that William bumps into the narrator Enzo while in New York, in a bookshop where Enzo is buying a Georges Duhamel book, whose novels turn out to have been something of a passion with William once upon a time, the Birmingham-born bassist admitting to being a jazz brainbox, citing Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine as another example. William despite his name is rather a lugubrious joyless soul , though it turns out there is a terribly tragic story which accounts for his demeanour, and explains why he sought salvation in music, and hence the aching sweetness he plays with.