There’s something about jazz and jazz clubs. If you like good jazz as I do then you know what I mean without me having to explain it. Jazz, when it’s done right, is full of feeling and emotion (of course, I suppose all music is when it’s done well). A lot of jazz is improvised and adapted, too, so each jazz artist has her or his own take on the music. Jazz has been associated for a long time with fun and good times; it’s an uninhibited genre. But it’s also been associated with grief and sadness. There’s something a little dark about jazz – something that goes beneath the surface. It’s a complex form of music that for many people strikes a particular chord. And because of the kind of music it is, I’m not at all surprised that you see it in crime fiction. To me (or perhaps this is just my opinion, in which case feel free to disagree if you do) jazz music would be a nicely-matched soundtrack to a lot of crime fiction novels.
When jazz first made the transition from its roots in the U.S. Black community into the mainstream, many people were suspicious of it. It was – is – unique and therefore unfamiliar and seemed, well, dangerous. You see that kind of feeling about jazz in some Golden Age crime fiction like Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates two deaths. One is the death of one his fellow club members General Fentiman. Fentiman’s wealthy sister Lady Dormer also dies. And therein is the hitch. According to Lady Dormer’s will, if she dies first, her fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If the general dies first, the fortune passes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin Anne Dorland. So the timing of the two deaths matters greatly. When it’s discovered that General Fentiman was poisoned, Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker have to find out not only who poisoned the general, but also who died first: the general or his sister. At one point, Wimsey is talking with Fentiman’s grandson George and his wife. George has this to say about the effect of jazz and the jazz culture:
‘In the old days, heaps of unmarried women were companions, and… they had a much better time than they had now, with all this jazzing and short skirts…the modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her.’
It’s clear in this novel that there’s real suspicion of ‘the jazz life.’
Of course, times have changed and today jazz isn’t considered the ‘dangerous’ kind of music that it once was. But it still runs through crime fiction. In James Lee Burke’s Dixie City Jam, for instance, New Iberia cop Dave Robicheaux needs to raise money to help his business partner Batist, who’s been arrested for murdering a drug dealer. Robicheaux decides to raise the money through a finder’s fee for recovering a World War II-era submarine that’s sunk not far from New Iberia. The real trouble begins when Robicheaux’s search gets the attention of Will Buchalter, a neo-Nazi who doesn’t want the secrets buried with that sub to come to light. Buchalter begins to target Robicheaux’s wife Bootise, so Robicheaux tries to track him down. The only problem is that Buchalter is notoriously elusive. In fact, the only real clue to he has is that Buchalter is an avid collector of rare jazz recordings. So Robicheaux looks for answers among New Orleans’ group of music lovers, musical artists and jazz dealers as he searches for Buchalter. In this novel, jazz is not only part of the context for this plot thread, but it’s also, you might say, part of the key to finding Buchalter.
Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins series takes place in 1950’s Watts, Los Angeles which, as we learn in White Butterfly, was once a well-known jazz district. Here’s how Rawlins describes the area:
‘The women, in the late forties and even into the early fifties, were all beautiful; young and old, in satins, silks and furs…They’d come in and listen to Coltrane, Monk, Holiday and all the rest, drinking shot for shot with their men.
It was a bold and flashy time. But by that evening  all the shine had rubbed off to expose the base metal below. The sidewalks had broken, sporting hardy weeds in their cracks. Some clubs were still there but they were quieter now. The jazzmen had found new arenas.’
It’s in that context that Rawlins is ‘persuaded’ to go looking for a killer. Three young women Bonita Edwards, Willa Scott and Juliette LeRoi have been murdered. But since they were all Black, not much attention has been paid to their deaths. When Robin Garnett, who calls herself Cyndi Starr, is killed though, things change. She was White and the media starts to pay attention. The police know that they won’t get the truth if they try to investigate in Watts themselves. So they coerce Rawlins into doing so. He starts to ask questions and follows the girls’ trails through the seedy clubs and bars of the area. One of his stops is a visit to Lips McGee, a talented jazz trumpeter at the end of his career. During his heyday McGee was at the top of the scene, but he’s now living in Hollywood Row, a building that like its residents has seen much better times. It turns out McGee knew Robin Garnett and gives Rawlins valuable help in finding out where and how she lived. Rawlins manages to track down the person he thinks killed the women – and then discovers that someone else might have killed Robin and ‘disguised’ her murder to look like the work of the other killer.
Nevada Barr’s Burn has a strong dose of jazz. In that novel, National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon visits her friend Geneva, who’s now a singer at the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park. She soon begins to suspect that Geneva’s tenant Jordan may be involved in New Orleans’ child trafficking trade. At the same time, Seattle chemist Clare Sullivan also goes to New Orleans, but for a very different reason. She is suspected of the arson murder of her husband and two children. But she is convinced that her children are still alive and have been taken to New Orleans. She goes on a desperate search for her children at the same time as Pigeon is looking for what may lie beneath Jordan’s exterior. While jazz music isn’t the key to pulling together the threads of this story, it serves as a really effective backdrop for the novel.
Even when jazz and jazz clubs aren’t featured in a crime novel, they are still sometimes woven in more subtly. For instance fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch will know that he is a jazz lover. In many of the novels featuring him, Bosch listens to all sorts of jazz. In fact you could say that jazz cements the bond between him and Sylvia Moore, whom he meets in The Black Ice. In that novel Bosch investigates the death of her husband Calexico ‘Cal.’ In the process of that investigation he has several conversations with Sylvia and they develop a relationship. And at the very end of the novel, Bosch asks her:
‘You like jazz? The saxophone?’…
‘Especially the solos,’ she said. ‘The ones that are lonely and sad. I love those.’
That’s when Bosch invites her for a New Year’s Eve date at the Catalina, where jazz great Frank Morgan will be playing. Sadly, Morgan died in 2007 and Connelly actually dedicates The Brass Verdict, which was written that year and published in 2008,in part to Morgan’s memory. And on an interesting note, we learn in that novel that Bosch’s half-brother Mickey Haller is acquainted with Morgan.
Jazz is a unique music form with a rich history. It’s got all sorts of depths, shadow and light (or maybe that’s just my view). I’m glad it’s threaded through crime fiction; they go together somehow. Or maybe that’s just my view, too…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carole King’s Jazzman.