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A James Ellroy Playlist: Straight Life

December 7, 2021

Regular readers of this blog will know that this year I started a series on the use of music in the work of James Ellroy. Here’s the latest episode on White Jazz, perhaps the most musically consistent Ellroy novel.

Straight Life

Part I of the novel is titled ‘Straight Life’. The title is rather ironic as, in this world, everything from sexuality to the line between criminality and law and order is twisted. Take, for example, LAPD Lieutenant Dave Klein’s incestuous love for his sister, or the fact that he accepts contracts from the Mob to murder a witness he is supposed to be protecting.

White Jazz contains multiple references to saxophonist Art Pepper. Pepper’s memoir Straight Life makes for extraordinary reading. His life bears many parallels with Ellroy’s. They both struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and spent time in the LA County Jail. As a candid tale of substance abuse, self-destruction and recovery, Straight Life is matched only by Ellroy’s memoir My Dark Places. Moreover, the whole text reads like a research template to Ellroy’s LA Quartet. Pepper gives great insight to the criminal/narcotics subculture of the jazz scene of 1950s Los Angeles.

Straight Life is also the name of an album Pepper released in 1979, the same year his autobiography was published. The title track is a contrafact of the song ‘After You’ve Gone’, which Pepper had previously recorded on the 1957 album Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. As the ’57 version is closer to the setting of White Jazz, this is the track I’ve posted below:

Money Jungle

Money Jungle is the title of Part IV of White Jazz. The novel, like all of Ellroy’s works, is so preoccupied with sexual obsessions that it is to easy to overlook how important a factor money is to most crime stories. White Jazz is no exception. The LAPD uses the Kafesjian Crime Family as ‘authorised’ drug dealers. Dudley Smith employs his Mobster Squad to crush the criminal competition. Even the legal deals reek of corruption. Klein is a slum landlord of properties in Chavez Ravine, where Hispanic families are being turfed out of their homes to make way for the construction of Dodger Stadium. In the pre-digital age, the sight, sound and smell of money was an ever present temptation. The allure of filthy lucre has proven influential to many forms of music, and 50s jazz musicians would have felt it strongly, especially if they had addictions to feed and found themselves at the mercy of incompetent or exploitative managers.

Money Jungle is the title of a 1962 jazz album by Duke Ellington which he recorded with double bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach. The title track below could hardly be described as easy listening. The opening and closing strings sound like shredded nerves, and the overall tension of the album has been attributed to conflict in the studio between Ellington, Mingus and Roach. Creative friction has often led to great art, and in this case Money Jungle is the perfect artistic backdrop to Dave Klein’s inner torment.

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