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TWELVE BAR BLUES by Patrick Neate

TWELVE BAR BLUES

By Patrick Neate

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-8021-1727-9
Publisher: Grove

Jazz, history, and love across a hundred years and several continents, in a US debut by British music journalist Neate, winner of the 2002 Whitbread Award.

The origins of jazz are in dispute, but one thing is pretty much agreed on: If it wasn’t born in New Orleans, it damn well grew up there. Just like Lick Holden. Lick started out life at the dawn of the 20th century in Cooltown, one of the many black districts in the Crescent City, and he soaked up music from his earliest days. Working as an ice boy making deliveries to the Storyville saloons, Lick got to know some of the greatest black musicians of the day and got one of them, a local character called the Professor, to give him cornet lessons. Soon he was peddling music rather than ice to the habitués of Storyville’s brothels and bars, and eventually he became known as one of the great horn men of his day. Throughout his career, he was in love with Sylvie Black, his stepsister, with whom he had a brief affair before she ran off and disappeared from his life. Obsessively, futilely, Lick searches for Sylvie in bars and clubs from New York to the Gulf of Mexico, gradually squandering his talent as a musician and turning to a life of petty crime, until he is murdered in the 1920s. Interspersed with the chapters of Lick’s history are accounts of the efforts of one Sylvia Di Napoli, a black singer from London, to trace her ancestry—a search that brings her to America and eventually New Orleans. As we watch the progress of two narrative lines, it’s clear they’ll intersect at some point—but the pleasure of the tale isn’t one of revelations so much as portraiture, the re-creation of a lost world of music, lust, and fame.

A bit too crowded and busy but, still, a fine depiction, in vivid and indelible colors, of a bygone age.