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Sonny’s Blues

James Baldwin

Music

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Historical Context

From the title of the story to the closing scene, music plays a central role in defining the characters and culture of Harlem in “Sonny’s Blues.” At a young age, Sonny decides he wants to grow up to become a musician, a decision that his brother has difficulty accepting. Sonny lists the great jazz musicians of his era, most notably Charlie Parker, who had broken out of the traditional conventions of jazz to create a new, freer form of musical expression. Unlike earlier forms of jazz, which relied heavily on well-developed and thoroughly planned arrangements, the music of men such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie was created spontaneously as the men listened and responded to each other. The music relied on instinct rather than on rigid structures. Sonny contrasts his music idols with those of the previous generation, whose rigid, classical form of musical expression is no longer valid. For Sonny, the world is an entirely different place from the one his older brother grew up in and, as a result, needs new artistic forms to convey its reality.

The music that Sonny plays and loves is based less on a strict formal order than on a pure expression of the soul. Bebop, as it came to be known, was a radical new form of jazz. For musicians like Sonny, the freedom of expression that came with bebop was a chance to live freely, defy social conventions and norms, and create something utterly original. For many of the great musicians of that era, drugs were a constant temptation. Sonny’s stated musical hero, Charlie Parker, was himself addicted to drugs and died a very early death partly as a result. At the end of the story, the narrator witnesses Sonny’s playing firsthand. The experience is similar to the religious revival the narrator witnessed earlier, with one major exception: there is a real redemption available through the music.

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