‘The King Of Jazz’ by Donald Barthelme


The King Of Jazz by Donald Barthelme, 1977

The magic trick:

Using surrealism and comedy to skewer fickle and competitive American society

Jazz is ridiculous. The fickle nature of our society is ridiculous. Macho competition is ridiculous. Our insistence on bowing to silly rules of traditional and faux authority is ridiculous. Did I mention jazz is ridiculous?

“The King Of Jazz” manages to hammer home all these themes in that inimitable comic surrealist style we’ve come to love. And that’s quite a trick on Barthelme’s part.

The selection:

The two men who had been standing under Hokie’s window had followed him into the club. Now they said:

“Good God!”

“Yes, that’s Hokie’s famous ‘English sunrise’ way of playing. Playing with lots of rays coming out of it, some red rays, some blue rays, some green rays, some green stemming from a violet center, some olive stemming from a tan center-”

“That young Japanese fellow is pretty good, too.”

“Yes, he is pretty good. And he holds his horn in a peculiar way. That’s frequently the mark of a superior player.”

“Bent over like that with his head between his knees – good God, he’s sensational!”

He’s sensational, Hokie thought. Maybe I ought to kill him.


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