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Barbara Reed: Mystery and Music

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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Pianist, composer and author, Los Angeles-based Barbara Reed is not only a triple artistic threat, but, she has combined all of those abundant skills in a way that is literally novel.

Originally from suburban Chicago and having studied at Berklee, Reed has developed a long, celebrated performing career in L.A. Her debut album as leader, This Was Meant to Be (Rare Sound, 1985) received outstanding reviews. A published author who favors musical titles (High Notes Are Murder, Harmonic Deception and noir music-related landscapes, Reed has developed a fascinating concept that integrates her originally-composed music in direct conjunction and complement with her written page.

All About Jazz: Barbara: thanks for taking time to speak with us here at All About Jazz.

Barbara Reed: Thanks, Nick. I'm really glad to be featured in All About Jazz.

AAJ: Can you tell us about your early days and music background?

BR: Growing up, there was always music playing in the house—from Big Bands to all the great vocalists. The sounds pulled me in, and the lyrics kept me mesmerized. We had a piano in the house, so I spent my time exploring the sounds— it drove the family crazy, I'm sure.

AAJ: When and why did you start getting into fiction writing?

BR: I always loved writing stories as a kid, but I was certain I wanted a career in music. Then, after gigging and traveling for a while, it seemed that I'd left something on hold during those years and I wanted another outlet in addition to music. I used to joke that I couldn't dance, and I certainly couldn't paint, but maybe I could take writing more seriously. Once I started, I got wrapped up in it. The process of explaining who musicians are, and why they'll drive a hundred miles for a fifty-dollar gig in order to play good music with great players, is challenging! It's also a lot of fun, and it forces me to take a little refresher course before each book so that my characters are placed in today's "Indie" world, rather than the one I knew. Journeymen musicians today have to be savvy and biz-oriented. They face a complex combination of practicing, travel, and endless promotion but they still have the burn -that unstoppable love affair -with music.

AAJ: Who were there authors that inspired you?

BR: Many! L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince were two of my favorites.

More recently, Mark Helprin's Paris in the Present Tense. To me anything by him is a must-read. The same for David McCullough (especially the John Adams biography), and Doris Kearns Goodwin books. I never knew I liked biographies until I read a few by true masters of the craft. In the mystery realm, J. A. Jance's books as well as Robert Dugoni's thrillers are top-notch.

AAJ: Why do you think that jazz musicians and jazz music are fertile ground for novelists?

BR: Being a jazzer myself, I never considered that what I did musically or personally was in any way odd or unusual. But in jazz's early days, it wasn't always admirable to be up all night playing music in "dives." As jazz caught on across the country, naturally there were conflicts -some listeners embraced it, some called it "the devil's music." Eventually, a certain mystique, and also a certain preconception about these highly talented people took hold, and in some ways it remains that way today. When I started writing stories based in the music business, I tried not to play into those old clichés about musicians being druggies, flakes, etc. As a storyline though, a bit of that old attitude makes for great conflict. For example, Liz Hanlon's mother can't stand the fact that her daughter makes her living as a musician.

AAJ: I've also learned that novels and films about jazz musicians -Bosch, for example, have introduced actual jazz musicians (Frank Morgan in Bosch's case) to people not familiar with those players. Thoughts?

BR: Michael Connelly's inclusion of jazz as Bosch's passion allows us to see much deeper into his character than we would otherwise, and if it encourages viewers to learn about Frank Morgan, and/or other music greats, all the better. Even if it doesn't, Bosch conveys the message and emotion perfectly.

AAJ: How do you compare your creative approach in your music with that of your writing?

BR: The work is very different, but I doubt my approach is much different. At the piano, a few bars of a melody grabs me and often words come to mind that hint at a "story" told through lyrics. In my Liz Hanlon books, I try to create a world where creativity reigns supreme, yet she still has those universal problems to face: improving her craft, competition, love, loss, anger, revenge, and as always, paying the bills.

AAJ: How many novels have you published?

BR: Right now I have two: High Notes Are Murder, and Harmonic Deception. Both are accompanied by "soundtracks," that is, songs written by the characters, and taken from the storyline. Working on the third book now -this one has some great surprises.

AAJ: Are your books all music-related?

BR: They are, but readers don't have to know a thing about music to enjoy them. It's just the backdrop. They are first and foremost, mystery/suspense stories.

AAJ: Have you ever done a screenplay?

BR: Several years ago, a director named John Stewart who had some success with movies that went straight to video, asked me to write with him, so we did two together: Intrusion, and Secrets With A Butterfly. There is a screenwriter now who's interested in writing a screenplay from my Liz Hanlon series, and we're working on that. It's something I'm very excited about because of the stories, and also the exposure for my original music. And of course, an excuse to write more! The working title for that is High Notes Are Murder.

AAJ: Which of your novels do you think would make a great film? Why?

BR: The new one I'll be releasing soon called A Stalker's Song. It starts out with a terrifying scene that throws singer-songwriter Liz Hanlon into a life-and-death struggle she's never faced before. Now she's forced to decide: does a tragic childhood excuse murder?

AAJ: Do you compose?

BR: All the time. Like most musicians, I can't help myself.

AAJ: How different is lyric writing than novel writing? Is there a different process for you?

BR: One would think lyric writing should be easier because it's shorter, but that's not always true. Some songs come quickly, but I usually have to write, then sing and play it together at the piano, getting comfortable so that when I record or perform it, it's mine. Sometimes that takes an hour, sometimes weeks.

AAJ: Let's talk about your playing career.

BR: I took piano lessons as a kid, but I always saw myself as a singer. I went to Berklee to learn about this glorious music-making experience and I discovered it was an advantage to be able to sing and play together. It got me some interesting gigs over the years! Later, when my favorite accompanist, Llew Matthews, joined Nancy Wilson's group, I suddenly had to step into the pianist's chair while singing. From then on it's been practice, practice, practice!

AAJ: Tell us about your recordings.

BR: The first was This Was Meant to Be. I was the vocalist and songwriter for most tunes, and the whole project came together in some kind of musical high. It has some straight-ahead rhythms, but radio stations like KKGO at that time gave us a chance to head into the contemporary jazz-fusion zone. Loved every second of it. Some of the lyrics came from experience, some just floated in from who knows where? My faves are "You Can Take It All Back," "But It's His Eyes," and "The Child In You." There's also a great bluesy ballad written by bassist Max Bennett called "Remember Me."

AAJ: Do you do any commercial writing? Websites, liners?

BR: Yes, I'm doing more all the time. I've written for papers and magazines, even owned a regional newspaper for a while. Working on doing guest blogs now that I've settled on what I call my "Mystery & Music" series with "soundtracks" of music created from the storyline.

AAJ: Are or were there any jazz musicians we know who dabbled in fiction writing?

BR: There have been a few. There was an L.A. musician who wrote a book of short stories about each of his gigs. Another was by a musician who got involved in a string of robberies to support his music habit. I wish I knew the authors' names, but I don't.

AAJ: Mary Higgins Clark named many novels with music titles? Why was that? Do you know?

BR: I think the song titles were a good fit for her storyline, but there wasn't any music related or released with them.

AAJ: What advice would you give to musicians who might want to explore fiction writing? Do you teach the skills needed?

BR: The best advice comes from the great writers, not me. I have noticed one similarity between music and writing though, that may not be obvious to a beginning writer. Let's say you've written a new song and you've worked on it for a while. Then you play it on the gig and suddenly it seems to go flat. The groove isn't there; the mood is gone. Most likely, you haven't made that new song "your own." Sounds strange, but just because you wrote it doesn't mean you truly "know" it. Think of a song you've performed a hundred times. You can do that one in your sleep, but the new one is . . . new. To perform it live perfectly, or to record it on the first take, you need practice. Again and again. Same with writing: edit again. Then start over, edit again, and again. Finally, get an editor who edits for the big publishers to do a full edit. You'll think the book is finished and you're wasting your time and money, but in most cases you aren't. This is the only way I know of to have a really good book.

AAJ: Barbara, this has been incredibly informative. Wishing you continued success on all fronts.

BR: Thank you, Nick. It's an honor to be featured in such a terrific place as All About Jazz!

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