‘Jass’ Gives You the Feel for Early American History

[19 July 2010]

By Jules Brenner

There are few better ways to get a feel for early American history than as the setting for a taut mystery thriller. David Fulmer picks up the story of his intense Creole detective Valentin St. Cyr in New Orleans in 1908, after the Black Rose Murders of his prior novel, Chasing the Devil’s Tail. It’s a time when motorcars are beginning to clog up the streets and crowd the horse-drawn hacks, wagons and surreys over the cobbled roads. The “banquettes” (sidewalks) are teeming, stogies are lit with “Lucifers,” and Williams Jennings Bryant is the running favorite for president against Howard Taft.

At least equally important, St. Cyr’s friend, bandleader and cornet player Buddy Bolden recently passed from the scene after starting a new kind of raucous music called “Jass.” Marked by “loud brass, shrieking clarinet, and thumping bass fiddle,” the sound is now moving down to the big city where bands are spreading in the bars and nightclubs of the quarter the Sun Newspaper has branded “Storyville”—the only legally chartered red light district in the country.

That’s where Tom Anderson, aka, “King of Storyville,” and a state senator, operates his famed Basin Street Cafe’ and Annex, a thriving business and venue from which he holds court and rules the district like a monarch. Here Valentin St. Cyr keeps watch over card cheats, pickpockets, drunkards, hopheads, dope fiends, and other ill behaved rounders while keeping security watch over the high class bordellos nearby. For this he receives weekly envelopes from Anderson and the madams, full of gold Liberty dollars.

The steely, laconic St. Cyr (born Valentino Saracena) is a 34-year-old mix of a French father and a Creole-of-color mother, and is assumed to be white. His surface toughness hides the deepest emotions, which he shares with no one, not even the person he most needs to open up to, house mate Justine Mancerre, a “pretty dove” of the district with milk-coffee skin whom he rescued from becoming a victim in “the Black Rose murders” of two years ago and from the sporting life of the bordello. But nothing’s going to make him communicate. The guy’s as locked up as a mastodon in Alaskan ice.

But it isn’t looks or the man’s cryptic presence that has kept St. Cyr on the Anderson payroll as chief enforcer for 8 years, it’s the man’s powers of deduction, his sixth sense for devious behavior, and his abiding desire to maintain law and order. So long as it agrees with Anderson’s idea of law and order, he has his trust, but that’s about to be tested by, of all things, the new music.

The problem some New Orleans residents have with jass is not so much that they don’t like the music but that it propagates a form of integration that has a lot of southerners in a state of outrage, seeing black and white players appear together on stage for the first time in living memory. Anderson doesn’t much like it either but he puts up with it in the hope it’ll disappear as quickly as it arrived. Little does he know he’s been hearing the beginnings of something immortal: Jazz (the name changes nine years later).

When Antoine Noiret, a low-rent horn player gets knifed brutally in bed by a stranger late in the night, no one thinks much of it. To Tom Anderson and to police Lt. J. Picot it’s just another black headed to a pauper’s grave. But it’s a great deal more than that to St. Cyr’s piano playing friend Jelly Roll Morton, who thinks it’s part of a pattern of hunting down and killing Negro musicians.

As much as he doubts it, St. Cyr sets out to investigate. He finds a mess but not enough to fully think it’s a crime pattern until the good looking guitarist Jeff Mumford shows up dead, poisoned. Morton is quick to point out that Noiret and Mumford played together in the Union Hall Brass Band. When a third dead negro musician is identified as part of the same band, and when a mystery woman is noted by an eye witness just prior to his murder, St. Cyr’s investigation takes on intensified urgency. His pursuit of the case will eventually involve a police lieutenant who hates him, his housemate leaving him, a new beginning with the younger and more beautiful Dominique, the death of a helpful friend, and flight from his beloved, demoralizing city.

Fulmer’s exotic, acutely alert, and emotionally sealed sleuth leads us through a thick stew in which moral corruption, the pulsating rhythms of a new sound and the harshness of old-time racial prejudice combine. It’s a meal of taut suspense that satisfies the desire for a captivating read and gives the reader a taste for a shot of Raleigh Rye with its love-agonized hero.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/128378-jass/