Tuesday, January 15, 2013

No, wait! Detective fiction is like jazz!

If the cadence may be regarded as the cradle of tonality, the ostinato patterns can be considered the playground in which it grew strong and self-confident.  - Edward E. Lewinsky

A decade and a lifetime ago, I interviewed Dr. Ed Lewis, then the head of the jazz department at the University of Regina. I was just kinda getting into jazz at that point, I think maybe I'd just bought my first Vandermark 5 album, and I'd been getting down with, like, Medeski, Martin & Wood and, I don't know, that's probably it. Wait, Roland Kirk. The Inflated Tear. That was happening.
These were not, are not, necessarily the best entry points into jazz, but there they were. And this would have been, really, probably the fall of 2001, really the height of my arrogance as a music writer. I mean, I was headed for a big crash, but I didn't know it. Things were still pretty hot back then for music writers, jobs would find me. There were a few mags I could whip off an email to, say "Hey, buddy, this is what I'm writing today, you want some?" And I'd get these fantastic cheques in the mail for US dollars, and this is back when that mean something. I mean you take a cheque for US$100 into the bank (this was back when you still took cheques to the bank) and they'd give you back $135 in Canadian money. Back then, you could rent a one-bedroom apartment downtown for like $250 in Regina so, the idea that a guy could make a living writing about music was not so fantastical.
Dr. Lewis, known in Regina at the time as "the Jazz Doctor", was a great interview. A natural talker and a wellspring of jazz lore, he took advantage of my jazz novice enthusiasm and gave me his history of jazz. Klezmer, or "klezma" as he called it, played a huge role. He also addressed something that I'd been curious about--why were there so many jazz versions of Broadway showtunes? In my young mind, the two genres couldn't be more disparate: jazz was the sound of America at it's coolest and most sublime; musical theatre was the sound of crazz pandering to base emotions and the death of my career in the legitimate (high school) theatre.
I strained to keep my naive disdain for showtunes to myself, but if Lewis saw it he didn't care. He told me about the Bop revolution (which I knew a bit about from all my Kerouac reading back in the day) and how jazz players grew more interested in improvisation and less interested in composition. The riff ruled. Ostinato. Popular songs, standards, showtunes were great for this because your audience was probably already familiar with the melody and could better appreciate the demarcation of what's composition and what's improvised virtuosity. They'd be hep to your blowing.
Detective fiction is like Bop, in this way. It might even be true of all genre fiction, but I'm not familiar enough with any other genres to say for sure. The plot, or melody, is familiar but what the writer does within the framework (or sometimes without) of that familiarity is what's thrilling.

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