Early in the book “Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld” (Morrow), author T.J. English states The history of organized crime, much like the history of jazz, is part fact and part mythology. On the surface, it is a verifiably true statement. English continues by blaming various factions of pop culture and the media for the misinformation. However, he leaves out the important detail that the ratio of fact versus fiction is considerably less in jazz history than in mob chronicles. Jazz musicians are fairly open: in addition to the old saws about “telling their story” with their instruments, they are very forthcoming to the press when relating their own experiences (as to whether or not it’s reported correctly, that’s another matter). As for organized crime, there is the pesky little fact that by its very name, most mafia activities are illegal. Further, the Sicilian code of honor known as omertà states that no members are allowed to discuss illegal operations with anyone outside the organization. To be sure, there are plenty of tall tales in the stories of both gangsters and jazz musicians. Many appear in English’s book, and that challenges the reader to discern how much of the information can be trusted.
Obviously, the focus of my studies is in jazz history, but I have studied the history of organized crime, both in connection to the music and other fields, including the JFK assassination and film noir. As far as I can tell, English has a very good knowledge of the mob’s influence in American cities. His summations of the Pendergast machine of Kansas City, Al Capone’s operations in Chicago, and the Five Families of New York seem accurate. He is also very skilled at bringing notorious gangsters to life, allowing us to understand the motivations of infamous men like Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Santo Trafficante. On the other hand, I still have a hard time believing that Frank Sinatra was the courier of $2,000,000 for a 1947 mob convention in Cuba.
English’s grasp of jazz history is very shaky. He knows the basic chronology of the music, but he knows very little about the techniques of creating music (bebop did not contain atonal melodies; if it did, the harmony would also be atonal. The proper term is chromatic.) When he tries to relate stories about famous musicians, we get jaw-droppers like this one:
[Billie] Holiday did eventually emerge as a major sensation on The Street. In the early 1940s, she performed regularly at Kelly’s Stables. By now, she had recorded “Strange Fruit”, “God Bless the Child” and other timeless classics. In her band was an unknown pianist from Los Angeles named Nat Cole, who had his first singing gig one night when Billie called in sick, and the owner of the Stable convinced him to take her spot as lead singer. Cole was such a success that he was later given the nickname “King” and, as Nat “King” Cole, became one of the biggest draws in jazz history. The Street was like that: Legends were being born every night.
My principal role is as a reviewer, not a fact-checker, but I just can’t let this one pass. English establishes the time as the early 1940s; the recording of “God Bless the Child” narrows it to 1942 or later. By that time, Billie Holiday had been a huge success on 52nd Street for well over a decade. She was also a major recording star, cutting dozens of classic sides with Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Ben Webster, and many others. Nat King Cole had his famous nickname by 1936, when he formed his group, “the King Cole Trio”. He made numerous recordings in LA, and he sang on most of the tracks. The Cole trio was well-established when they appeared on a double bill at a theater in New York with Holiday. There is absolutely no evidence that she called in sick, and that Cole took over as lead singer.
Fortunately, most of English’s gaffes in jazz history are not monumental whoppers like the example above. Seasoned readers will doubtlessly shake their heads at many of English’s assumptions, but will also recognize famous stories like the golden oldie about the night(s) Fats Waller played for the Capone gang. There’s no way to verify the truth of that tale, just as we can’t be sure if Jelly Roll Morton‘s accounts of working in a Storyville brothel were 100% accurate. If we believe English’s version of the summits in Havana shortly before Castro took over in 1959, then it was very similar to what we see in “The Godfather, Part II“. Are the versions by T.J. English, Mario Puzo, and Francis Ford Coppola true? We don’t know, and barring the imminent development of time travel, we may never know.
So, what to say about a book where many of the stories could be apocryphal? Read it for fun, but question every fact unless you can verify it elsewhere. As they said in John Ford‘s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance“, When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.