Geschrieben am 15. Januar 2011 von für Crimemag, Kolumnen und Themen

Bill Moody: Jazz’n Crime

Bill Moody ist Jazzprofi mit erheblichen Meriten und Kriminalschriftsteller von Rang. Seine Romane um den Jazzpianisten Evan Horne, der hin und wieder in kriminelle Malaisen rutscht, genießen Kult-Charakter.

Für CrimeMag kümmert sich Bill Moody unregelmäßig regelmäßig um den riesigen Bereich Jazz´n Crime – heute eher grundsätzlich und über ein Jazz Mystery, das man leider noch nicht auf Deutsch lesen kann … Have fun!

What We Talk About When We Talk About Jazz

When a jazz musician steps up to play a solo, the notes he plays are governed by the chord changes, and the format, or framework of the tune. Whether it’s a 32 bar standard tune, a blues, or an original composition, the process is the same. He doesn’t know what he’s going to play or how it will come out until the moment arrives. It’s called spontaneous composition.

Bill Moody 2003 in München

When a writer sits down to pen the first words of a crime novel, he too is governed only by the format of the crime story, be it a police procedural, a private detective, or an outsider caught up in circumstances beyond his control. If the writer hasn’t outlined the novel, he too doesn’t know what’s going to happen until the end. Is there link between playing jazz and writing crime fiction?

As a jazz musician, it’s a question I’ve been asked a number of times since publishing the Evan Horne novels about a jazz pianist, caught up in circumstances that thrust him into the world of crime. At first, I was surprised at the question, but as I thought about it more, I realized the connection is not only there, but vital to my writing. In the end, It’s all to do with the dominant factor of improvisation.

Several years ago, long before I’d written Solo Hand, I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days with Tony Hillerman, author of the Navajo police novels featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. One of our conversations had to do with the concept of outlining a novel before you write it. Hillerman confessed he couldn’t do it, despite trying many times. I was so glad to hear such a successful crime writer speak openly about his process, and realized it mirrored my own thinking.

“I start with a premise,” Hillerman said, „and just see what happens from there.” Each of his books began with some legend, myth, or tribal custom of the Navajo. Once he’d decided, he then drove around the reservation in search of a fitting site to discover a body. Hillerman characterized writing in this manner as like driving in dense fog. You can see maybe 100 feet in front, then when you get to that point, you can perhaps see another 100 feet until finally ,you reach the end. When I heard those words, something clicked into play for me.

The crime novel has a certain framework. There’s a crime, a number of  suspects, and a policeman, a detective, or someone on their own to solve the mystery and bring the culprit to justice.

The similarity of that method and playing jazz struck me immediately … Since the character I had in mind was jazz musician who knew nothing about police procedures or methods, he would be constantly doing what he knows best: improvising.

Applying the same process of playing jazz to crime writing is an easy step. One example is my third novel, “The Sound of the Trumpet”, which focuses on the music of the legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown.

I began with the premise that some lost tapes of Brown were discovered over fifty years after his death. There was some precedent for this idea. A box of tapes of John Coltrane had been found in a supply closet at Atlantic Records that had never been released. If undiscovered recordings of Clifford Brown surfaced, who would want them? How much would they be worth? How could these tapes be authenticated? All questions that demanded answers. Most importantly for a crime novel, would anybody kill for them?

Clifford Brown

I chose Clifford Brown because he died so young—a tragic fatal car crash at age 25 in 1955—and left a such a small legacy of recordings, that even today, continue today to influence musicians

That was the premise, the framework of the song that would be Sound of the Trumpet. The rest was improvisation, the solo. But as often happens in jazz, the solo sometimes takes a different turn. Such was the case with the novel. Playing the “what if” game, halfway through the writing, I suddenly had the thought that what if the tapes Evan Horne was hired to authenticate were not Clifford Brown, but someone imitating him.

This brought another wave of questions. If not Clifford Brown, who then? Brown had a unique style. Could someone accurately imitate Brown’s playing well enough to fool other musicians, collectors or record companies? Furthermore, why would anybody record in imitation?

The essence of jazz for any musician is developing his own unique sound. Knowledgeable jazz fans can readily identify such musicians as Miles Dave, Chet Baker, and Dizzy Gillespie all play trumpet. Lester Young, Stan Getz, John Coltrane or Ben Webster play tenor saxophone, but because of their unique sound, none of them sound alike. In the end, my decision to make the lost recordings imitations made for a better book and opened up a new avenue of improvisation.

Ironically, once the book was published, I got a big surprise telephone call from Brown’s widow Larue, informing me she not only liked the book, but brought the news that there were indeed lost tapes of Clifford, recorded just a few days before his death. The tapes were of the working quintet and included, not only Clifford Brown, but Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, pianist Richie Powell, Bud’s younger brother, and bassist George Morrow. And, she said, the circumstances of their discovery were very similar to those I had made up in the book.

In her talks with Blue Note Records, LaRue told an executive about the novel. The kicker was when this same executive called to ask me what my next book would be about as they were going to start looking for tapes that had possibly gone undiscovered.

If I’d ever had any doubts about not outlining, I was then totally convinced to treat writing a crime novel as if it were all a jazz solo. It’s a concept that has thusfar served me well.

Bill Moody
Bill Moody beim Unionsverlag
Bill Moody: Biography by AllAboutJazz
Porträtfoto Bill Moody (Michael Oreal)
Bill Moody: »Jazz Fiction: It Don’t Mean a Thing – If It Ain’t Got That Swing«