The Bear Comes Home and the Ursine Age of Jazz History

Parque Lennon has a guard whose main job is to make sure the statue's glasses don't get stolen, so he keeps them in his pocket until someone wants a photo. The Bear Comes Home is in the backpack.
“Update your blog,” John Lennon told me. “Write about that book you’re reading.” Then the guard who protects his glasses snapped this photo.

Between dealing with a stolen laptop, a research trip to Cuba, and the many occurrences of daily life I haven’t posted anything new in the last couple of months. In the time since my last entry, however, I reread my favorite book, The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor. This 480-page novel is about a talking bear who plays the alto saxophone, quotes Rumi, ruminates about his existence to a fault, and experiences love in a greater capacity than many humans. I read about the musical tribulations of the Bear while I sat on a park bench across from the statue of John Lennon in Havana. It was a beautiful afternoon before the Havana Jazz Festival got started, and between reading this book, talking with musicians, and running from performance to performance, jazz music and jazz-related narratives surrounded me while on this trip. I started thinking about the relationships between time, place, and this genre that is impossible to pin down and how they related to the situation I found myself in. I’ll dig into the relationship between jazz and international musical politics in my dissertation, but here I want to talk briefly about the odd arc of jazz history and how this book fits into it.

The main character in The Bear Comes Home is the last of a line of Kodiak circus bears that, through some quirk of genetics or divine intervention, developed the ability of human speech. As a cub, the Bear was bet in a poker game and found himself in the hands of Jones, an unconventional Bohemian type who enjoyed living his life on the fringe in New York City. When the book opens, Jones and the Bear are working as street performers, and the Bear has to hide his abilities for his safety. However, his true passion is playing the saxophone, and the novel follows the many misadventures and interactions that result from his decision to step out of the shadows and pursue a career doing just that.

BearComesHome cover

As I moved through the book, the many references the Bear made to musicians and the world around him created a nebulous historical context for the Bear’s musical trials and tribulations. The book was published in 1998. New York, however, is described in a way that generally fits a 1980s, pre-Giuliani representation. They talk about selling music on CDs, and some characters have cell phones and laptops that connect to the internet. When someone mentions some not-so-nice things Wynton Marsalis said about the Bear, the Bear replies inquisitively, “Wynton Marsalis the young trumpet kid with all the chops and brains?” During a period when the Bear was detained, Michael Bolton’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” was released. That was in 1991. The Bear tells his bandmates a story about hearing Coltrane when he was just a cub. John Coltrane died in 1967, and the average, healthy Kodiak bear in captivity lives to its thirties. The Bear, however, is not your average bear and mentions that some of his ancestors were rumored to have lifespans similar to humans.

This nebulous sense of time makes some sense when you know how the book was written. In a discussion with PBS Newshour in 1998, Zabor described the writing process: “Part one of the book–the first 75 pages–was written back in 1979 and ’80. The rest of the book, which is to say the bulk, the considerable bulk of the book, was written over a two-year period, ’94 to ’96, at a sort of normal writer’s pace.” It’s almost surprising, then, that the book’s setting still works as well as it does. Fifteen years in any twentieth century musical genre is a long time, jazz included. That the plot can primarily take place over one year but you could move that year to any point in the 1980s and 1990s and the book would still work says a lot about that age in jazz history.

If you learn about jazz history from the Ken Burns documentary series, you are practically led to believe that jazz history ended with the 1960s.  In the 1970s, jazz transformed as electronic instruments, rock, and world music were embraced by musicians. There were important Cuban connections at this time as well, when Chucho Valdés’s Irakere visited the U.S. and popularized Afro-Cuban musical elements in jazz. In the 1980s, however, a neo-traditional movement emerged in the music that coincided with the undeniable institutionalization of jazz in the American educational system. While jazz ensembles and jazz education began to gain prominence in American universities in the 1960s, at that point it was still an experiment that emerged with the civil rights movement, and many in the jazz community were unsure of such an effort because they distrusted the American academic music establishment’s Eurocentric values. However, by the 1980s the experiment was over, and the musicians trained in those academic institutions began leading groups not only at colleges but at the high school level as well. At the same time, there was a neo-traditionalist movement that was largely embodied by Wynton Marsalis and “the Young Lions” that emerged in the 1980s. The music was generally a rejection of the free jazz and jazz fusion styles from the previous decade and instead emphasized elements of bop in smaller groups and traditional big-band arrangements in smaller ones. A jazz canon was formed and the narrative of jazz history was formalized.

During an interview with a writer from Down Beat,  the Bear is asked if he’s either pro-Wynton or anti-Wynton.

Don’t fence me in, he’d told the guy, I love everything Wynton does and he keeps getting better at all of it, and if an art form that throughout its history seemed to invent whole new forms of consciousness every ten years now seems to be pausing for thought and codification that’s not Wynton’s problem though occasionally it’s mine. Yes, the parameters of a classical art form chafe some, but as it happens I’m working my way more deeply into them myself at the moment.

New trends and technology typically transform music rapidly, but throughout the 1980s and 1990s jazz paused and reflected. While there were certainly other things happening during those decades, they were dominated by the neo-traditionalists, as evidenced by the influence they had on the Ken Burns series. It was during those years that The Bear Comes Home was written, and somewhere in that time that the book takes place.

That then raises the question of where we go from here. In a recent article at NPR entitled “Why J Dilla May Be Jazz’s Latest Great Innovator,” Giovanni Russonello argues, “The jazz world today finds itself swamped with young talent eager for reinvestment in the discourse of contemporary culture. The shift has roots that run in a lot of directions. It’s a reaction to the neo-traditional revivalism that capped the last century, and to jazz’s withered commercial infrastructure in the wake of the 1990s CD bubble. Add to that the simple fact that millennial jazz musicians grew up listening mostly to hip-hop, R&B and rock.” I agree that the influence of J Dilla and other producers and musicians like him can be heard through numerous young jazz musicians today. I recommend checking out the Midwest’s Koplant No who have recently been described as fusing a “jazz sensibility with ambitious use of samples and electronic sounds to make engaging and expansive music.”

At the Havana Jazz Festival, I also came across the music of California-based Will Magid, who studied ethnomusicology at UCLA and now combines elements of jazz with electronics and sounds from around the world. Here’s a video of the Will Magid 4’s Havana adventures.

The Bear Comes Home now stands as a piece of historical fiction that encompasses the place of jazz at the end of the twentieth century. At the same time it’s a wonderful book that is extremely clever and more than occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. It has a love story that avoids “Beauty and the Beast” cliches and includes an inter-species sex scene that somehow manages to be as tender and moving as it is bizarre. Probably the most amazing part of it, however, is that for a book about a walking, talking, saxophone-playing bear, it isn’t a joke and the main character is fully realized and relatable. The Bear Comes Home has some of the best writing about jazz and the experience of playing and improvising music that I have read, and it makes a worthy fictional complement to ethnomusicologist Paul F. Berliner’s equally epic Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of ImprovisationI highly recommend this book and tried to write this without giving too much of the plot away in the hopes that some of you might pick it up and check it out.

Here’s a brief The Bear Comes Home playlist:

He checked the reed, worked the keys and blew a couple of phrases. Satisfied that both he and the saxophone were in working order he began to play “Parker’s Mood,” adding his own comments and emendations as the solo advanced. After five choruses, his eyes closed with pleasure, he leaned back in the armchair. “You know,” he said, “I don’t even have to play a bunch of weird outside shit to be happy. There’s so much wisdom in bebop it’s enough for a lifetime, really. All the things you have to know just to make one chorus work right. You have to know life pretty good. Not to mention the horn.”

“You can’t play ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’” Bowie told him when he had broken the news.

“Why the fuck not?” the Bear asked him.

“Because while you were inside, Michael Bolton recorded a version –”

“Who the fuck is Michael Bolton?”

Garrett had selected a disc, and they could hear the anticipatory whirr of the player above the roadnoise and the air conditioner. Coltrane came on.

“Oh shit. God is in the house,” Bostic said. “We have to cut this shit out.”

“Our bassist has shamed us,” Hatwell said, and hung his head.

It was “Crescent,” and they sat listening to Trane’s evolving solo, the gathering crests of his phrasing, the periodic releases as thematic waves broke smooth and ordered on the shore.

You know, he told the bird in his mind, it’d be cool if you learned the tune, flapped back out there and taught it to the rest of the tribe: whole flocks of catbirds out there on the branches, working on their Monk charts, forest primeval ringing with minor sixths and getting into the intricacies. Heh. All it takes, bird, is a certain quantum of application. It starts with love, but that’s only the beginning. You’ve got to work against the drift of nature.

This recognition of what might prove to be the old acuity threw him off for two beats, and he saw the faces at the musicians’ tables all come up, a clutch of predators. He made sure to play especially well through the remainder of “Skylark,” employing viciously complicated reversals of accent out of Bird and Sonny Rollins, and, having at the moment no shame, he took care to employ every trick of inflection and tone that his ursine embouchure made easy: those slurs and grace notes, that thickening of timbre, the sardonic growl amid lyrical blossoms: no shame at all. He watched the faces recalibrate the parameters of night as he drawled his solo’s end into Hatwell’s opening.

The Bear leaned back into the sofa and allowed himself to lose track of any specificity of the event. It was enough to know that things were cool between now and the time they’d have to go out there and summon up another set. Ballads, he decided. Nothing but ballads, and perhaps one businessman’s bounce. He wondered what the “Pursuance” solo would sound like on tape, what trace the experience of playing it had left behind. Maybe nothing at all.

People were coming back to shake his paw and say Nice set. He grinned at all of them and said whatever he said back. Tongue rolling out the side of his mouth again most likely but he couldn’t be bothered to check.

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