Most crime novels follow a fairly conventional formula, especially when they use the stock device of building a series of stories around the activities of a specific investigator. The clues lead to more mysteries, the body count rises and a result is eventually achieved. The quality of the writing is often what distinguishes one novel from another. That and perhaps some sort of new or different background. Crime writing with a Jazz angle isn't new, though most of it has had a skewed vision of the music and its practitioners, and it's only with a writer like Bill Moody that the genre has come up with books that have a genuine feeling for jazz. Moody isn't an innovator in terms of the way he writes, and he sticks to the format described above, but he writes convincingly about the music.
He is, in fact, a jazz drummer, as well as a writer, and has had wide experience, including working with Earl Hines, Maynard Ferguson, Lou Rawls, and Annie Ross. He also works as a jazz critic and is the author of a factual book. The Jazz Exiles: American Musicians Abroad, which offers insights into the lives of musicians like Art Fanner, Phil Woods, and Red Mitchell. Moody has academic connections, too, and has taught at the University of Nevada and Sonoma State University in California.
His first novel, Solo Hand, introduced the character of Evan Horne, a jazz pianist who has injured his right hand and is unable to play. The book starts with an atmospheric description of him working at Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse club In Hermosa Beach, but it turns out to be a dream and ends: "The Lighthouse, I remind myself, no longer features jazz. I no longer play piano." This note of slight pessimism, and the feeling that not only has the individual career of the pianist been affected but that Jazz itself is increasingly being pushed aside, run throughout Moody's books generally. Chick Corea goes electronic and enters "the void of fusion," and "even Down Beat, once the jazz bible, now features more rock than Jazz in its pages."
Horne is pulled, reluctantly, into the role of private detective when a singer he once worked for is blackmailed. The singer has gone pop, which gives Moody the opportunity to put more comments about the decline of the music scene into Horne's mouth. He's particularly dry about country music, commenting that, "there is really only one country song. Most of them deal with prisons, ex-wives, trucks, dogs, and drinking. Variations on all these themes are sung by all singers who claim roots in Nashville or Mussel Shoals" I'm inclined to wonder what Horne would have thought had he met Charlie Parker, who was reputed to often play country records on the jukebox in Charlie's Tavern, a wall-known jazz hangout in New York. When taken to task about this by another musician, Parker replied: "the stories. Listen to the stories."
I don't intend to analyse the plots of Moody's novels As I said earlier, they follow an established pattern, with snappy dialogue, sharp confrontations, and twists and turns which sustain the suspense. And it all works efficiently and in a readable way. But the originality lies in the character of Even Horne and the detail provided about jazz. Bearing in mind that everything is seen from the point of view of Horne, with his jazz musician's tastes and prejudices, we are taken into a world of recording sessions, night-clubs, and so on. At one point Horne has to call at the Musicians' Union office in Los Angeles, and he notes the presence of "musicians dressed in designer jeans and golf shirts picking up recording cheques from television and film studios or session dates from any of the hundreds of record labels that have studios in Southern California. These are the best-paying gigs, but also the hardest to break into." Horne adds that a musician has to be highly adaptable to work in this kind of environment, and says: "The general rule is, the worse the music the better the pay."
Horne also meets individual musicians, some of them real people and some fictional characters, though often based on actual jazzmen. He seeks advice from a photographer who was, at one time, a wall-known drummer: "Carl Caye had always been one of my heroes. He was old enough to have played a supporting role in the bebop revolution and he'd recorded with some of the Fifty Second Street greats like Bird and Dizzy and Miles. He'd played on scores of record dates since then, and toured with just about everybody, including singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan." A basic knowledge of the history of modem jazz will tell you that this is Stan Levey, who was around New York in the 1940s, became a leading light on the West Coast in the 1950s, and did work with just about everybody. He was also a keen photographer, and when, In his words, "the music business changed," he turned to other things, such as running a successful photographic studio.
Real people mixed with fictional ones occur in the second Evan Horne mystery, Death of a Tenorman, the tenorman in question being Wardell Gray, who died in mysterious circumstances in Las Vegas In 1955. Horne, slowly getting back into shape again as a pianist, is offered a job playing in a shopping mall in Las Vegas. He's also asked by a friend who is a professor at the local university to do some research into Gray's death. Gray was one of the finest tenormen of the bop era and had recorded with Earl Hines, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Benny Goodman, and others. He was found dead in the desert outside Las Vegas while working there with Benny Carter's band.
A known drug-addict, Gray had been friendly with a dancer named Teddy Hale, also an addict, and it was said that Hale had panicked when Gray fell and broke his neck and had dumped the body. But rumours persisted that Gray had been murdered, though not by Hale, and the crime made to look like an accident. The Las Vegas police were not really all that interested in the death of a black, junkie jazzman, so no proper investigations seem to have taken place.
Looking into this mystery, Horne encounters people who don't want the events of the 1950s revived, not so much because they know how and why Gray died, but because there are other matters of a shady nature that they don't want brought to light. Horne's quest for information brings him into contact with local musicians and lets him observe what has happened to music in Las Vegas. Once known as a place where employment opportunities abounded because of the number of clubs, theatres, restaurants, and other establishments with live music, it has now. noticeably changed: "The music for the production shows at the major Strip hotels is now tape, replacing the live bands with music pre-recorded by musicians who are now out of work The majority of the other hotels that feature star policies - big-name singers and comedians - have reduced their house bands to skeletal combos or in some cases eliminated them altogether. The lounges for the most part hire self-contained groups with fewer and fewer musicians. Thanks to synthesizers, drum machines, and the awakening of the musician's union, Top Forty groups dominate the entertainment for audiences that are only killing time between gambling and eating." Needless to say, Horne keeps up his banter about country music and comments on the predictability of a singer's performance and how the audience laps it up.
Death of a Tenorman mentions a couple of jazz clubs in Las Vegas, which turn out to be real places. Moody's book about Jazzmen who worked in Europe has a chapter about baritone-saxist Jay Cameron who, when he returned to the USA, lived In Las Vegas for a time and played at a club called the Hobnob, "a haven where musicians could stop by and sit in after performing for Strip hotel shows." It closed as a jazz spot In 1992. There are also references to the Four Queens Hotel and Monday night jazz sessions run by a man called Alan Grant, who Is an actual person who tried to keep the jazz spirit alive In Las Vegas. The parallel investigation - of past and present - also plays a part in The Sound of the Trumpet, with Horne asked to authenticate some tapes which are supposedly by trumpeter Clifford Brown, who was killed in a road accident in 1956. The action again takes place in and around Las Vegas and Los Angeles, with the tapes much sought after by collectors and the competition leading to death. Real people are also present, with vibraphone player Dave Pike described at work in a club, and tenorman Jack Montrose, who recorded with Brown, asked to listen to the tapes and give his opinion about their authenticity. Other musicians and fans listen to them, and the book neatly highlights how even the most knowledgeable amongst them are uncertain about whether or not they feature Brown's playing or that of another similarly-styled musician from the 1950s.
There is a minor technical variation in the structure of The Sound of the Trumpet in that short chapters describing Brown's presumed activities on the night of his death are inserted into the narrative.. I say "presumed activities," because although the basic facts are well-known enough Moody invents conversations and minor situations to construct a plausible picture of what might have happened.
I've not referred to all the recordings by a variety of artists mentioned in Moody's books. Home listens to the radio when he's driving, and he plays cassettes, CDs, and LPs when at home. He has to listen to old records to try to obtain information which might be relevant. And people he visits often have music playing. Numerous names crop up, from Chet Baker to Miles Davis to Horace Parlan to Tadd Dameron. A lot of pianists are mentioned, which is natural enough In view of Horne's own involvement with the instrument, and his injury which makes him constantly aware of what he'd like to do and what, in fact, he can do.
Bird Lives! the most recent Moody novel, opens with Horne performing at a jazz club in Culver City as a substitute for a delayed (and real) Monty Alexander. He plays well, is approached by someone from a small record-company, and begins to think he's almost back on form. But there's a report on T.V. that a saxophonist named Ty Rodman has been stabbed to death. Horne doesn't think much of Rodman: "Ty Rodman and I don't travel in the same circles. He's one of a half-dozen sax players who’ve fused blues riffs with a rock beat and turned it into a fortune while breathing down Kenny G's neck." A friend In the police contacts Horne and asks for help with some clues. The slogan Bird Lives I has been scrawled in blood on a mirror and a record by Parker left playing at the scene of the crime. It also happens to be March 12th, the anniversary of Bird's death in 1955. And the police tell Horne that a couple of other fashionable musicians in the fusion style have died in similar circumstances.
Horne, despite his misgivings, is drawn into the investigation, and his activities give him plenty of opportunities to air his views about "lightsout jazz," or whatever name is given to these kind of repetitive and watered-down contemporary sounds. Horne describes it as music that's "known in the trade as fusion, smooth Jazz, almost pop music," and his uncompromising opinions lead to some amusing encounters with policemen who can't understand what's wrong with it. When asked why performers of smooth Jazz make more money than straightforward jazzmen, Horne replies: "The same reason writers like Stephen King and Danielle Steele make more money than John Updike or Saul Bellow. Mass market. They appeal to a lower common denominator."
He listens to Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans at home, hears Dexter Gordon on his car radio, and thinks about clubs like the Jazz Workshop and the Blackhawk in San Francisco. The Blackhawk had an eccentric owner and was hardly luxurious: "A leaky roof, wooden tables, and hard chairs, but acoustics so good the Modern Jazz Quartet could work there without microphones. And Guido left the musicians alone. The only important thing was the music, and now, like so many jazz meccas -Birdland, The Five Spot, Shelly's Manne Hole - the Blackhawk was gone." As a contrast, and as part of the investigation, Horne has to make an appearance with a semi-rock band at a large open-air event: "Buster stamps his foot for the tempo, and we're under way. I see my hands on the keyboard, but between the crowd noises and the roar of amps and speakers, I can't hear a note. The ear-splitting guitar screams, the drums pound, and the drone of Buster's bass resonates and slaps against the plastic canopy covering the stage. A three-chord vamp is all we have to play while the guitarist bends strings and sends his body into quasi-convulsions for nearly five minutes."
It's obvious that although Bill Moody is writing crime novels he uses them for some interesting comments on jazz and the general state of music today. In Bird Lives! a cynical and successful saxophonist questions Horne about his dedication to bebop: "Shit, let your hair grow a little more, get funky, and I could get you into some big bucks See, you don't get it, man. Bebop is dead. Smooth Is where it's at. It's on the radio. It's In Tower Records. Hell, I'm doing a TV commercial next week. Most of the people who buy CDs don't even know who Cannonball is, much less Bird." I suppose, too, that Moody, through Horne, is also reflecting on society in general and not just the music it listens to. The idea that it's money and success that counts and not any kind of dedication to something worthwhile is sadly all too prevalent in all walks of life. Evan Horne is not unlike Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in attempting to preserve some sort of integrity in a corrupt and hostile world.
I've not made any claims for Bill Moody's novels as great or significant literature, but within their chosen framework they do their job efficiently and have the added attraction of ringing true about jazz. Even Horne is a believable character, possibly even to the point where someone not sharing his musical ideas might think him arrogant. But if, like me, you do share his ideas and tastes then you should find him immensely appealing. Out of curiosity as I wrote this piece I tuned into Jazz FM and heard a smooth saxophone riffing over a rippling and repetitive rhythm, and I could imagine Even Horne's response to the lack of imagination and spontaneity in the whole performance. And if you can think about how a fictional character might respond to a real situation then it seems to me that the writing has succeeded.
Solo Hand was published by Slow Dancer Press, London, 1999. It was originally published in the USA in 1994 by Walker Publishing. Walker also published Death of a Tenorman in 1995, The Sound of the Trumpet in 1997, and Bird Lives! in 1999. Bill Moody's The Jazz Exiles: American Musicians Abroad was published by the University of Nevada Press, 1993.