UNDERTONES -Where Jazz Meets Crime by Nancy-Stephanie Stone
There are obvious reasons why crime and jazz are intimate bedfellows in both fact and fiction. Syncopated music initially began its journey to the four corners of the earth in the wrong part of town (Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans) and the clubs where it flourished in pre-WW2 Kansas City, Chicago and New York were generally Mob run (The Cotton Club in Harlem was owned by British-born bootlegger Owney Madden). Later, Las Vegas was also heavily Mobbed up. Just ask Frank. Even London wasn’t immune, what with Ronnie Scott’s being in Soho, most of which was run by the likes of the Maltese Messina Brothers and with the Krays owning El Morocco club in Gerrard Street (they once offered Scott and partner Pete King a club to manage further west, but Ronnie wisely decided his heart was in Soho).
There is a scene in Legend, the Tom Hardy Kray movie, where someone says they have the protection money from Ronnie Scott’s, which is erroneous – Ronnie and Pete never paid protection money. This was because Frith St, where their second club was and is located, was run by Albert Dimes, a Scottish-Italian heavy. Albert designated Ronnie’s club a neutral space, where rival gangsters could see a show without having to watch their backs too closely. He also gave them a bottle of Mumm champagne to seal this deal, and Ronnie and Pete said they’d open it when the club made a profit. It is still sits, unopened, behind the bar.
So, with jazz historically providing the soundtrack to the thrills and bloody spills of the low life, it isn’t surprising that from the 1920s on, crime authors who wanted to give their novels a little authenticity peppered the narrative with jazz references. This fertile ground is the subject of a new book called Undertones by Nancy-Stephanie Stone (www.galileopublishing.co.uk) which is subtitled Where Jazz Meets Crime. It is a pitched as a reference book and is great fun to dip into sections on individual U.S. cities and peruse chapters on jazz spies, P.I.s and drugs). One of my favourite sections is the Jazz Discography chapter. So, for example, when a character in one of Ray Celestin’s excellent series (The Axeman’s Jazz, Dead Man’s Blues, The Mobster’s Lament, Sunset Swing) listens to Louis Armstrong play West End Blues, Stone suggests checking out Louis Armstrong on Okeh (Sony Legacy) to hear the tune for real. Elsewhere, there are plenty of unfamiliar novels and authors to check out (I never knew, for instance, that Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me was a book before it was a movie or that there were several of pro drummer Bill Moody’s novels I hadn’t read). There are hours of sleazy, swinging fun to be had here. Although the author is American, it ranges far and wide and I was particularly pleased to see that the author has found plenty of room for NW5’s king of jazz-noir, John Harvey, whose books and short stories are soaked in the music, not least in some of the titles (Off Minor, Body and Soul). Incidentally, his excellent Darkness, Darkness covers much the same ground as the recent Sherwood TV series. If you don’t know his work, get yourself down to your local bookshop in (in my case Owl Books in Kentish Town) and order a clutch of the jazz-loving Charlie Resnick series. And when they arrive put on Elmer Bernstein’s brilliant score for Johnny Staccato, a short-lived TV series where John Cassavetes starred as a piano-playing jazz detective. Honest.