Jazz Fiction: Take Two

Jazz has often featured in coming-of-age tales and less convincingly in crime fiction, its arcaneness chiming with the outsider narrative


This is the second volume of David Rife’s major undertaking and as is clear from its title, this reference book lists works of fiction in which jazz makes an appearance. In his long and interesting foreword Rife notes that the first volume, Jazz Fiction: A History and Comprehensive Reader’s Guide (Scarecrow Press, 2008) listed approximately 700 works by 525 authors, while this one, which focuses on works published since around 2000, contains nearly 500 works by 375 writers.

As Rife makes clear, there are very few fictional books set wholly in the world of jazz and in most of the items listed the appearance of jazz is fleeting and not always used with understanding. Mostly, the jazz world and jazz musicians appear as colourful settings and characters. As Rife explains, rites-of-passage tales of young women and men, a common theme for writers, can work as well in the jazz world as in any other career choice. Where the individual is black, all too often additional obstacles are encountered in coming-of-age accounts and the jazz world can be an ideal milieu for those trying gain acceptance. This is especially so where the stories are set in 1930s America (usually New Orleans or Harlem) and also where the setting is Europe in the 1950s (mainly Paris).

Writers of historical novels, particularly those set in America, can and do touch on jazz, which was born in and grew through the past hundred or so years. Another storyline that can work well in a jazz setting is when a young striver meets up with and learns from an old and forgotten musician.

Crime writers have also long found jazz to be a useful accompaniment to – or at least the background for – their work. Perhaps this results from the widely held, if somewhat misconceived, notion that criminals habitually meet in low-down joints, which matches up with the similar misconception that dark-alley dives are where jazz musicians choose to hang out.

Quite frequently, real people appear in works of fiction and are sometimes given a few spoken lines. Where books are set in the earliest years of jazz, Buddy Bolden is a favourite, as is Louis Armstrong. Also encountered is Robert Johnson. No surprise there. A writer can’t help but be inspired by a protagonist encountering a real or metaphorical devil at one of life’s crossroads.

Moving on a few years, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday have their moments on the pages of novels. Nevertheless, in these books jazz is rarely more than briefly glimpsed. Some writers may fear that a jazz setting will be unwelcome among their readers. That said, I must confess that although some of my non-fiction books are on jazz, only rarely have I touched on jazz in my 30-plus crime novels. In a recent one, I have a scene where Billie Holiday has a moment (too brief to warrant inclusion in this book), and only one of my crime novels (long ago and out-of-print) is wholly in a jazz setting.

Among other categories into which Rife organises the entries are women and ageing and science fiction / fantasy / horror. Although most of the works listed by Rife are novels, there are also short stories, some collected in book form, others appearing in magazines. Each entry states title, author, publisher and date, and is followed by a description and comment. Sometimes, this is just a few lines but where justified by the extent of the jazz element, these summaries run to a couple of paragraphs.

As this is a reference work, Rife is understandably sparing with his critical comments, but those he does make are fairly balanced and he is also judicious in his occasional hints at the quality of the writing. In summation, Jazz Fiction: Take Two is a valuable work and is more entertaining than most reference books.

Jazz Fiction: Take Two, by David Rife. Lulu.com; hb, 458pp; bibliography; indexed. ISBN: 978-1-387-42271-5; hb £33.00 / $43.00; pb £21.00 / $27.00; ebook £21.00 / $15.00