Not so long ago, my daughter and I spent a fascinating hour listening to a programme on the Danish internet radio station, Radio Jazz, enjoying the music but otherwise barely understanding a word, save for the occasional name in English – Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Charlie Resnick, John Harvey. The broadcast was based around an article by Age Hedley Petersen, Jazz i crime literature – Resnick, and All That Jazz, which was published in the April/May/June issue of the Danish magazine, Jazz Special. In the article, Petersen, a retired music librarian from Fredensborg Bibliotek, traces in some detail the influence and importance of jazz in the Resnick novels and on Resnick’s character, drawing links also with other crime writers, such as Michael Connelly and Bill Moody, for whom jazz is important, even vital.
What follows is a slightly shortened version of the original article in a translation largely by Petersen himself.
Jazz in Crime Literature – Resnick and All That Jazz.
It is always exciting when more than one of your interests are treated simultaneously in what you are reading! I am an incarnate crime reader – not so much of “who-done-its”, but more the ramifications of the American school, Chandler, McBain and others. The authors should also have some opinions on society; and personal portrayal must outweigh the normal stereotypes. Such persons could also often be interested in music, which immediately gives reading a new dimension.
Colin Dexter’s Morse worships opera – and that does not interest me so much. Ian Rankin’s John Rebus listens to a wide variety of rock – and that sounds a lot better to my ears; but when the protagonists wholeheartedly worship jazz and even use themes from the history of jazz in the intrigues, it becomes really exciting.
Six months ago I started to read Michael Connelly’s The Drop from 2014 in which Harry Bosch is investigating the death of a man who has fallen (jumped? pushed?) from a high balcony. This made me think of the late Chet Baker and his tragic death in Amsterdam in 1988. And indeed, home from a long day at the job Bosch is greeted by his daughter who asks him about a poem that sits, framed, in the hallway of his apartment. The poem, titled Chet Baker, was written, he tells her, by the English poet, John Harvey, whom he heard read it in a restaurant in Venice Beach.
looks out from his hotel room
across the Amstel to the girl
cycling by the canal who lifts
her hand and waves and when
she smiles he is back in times
when every Hollywood producer
wanted to turn his life
into that bitter-sweet story
where he falls badly, but only
in love with Pier Angeli,
Carol Lynley, Natalie Wood;
that day he strolled into the studio,
fall of fifty-two, and played
those perfect lines across
the chords of My Funny Valentine,
and now, when he looks up from
his window and her passing smile
into the blue of a perfect sky,
he knows this is one of those
rare days when he can truly fly.
John Harvey! I was startled at Connelly using one of my other favorite authors, John Harvey, as a person in a novel; was it the same John Harvey, whose protagonist through 12 novels, Charlie Resnick, is an out-and-out jazz aficionado? I decided to email Harvey to satisfy my curiosity, and less than an hour later I received the following response:
—Hello! And thanks for getting in touch with your query. The incident in the book is based on an actual occasion; Mike came to hear me reading at a bookshop on Venice Beach, LA – oh, it must be a good 15 years ago now – heard me read the poem, which at that time had not been published, asked how / where he could get a copy, and I happily gave him the sheet of paper I’d been reading from. I doubt if he actually kept the paper, though, or has it framed on his wall!
Of course, Mike contacted me before the book went to press and asked my permission, which I was only too happy to give.
Incidentally, the poem appears in another crime novel by Bill Moody, Looking for Chet Baker, where it is used as a forward to the story. You might like to track down the novel, as it does provide a fictional answer to the riddle surrounding Baker’s death.
The Chet Baker poem is published in Out of Silence, my New & Selected Poems, published by Smith / Doorstop last year. [ Poems also on Roland Kirk, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk Parker and Lester Young!]”
I immediately wrote back that I was pretty interested in acquiring the collection, and a few days later I received the following message:
—Book, signed, on its way in the next couple of days. For payment, would you be happy to send a donation the equivalent of £10 sterling to Médecins Sans Frontières? It’s easily done via their web site.
Best wishes, John
This story gave me the urge to reread the novels about the jazz-loving cop Charlie Resnick from Nottingham, and I have “borrowed” a few quotes to prove my points:
The first time the jazz theme is used is in Lonely Hearts (p. 17, Arrow), when Resnick is inspecting a crime scene and …
There were several posters on the walls, clip-framed; from one Monroe looked out, slump-backed on a stool, black clothes, white face. Resnick glanced into her empty eyes and turned away. Words from a song of Billie Holiday nudged away at his mind, images of winter through the slight distortion of glass.
Then, at the beginning of the next chapter (p. 24, Arrow) Resnick is sitting with one of the cats on his lap and listening to music while he eats … (After his wife left him, Resnick acquired four cats and gave them the names Bud, Miles, Pepper and Dizzy; the cats appear in all volumes, except the last where there is only Dizzy)
Billie Holiday and Lester Young were doing it through the headphones, making love to music without ever holding hands.
A short but striking interpretation of what it is all about between those two. In a later book, Cold Light (p. 60, Arrow) it’s again about Billie:
For Christmas, Resnick bought himself [whoever buy Christmas presents for themselves !?] The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, a new edition of Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography and The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette. What he still had to acquire was a CD player.
It takes a while before he purchases the player! Not until two volumes later in Easy Meat (p. 59, Arrow) do we read:
As he ate it he stared across the room at his new acquisition, a brand-new CD player to complement his stereo; his nightly project, working through the tracks of the ten-disc Billie Holiday set he bought himself the Christmas before last.
All through the 12 volumes, jazz is deliberately used to describe the mood Resnick is in. For example, in Cold Light (p. 118, Arrow) …
There were times, Resnick knew, what you didn’t do was play Billie Holiday singing “Our Love is Here to Stay”; when it was self-pitying, not to say foolish, to listen to her jaunty meander through “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” because it felt as if they already had. What was okay was listening to Ben Webster wailing through “Cottontail”, the version with Oscar Peterson kicking out on the piano; Jimmy Witherspoon reassuring the audience at the Monterey Jazz Festival “Tain’t Nobody’s Business What I Do”. Or what he set to play now, Barney Kessell’s “to swing or not to swing’ with its lower case title and definitions on the cover. The tracks he liked best were uptempo, carefree, Georgie Auld sitting in on tenor, “Moten Swing”, “Indiana”.
By the way, Resnick is already listening to Webster’s solo on Cottontail – this time from Ellington album Jack the Bear – in Cutting Edge (p. 59, Arrow):
Ben Webster was just beginning his solo on “Cottontail”, rolling that phrase over the rhythm section, springy and strong from Blanton’s bass, round and round and rich, like rolling it round a barrel of treacle. Just when it seemed to have become stuck, sharp little phrases from the brass digging it out, and then the saxophone lifting itself with more and more urgency, up, up and into the next chorus.
Lester Young is obviously one of his great heroes. In Still Water (p.136, Arrow) Resnick has returned home again after a long day “at the office” and…
… the room was overlarge, heavy, almost unwelcoming. When he sat, his eyes were drawn to the Herman Leonard photograph of Lester Young framed on the wall; Lester looking tired, older than his forty-something years, either he had grown out of his suit, or his suit had grown out of him.
When, not so very much later, Resnick went up to bed, he left the stereo playing, Lester in his youth and glory, the sound of his saxophone , light and sinuously rhythmic, tracing him up the stairs” “I Never Knew”, “If Dreams Came True”, “I’ve Found a New Baby”, “The World is Mad” parts one and two.
In the first books, with a few exceptions, it is thus mostly the big swing names Resnick listens to; but later he expands the repertoire with bebop and Thelonious Monk becomes the big favorite: Easy Meat (p. 124, Arrow) …
It was a bad sign, Resnick knew, when he played Monk last thing at night, the pianist’s fractured attempts at melody obeying no logic but their own. A big man, as Resnick was big, Monk’s fingers stabbed down at single notes, crushed chords into the beauty of an abstract painting, twisted scaffolding seen in a certain light.
It is so precise a description of Monk’s playing, that it is enough to listen with one’s inner ear to understand!
In the “swan song”, Darkness, Darkness – according to the author the final novel about Charlie Resnick and unfortunately not yet translated into Danish – Resnick comes home deeply affected by a personal tragedy that should not be divulged here (p. 77, Heinemann):
—Inside, he shrugged off his coat, walked the house from room to room. Made coffee and left it untouched. Finally, in the living room, he burrowed through the shelves of albums and CDs, searching, not for something calming, consoling, nothing that might trigger a memory, happy or sad, but this: the Eric Dolphy / Booker Little Quintet: Live at the Five Spot, New York, 16. July 1961. Track three: “Aggression”. 16 minutes and 40 seconds.
Resnick even attends concerts on rare occasions. In Darkness, Darkness, for instance, he mentions a trip he made in his youth, in 1969, from Nottingham to Manchester’s Free Trade Hall to listen to Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and he can still accurately remember the orchestra’s personnel. And the novel Still Water (pp.1 & 2, Arrow) begins with the following:
It was the night Milt Jackson came to town: Milt Jackson, who for more than twenty years had been a member of one of the most famous jazz groups in the world, the Modern Jazz Quartet; who had gone into the studio, Christmas Eve, 1954, and along with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, recorded one of Resnick’s all-time favourite pieces, “Bag’s Groove”.
Milt Jackson had formed a new quartet and Resnick has cleared his calendar. But unfortunately Resnick’s pager starts bleeping as soon as Milt Jackson raises his felt mallet to start playing:
And there is a moment, Resnick bulkily rising from his seat near the centre of rwo four and fumbling inside his coat as he excuses himself, embrarrassed, past people’s knees, in which Jackson, expression shifting between annoyance and amusement, catches Resnick’s eye and grins.
In Living Proof (pp. 270-271, Arrow) Resnick plans to go to the Old Vic in Nottingham to listen to the new Stan Tracey Duo, but after dinner decides he does not want to go anywhere. Later in the evening he regrets his decision, however, and changes his mind.
He arrived at the pub in time for the last two numbers, Stan Tracey, hunched over the keyboard, angularly manoeuvring his way through “Sophisticated Lady”, taking the tune into seemingly impossible blind alleys ad then escaping through a mixture of finesse and sheer power. Finally, Tracey and an absurdly young-looking Gerard Presencer on trumpet had elided their way along a John Coltrane blues, the audacity of Presencer’s imagination more than matched by his technique.
Yes, “our” Gerard Presencer, who at that time would have been about 20 years old and a star in the making. The two numbers Resnick was in time for – Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues” with piano and trumpet, and Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” for solo piano, can be heard on the truly breathtaking CD: Stan Tracey: Live at the QEH (EMI, 1994)
In Still Water (p. 97, Arrow) Resnick visits London in connection with a case of art fraud; and one evening he visits the jazz club, The Rhythmic, that has a guest from the US – Coltrane-inspired pianist Jessica Williams.
Tall, red-haired, and wearing a long, loose flowing dress, she sat at the piano and for a moment fidgeted with the height of the stool. Even before she began playing, fingers hesitating above the keys, Resnick had noticed the size of her hands. Then, without introduction, she launched into “I Should Care”. Almost deferentially at first, brushing the tune around the edges, feeling her way freshly into a melody she must have played – and Resnick heard – a hundred times. Ten minutes later, when she had exhausted every variation, left hand rocking through a stride pattern that would have made James P. Johnson or Fats Waller beam with pleasure, she finished to a roar of disbelieving applause.
By the time he walked back out into the London night some hours later, he knew he had been in the presence of something – someone – special.
Finally, to return to Bill Moody, whom Harvey mentioned in his original answer to my inquiry, and who is mentioned in Harvey’s 2006 novel, Cold in Hand (p. 70, Arrow).
Resnick listened to some more music, reading for the second time a book by Bill Moody about Chet Baker, while Lynn took a bath.
Later, in the same novel, when a colleague visits Resnick’s house and studies his bookshelves, she finds Moody’s novel there in the company of another Moody novel, The Sound of the Trumpet, Art Pepper’s autobiography, co-written with his wife, Laurie, Straight Life, and a biography of Thelonious Monk.
Bill Moody is a writer and jazz drummer residing in California, who has played with, among others, Maynard Ferguson and Lou Rawls. His novel Looking for Chet Baker, released in 2002, is the fifth of six novels about jazz pianist and amateur detective Evan Horne (none of them, sadly, translated into Danish). In the novel, Horne goes to Amsterdam to play a concert with tenor saxophonist Fletcher Paige and while he is there he is asked by a friend to do some research into Chet Baker’s death. The novel is definitely worth reading. Here in Moody’s novels, jazz is actually the main theme!
Thus, we see that the mystery surrounding Chet Baker’s death traces through the works of at least three authors – Connelly, Harvey and Moody; and the comparison with the Danish poet Michael Strunge’s death two years earlier is obvious. At the memorial plaque at the entrance to Webersgade 17 in Copenhagen his last words are inculcated: “Now I can fly”.
At the end of the 10th volume in the Resnick series, Last Rites (p.355, Arrow) , which, at the time, was thought to be the last Resnick novel, there is a coda in which Harvey clarifies his sources of inspiration, and it ends with:
The odd sandwich aside, I think it was jazz that kept Charlie sane, that provided him with both release and inspiration. Me, too. In the writing of these books I have relied, again and again, on the music of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Spike Robinson, Ben Webster with Art Tatum, and Lester Young. Let it live on.
In 2009 Harvey published the collection Minor Key (Five Leaves Press, Nottingham) – in 500 copies, numbered and signed, the royalties going to charity. The book opens with the essay, Resnick, Nottingham, and All That Jazz, a greatly extended coda in which Harvey sets out his approach to jazz, which began with a schoolmate’s uncle’s collection of 78’s by names like Ellington, Earl Bostic, Louis Jordan and Billie Holiday.It also contains five short stories including four with Resnick as the protagonist, and six poems-among others, “Chet Baker” and “Art Pepper”.
Harvey’s and Connelly’s novels in Danish are best found at the website: bibliografi.dk and can be borrowed via the danish public libraries. This also applies to the non-translated 12th volume of the Resnick series: Darkness, Darkness (London, Heinemann, 2014). John Harvey can be followed on the website http://www.mellotone.co.uk and his blog “Some days you do …” which has a link to his “Ten records for a Desert Island”, number one of which is Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington.
John Harvey: Minor Key, Nottingham, Five Leaves, 2009.
John Harvey: Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems, Sheffield, Smith / Doorstop Books, 2014.
Bill Moody: Looking for Chet Baker, New York, Walker & Company, 2002.
Needless to say, I’m extremely grateful to Age Hedley Petersen for all of the research and enthusiasm that went into his essay, just as I am to Jazz Special for publishing it so beautifully, with wonderful illustrations by Agnete Morell, and to Radio Jazz for affording Charlie an hour of air time.
Thank you, Denmark! I can’t see – or hear – it happening here.