Why My Muse Loves Jazz
D. A. Ratliff
If you have read my writing, you know I generally set my stories and novels in the southern region of the United States. That is understandable because I grew up in South Carolina and live in Florida. A piece of writing advice says to ‘write what you know,” and I know the South. I can’t entirely agree with that particular advice because we can write about anything with a bit of solid research. Thank you, Google. But our life experiences certainly influence what we put on paper.
Speaking to a friend, we discussed how life impacts writing, and I stated that I do not consciously put my life experiences into my work. I no doubt subconsciously do. My attitudes toward good and evil and how characters (people) should behave can’t help but influence my writing as it does anyone. I generally do not pattern any character after someone I know, although I have done so occasionally.
In thinking back on that conversation, I wondered what my influences were. What creates the mood of my writing? I realized that there are two influences. One is my childhood memories of growing up in the South, and the other is music.
While I was fortunate to enjoy a somewhat idyllic childhood, I am not naïve enough to ignore the issues that faced my “hundred-acre woods” (thank you, Winnie, the Pooh) or the rest of the country and the world. Equality is never easy to obtain and inequality difficult to witness, and that alone will influence us, consciously or not.
My parents provided a haven for me and a feeling of security, and I realize how fortunate I am for that environment. They never hid the realities of the world from me, but the gentility that existed was also a part of my life. When writing, I attempt to show the area’s complexity because the truth is always best.
My environment, however, was not the only influence on me. I believe that growing up in the South served as the platform for what is truly my muse. Music.
I grew up listening to classical music more than any other music genre. My father often had classical music on in the car or at home. Still, my parents were huge fans of music in general, so the sounds of my early childhood included Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra.
I was a typical kid, I loved Elvis and the Beatles, but I was also the preteen who loved Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and asked for their albums for Christmas. Music was and remains an integral part of my life, and I realize a considerable influence on my writing.
For music lovers, every type of music becomes part of the threads woven to create our personalities. My memories of the spirituals I listened to as a child or the blues music that developed from various influences after the Civil War to jazz that grew from the blues and ragtime in New Orleans have influenced me greatly.
Jazz. I am not sure how one can define jazz. In an opinion article written by Josiah Boornazian, the author states:
“Jazz encourages, celebrates, and rewards newness, originality, personality, and meaningful expressiveness in music. Jazz never stopped evolving.”
This observation about jazz mimics writing. Doesn’t writing do the same, encourage, celebrate, and provide the same rewards?
When I was a child, my parents had a family friend, Mr. Price, whose mother was from Louisiana and who I wrote about in a previous article. His stories of his mother’s life in Louisiana and the Cajun meals he prepared for us on some Sundays greatly influenced me. I loved the stories and the food, and as I grew up, my affection for the area never waned but became a love for New Orleans and jazz.
When I started my first mystery novel, I never hesitated to set the story in New Orleans. I visited there a few times and felt a kinship with the French Quarter, more so than with my hometown in South Carolina.
As I wrote, I felt the ambiance of the French Quarter. The colorful residents, the awed tourists, the neon, and the art and Voodou shops all mingled with the smells of spicy food, beer, incense, and, well… some other aromas, but all part of the fabric of the Quarter.
However, one component of the ambiance was the sound of jazz. Walk along the narrow streets and listen as the music waxes and wanes from one club to the next—some joyous, some melancholy, and all reaching into your soul. There is a rhythm to life, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the jazz-filled French Quarter.
When I write, those beautiful spirituals from my early days to today’s jazz are my muse. The music spurs my creativity. The connection to the life force, the vibe, if you will, from the places that create that music, hopefully, keeps me evolving as a writer.
Whatever your music tastes, play some tunes while you write. If I may suggest, play a little Bossa Nova for enchantment and romance, a little Buddy Rich for the zest of life, a little Miles Davis for the soul, and let your muse play.