by Mike Knowles
Sometimes when I am reading a book and I come across a song being played in a scene, I get an urge to stop what I am doing and play the song. I usually go to Youtube and find what the writer put in the book and sit back with my eyes closed listening to the song. For a few minutes, I feel like there is some kind of connection between me and the song that wasn’t there before.
When I first read McFetridge’s Dirty Sweet, I was at my computer all the time listening to different classic rock songs that I forgot I knew the words to. It felt different listening to bands like T-Rex and thinking of what was happening in the crime novel I was reading. What felt different was the genre of music. Usually, I don’t find a lot of rock in crime novels. Usually, I find Jazz.
Michael Connoly’s Harry Bosch loved Jazz, Dan Simmons’ Joe Kurtz was into it, Barry Eisler’s John Rain went to jazz clubs when he wasn’t killing people, even Andrew Vachss’ Burke was a Jazz aficionado. Every time I read one of these books, I came across cops and criminals all into the same thing: Jazz.
I took breaks from reading all of those authors to listen to the music they wrote about, and I liked it. Hearing the music brought me deeper into the book; it was even cool to listen to while reading. But a while back, I decided to go deeper. I had to know why the music was showing up in crime novels over and over again. I had to understand Jazz. I put the Jazz stations on the satellite preset in my car, and I took severe advantage of the public library borrowing all the jazz I could find. I began listening to the music hard and it wasn’t until I began hearing the live tracks that I began to understand why the music was showing up in the books I was reading. I found a link between writing and Jazz.
smithsonianjazz.org explains Jazz as a kind of music in which improvisation is typically an important part. In most jazz performances, players play solos which they make up on the spot, which requires considerable skill.
Musicians changing the songs that came before them with their own unique takes on the tune. How much different is that than writing crime fiction? There are regular themes that most crime stories center around like theft, revenge, justice, etc. These are all ideas that have been around forever. What makes the themes new, what makes them stand out as something interesting, is the different individual changes each writer brings to the page. The unique improvisations that make a story about something you have read about before suddenly different and original.
When I write a story, I get the characters in my head and an idea about what is going to happen and I start writing. I don’t nail down anything, most of it happens on the fly. It is by no means a perfect harmonious process, there are times I have to stop what I am doing because I have written myself into a corner. But most of the time, the best things I come up with, the things I think are clever, happen while I am writing without a plan.
I haven’t completely understood Jazz yet. I don’t think anyone can break it down into a definition. Jazz isn’t something that can be contained. It is about taking risks, about challenging the old with the new. And just when you think you know it, it surprises you by becoming something else. I think Jazz shows up in crime fiction over and over again because writers are after the same thing: to change the old by turning it on its head and showing a different side of an old idea. We improvise, and alter, generating new ideas that will one day themselves be changed. Jazz and writing are similar animals that refuse to remain caged. They find each other like stray dogs who share a mutual desire to find new places to roam and explore.
Good post, Mike. I've wondered about all that jazz in crime stories, too. I think it was Kevin Burton Smoth at Thrilling Detective Magazine who put jazz on the list of things he didn't want to see in stories anymore because there was just too much. But your connection shows why it works, I think.
Years ago I knew a jazz musician who said that jazz was music for other musicians. There's something about crime fiction being writing for other writers, too.
I've read books that feel like an Ornette Coleman solo, a maniacal car-wreck of tones that seems to veer off into embankment, over a cliff, into an explosion so blistering in heat, so violent in proportion.
And I've read books like some late 50s Red Garland, measured and comfortable, with a hint here or there of stabbing understanding, like Coltrane squawking a little at the edges of the bars.
I think your linking of crime fiction to jazz is spot on and due, in part, to the influence of Chandler and Hammett, a couple of guys who were doing their best work in the 30s and 40s. That feeling, that sense of NOIR in the books and movies and music, helps to create the scenery that the murders can hang on.
I admire your ability to hop out of a story to visit the YouTubes and then hop back in. If I did that, I'd end up watching "Baby Mama - Film Clip # 5" on a loop again and never get back to the novel.
Bill Moody (jazz drummer and critic) has a very nice mystery series about a jazz pianist.
"I haven’t completely understood Jazz yet"
No one does. That's what makes it worth listening to, over and over again.
Glad you have delved into more jazz. It's a wonderful world, for sure. There's a book that makes the connection between crime fiction (especially detective stories) called "The Hero and the Blues" by Albert Murray. I'd highly recommend it. There's also an academic work titled "The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction" which also pursues the connection well.
Last, I invite you to check out a five-minute preview of the current episode on my online jazz TV, Jazz it Up! It'll take you even deeper into the music: http://www.jazzituptv.com. If you like what you see, subscribe for free.
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