A tale of two brothers

In Sonny’s Blues we are presented with a study of opposites, in character, and in emotional expression. The titular Sonny is a jazz musician and erstwhile heroin addict, a deeply feeling individual who, though at risk of submitting to his pain, has also the gift of transmuting it into a powerful gift, the wordless expression of the truth of ages, both deeply private and shared, that can shake the core of one’s being while evoking a deep common experience even in a roomful of strangers.

His brother, the narrator, is by contrast an algebra teacher: responsible and respectable, linear, rational, logical. His life’s moves are calculated while his emotions are relegated, perhaps even stilted. He values safety and certainty, in contrast to Sonny’s willingness to accept risk and the unknown. Yet the narrator is not in control but projects his fears on his brother: “scared for Sonny” in the story’s second paragraph, on reading the news of his arrest, sounds “so — scared!” of Sonny’s decision to pursue music as a career, and “mad…because (he) was so scared” of Sonny’s joining the army.

Sonny’s use of heroin made him feel like he was “in control” – but this was illusory. Perhaps control is just that, an illusion. Paradoxically, Sonny is in control when pouring his passion through the keys, even in stilted passages, opening his vulnerability until he finds his stride. The audience is there to support him at every note, and to cheer his breakthroughs.

Music, for how scripted and rational it is in theory, is a mystery. It seems impossible to identify – just as Sonny fails to find words to express his feelings – the power of music on the human spirit, the soul. It’s power to move, to heal, to access feeling, to share an experience in a community of strangers, to thrill and evoke, has never been sufficiently quantified to my knowledge. It simply is. You be with the music, go inside, forget thinking. And you can emerge changed.

The narrator, far from thinking Sonny needed him, realizes that he needed Sonny. Sonny’s honesty about his addiction, and his ability to push through pain and turn it into something beautiful, gives the narrator a needed emotional release.

If the death of his daughter Grace symbolizes the death of grace in the narrator’s life, then Sonny is the messenger of grace’s second coming. On sitting with Sonny’s performance, allowing his brother’s musical gift to wash over him, the narrator realizes that “he could help us to be free if we would listen,” from which his thoughts flow to his late little girl, feeling his own “tears begin to rise.”

Like Sonny grapples with the spectre of heroin haunting him, so the narrator carries the pain of his lost Grace. But his tears are as a cathartic release, a second baptism, opening his heart to deeper feeling, and accepting that, although that pain will always be with him, he can draw on it as a gift, as Sonny does music. This is truly grace, allowing the narrator to release his desire for control, and accepting what is in the moment.

Sonny was struck by “how much suffering” the revival singer on the street “must have had to go through – to sing like that,” to offer an emotional honesty and a kind of knowing. Perhaps the narrator emerges from that Greenwich Village jazz club aware of his knowing, too. Knowing that everything doesn’t have to be fixed. Knowing that it’s human to struggle. Knowing that the honesty of the human experience and all its failings may be a more potent experience than any command of algebra. And free from the expectation of trying to control it.

Coda: To Carson

What am I to do with this lack of punctuation its absurd

This is Garyon’s mind running one thought into the other

Or an unseen hand of continual scattered thoughts

Too conscious of time and feeling

Running ceaselessly without rest without mercy

Even while trying to freeze it in a perfect moment

For all time

Emerging from the acid bath

Forever disappointed in spectres and illusions

(A short poem responding to the Autobiography of Red)


Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Jazz Fiction Anthology. Ed. Sascha Feinstein and David Rife. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009. 17-48.

Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.