The Thomas Pynchon Connection

Thomas Pynchon (1937 - ) is a contemporary Amercian author of the first rank, creator of several marvelously intricate novels. Pynchon also seems to have spent some time listening closely to jazz in the late fifties, and the inclusion of allusions and echoes of that jazz scene provides additional enjoyment for those of us who also know jazz.

Pynchon's first novel V (1961) includes a minor character named McClintic Sphere. Pynchon introduces him in a remarkable section (page 47 in my Bantam edition) with a whole series of links, allusions, echoes, and satirical reflections of the late 1950's and Ornette Coleman's legendary Five Spot appearance in Greenwich Village.

The section starts with several of the New York cast arriving at a Greenwich Village nightclub called the V-Note:

  1. V for the title of the novel and an elusive woman, object of a novel-long search by one of the characters.
  2. V as in the Roman Numeral for Five = Five Spot. This famous club featured Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane (1957) in a legendary engagement; it was the nightclub where Ornette Coleman first opened in November 1959 (and where he played a number of times over the following years)
  3. V-Note. The Note = Half Note. Another Greenwich Village club, and another venue at which Coleman played during the period

McClintic Sphere is playing onstage when the group enters. Sphere is Thelonious Monk's middle name (Monk was a frequent performer in the village at the time and as noted is closely associated with the Five Spot). McClintic may be an echo of Coleman's unusual first name. (The only jazz musician with a somewhat similar first name would be Kenny Dorham, whose given first name was McKinley. He performed regularly in New York during that period and may be associated with groups that played the Five Spot).

p. 48 "He blew a hand-carved ivory alto saxophone" Obvious reference to the plastic alto saxophone which Ornette used in the late fifties, evidently because it was cheaper than a metal sax and because it gave him a more flexible sound. "...with a 4 1/2 reed" Also a reference to the 4 1/2 strength reed which Ornette used in Los Angeles (described by Don Cherry in a famous passage in an interview with Joe Goldberg).

The next paragraphs include some nice descriptions of the reactions in the audience, from those who simply left, to those from other groups who were unwilling to reject it, to those few who liked it. This directly echoes the reports in down beat about Coleman's first appearances at the Five Spot in 1959.

"The group on the stand had no piano: it was bass, drums, McClintic and a boy he had found in the Ozarks who blew a natural horn in F". This is an echo of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, and the natural horn may be a reference to the unusual pocket trumpet which Don Cherry favored at the time. (Cherry was of course from Los Angeles). "The bass was small and evil-looking and his eyes were yellow with pinpoints in the center". I have no idea which of Ornette's bassists this refers to-possibly David Izenzon? The bassist at the time of course was Charles Haden, by no means small and evil looking. The next paragraph is a biting description of some of those in the audience, "mostly those who wrote for Downbeat magazine or the liners of LP records...". (Reader Clay Thurmond also points out that Sphere's playing is described here as "something else"--which is the title of Coleman's first LP on Contemporary Records recorded in 1958).

On the next page (p.49): "Since the soul of Charlie Parker had dissolved away into a hostile March wind nearly a year before...". This is too early for Ornette, but only by three years. Parker died in March 1955 which would make this early 1956. In 1956 Ornette was still an unemployed, unknown musician in Los Angeles. He did not arrive in New York city until the fall of 1959, and the controversy, the club names and the rest of the allusions belong to that specific period. On the same page: "He plays all the notes Bird missed", somebody whispered". Another allusion to the impact of Ornette, who received a lot of attention as the next alto saxophonist after Parker to move the music forward...

(McClintic Sphere reappears elsewhere in the novel, specifically starting around page 326, but there are no direct allusions to Ornette Coleman or other jazz figures).

Incidentally, several other Pynchon works contain references to jazz and its practitioners. There are a number of sections dealing with Charlie Parker in Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and the short story Entropy (first published in the Kenyon Review) should amuse those enamored of the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet.

Written by David Wild, copyright 1997 by David Wild

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