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Jazz Novels



In November 2018, I shared details of jazz-related novels that I have enjoyed (not biographies). Since then, other suggestions have been added to the list. In each instance I have given a link to Amazon where you can read various reviews and often look inside the book and listen to some of it being read, but you could equally check out other sites such as Waterstones, or pop into your local bookshop or library. Some of these books are also available on Kindle:


Suggested by Ian Maund (Sandy Brown Jazz)


Ray Celestin Mobsters Lament


The Mobster's Lament by Ray Celestin (Mantle)

‘This whole thing has got police cover-up written all over it,’ Ida said, rising.
‘Yup,’ said Michael. ‘That’s who we’re up against.’

'Fall, 1947. New York City. Private Investigator Ida Davis has been called to New York by her old partner, Michael Talbot, to investigate a brutal killing spree in a Harlem flophouse that has left four people dead. But as they delve deeper into the case, Ida and Michael realize the murders are part of a larger conspiracy that stretches further than they ever could have imagined. Meanwhile, Ida’s childhood friend, Louis Armstrong, is at his lowest ebb. His big band is bankrupt, he’s playing to empty venues, and he’s in danger of becoming a has-been, until a promoter approaches him with a strange offer to reignite his career . . . And across the city, nightclub manager and Mob fixer Gabriel Leveson’s plans to flee New York are upset when he’s called in for a meeting with the ‘boss of all bosses’, Frank Costello. Tasked with tracking down stolen Mob money, Gabriel must embark on a journey through New York’s seedy underbelly, forcing him to confront demons from his own past, all while the clock is ticking on his evermore precarious escape plans. Ray Celestin’s third instalment in his multi-award winning City Blues Quartet is both a gripping neo-noir crime novel and a vivid, panoramic portrait of New York – from its tenements to its luxury hotels, from its bebop clubs to the bustling wharves of the Brooklyn waterfront – all set as the Mob is rising to the height of its powers, and Senator Joe McCarthy begins to plot his own reign of terror . . .'




The Axemans Jazz


The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin (Pan).

'New Orleans, 1919. As a dark serial killer - The Axeman - stalks the city, three individuals set out to unmask him. Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, heading up the official investigation, and harbouring a grave secret, is struggling to find leads. Former detective Luca d'Andrea, working with the mafia, whose need to solve the mystery of the Axeman is every bit as urgent as that of the authorities. Meanwhile, Ida, a secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency, stumbles across a clue which lures her and her musician friend, Louis Armstrong, to the case and into terrible danger . . . As Michael, Luca and Ida each draw closer to discovering the killer's identity, the Axeman himself will issue a challenge to the people of New Orleans: play jazz or risk becoming the next victim'.





Dead Mans Blues


Dead Man's Blues by Ray Celestin (Pan).

Sequel to The Axeman's Jazz. Louis Armstrong travels to Chicago to join King Oliver's band. His friend Ida is now based there with the Pinkerton Agency. 'Chicago, 1928. In the stifling summer heat three investigations begin . . . Pinkerton detectives Michael Talbot and Ida Davis are hired to locate a missing heiress. But it proves harder than expected to find a woman known across the city. After being called to a gruesome murder in Chicago’s violent Black Belt, crime-scene photographer Jacob Russo can’t get the dead man’s image out of his head, and decides to track down the culprit himself. And with a group of city leaders poisoned at the Ritz, Dante Sanfelippo – rum-runner and fixer – is called in by Al Capone to discover whether someone is trying to bring down his empire. As the three parties edge closer to the truth, their paths will cross and their lives will be threatened. But will any of them find the answers they need in the city of blues, booze and brutality?'





The Horn book


The Horn by John Clellon Holmes (Souvenir Press)

'This mesmerizing tale of a musician’s rise and fall is widely considered the greatest jazz novel ever published. Edgar Pool came up with the big bands. He spent the 1930s crisscrossing the country, playing in only the finest dance halls. In those days, a saxophone player was expected to stay on the beat, to swing without getting too hot. But Edgar - whom the young men called “the Horn” - couldn’t help but rebel. His sound was always far-out, never pedestrian. When the bebop revolution came, Edgar was recognized as one of the vanguard. But by then it was already too late; the world had passed the Horn by. This is the story of jazz in the transition years between swing titans Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and bop innovators Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Rich in the details of a musician’s life - the grind of the road; the flash of inspiration; the seduction of booze, drugs, and willing women - it is also a heart-wrenching portrait of the price an artist pays for being ahead of his time'.





Half Blood Blues


Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail)

'Chip told us not to go out. Said, don't you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you. The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there's more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero's fate was settled. In Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don't tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong ...'






Outside In


Outside In by Scott Schachter (StarBeat Press)

'Shawn is a hard-luck saxophonist with an unearthly muse. His demented neighbors, a mob boss and a choir of interdimensional aliens with sharp teeth are not the only things that stand between Shawn and jazz stardom. A bigger problem is no one likes his crazy music. Worst of all, it scares off Carole, the woman he loves more than anyone. It even scares himself because he knows one day he’ll follow his reckless muse until he goes insane, and Carole will stay away forever. When his soul collides with reality, Shawn must choose between his art and his love'.






Off Key



Off Key by Mark Robertson (Matador)

'Charlotte has supported Kyle's precarious musical career for three years. Now it's her turn. When Kyle doesn't want to play the breadwinner, she looks to a future on the other side of the Atlantic. Saxophonist Kyle has no money, no career and has now lost the love of his live. Can an autistic twelve-year-old boy and an alcoholic 'has been' be his salvation?'





Suggested by Clive Feckner:



The Vinyl Detective



The Vinyl Detective by Andrew Cartmel (Titan Books)

'He is a record collector - a connoisseur of vinyl, hunting out rare and elusive LPs. His business card describes him as the "Vinyl Detective" and some people take this more literally than others. Like the beautiful, mysterious woman who wants to pay him a large sum of money to find a priceless lost recording on behalf of an extremely wealthy, yet shadowy, client. So begins a painful and dangerous odyssey in search of the rarest jazz record of them all...'






Twelve Bar Blues



Twelve Bar Blues by Patrick Neate (Penguin)

'Spanning three continents and two centuries, Twelve Bar Blues is an epic tale of fate, family, friendship and jazz. At its heart is Lick Holden, a young jazz musician, who sets New Orleans on fire with his cornet at the beginning of the last century. But Lick's passion is to find his lost step-sister and that's a journey that leads him to a place he can call 'home'. Meanwhile, at the other end of the century, we find Sylvia, an English prostitute, and Jim, a young drifter. They're in search of Sylvia's past, lost somewhere in the mists of the Louisiana bayou. Patrick Neate has written a story that straddles time and space, love and friendship, roots and pilgrimage and everything between. Poignant and hilarious, it will hook you - like a favourite tune - till the end'.





1929 by Frederick Turner


1929 by Frederick Turner

I have just finished 1929 by Frederick Turner, a fictionalised (I guess) story of Bix Beiderbecke's last few years...brilliant!! You get them all, Tram, Duke, Satchmo, Paul Whiteman, Al Capone. It is beautifully written and a joy as well as an exciting read'.

With a byline 'A novel of the jazz age', the introductory notes say: 'Presents a fictional account of jazz artist Bix Beiderbecke's early jams at a Capone-controlled casino, gruelling cross-country tours, disastrous cinematic efforts, experiences during the stock market crash, and his final musical efforts'.

One reviewer on Amazon writes: 'One really doesn't know where to begin. 1929 starts in modern times, as the fictional graveside recollections of a former Al Capone Mob driver and mechanic of his late friend, the legendary Bix Beiderbecke. It then careens through the "Roaring 20's", following Bix's descent into alcoholism, illness, and eventual death in a wildly scattershot pattern. In reading this book one wonders just how many of the stories related are apochryphal, and how many ended up in letters, diaries, memoirs, and biographies. The recollections of Charlie Chaplain, Buster Keaton, Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Frankie Trumbauer, Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstrong, Clara Bow and many others are here. The richness of the material excuses the sometimes roundabout storytelling, and details about needle beer, "smoke" (a denatured alchol drink that killed thousands), and a hundred other matters that haven't mattered since the end of prohibition show the writer to be very knowlegable about the details that were then concerns for the alligators and flappers of the speakeasy era......'


Suggested by Gerry Lupton:


But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer

But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer

'I can wholeheartedly suggest But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer. First published in 1991, I think it may still be in print. It may not fit your criteria, as it's not a novel, but a fictionalised look at seven legendary jazz musicians; not even bookshops know what to file it under, as it's 'based upon' and not factual nor a biography and is the first of Dyer’s genre-defying works. It imagines what was said and what MAY have happened with the Duke and Harry Carney, as well as scenarios involving Mingus, Monk, Art Pepper et al. It's a fascinating read. The full synopsis is on Waterstones website, including an enthusiastic endorsement by Keith Jarrett no less!'

'Lester Young fading away in a hotel room; Charles Mingus storming down the streets of New York on a too-small bicycle; Thelonius Monk creating his own private language on the piano... In eight poetically charged vignettes, Geoff Dyer skilfully evokes the embattled lives of the players who shaped modern jazz. He draws on photos and anecdotes, but music is the driving force of But Beautiful and Dyer brings it to life in luminescent and wildly metaphoric prose that mirrors the quirks, eccentricity, and brilliance of each musician's style'. (Waterstones synopsis).




Suggested by Laurie Scott:


Young Man With A Horn book

Young Man With A Horn by Dorothy Baker

Thanks to Laurie Scott who reminds me of the novel Young Man With A Horn. Dorothy Baker's book first came out in 1938. It is loosely based on the real life of Bix Beiderbecke and was adapted for the 1950 movie of the same name that starred Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day and Bix's friend Hoagy Carmichael. (Click here for a clip from the movie).

It is summarised in Wikipedia: 'It is a fictionalized novel on jazz set in a world of speakeasies and big bands during The Jazz Age of the 1920s. It is loosely based on the life of the great cornet player Bix Beiderbecke who died of alcoholism in 1931 at the age of 28. It tells the story of Rick Martin, a tormented genius from childhood until his death at age 30. The racial component of jazz is addressed. Ever since the first jazz record was released in 1917 by the white band The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, race has been an inherent issue in the new musical genre of jazz. In the wake of the success of the ODJB, both white and black musicians and bands emerged. The story also dwells on the white/black abilities to play jazz. Rick, however, establishes a strong relationship with white and black musicians. The book details both the widely accepted public view of the jazz musician of the time as well as a musician's own struggle for perfection. This drive finally destroys Rick'

There is a much more comprehensive summary by Mary Whipple on the Amazon website for the book - click here.





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Jazz As Art
Alternative Musical Definitions
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