Half-Blood Blues is a current best-selling novel by Esi Edugyan, a Canadian, as it happens. The story is about a few jazz musicians of various nationality and race caught in Berlin and Paris at the beginning of World War II. It’s written entirely in slang – quite effectively for the most part – and deals with love, friendship, jealousy and race.
The narrator is Sid, the bass player. He ends up carrying guilt around his entire life (the book goes back and forth between 1939/40 and 1992) over his actions in Paris. It’s a bit slow-moving but the ending is powerful. Along the way we see that this is a musician who wants so badly to be so good and talented, but who realizes he’s only mediocre.
Cause I admit it. He got genius, he got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me. It ain’t fair. It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain’t fair. Gifts is divided so damn unevenly. Like God just left his damn sack of talents in a ditch somewhere and said, Go help youselves, ladies and gents. Them’s that get there first can help themselves to the biggest ones. In every other walk of life, a jack can work to get what he want. But ain’t no amount of toil going get you a lick more talent than you born with. Geniuses ain’t made, brother, they just is. And I just was not.
An “appearance” by Louis Armstrong only makes it worse:
Armstrong’s voice got real gravelly, real deep and soft, like a pelt carpet. “There is a whole lot of talents, Sid. You a mighty fine rhythm boy.”
“But I ain’t got the stuff.”
“You know what you got. Ain’t no one tell you otherwise.”
I shook my head in disgust.
“It don’t matter much bout all that anyway,” Armstrong added. “You think it do, but it don’t. A man ain’t just his one talent… You got the talent of making others your kin, your blood. But music, well it’s different. I reckon it got its own worth. But it ain’t a man’s whole life.”
Aw, hell, Louis, I thought. Ain’t nothin else I want.
Then there was Jascha Heifetz, who was unbelievably talented and always played perfectly. In The Virtuosi, Harold Schonberg says, “Perfection exacts a toll. Perfect technicians have to live up to their reputation, and where other musicians can get along on style, artists of the Heifetz class are expected always to be transcendental… It was said of him that he did not have a face; it was a mask and nobody could get behind it.”
So… read the book – both of them. Then go practice.