Jazz and Blues

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Story: Sonny's Blues 1950's
Author: James Baldwin (1924-1987)
Central Character: Although the story is narrated by Sonny's unnamed older brother, Sonny is the most important character. Sonny is described in a common stereotype of the time, a stereotype that his own brother holds until the end of the story: the heroin-addicted jazz musician. Sonny has just been arrested for "peddling and using heroin'' and must do time in a prison upstate. As the story progresses, however, the reader learns more about Sonny's life before the arrest. Other Characters:

Creole is a bass player who leads the band that Sonny plays in at the end of the story. He functions as a kind of father figure for Sonny; he believes it is his purpose to guide Sonny through his blues and teach him how to turn them into music. He also attempts to show Sonny's brother how to understand Sonny. Sonny's Brother

The experiences of Sonny are shown through the eyes of the story's narrator, Sonny's brother. The unnamed narrator is a high school algebra teacher who grew up in Harlem and is fully aware of his community's dark side and tries his best to keep his distance from the trouble. He seems to have difficulty expressing his ideas and emotions and only when his young daughter dies, does he finally open up and write to his brother. As much as it shows that he cares for Sonny, he has a hard time believing that his brother has truly changed. Setting:

"Sonny's Blues" takes place in Harlem during the early 1950s. The city plays a pretty important role in the narrative, since part of the reason Sonny turns to drugs is to escape the feeling of being trapped by his surroundings. There are people suffering from poverty, prostitutes who have been beaten up walk the streets, young men feel the weight of limited possibilities, and "find themselves smothering in their houses" (72). This is a bleak place. As Sonny and the narrator are driving back to the narrator's apartment (after Sonny gets out of jail), the narrator starts to really think about the streets in this neighborhood where he and Sonny grew up: We hit 110th Street and started rolling up Lenox Avenue. And I'd known this avenue all my life, but it seemed to me again, as it had seemed on the day I'd first heard about Sonny's trouble, filled with a hidden menace which was its very breath of life. (73) It's as if the Harlem streets have a life of their own and contain within them an inherent danger that lives just below the surface. This worries the narrator, since he's the one bringing Sonny back to this place, "back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape" (76). Far from being mere background, Harlem is as much a character in this story as any of the actual people. But "Sonny's Blues" is also set in a smaller world within Harlem: the nightclub where Sonny plays at the end of the story. This is a far less menacing place. In fact, this dark, smoky little club is a refuge for Sonny. It's a place where he can (at least for a little while) forget about being a drug addict, forget about what awaits him outside, and face his suffering head-on by losing himself in his music. Sonny is a sort of celebrity in the club and the people there want him to be OK; they want him to play the music he's so good at playing. The club is like a tiny, shining light in the middle of the darkness that surrounds Sonny every day.

"Sonny's Blues" is told in the first person from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who, we find out, is Sonny's brother. The narrator in this story is an interesting figure. He's mostly telling us Sonny's story, but this is also his story. "Sonny's Blues" is not just about Sonny's decisions and struggles but also about how they affect the narrator. This story is as much about family and brotherhood and the relationship between these two men as it as about the single character of Sonny.

The tone of the story is the story is sympathetic because the writer seems...
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