Writing about Music

eric dolphy

When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.     Eric Dolphy

I began writing fiction over thirty-five years ago. My first attempt at a novel had a jazz saxophonist as a minor character. A description of that character walking across the Brooklyn Bridge as he played his horn was the only decent piece of writing in the story (and to be honest, I stole that idea from the life of Sonny Rollins). A few years later, I tried again, this time making a saxophonist the central character. I got further, but, well, that story didn’t work either. And the next novel? You get the picture.

It took me twenty-five years to get a novel published. Frustrating at the time, certainly, but in retrospect that’s how long it took me to learn the craft. Because I kept at it all that time. I got full marks for stamina. And even then, when I did publish my first novel, The Rizzoli Contract, ten years ago, it was (I see now) uneven and overwritten. So I’m still learning and still trying.

But one thing, as it happens, has been consistent. Without conscious intention, most of the fiction I have written has music at the center of the story. Jazz, mostly. And it’s not just that I love jazz – but also that good jazz has qualities of excitement, emotional depth, and complexity, which I believe are essential elements to good fiction. Jazz musicians, too, have often been intriguing characters, outsiders with passion and talent who can’t fit into the mainstream. Hipsters like Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis. My heroes.

So my novel Song for Katya was about an ex-junkie jazz pianist who foolishly falls in love with a Soviet woman when his band visits Cold War Soviet Union. Reach the Shining River has characters inspired by Young, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Jimmy Rushing. And next year I have a young adult novel coming out with Little Island publishers about an Iraqi boy living an unsettled life in the American Midwest who finds solace in the playing of John Coltrane.

So call it inspiration or homage, but somehow my fiction has become a crossroads for my musical interests. Does it work for my readers? Time, I suppose, will tell.

songforkatya-100

St. Patrick & the Powers

The Powers!

The Powers!

Arf, he said.   Pucker Power

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and I live in Ireland, which means I had to celebrate, of course. So yesterday I took part in Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Festival by doing readings from my children’s book The Powers at the UNESCO tent in Merrion Square. The Powers has been a UNESCO citywide read for Dublin since the beginning of the year, which means that all thirty of Dublin’s public libraries bought 25 copies a piece (or more) and I have been reading in the libraries and the schools for the last three months. Yesterday was the grand finale; we sold a lot of books and I met some great kids.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. There is loads of wordplay – puns and malapropisms and spoonerisms, which are fun to dream up and which kids always like. I also put in little nuggets for the parents. For example, each chapter title borrows a title from a famous song. The titles relate to the content of the chapter, but they are also songs from my youth – “Riders on the Storm”, “Who’ll Stop the Rain”, “After Midnight”, and so on.

This book was more of a collaboration than any other I’ve written. It is illustrated by the fantastically talented Sheena Dempsey, there is a website that features a blog by one of the characters (written by the novelist Dee Sullivan), an animation and the Powers theme song, written and performed by my brother Mike Stevens and his band. And the folks at Little Island publishers produced the book beautifully.

I was so impressed by the children who attended the readings. Many had read the book (and one 8-year-old had found a typo!), and all of them were interested and attentive and charming. It’s great to see the next generation of readers being so interested in books and storytelling. St. Patrick would have approved.

And Suzie (and Pucker) too, of course:

suzie

Writing about Kansas City

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Back at the hotel that night Mr. Bridge observed that he had always heard so much about Franch cooking but if that was a fair sample he would rather eat in Kansas City.                                                                     Evan S. Connell

Thirty-five years ago I read a book that made me want to write a novel about Kansas City. Twenty-five years later I read a book that told me I could do it.

The first book was Bird Lives!, by Ross Russell, a biography of jazz legend Charlie Parker. I bought it in Foyles Bookshop in London in 1976, near the beginning of my lifelong obsession with jazz. I still own that copy:

bird lives my copy

Russell was once a business partner of Bird, and while parts of the book are self-serving, it really does bring Parker and his music to life. And it does a good job of describing why Kansas City in the 1920s and 30s, the period when Parker was born there and came of age, was such a mecca for jazz stars from throughout the Southland. I was a displaced Montanan, living in Ireland. So much stirring detail about the time and place and music made me dream of writing a novel about a saxophone player who witnesses a murder. I even started it – but got nowhere.

The truth was that I didn’t have the experience to write a book so different from my own time and place. But I thought it was a question of distance. Depression America, Kansas City brothels and juke joints, the struggle of African-Americans in a time of segregation – it all seemed so far away. So I dug the music and moved on.

Fast forward to ten years ago. Way past the time when I should have read them, I discovered the novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell. Written separately and published ten years apart, these novels nevertheless tell the same story of a marriage from the points of view of husband and wife. They are wonderful. Set in Kansas City in the 1930s, they define the place and era with uncanny effect in a stunning display of crystalline nuggets of prose.

Quality apart, however, I was also amazed at how close to my own upbringing in 1960s Montana was to the characters and atmosphere of Connell’s Kansas City. The same types, the same expectations of correct behavior, the same rebelliousness in the young people. The same feel to the streets and neighborhoods. Or close enough, at any rate. So I did know that world! I could write about it!

Easier said than done, of course, but now, ten years later, I’ve done it. Jazz, privileged suburban life, racism, baseball – it’s all there. Reach the Shining River comes out in April. Did I succeed? Well, you’ll have to be the judge of that…

Pretty Boy Floyd and the Kansas City Massacre

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If you gather round me, children, a story I will tell
‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw, Oklahoma knew him well.            Woody Guthrie

Pretty Boy Floyd hated his nickname. It wasn’t as bad as “Baby Face”, but if you were Public Enemy No. 1, as Floyd was after the death of John Dillinger, it wasn’t a moniker you liked reading in the papers. Floyd was one of the most notorious of a generation of gangsters who operated in the Great Depression, when hard times and lax law enforcement created incentive and opportunity for criminals, especially in the Midwest. Robbing banks was his specialty, and he wasn’t afraid to kill those who pursued him. Throughout the 1920s, and up to his death in 1934 at age 30, there was no man more hated by the FBI.

Though raised in Oklahoma, Floyd came of age as a bank robber in and around Kansas City, working with underworld figures like Johnny Lazia and Charles Carrollo, who operated under the protection of the corrupt Pendergast political machine. It was in Kansas City that the most spectacular of his crimes took place…one that would change the face of US law enforcement.

On June 17, 1933, FBI agents were transporting convicted murderer Frank Nash back to the federal penetentiary in Leavenworth, from where he had escaped in 1930. They traveled to Kansas City by train, and when they were transferring Nash to a waiting automobile outside Union Station, gangsters who had been tipped off by Lazia opened fire with machine guns. The firefight lasted only 30 seconds, but it was a bloodbath, leaving five dead – two agents, two cops, and Nash himself. Seeing that Nash had been killed, the gunmen fled.

The  massacre shocked America. The FBI immediately initiated an investigation and quickly developed evidence that the scheme was  carried out by Vernon Miller, Adam Richetti, and Pretty Boy Floyd. The hunt was on. Within a few months, Miller’s mutilated body was discovered outside Detroit – he had come out on the wrong side of a feud with the New Jersey underworld. It took another year, but the feds finally tracked down Richetti and Floyd in eastern Ohio. Richetti was immediately apprehended (he would die in the gas chamber) but Floyd escaped, only to be tracked down two days later hiding out in a corn crib on a farm. After another gun battle, Floyd was killed. He carried nothing but his gun and lucky watch — the casing of which was notched with the number of people he had killed.

The Kansas City Massacre changed the FBI when Congress gave the FBI statutory authority to carry guns and make arrests. It also changed Kansas City, giving the city a reputation in the 1930s for organized crime that was second only to Chicago.

Today, marks from the bullets fired at Union Station in 1933 can still be seen on an exterior wall of the building.

Scene in front of the Kansas City railroad depot moments after the attack

                                            The aftermath