Books

'Jass' Gives You the Feel for Early American History

Take a tour of Storyville where Jazz began and murder prevails, bringing in the likes of David Fulmer's hero who is as good at solving crime as he's crippled by his love of an irresistible whore.


Publisher: Harcourt
Subtitle: A Valentin St. Cyr Mystery
Format: Hardback
Author: David Fulmer
Title: Jass
Length: 352 pages
Publication Date: 2005-01-17

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.

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Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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