Tag Archives: jazz fiction

EUDORA, BILL, and FATS

Mississippian Eudora Welty isn’t known as a “jazz fiction writer,” but her short story POWERHOUSE is the best imaginative rendition of what Fats Waller and his Rhythm must have seemed like while playing a dance in the Thirties.

When I was fortunate enought to work with William Maxwell (a sensitive writer and peerless editor) I sensed from a comment or two that he preferred other music to jazz.  He and Welty were dear friends for fifty years, writing to one another often, reading each other’s work with delight, exchanging gifts.

But where does Fats Waller come in?  Ah, Mr. Waller always has and had a transformational effect. 

I was reading a proof copy of new book of Welty-Maxwell correspondence, WHAT THERE IS TO SAY WE HAVE SAID (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), edited by Suzanne Marrs, and this jumped out at me, a Maxwell thank-you note from late 1978:

The Fats Waller records are delightful.  Humphrey [Maxwell’s brother-in-law] and Emmy [Maxwell’s wife] go searching earnestly for their favorites.  It is all new to me, or practically, since I was an opera buff at the time when I could have been listening to jazz.

Not to slight opera, but one never knows, do one?

“NOW’S THE TIME” by LARRY STRAUSS

Much of what is marketed as “jazz fiction” is earnest but unsatisfying because of the difficulty in creating believable characters.  In fact, the two most fulfilling jazz novels of the last decade have been Frederick Turner’s 1929 and Roddy Doyle’s OH, PLAY THAT THING! — both of which had larger than-life figures Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong as their centers. 

Many of the more traditional attempts at the genre also relied on predictable characters: the doomed pianist or saxophonist, devoted to his music but unable to have meaningful relationships; the doomed drug addict; the tubercular musician; the musician slowly going insane.  (Women, by the way, are always the devoted mother, the devoted girlfriend, the faithless wife.)  You begin to get the picture.

That’s why NOW’S THE TIME, a novel by Larry Strauss, is such a pleasure.  For one thing, its protagonist, Didi Heron, is an unflappable woman trumpeter (her day gig is in teaching middle-school geography) who doesn’t see herself as anything unusual — thus no novel-as-faminist-polemic here.  Didi isn’t perfect, but she has yearnings and a quest — a quest that forms the backbone of this book.  I should also say that, through Didi, Strauss has given us a candid glimpse into what goes on in a musician’s head — not starry romanticism or bitter cynicism, but an amused, perceptive, often unsentimental view of the world.  Did’s voice is a pleasure, and she quickly becomes real, not a thin disguise for the author’s opinions. 

I won’t give away more than eight bars of the plot, but Didi, scuffling through occasional gigs, has a love life and a lineage.  Her father, a jazz pianist killed very young in an auto accident, was a member of an imaginary but wholly convincing Fifties bop qiuntet.  As Didi searches for a mythical tape recording of the group and has adventures coast-to-coast, meeting a variety of club owners, family members, and aging musicians, she discovers a good deal about herself in ways that trascend formulaic “coming-of-age,” because Didi is clearly an adult, changing from chapter to chapter. 

I’m skeptical of novels advertised as “good reads,” but I read this one eagerly, asking the question so essential to fiction, “What’s going to happen next?”  Strauss doesn’t get in the way of his story: he creates his people, sets them on their particular courses, and records what takes place in sharp, straightforward prose.  I hope that we get to follow Didi in a later book: I was sorry to see her go. 

Here’s a “jazz fiction” novel that is true to both parts of the name.  NOW’S THE TIME is published by Kearney Street Books: details at www.kearneystreetbooks.com.  And it’s also available here: http://www.amazon.com/Nows-Time-Larry-Strauss/dp/0972370676/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277580826&sr=1-1

HOT STORIES, LIMITED EDITION

 I confess that the title of this post might be seen by some as intentionally misleading.  But when a Hot Man like Jim Goodwin writes a book, it should be Hot, too.  I’m taking it on faith.  Here’s the word from my friend Barb Hauser of San Francisco (and I’ve already placed my order):

As you know, Jim Goodwin was a person of many talents; the most widely known being his unique musical abilities. You probably know too that he was very funny, a fan of the absurd and off-the-wall humor. Jim also had a magical talent for putting his humorous thoughts on paper. His personal letters were the kind one saved. They were typed on a manual Royal; sometimes on a proper letter-size sheet of white paper, other times on a torn odd-size piece of recycled paper. If you were lucky an original drawing was tucked into a corner to illustrate something related, or not – but always funny.  

A couple of years ago, Jim and I were talking about his writing skills and fantasizing about his work being published. Afterward I pondered the conversation a while and thought, “Why not compile a book of Jim’s ‘letter stories’?” We could self-publish and sell them to friends and fans. Charge just enough to cover expenses and put a little in the retirement kitty for Jim. 

 We kicked the idea around and completed a mock up. We were on our way to a book! I use the term loosely, as it was really a neatly done binder. The pages were typed with a font that most closely resembled Jim’s old typewriter and the titles and signatures were done in a font that most closely resembled his recognizable style of hand printing – those “small caps,” as they say in the trade.

We needed a title. Jim mentioned that it was easier to write his stories to a person, as in a letter, and came up with “Letters to Ralph.” Ralph Parsons was a close friend of Jim’s with whom he corresponded quite a lot before Ralph’s passing in 1990.

Jim was working on the 11th story and hoped to have an even dozen, plus supply a few of his wonderful cartoons before we considered the book complete. He didn’t quite make it before he passed last April but he did give the mock up a hearty stamp of approval. And so, it is with confidence that Jim was proud of his accomplishment that I present a booklet version of his work. The cartoons were not completed but I included a page with some of Jim’s “J-card Art” as a small representation of the visual humor he put on cassettes he recorded for friends.

The titles by Jim include:

George Probert & The Ice Bears

IMP After Sunrise

The Ambassador of Noise – An Opera Text

Granite Jaw Guenther

The Triple Man

One Louis Armstrong Story

The Story of Joe Louis – A Biography

The Snowman That Wouldn’t Melt

Do You Have a Cat in Your Pocket?

Profile on Edward MacDowell (1534-1923)

If you would like to order one (or some – don’t forget, Christmas is just around the corner!) here is the order information:

Price is $10 each. Please add $3 for shipping (plus $1 for each additional copy). Please send check to:  Barb Hauser, 328 Andover Street, San Francisco, California 94110.

All profits originally intended for the aforementioned “kitty” will be donated toward reimbursement of expenses for the September 09 “Jim Party” incurred by his friends and/or in Jim’s memory to the Forest Park Conservancy he loved in Portland. (If you are in San Francisco, perhaps we can arrange personal delivery. If you are in Portland, Oregon, you may contact Aretta Christie (ARChristie@aol.com) as she has a supply.