No Exit Press
I’ve a long-standing love for jazz, and for Noir, so when an advance copy of Jake Lamarr’s “Jazz Noir” landed at our bookshop, my colleague thought of me right away, and she was right! Covering Harlem from the mid 1930s to the early 1960s, we follow Clyde Morton, who is soon given the moniker “Viper” (not so much for cold-blooded, snake-like behaviour, it’s the hissing sound as he takes a drag on a reefer, the drug of choice of the jazz musicians in Harlem.
We first meet Viper in the 60s, and in flashbacks we get his earlier life – convinced by an old uncle that he can be a great musician, he eventually leaves his home in the rural South to head for New York, just another wide-eyed rub in the big city, ending up in Harlem, drinking in the vibrant African American culture, especially the music of the era, jazz. He is soon disabused of his ideas of musicianship by a friendly but honest musician who runs the shows at a busy venue, who tells him the unvarnished truth – he’s terrible.
But he does help him get an entry-level job, and he soon catch the eye of Mr O, the big boss who runs the club and the drugs sold there, and it isn’t long before he works his way up the ranks, from the muscle to a rusted lieutenant and higher. He also earns a reputation that ensures that nobody will mess with him, in the best Hard Boiled tradition, and we see this take place in the multiple flashbacks from the older Viper, reflecting on the path of his life from the 1960s, as the world has changed around him, and, while enjoying success he’s not sure he’s truly found happiness.
While the story of Viper is engrossing, it’s the atmosphere Lamarr conjures which really draws you right into the book. Right from Viper’s first arrival as the country boy amazed by the big city – not just the size and the bustle of it all, he’s not used to seeing and hearing much of the culture from African-American people, and here it is, the beating heart of it in the 30s Harlem. He even sees a black police officer, which is astonishing to this young man from the Deep South.
As we follow Viper through the decades, we see the world change around him – forced into wartime service, he returns in 1945 to find things different. The jazz scene may still be king, but mainstream white culture has been appropriating it, with busy clubs in different parts of the city, where once they all came to Harlem, although Harlem is still the heart of it, and the African-American musicians all come back to the clubs there after playing the white clubs in Midtown and elsewhere.
The music itself has changed – the Big Band era is giving way to Bepop and new styles, there are different strains of weed being smoked, but also heroin (the drug that would eventually kill Charlie Parker), which Viper refuses to sell. Real characters like Theolonius Monk, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis appear – you don’t have to be a jazz fan to follow the main narrative, these real historical figures are largely background, but if you are a jazz fan it adds to the atmosphere, and also to the feel of the world changing around Viper, as the music and the musicians (who rely on him for their drugs) change.
And of course there’s a woman – in Noir there is always a woman, and that woman is often a mix of alluring, irresistible and may also lead to disaster. Viper keeps himself in tight control, but sometimes there’s a woman you just can’t quite get over no matter what happens. An excellent, jazz-infused Noir, dripping with atmosphere.
Viper’s Dream is published by No Exit Press on the 20th of April