The following is an edited version of an essay by Aage Hedley Petersen, which was published in Denmark in Jazz Special, number 164, February-April, 2019. Any errors and infelicities in the translation are mine and mine alone!
When I was putting together the article I wrote about jazz in the English writer John Harvey’s books featuring Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick as the main character, Harvey drew my attention to American writer and jazz drummer Bill Moody (27th September 1941 – 14th January 2018). It turned out that Harvey’s poem about Chet Baker was reprinted not only in Michael Connelly’s novel The Drop, but also in Bill Moody’s Looking for Chet Baker.
Moody lived on the American West Coast – principally Las Vegas – for most of his life, working as a teacher and reviewer, as well as enjoying a musical career which included playing with such notable figures as Earl Hines, Lou Rawls, Maynard Ferguson and the singer Jon Hendricks. He recorded with both Hendricks and Ferguson when they visited Czechoslovakia, where Moody stayed for three years in the late sixties. During his stay in Prague he also wrote a non-fiction book about the American jazz emigrants who “fled” to Europe in the second part of the twentieth century: Exiles : American Musicians Abroad, mostly based on interviews with musicians like Art Farmer and Johnny Griffin and others. Among the emigrants who stayed in Denmark, however, only Stan Getz gets his own chapter – not Dexter Gordon or Ben Webster; and the remarkable pianist, Duke Jordan, is not even mentioned!
Solo Hand, the first novel in the series (1994) introduces the jazz pianist Evan Horne as the main character. Horne has injured his right hand in a traffic accident, which has necessitated a long break in his playing career. Jazz here does not particularly influence the action, but nevertheless the one appreciates the musical descriptions and anecdotes, for example: “As the flamboyant drummer Buddy Rich was being wheeled into the surgery, the doctor asked him if there was anything he was allergic to, he answered “Country Music!”
With the second novel, Death of a Tenor Man (1995) Moody found the perfect jazz mystery! The death of tenor saxophonist, Wardell Gray. In 1955 Gray was hired by Benny Carter to play with his big band at the opening of the Moulin Rouge – the first racially integrated casino in Las Vegas. The second evening he did not turn up, and the next day his body was found dumped on a field outside the city. The murder was never solved – a cold case which Horne investigates and, in doing so, stirs up a hornets’ nest, but without a definite solution to the murder being found. Another author, James Ellroy, suggests in his novel The Cold Six Thousand that Gray had a sexual relationship with a white woman who was connected with the mafia, and this led to his being beaten to death. Either way, you have the feeling that the police’s motivation to solve the murder of a “black drug-addict” was small or non existant!
The third volume, The Sound of the Trumpet, revolves around Clifford Brown. In collectors’ circles some apparently authentic tapes of Brown’s playing emerge, and Evan Horne is consulted to vouch for their authenticity. As the story progresses, we follow Moody’s interpretation of Clifford Brown’s last days in June, 1956, when, together with the pianist Richie Powell – Bud Powell’s brother – and Richie’s wife Nancy, he was on his way to Chicago and the next gig by Max Roach-Clifford Brown quintet. As you may know, it goes awfully wrong. With Nancy at the wheel, she loses control of the car, which goes off the road and resolts in all three being killed.
The fourth volume, Bird Lives, is not especially about Charlie Parker, despite the title; he is only a symbol on a “real” jazz musician, in contrast to those smooth-jazz practitioners who are murdered by a serial-killer. Evan Horne is involved by the FBI to interpret those clues of jazzy nature the killer has left on the crime scene – among others a white feather and some haiku-poems, for instance: “ On Coltrane’s Soultrane / Jazz is always great Good Bait/ Tadd’s Long Gone – Delight”.
Volume five, Looking for Chet Baker (2002) is probably Moody’s most successful novel. The mystery about Chet Baker’s death after falling from a window in hotel “Prins Hendrik” in Amsterdam is an eternal source of myths and conspiracy theories – was he pushed, did he jump, or did he simly fall?
The sixth volume, Shades of Blue (2008) is a “real” jazz novel, in which the crime intrigues are peripheral, as is the case in volume seven, Fade to Blue (2011), the last novel in the series, in which Horne is involved in a movie-project to teach one of the great Hollywood stars “playing” fake-piano to a soundtrack recorded by Horne himself. The movie turns out to be a crime story inspired by Horne’s experiences in Bird Lives, which was the real reason why he was hired in the first place!
As a crime writer Moody is not exceptional – to me he is not in the same league as, for example, Michael Connelly and John Harvey. But contrary to those two, whose main characters are detectives with a certain interest in jazz, Moody was a jazz personality who wrote jazz novels with a crime motive, and such writers are very rare! I would have liked to write about my great favorite – Michael Connelly – who even a couple of years ago was the co-writer of the documentary Sound of Redemption about alto saxophonist Frank Morgan. But there is too little jazz substance in the novels, and therefore they are not relevant for the readers of this magazine. To the contrary, Moody’s novels offer a great pleasure for jazz nerds, who don’t mind compromising on other aspects of the work.
Finally, to say that the excellent and stylish cover illustrations on Death of a Tenor Man, The Sound of the Trumpet and Bird Lives are by John Howard.