Cover image for The best of Jackson Payne
The best of Jackson Payne
Fuller, Jack.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf, 2000.
Physical Description:
321 pages ; 22 cm
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Musicologist Charles Quinlan -- white, middle-aged -- has spent half his life immersed in jazz, and now he thinks he is ready to explain the life and work of one of its masters. The music, he believes, will show him the way past the accidents of birth and the disparities of experience that divide him from his subject, Jackson Payne. Payne appeared on the scene a fully formed jazz artist not long after returning from service in the Korean War. For two decades his tenor saxophone burned its way through a series of increasingly complex musical ideas. And then he flamed out. What had driven him? What had destroyed him? Is it possible for someone like Quinlan to break through the walls of race and poverty to an understanding of someone like Payne? In his quest, Quinlan listens to the men who served with Payne in combat, the women who loved him and believed his lies, the musicians who shared his addiction to hard bop and heroin. He discovers the family secrets that tortured Payne, the musical and spiritual doubts that haunted him. And in the end he has to struggle not only with Payne's obsessions but also with his own. Jack Fuller's novel works like the music it embraces. The voices of people close to Payne move in and out of the foreground like horns blowing solos in a dark nightclub. They take us into the world -- into the birth and the art -- of jazz, and into the lives of the extraordinary Americans who created it.

Author Notes

Jack William Fuller was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 12, 1946. At the age of 16, he joined the The Chicago Tribune as a copy boy. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 1968. After serving in the Army as a Vietnam correspondent for the newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes, he received a law degree from Yale University Law School in 1973.

He was hired as a general assignment reporter by The Tribune in 1973, but left in 1975 to become a special assistant to the United States attorney general, Edward H. Levi. He rejoined the newspaper in 1977 as a Washington correspondent. He was editorial page editor from 1981 to 1987. He won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1986 for his commentary on constitutional and legal issues. He was named executive editor in 1987, vice president and editor in 1989, publisher in 1994, and executive vice president of the parent Tribune Publishing Co. in 1997. He retired from The Tribune in 2004 as its president.

His first novel, Convergence, was published in 1982. His other novels include Fragments, The Best of Jackson Payne, and One from Without. His nonfiction books include News Values: Ideas for an Information Age and What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism. He died from lung cancer on June 21, 2016 at the age of 69.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

There are so many themes within themes, contrapuntal echoes, and multiple voicings in this dizzyingly brilliant novel that the reader emerges from it, as from a John Coltrane solo, overwhelmed by the prodigious mix of emotion and virtuosity but, at the same time, groping for solid ground, a return to the familiar. A novelist writing about jazz faces a sea of troubling issues--the lure of wildly impressionistic prose; the difficulty of dealing with the ubiquitous racial issues that are intertwined in jazz history; the tendency to become sidetracked by the drug habits of midcentury jazz stars. Fuller, the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune, faces all those issues in telling the story of Jackson Payne, a fictional black saxophone player whose tormented life and groundbreaking music became the stuff of jazz legend. Using a structure that echoes Citizen Kane, the novel follows Charles Quinlan, a white musicologist, as he researches a biography of the enigmatic Payne, whose drug-overdose death remains a source of mystery. Quinlan talks to everyone who knew Payne, including fellow musicians, family members, and those who served with him in Korea. It is a story about obsession--Payne's to create himself anew through his horn and Quinlan's to grasp the source of Payne's genius. The voices on Quinlan's tape recorder alternate with one another--contradicting, harmonizing, embellishing--creating, in effect, their own jazz from the disputed facts of a jazzman's life. Fuller writes about the music in rigorous detail, combining carefully explained music theory with evocative but never flowery metaphors. Does Quinlan (or Fuller) succeed? Can the jazz fan ever hear what the jazz genius is playing? Can the white writer ever come close to understanding the black musician's life? Fuller's multiple voices can't answer those questions, but the music they make in the process of trying provides its own kind of affirmation. "Each one of us is out there every day creating himself for the crowd," one of Payne's fellow musicians tells Quinlan. "In America all they give you is the chords." Fuller makes from those chords a rich, complex, sometimes dissonant, but always beautiful jazz novel. --Bill Ott

Publisher's Weekly Review

Tenor saxman Jackson Payne's life reads like jazz tragedies' greatest hits, rife with drugs, sex, crime, violence and self-destruction, all vices and desires put to the service of jazz by the gifted and obsessed visionary. Readers may think they've already heard this story of addiction, race and passion, but Fuller's (Fragments) unflinching and searing novel tells it like never before. Narrator Charles Quinlan, a white, 40-year-old musicologist researching the life of the jazz icon in order to write Payne's biography, is also a man obsessed, neglecting his music students at the university, further alienating his ex-wife, even missing visitations with his children in his single-minded quest to glean the facts behind the legend, especially the events surrounding Payne's mysterious death. Though even his editor questions his need to delve ever deeper, Quinlan listens to the men who served with Payne in the Korean War, the women who shared his bed, the musicians who shared his love of hard bop and heroin, the daughter whose life he saved by giving up his own. The story unfolds in first person interviews, speculative flashbacks and traditional narrative form. If the characters are at first confusing, one quickly falls in step with Fuller's rhythm, grooving in mind and spirit as he keeps the story jumping like a hot sax solo. Quinlan's personal story is occasionally intrusive (an affair with a private investigator is superfluous) but the narrative device generally works and the story remains Payne's. Fuller, one-time editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, also wrote jazz criticism for the newspaper and his command of the scene, from Chicago to Harlem, is as evident as Payne's rejection of the diatonic scale. Fuller depicts Payne's demons and guardian angels, his desperation and inspiration, with pathos, compassion and seamy, reckless truths that will pull readers into his musical world. Agent, Gail Hochman. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

"Jazz is about feelings, emotions in the moment. It comes up from the deepest self, not as memory so much as memory made new." These two sentences capture the essence of Fuller's latest novel, itself a kind of jazz improvisation, with multiple voices playing within a structured plot line, trying to define a life that defies explanation. Jackson Payne was a musical genius, searching for truth in his saxophone. He was also a liar, philanderer, and heroin addict who died under mysterious circumstances. Charles Quinlan is an academic, a musicologist on a mission, determined to write the definitive biography of Payne and get to the heart of his music. His search leads him from one end of the country to the other as he tracks down Payne's associates and family, slowly weaving together the story of his life, his music, and his death. As anyone who knows the world of jazz might expect, Quinlan encounters a colorful cast indeed. Digging deeper, he also begins to discover some truths about himself and the realities of race in America. While some of the musical detail may be beyond the unindoctrinated (if appreciated by aficionados), Fuller never allows it to become cumbersome or to detract from the main story. This work plays well on several levels and can be appreciated by a wide audience. Highly recommended for the serious literature collections of most public and academic libraries, especially those in larger metropolitan areas.DDavid W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The first time I heard Jackson play, he was doing "Taps" on the E-flat alto saxophone. It wasn't his natural instrument, but the way he played it could have raised the dead. Behind him the drummer didn't have but a pair of marching sticks and a raggedy old practice pad. And the piano in the colored Service Club was so funky you couldn't tell where in Hell the man at the keyboard was trying to take the chords. But Jackson was in a groove, and we were right there with him. The 11th Boogie Woogie Infantry, smack in the middle of redneck Georgia, getting ready for war. Only a few minutes before I'd been lying up in my bunk, with Jackson sitting on his footlocker, a butt in his mouth, shining up some brass. Then all of a sudden I heard the sound of the blues coming across the company square. "Ain't bad," I said. He didn't say it was or wasn't, but he did go with me to have a look. The Service Club was sorry, no matter how much crepe paper the ladies from the local AME hung from the rafters. I stopped at the punch bowl for a taste of something sweet, but the brothers had already killed the Kool Aid. All that was left was a little green pool in the bottom with some butts floating in it. The tables were pushed back and the chairs were in a basic straggle formation around the piano. Next to it a guy on an alto saxophone was doing something real basic. It wasn't much of a tune, but I noticed Jackson's fingers moving along with it on the buttons of his fatigue blouse. "You play?" I asked. "A little," he said. So, just to make things interesting, I called out: "Somebody here say he can blow that thing better'n you." "He do, do he?" says the alto player. "Who?" "It's Payne," I say. "Jackson Payne." "I know this man?" All I can think of to answer with is the truth: "Nobody do." But sure enough, the alto nods Jackson up front and lends him the horn. Then Jackson turns to the piano player and asks do he know "Taps." And the brothers say: "Man think he got a bugle." And: "Wake us up come morning, hear?" The piano player don't look any too sure, so Jackson goes over and picks out a couple of the chords for him. Then he turns back to the crowd, and suddenly he's on the note as sweet as nightfall when the air begins to cool. Gone the sun. One day over, another to come. Until all your days are done and the tune rises over your flag-draped box and some sweet thing throws the dust then pockets the insurance check. That's what he said on that old horn. "Well lookee here," say the brothers. "Talk to me, Jackson Payne." Then just when it seemed the sun was gone forever, all of a sudden it's Resurrection morning, Jack. You never heard so many notes. It was like he'd inhaled the saxophone and blown it out in a million pieces like stars in the sky. You know, I always wondered why Jackson never played that tune after Korea, when he got big. He did at least once. Say what? Played it. How you know a thing like that? They say somebody sneaked a recorder into the performance. I'd've given my one good leg. If I ever locate the tape, I'll make a copy for you. Where'm I gone play it in this shithole here? Wardell Flowers, so animated only a few moments ago, now slumped in his wheelchair in the VA room equipped with nothing but an auto parts calendar and an old AM radio. His face, which had darkened to health with the telling of his tale, now seemed as gray as ash. There's another cut I'll send. It's from Art Pepper's album recorded live at the Village Vanguard years later. He quotes Payne at the end of a tune called "Goodbye." Payne was already dead by then and Pepper wasn't long for the world himself. Day is done. It was like he was telling Payne he'd see him somewhere soon. Art Pepper was a fucking racist. Not his music. You a regular expert, ain't you, the man in the wheelchair said. Excerpted from The Best of Jackson Payne by Jack Fuller All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.