Monday, September 2, 2013

Young Man With a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Young Man With a Horn
by Dorothy Baker
New York Review of Books
Paperback, 192 pages
Originally Published 1938
ISBN 9781590175774

Barnes and Noble

Young Man With a Horn by Dorothy Baker is considered to be the first ever Jazz novel. It was published in 1938 and was a critical and commercial success. The novel was adapted into a movie which was released in 1950 and starred Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Doris Day (read my review of the movie here). Baker turned down the opportunity to adapt her own novel into a screenplay and because of that the book and movie are very different.

Spoiler alert! In comparing the book with the movie I reveal some important plot points. 

Young Man With a Horn follows the story of Rick Martin from when he was a young boy in the poor part of Los Angeles to when he becomes a professional jazz trumpeter to his downward spiral to his inevitable death. In the movie, Rick comes out of his sickness alive with the help of friends. In the book, it's only Smoke who is by his side and the story ends with his demise.

Race is a big issue in the novel and much time is spent on exploring the class and social difference between whites and blacks. It's unclear whether Dorothy Baker was prejudiced herself but much of the language is very demeaning towards African-Americans and this is dialed down quite a lot in the film. The language in the book might come as a bit of a shock to contemporary readers so its important to note the time frame this book was written in. I thought it interesting that Rick's friendship and collaboration with black musicians isn't questioned much in the film except for when Rick is doing double-duty playing at a fancy nightclub during the evening and a dive with his friend Art later in the night.

Let's talk about the two important men in Rick's life: Art Hazzard and Smoke Jordan. The film has an African-American (well really an Afro-Latino) playing Art Hazzard and a Caucasian man playing Smoke Jordan. In the novel, they are both African-American and it's really Smoke who is Rick's lifelong pal and not Art. Art Hazzard is a musician who helps Rick get ahead but not much more. The whole sop story of Art getting older and sickly and dying because of Rick neglect's is purely an invention of the movie and does not happen in the book. Baker's character Smoke is split into two characters in the movie with some story lines are given to Art and the rest to Smoke. Perhaps it was too much for the time the movie came out for Rick to have one African-American friend and no Caucasian buddy.

I was surprised how little the two main female characters play in the novel versus the film. In the movie adaptation, Jo Jordan is played by Doris Day, a blonde Caucasian actress known for her singing and for playing good girls on screen. Amy North is played by Lauren Bacall, with cat-like features she's excellent playing a seductress and femme fatale. Jo's part in the movie is much bigger than it is in the book. In the novel, Jo is a singer who only briefly comes into Rick's life enough to introduce him to Amy North and to interact with him one other time. She's described as dark-skinned and doesn't have a romance or even a flirtation with Rick in the novel. Both Jo Jordan and Amy North don't come into the story until about 127 pages into the 172 page novel where as Jo appears 21 minutes in and Amy 50 minutes into the 112 minute movie and take up much more time after their initial appearance than they do in the book. The portrayal of Amy is pretty accurate in the movie and although she becomes Rick's wife, she seems to be more of a disastrous mistake in the book than a big cataclysm like the movie portrays her.

The two portrayals of Rick Martin are not that different from each other. However, the book spends a lot more time exploring Rick's childhood and how he develops his skills over the years playing the trumpet. We see Rick, desperately poor and parentless trying to find something in the world worth living for. The novel explores his struggles in school, his fascination with reading library books, his piano playing and his switch to the trumpet, his African-American pals and their adventures together. Some of this is explored in the movie but a lot is cut out to focus more on Rick's adult life.

The movie is much more entertaining than the book possibly because of the love triangle of Jo, Amy and Rick which adds much romantic drama. The book's focus is more on Rick as a jazz musician and less as an object of romantic desire. One thing I thought was really intriguing is that the author Dorothy Baker was fascinated with homosexual relationships and as she wrote more books she became more open in exploring them. Amy North as a lesbian or a bisexual woman is hinted at much more in the movie than in the book. The movie focuses a lot more on sex and I wonder if Dorothy Baker had tackled the screenplay (she refused to do it) whether she would have gone that route or maybe found some other drama to play up.

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I read the novel Young Man With a Horn but to me it read almost like a completely different story than the film. The novel has a lot less drama and is an introspective look at the life of a jazz artist. Both the film and the novel have their good qualities, so while I compare them both together in this review they should in fact be seen as two different stories.

I bought the book from New York Review of Books which put Young Man With a Horn after it had been out of print for many years! This is my fourth entry into my 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.


  1. Great review. Will get the book. Have seen the film and would give it 7 out of 10. Being a jazz fan, and one time trumpet player, I may be biased. :-)

    1. Thanks Bob! As a jazz fan and one-time trumpet player I think the novel would suit you much more than the movie. The film definitely wants to entertain with drama, race and sex and the book is more of a profile of a jazz artist.

  2. Honestly, I doubt I would've picked up on the lesbian (or bi-curious, at least) subtext in Bacall's character if you hadn't pointed it out.

    Does the book go into Amy and Jo's friendship at all? I couldn't tell why they were friends to begin with.

    1. Rich - Watch the clip on TCM's site: I link to it above. Rick calls Amy a "sick girl" and the only reason I picked up on this aspect of her character was because I heard Lauren Bacall discuss it in an interview.

      The book doesn't spend much time on Jo at all but there is some insight into why Amy (Bacall) and Jo (Day) are friends. At Amy's party one of her friends says that Amy collects unique characters. Amy is drawn by people who are talented and interesting because she's talentless and boring. She collects them almost like she collects toys. It's an insight into her very shallow personality. Jo is just another acquisition much like Rick the jazz musician was and the painter in that scene I linked to was.


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