Musicians are often tragic characters. They struggle with poverty, their own spirit and passion, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, depression and love. The list of accomplished musicians who came to ruinous ends is long — from Billie Holiday to Amy Winehouse, Charlie Parker to Kurt Cobain.  

But Mike Shaw’s novel The Musician (Blue Room Books) about a young man named Tom Cliffe is an almost inspirational story of determination and grit. And it’s a love story. Tom Cliffe loves music: an unexpected glissando, a change of key that’s felt in the gut, the liquid connection between song and audience. Music is the only addiction that Tom Cliffe has, and that’s enough to make his story alternately joyous and dispiriting.

Shaw comes to writing about jazz musicians legitimately. He spent nearly 50 years performing as a singer and pianist in some of the most legendary clubs in the country. Readers will wonder how much of The Musician is autobiographical, but after a few pages, it doesn’t matter. From a “bone-simple, 16-bar melody sung in rounds”  to “I’ve Got Rhythm” played over a polyrhythm (whatever that is), readers will happily accompany Tom Cliffe on his travels: disappointments, heartbreaks, hangovers and all. 

On page one, he identifies himself, “Pure white boy, raised in comfort, privately educated,” then proceeds to throw himself into the world of jazz in the 1960s, a world predominately Black, rough, often underground and always unprofitable.

MUSICAL PASSION MAY BE PAINFUL, BUT IT’S SELDOM REGRETTABLE

But music is all, even upstaging family and romantic love. And although Tom suffers, he seldom regrets. 

The Musician takes us to the sticky streets of New Orleans, into glamorous Atlanta hotels and Florida’s poolside bars, but also into the arms of the most lovable bunch of enablers ever described. Tom Cliffe is blessed to have found a friend indeed who opens his home to him. The Fontenot shotgun residence in New Orleans and the family members who live (and cook) there become Tom’s home away from home — or more accurately, his home away from the hotels and cheap apartments where he stays when he’s on the road. Out-of-work musicians are a charming bunch, and the love of music is a tie that binds. Fiercely. 

It’s an unbalanced, unpredictable life except for the sheet music —  in the case of jazz musicians, “charts” — and the sounds of an appreciative audience. Here’s a sober and fine story of what it’s like to love music more than anything else without letting the passion become fatal. It’s a story that makes you want to spend a few hours listening to the old jazz artists with your eyes closed. A story that will send you to Google Mike Shaw himself and hear his intensity for yourself. 

Mr. Shaw dedicates his book to the “hundreds of thousands who strum, blow, beat, pluck, or sing impressively enough to make a living making music.” Nothing could be more honest.

You can purchase The Musician here.

About Mike Shaw:

Mike Shaw is an Atlanta-based writer and musician. A singer-pianist, he began touring in the late 1960s, performing in nightclubs and on concert stages, solo and with jazz combos, ultimately settling in New Orleans. As a writer, he counts more than 12,000 published articles, from investigative pieces adopted by 60 Minutes and ABC 20/20 to ghostwritten articles, white papers, and blogs for corporate clients. He has founded and presided over three Atlanta-based marketing agencies.