Music can evoke powerful sense memories of people, places, and times. In Joseph Coulson’s novel Of Song and Water, music and issues of memory, identity, and family are intimately tied together in the story of onetime jazz guitarist Coleman Moore.
There is a sizeable canon of jazz fiction, but Water is distinct for its use of Midwestern settings, like Chicago (including The Green Mill), and upstate Michigan. Certain archetypes and tropes from the jazz canon reappear in Water, like the experienced African-American musician-teacher taking a young white student under his wing. Like the Art Hazard character in Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn, Otis Young becomes a complicated father figure for protagonist Moore. Coulson though, brings greater sensitivity to his characterization of the mentor-student relationship. Coulson describes Young as a man dispensing hard-won wisdom:
Jazz is dead. He remembers first hearing the idea from Otis, who liked to go off on philosophers and critics who were in the business of declaring this or that thing deceased, particularly music, books, theater, small towns, newspapers, public education, motherhood, empathy, justice, hope, even God. ‘Tell me this,’ said Otis. ‘When I pick up my guitar and play, even if I’m alone in my house, is jazz dead?’ (p. 122)
For Coulson, jazz is not dead. He is clearly steeped in the history of jazz guitar, with legends like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass making cameos as Moore tours the scenes of his triumphs and failures as a once promising musician. Unlike some jazz books written by “slumming” writers, Coulson must have a genuine love for his characters’ music.
To a large extent, Moore is haunted by the history of his nautical family and the secret of his bootlegging grandfather. However, his own issues, even including his name (born Jason, dubbed Coleman by a club owner) make Moore an increasingly difficult character to spend time with. Memory is indeed fundamental to Water, to the point that the constant flashbacks sometimes confuse the narrative.
However, Coulson is a skilled writer who undeniably knows how to use language. Deliberately paced,Water is a serious character study that treats the music of its narrative with genuine sincerity.