Author TJ English is arguably the most astute and versatile chronicler of 20th century American crime.
His non-fiction books have dug deep into the history and lore of American criminal gangs across ethnicities, including the Irish (The Westies, where the bodies were buried), Asians (born to kill), Cubans (The society) and of course, the Italians (Havana night). And his The wild city plumbed the grimy depths of a murder case that spewed racism and corruption in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s.
In his latest work, English was able to combine two of his personal interests with an intertwined narrative of a symbiotic relationship played out in smoky clubs, recording studios and casual deals with Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld (400 pages, $29.99, William Morrow, out August 2).
“It’s a subject that has always been in my back pocket. I am a lover of jazz music and have been since my adolescence. And one of the great things about becoming a jazz enthusiast is that you can’t help but get carried away with the cultural history and traditions of the music,” says English via Zoom.
“When you bought a jazz record, seeing the liner notes and information on the cover, it was like buying a jazz encyclopedia. And falling in love with music was a process of also falling in love with culture and stories.
Many of these stories are set during the “golden ages” of big band and bebop, the 1930s-1960s. It was a time when many nightclubs in cities ranging from New York, New Orleans, and Kansas City to Las Vegas, Chicago, and Los Angeles were owned, operated, or funded by criminal underworld.
“It’s not so much a book about jazz music, but about the jazz business and how and why organized crime got into it so early and set a pattern. It was a business model that held for the next 80 years,” says English.
It was a strange, but seemingly productive relationship for both parties. Great musicians have ensured that those ready for an evening of lawful and illicit entertainment fill both seats in clubs and back office coffers by paying cover charges, alcohol, food, cigarettes, controlling hats and coats, jukeboxes and whatever else was available.
And because the clubs were run by crooked-nosed guys no one wanted to play with, the musicians felt safe, protected, and had stable incomes. It was, says English, a “capitalist relationship” at heart.
But in Dangerous rhythmsEnglish goes deeper than the surface and has a lot to say about race relations, but outwardly willed and inwardly understood.
“The culture as a whole was at least as violent or more violent towards African Americans than club owners,” says English. “I think the average black musician had less to fear from a mobster than a White Cracker on the street or a policeman. This is why they were open to forming relationships with criminal figures.
What he sat down to research and write the book, English says something hit him right away. That he really wanted to get into the true nature of the relationship between underworld figures and predominantly African-American musicians.
So he says it’s impossible not to see a kind of “plantation” style relationship between the two groups, even if the setting was a nightclub under the street in New York City instead of the open cotton fields of Georgia.
“The idea that it would become a kind of plantation relationship is not surprising. The Italians came to America when jazz was forming, and it was a quirk of history, it coincided,” explains English.”Italians were caught up in the American Dream and engrossed in the idea of building a foundation in the new country and advancing in the world. This relationship was the result.
English adds that an argument could be made that the Italian and Sicilian criminal types had a deeper connection to jazz music because their homeland was closer to Africa than the Irish or Jewish gangsters simply did not. . Although they had their own impact.
“To unearth these characters like [Louis Armstrong’s manager] Joe Glaser and [club and record label owner] Mo Levy was important, because they were important to the story,” says English.
“Levy was what he was, a bit of a thug and a twisted character. But he was a visionary and a progressive lover of music. What he did for jazz, especially bebop, was unprecedented. And no human being is all good or all bad.
On the player side, English includes stories from Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Fats Waller, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Billie Holiday, Louis Prima, Al Jolson, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and many more. The employes are household names from mob books like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky, Santo Trafficante and Legacy Diamond.
Sometimes the criminal part of the equation slipped into the music. English writes about a 1929 incident one night at New York’s Hotsy Totsy club (co-owned by Diamond). A disagreement between club management and some inebriated patrons led to an exchange of gunfire which left seven dead (with three additional witnesses later “disappearing”). During the scrimmage, a manager told the orchestra to “Play hard, boys. To drown out the shots.”
Perhaps the most famous story about the intersection of jazz and organized crime concerns the man with one foot in both worlds: Frank Sinatra. In 1942, when his star was beginning to rise, the singer wanted, by a binding contract, to work in Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. The leader of the band was unwavering and, to be fair, made unrealistic financial demands to let his dark-haired crooner go.
That, it seems, was until some of the “boys” with Italian surnames visited him. And soon, Sinatra was a free agent. The story is so impactful that novelist Mario Puzo put a thinly veiled narrative (with the character of Johnny Fontaine in place of Young Blue Eyes) in The Godfather.
And the story only got bigger with the movie version. Putting the muscle on Fontaine’s employer was literally the cause of the film’s most famous line “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse”.
For his part, Sinatra has always denied that the real or perceived threat of violence towards Dorsey played a role in his sudden emancipation from the contract. He even angrily confronted Puzo about his fictional story and howled how unfair it was to anyone listening to him. Dozens of Sinatra’s books have all had slightly different stories. For his part, English cites several interviews Dorsey gave in the 1950s that prove the tale’s truth.
“He described what happened in detail. He omitted the names and then when [Mafia enforcer] Willie Moretti is dead, he started giving names. So unless you believe Tommy Dorsey is an absolute liar, this is the definitive information,” he says.
“The confusion comes from the fact that Sinatra lied about it, and often. Of course, that’s what he said about all things Mafia and his career. Including his departure for Cuba and his meeting with Lucky Luciano [a suitcase full of] cash.”
English also believes that facts and archival resources – as opposed to personal accounts which may vary over time – underpin much of the narrative of Dangerous rhythms. And its footnotes and bibliography are abundant.
The books haven’t been released yet, but English is already hard at work on his next tome, The last kilo. It’s the story of “Cocaine Cowboys” Willie Falcon and Sal Magluta, who pioneered the importation of the drug into the United States, fueling the white powder craze in the late 1970s and into the early 80’s.
Magluta is still in jail, but Falcon is out. English is working directly with Falcon to tell the story via interviews, but says it’s not a biography. And the author has the final say on what he writes, includes or does not include.
“I hope this is the quintessential cocaine book,” he says before turning again to jazz and the underworld.
“It’s a long overdue book. I wish it had been written decades ago, when some of the musicians were still around,” he sums up. At a key time, very few musicians talked about it openly. For obvious reasons! They kept their mouths shut. It was an underground story for a long time.
To know more Dangerous rhythms and TJ English, visit TJ-English.com