Undertones: Where Jazz Meets Crime (2022) by Nancy-Stephanie Stone

Music is not a big part of my life, nor do I know much about jazz, but I was intrigued when this book was sent to me, as regular blog readers will know how fond I am of books about crime fiction. The author outlines the structure of her work in the introduction:

‘Undertones is divided into two parts. The first is comprised of essays framing some of the jazz crime novels in their historical context and giving the casual reader a better understanding of the genre. Essays on ragtime and the blues offer insight into jazz roots […] The second part consists of an annotated bibliography of books, short stories and magazines, as well as lists of: authors and their series characters, series characters and their authors, geographic locations, a chronology, a discography, a “Hot 100 list” and a list of jazz books and short stories by author.’

Stone’s ‘historical overview shows crime and jazz are soulmates in American popular culture’, with jazz even giving its  ‘name in the 1920s to a decade associated with excitement and lawlessness. In the Jazz Age, Americans were not going to allow the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, stand in the way of good times. While accompanied by jazz, they danced the Charleston on tabletops in gangster-owned nightclubs and drank bootleg whiskey in “speakeasies”. In 1920s New York City, there were an estimated 5000 speakeasies.’

Cover for Stone's book: Undertones (2022). It shows a man playing a saxophone at night in front of a wall. There is a city scene behind it and there are shadows on the wall denoting other musicians.

From the get-go the link between jazz and gangsters/organised crime is made, and throughout the historical overview it was interesting to see how this music and criminality intermingled in real life and on the page, against an everchanging backdrop of political and social changes. Stone’s work shows the reader the bigger historical framework which jazz operated in, but it does not overlook smaller or more personal details. An early example mentioned in the book, tying in with the theme of jazz and crime is that:

‘For a while, gangster Dutch Schultz “owned” Louis Armstrong. In trying to escape from the clutches of Schultz, he was shanghaied by two lesser mobsters, Tommy Rockwell and Johnny Collins. Armstrong’s problems with the mob appear in Roddy Doyle’s Oh! Play That Thing (2004).’

Stone connects the history with the novels as she goes, which is helpful for those who would like to read a story about a particular aspect of jazz history.

The historical overview also takes in other societal changes such as the consequences of the Wall Street Crash on jazz in the 1930s and the effect WW2 had on jazz bands. Stone writes that:

‘In the1940s the jazz scene changed, as did gangster control of the music business. With the exception of Duke Ellington, who was too old, and Benny Goodman, who had spine problems, most of the top jazz bandleaders disbanded their civilian bands and went to war. Artie Shaw led an all-star Navy Band, while Glenn Miller headed up a combined Army-Air Force Band.’

This was all new information to me and I really enjoyed discovering more about it. I was also intrigued by this statement she makes about the decline in the popularity of jazz in the 1960s: ‘The sixty-years relationship between jazz and crime seemingly came undone. Jazz lives on in crime stories set after the 1960s more in the background than in the foreground.’

Here are some of the main ideas found in the remaining chapters of part 1.

Part 1

Jazz Roots: 1. Ragtime

Q: What was Ragtime?

A: ‘Ragtime was a bridge between the music of marching bands and early jazz. It was basically a mix of marches and African rhythms. Its origins can be found in black urban communities and its years of popularity stretched between 1895-1918.’

Key Figure: Scott Joplin

Two of his most well-known tunes are ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ (1899) and ‘The Entertainer’ (1902).

Mysteries featuring Joplin: Larry Karp’s trilogy – The Ragtime Kid (2006), The King of Ragtime (2008) and The Ragtime Fool (2010).

Larry Kar's The Ragtime Fool. It is a brown piano background. It shows sheet music, some of which has bloody fingerprints on.

Jazz Roots: 2. The Blues

Q: What is difference between jazz and blues music?

A: ‘Early jazz and blues share a common origin. Each evolved through mixing European music with African harmonies as played by the American South. Where they split is in development. Early jazz was played by schooled musicians, like the New Orleans’ musician ‘Jelly Roll Morton, who synthesized African and European musical heritages and ragtime into a written music for others to interpret […] The blues, on the other hand, seem to have evolved through the efforts of itinerant musicians, often playing homemade string instruments, in various places in the rural South where there were large concentrations of black people. When urban economic opportunity beckoned’ these musicians ‘moved off the land into cities, taking the blues along.’

Key Figure: Robert Johnson

Mysteries featuring Johnson: Crossroad Blues (1993) by Ace Atkins and RL’s Dream (1996) by Walter Mosley.

Cover for Ace Atkins' Crossroad Blues. It has the title and author's name in a mustard yellow box in the bottom half. Top half shows a drink on a table with a harmonica and an ash tray with a cigarette in.

Jazz: New Orleans

This chapter starts out by looking at the Creole community in New Orleans, in terms of its roots and its changing position within the wider community over time. These changes, brought about through events such as the end of the slave trade, the American Civil war, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Laws, invariably left them in a more vulnerable and discriminated against position, which affected job opportunities. A key focal point for the development of jazz in New Orleans is the prostitute district known as Storyville. Its closure (on the order of the US Navy) in 1917 led to a mass migration of musicians from the city, looking for pastures new.

Key Figure: Buddy Bolden

Mysteries featuring Bolden: David Fulmer’s Chasing the Devil’s Tail (2001) * and Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter (1979).

*Bolden features in further stories in the Valentin St. Cyr series, as does Jelly Roll Morton, who was another key figure.

David Fulmer's Chasing the Devil's Tail. It has four squares on the white cover. Each is a different colour (red, purple, blue or yellow). It shows parts of musical instruments, almost as though they were seen on an x ray or through a cctv screen.

Stone uses Robert Skinner’s Wesley Farrell stories to look at New Orleans and jazz in the 1930s. When discussing how New Orleans changed post WW2 and the way in which jazz fell into decline, Stone pens that:

‘The post war years changed the face of jazz into bebop, and these changes were not kind to New Orleans. Traditional New Orleans jazz and even swing became passe. Jazz clubs closed, and those that survived were more attuned to separating tourists from their money than attracting jazz musicians.’

Jazz: Kansas City

After the closure of Storyville in 1917, Kansas City became one of the popular places to go to if you were a jazz musician in the 1920s and 1930s. Local corruption even seems to have aided the flourishment of jazz in the area, due to its providing of economic prosperity and when a political boss was indicted for income-tax fraud in 1938, it led to another exodus of jazz musicians looking for better work opportunities.

Stone gives the reader an idea of the working conditions of a jazz musician in this city at its heights:

‘For example, the bands at the famous Reno Club backed four hour-long floorshows, with the first show beginning at 9pm and the last at 4am. Between the floorshows, the band provided dance music for the club’s patrons, with only a ten-minute break every hour. On Sunday there was also a breakfast dance and jam session, so musicians would work from 9pm on Saturday night straight through until noon Sunday. The work, however, had its compensations, of which fame was high on the list. Reno Club musicians were heard live on a nightly broadcast on a shortwave radio station.’

If you don’t know much about music and being a musician this is a helpful insight into seeing how strenuous and exhausting it could be!

Key Figure: Bennie Morton

He was good at persuading top musicians from other bands to join his, such as Count Bassie.

Mystery featuring Morton: Harper Barnes’ Blue Monday (1991) used Morton’s death during a surgical procedure as the starting point for his book.

Cover for Barnes' Blue Monday. It is half red and half blue. Superimposed on top is a photo image of a black musician in a suit playing a saxophone.

I liked how the texts mentioned in each chapter are used to chart the rise and fall of jazz in an area.

Crime and Jazz in Chicago

Once again the mass migration of black Americans from the South into the Northern states created new jazz communities, in cities such as Chicago.

Key Figure: Louis Armstrong and Joseph Nathan Oliver (a.k.a. King Oliver)

Mysteries featuring Armstrong: Roddy Doyle’s Oh Play That Thing (2004) and Ray Celestin’s Dead Man’s Blues (2016).

Cover for Oh Play That Thing. It sounds a gramophone turn table with a vinyl record on. There is the title written on top of it. There is a saxophone next to it.

This chapter also introduces the topic of Dixieland jazz, as well as outlining the factors which brought a decline in jazz in the area. Stone mentions that:

‘In February 1928, federal agents began raiding North Side night-spots. A new “hip flask” law held that establishments providing “set-ups” (ice, ginger ale, soda water) for patrons to mix with their own alcohol were subject to prosecution.’

This led to many nightclub owners closing their premises, as did the gang war between Al Capone and his rivals, since jazz clubs were often the chosen battlefields for attack.

Jazz and Crime in The Big Apple

The chapter begins by looking at the factors which drew jazz musicians to New York in 1917 and touches upon key nightclubs such as the Cotton Club. Musicians such as Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, and Ella Fitzgerald. The problems and tensions caused by racial segregation are also woven into the discussion and how this was played out in the world of jazz. Economic factors in the 1940s saw many big swing bands disbanding, as nightclubs had less resources and were hiring smaller groups. Stone also brings up the theme of drugs and how substance abuse became linked to jazz and bebop, in particular noting that musician Charlie Parker ‘had a hard drug habit that many of his followers and fans adopted.’ This connection can be found in crime fiction of the time, in mysteries such as: Quartet in H (1956) by Evan Hunter and Night Light (1953) by Douglass Wallop. Stone concludes her chapter with the following idea:

‘Clearly, New York jazz mysteries illustrate the social, political, geographic and aesthetic changes through the decades. They also reflect jazz’s diminishing importance in the city. In periods when jazz flourished and the mob controlled the clubs, jazz is front and centre as the subject matter of the novels and short stories. When jazz’s presence wanes, it is often relegated to the background, used to set the mood of the story or to give its history.’

Cover for Quartet in H by Evan Hunter. It has a golden  yellow margin with a mostly red background. On top of this is an oval with an image inside it of a man sitting on a wooden chair playing a trombone, to a captive female audience of one, who is sitting on a bed.

West Coast: L. A. Jazz

The rise of films with sound increased jazz playing opportunities in the 1920s in L. A., with film studios hiring musicians such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Lunceford. It was interested to see Raymond Chandler mentioned as it seems he wrote a short story called ‘The King in Yellow’ (1938), which has the swing bands of 1930s Hollywood as its backdrop. Classic crime fans may also be interested in another mystery by Sylvia Tate entitled Never by Chance (1947), which Stones states is ‘about the relationship between studios and the touring big bands.’

Cover for Tate's Never by Chance. It is a black cover with splashes of white or olive green. The title is in the centre in red.

West Coast Jazz: The Other L. A. (Central Avenue)

A key focus of this chapter is the restrictions placed upon black people in this area, especially in the late 1940s. Stone details that during this time period:

 ‘[…] bandleader Bolly Eckstine was arrested on Central Avenue for having a new Cadillac with New York license plates. This crackdown was not limited to the Central Avenue area. In Glendale’ black people ‘needed a special permit to be out after 6pm. Residents in swanky Hancock Park tried to prevent singer-pianist Nat King Cole from buying a home.’

As has been charted in many books on the history of WW2, this conflict provided a lot of jobs and in particular for demographics which were previously overshadowed such as woman and black people. Unfortunately, the end of this war saw many of these workers losing their employment when veterans returned. This historical context is used in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).

Black, blue and white cover for Devil in a Blue Dress. There is the outline of a black man in a hat. Inside his face is a night time street scene in shadows, showing a woman talking to a man.

West Coast: San Francisco

The 1917 dispersion of jazz musicians from New Orleans took a little longer to arrive in San Francisco and therefore took a little longer to develop its own style, according to Stone. She also writes that:

‘San Francisco’s jazz musicians became a part of the North Beach Beat culture. They often provided the musical accompaniment-background for poetry and literary readings. For example, Jack Kerouac immortalised pianist George Shearing in On the Road (1957) and saxophonist Brew Moore in Desolation Angels (1965). The linkage of jazz with the North Beach Beat movement also had a potentially less salutary effect – the identification of jazz musicians with beatniks and hard drug users.’

This is an anxiety which is picked up on in books at the time such as in Shake Him Till He Rattles (1963) by Malcolm Braly and The Guilt Edged Frame (1964) by Frank Kane. The first of these stories, shows a narcotics cop not being above planting evidence, in order to propel their ‘crusade to clear the North Beach of Beats and drug-using jazz musicians.’

Cover for Kane's The Guilt Edged Frame. It shows a man in a long brown coat, suit and hat looking menacing at a blonde woman in the foreground.

Jazz Mysteries Abroad- An Overview

Members of the Harlem Hellfighters on a boat. The members are in uniform and are holding or playing their instruments.
Photo of the Harlem Hellfighters, one of the marching bands mentioned below.

This chapter starts off by describing how jazz crossed to Europe and an interesting key factor was ‘the black marching bands that accompanied the American Expeditionary Force in World War I’. Stone also looks at ‘three English mysteries’ of the 1940s which incorporate jazz. The first of these is Death Croons the Blues (1940) by James Ronald, which she suggests ‘portrays an unpleasant view of the existing class system, including the dire conditions of the poor.’ The second mystery is by a more well-known novelist, Ngaio Marsh and it is called A Wreath for Rivera (1949) (UK title, Swing Brother Swing). This is not one that I have read, but Stone describes it as giving ‘an unflattering picture of upper-class jazz fans.’ The final author is Ray Sonin, who is a new-to-me author. Their jazz themed mystery is The Dance Band Mystery (1940). There is the odd copy you can buy online second hand, but copies do not look prolific, so if this is your thing, I would snap a copy up pronto!

Cover for A Wreath for Rivera. It sounds a night time dance scene, with musicians and a singer performing. There is a woman in the foreground who has pink rolled hair and huge white fur wrap.

Jazz in Germany is also a key area of discussion in this chapter. This is another topic I did not know much about previously, but I was interested to know how this form of music was clamped down upon during the 1930s under the Nazi regime. After Goebbels had banned jazz ‘as well as Jews from playing music’ in 1935, Stone reveals that:

‘Jazz went underground into secret, cellar clubs, where enthusiasts danced to records smuggled into Germany during the war. Among rebellious German youth, there was a movement known as Swing-Jugend or Swing Youth, whose members dressed outrageously and danced to jazz records in these cellars. The Gestapo dealt very harshly with these young jazz enthusiasts […]’.

The plot of Paul Dowsell’s Auslander (2010) involves this setting. Back in America though, after WW2, it transpires that the government realised the value of jazz ‘in the cultural Cold War. Jazz ambassadors such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Benny Goodman, were sponsored by the United States State Department and toured extensively, especially behind the Iron Curtain […]’.

“Jazz Eyes”

I think this chapter along with the next two all suffered from containing material repeated from earlier sections. Whilst this repetition is noted as being inevitable in the introduction, I think a wider choice of examples from texts could have been used to mitigate this issue, as there is one particular example which crops up three times in part 1, often with replicated wording being used.

But going back to this chapter, some readers may be wondering if “Jazz eyes” is some kind of variant of jazz hands which did not catch on but in fact Stone uses it to refer to private eye novels involving jazz. She opens her chapter by saying that:

‘For readers from a certain generation, jazz and the private eye novel often goes together. This is a result of television and, specifically, the jazz soundtracks of the successful private eye shows of the late 1950s and early 1960s. but a literary linkage actually dates to the Jazz Age. For example, in Christopher Booth’s Killing Jazz: A Detective Story (1928), private-eye Jim Bliss solves the murder of an elderly, wealthy man whose death was induced by a jazz record.’

This example from 1928 sounded quite intriguing to me, as I am wondering how a jazz record might induce a man’s death.

Jonathan Latimer’s Bill Crane mysteries are mentioned, in this section; a name which might ring bells with some readers, due to one of these mysteries being reprinted by American Mystery Classics.

Cops and Jazz

This chapter expands upon comments already made concerning how jazz and bebop were linked with drugs, especially in the eyes of the law. This section also spends a lot of time looking at fictional policemen who liked listening to jazz. The Harry Bosch series is discussed and it was also interesting to note that certain songs or musicians influenced the writing of specific stories in John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick series.

Jazz and Drugs

This chapter explores some of the reasons given for drug abuse becoming ‘a part of jazz culture.’ Stone mentions that ‘in the 1950s sociologists hypothesized that racial discrimination was the cause of its use among jazz musicians.’ There are also factors cited such as long and demanding work hours, extensive travelling, easier access to drugs if musicians were working in ‘gangster-controlled clubs’ and the ‘belief in the 1950s that was popularised by emulators of Charlie Parker that hard drugs put one’s playing on a higher level.’ It was interesting to chart how depictions of drug taking changed in crime fiction over time. Unsurprisingly, the more prevalent hard drugs became the less tolerant depictions became. Another new fact to me was the requirement for musicians to have cabaret cards in order to work in New York City and the fact that a drugs charge conviction would entail you losing this card. A short story which involves this issue is Brendan Dubois’ ‘The Lady Meets the Blue’ (2017), which shows Billie Holiday working in Portsmouth, New Hampshire due to losing her card after a drug related conviction. Drug related deaths are also a feature in jazz mysteries including Bill Moody’s Death of a Tenor Man (1995), Charles Fleming’s Ivory Coast (2002) and Richard Rayner’s The Devil’s Wind (2005), which involve the mysterious death of Wardell Gray. Moody also wrote a mystery related to the death of Chet Baker which is suitably called Looking for Chet Baker (2002).

Black and white photograph of Billie Holiday in her dressing room with her dog next to her. It has a collar on and there is a pineapple on her dressing table.
Billie Holiday and her dog Mister (1947)

Jazz Spies and Thrillers

Stone is surprised at how few jazz spy and thriller novels there are and this chapter examines the different ways jazz has been incorporated into such stories, promoting its varied uses in recreating memories, setting moods and atmospheres, as well as providing characters with a means of escape. I was also interested in the fact that:

‘Aside from their more obvious work as entertainers during World War II, musicians were often drafted into signals intelligence and code breaking because of their cognitive skills.’

This idea is picked up on in Rupert Holmes’ Swing (2005) and The Vinyl Detective: Victory Disc (2018) by Andrew Cartmel.

Cover for Cartmel's The Vinyl Detective: Victory Disc. It shows people dancing on top of a vinyl disc, which is used in the cover image to represent the ground. There is a plane in the sky and the sky itself is green.

Part 2

As noted at the very start of the review, part 2, the bulk of the book, is a series of bibliographic lists. Some of these lists seemed more useful, to me, than others, and I did come away with the feeling that some were unnecessary, as though there was a bit too much repetition. The Books and Short Stories by Author section was a good one as it had more information on each text as to the involvement of jazz in each story. Stone has done an excellent job uncovering the many and varied mysteries which include jazz one way or another. There are quite a diverse range of authors too, from Ben Aaronovitch, Isaac Asimov and Octavius Ray Cohen, to Edward D. Hoch, Cornell Woolrich and Ellery Queen.

Naturally, I looked through the lists to see which authors and titles were familiar to me. I am afraid my score was not very high. I had heard of 34 of the authors that I had not read. I had read 9 authors but not the title mentioned in the lists and I only had three occasions where I had read the specific title listed. Clearly, I have some work to do! The Jazz Discography will appeal to readers who like the idea of coordinating their listening with their reading and it will no doubt be a good way of discovering some new tunes to enjoy. I think the Hot One Hundred list would have been improved if some reasons had been given for why these titles had been chosen as favourites.

Overall, I would say this is a very useful tool for the jazz novice or enthusiast, who has a parallel interest in crime fiction.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Galileo Publishing)


  1. Some rather large oversimplifications as described, though I should take a look at the book. To begin with, ragtime is more than simply marches and African rhythms, but a fuller-bodied attempt to create new forms for US classical music; Harlem ragtime, in the earliest 20th Century onward, is distinct from classic ragtime in beginning to incorporate improvisational aspects. Thanks for such a detailed rundown!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Apologies if my review created that effect. It was not intentional. The book does provide further details but naturally I cannot quote it all in full. The book does also straddle being about both jazz and crime fiction, so the focus is on their crossover rather than on being an encyclopedia about jazz. For readers such as yourself, who are more knowledgeable on jazz, the greatest interest of the book will be in its ability to signpost you to crime fiction involving jazz that you might not have read before,


      • Indeed, though I am broadly familiar with the jazz-related fiction in CF, as well. And I certainly didn’t mean to slight your quotations/description…if she left you with that drift (in regards to the nature of classic ragtime, for example), I suspect it’s a fault with the original work rather than your impressions, as condensed as they would have to be in review (and not being a jazz fan). There certainly has been an unfortunate confluence, and not solely race-related nor “vice”-related, of criminal elements and the recording industry, so of course all the music industry of the last century-plus, though that has affected the “popular” genres of music more than the “classical” more obviously (the thugs of industry would seek their respectability after their fortunes were made through endowments to the “classical” forms!). It’s definitely an interesting path to take, and, as I mentioned, I should read the book, and thanks again for making us aware of it and with such a detailed review!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting combination of ideas. Crime and the music industry seem to have always intersected. In addition to the stars cited, Frank Sinatra was rumored to have ties to organized crime. In more recent times, the pay-for-play scandal in which studios had to pay radio stations to give their records air time is a good example. A couple of books I’ve reviewed that illustrate the point are Blues Don’t Care by the late Paul Marks, https://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/2020/07/aubrey-hamilton-reviews-blues-dont-care.html, and Death Beats the Band by Ida Shurman, https://happinessisabook.com/fridays-forgotten-book-death-beats-the-band-by-ida-shurman/. Both are set during the big band era.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.