As an iconic jazz DJ who’s putting out a book, you’d expect Mark Ruffin to have written a biography of a musician or a music scene, or maybe about his time in radio. But in Bebop Fairy Tales: An Historical Fiction Trilogy On Jazz, Intolerance, And Baseball (paperback, Kindle), Ruffin instead tells fictional tales that are inspired by famous jazz songs. In the following email interview, Ruffin explains how this book came together, and why these fables ain’t kids’ stuff.
Let’s start with the basics: What is Bebop Fairy Tales about, and what are the three stories in it about?
The book is best described with its long title: An Historical Fiction Trilogy On Jazz, Intolerance, And Baseball. Each story is named after a famous song; “The Saturday Night Fish Fry” by Louis Jordan, “‘Round Midnight With The Ku Klux Klan,” inspired by Thelonious Monk’s great anthem, and “The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan.”
The first story, “The Saturday Night Fish Fry,” tells of a fictitious meeting between jazz saxophonist Gene Ammons and dancer Bob Fosse in post-WWII ’40s in New Orleans. My friend, writer Aaron Cohen, summed it up by saying something like it’s a tale of two Chicagoans having a wild night in New Orleans. All the facts about who they are at the time in the story are true: Bob Fosse was really in the Navy’s Special Services, Joe Papp really was his station chief, and Gene Ammons was really in Billy Eckstine’s band and his dad was one of the first big stars in jazz history.
One of the most frequently asked questions about this story has been is Billy Eckstine really as much as an asshole that I make him out to be in the story. The answer is yes. I was being kind.
The second story, “‘Round Midnight With The Ku Klux Klan,” is about a white man in his early 30s in Enterprise, Mississippi in 1957 who is a virgin and has never been sure of his sexuality and was bullied and abused as a child by neighborhood kids and a widowed father who was a former minor league pitcher and a very successful bootlegger during prohibition. In a very sadistic way he made sure his effeminate son could do one thing; hit any pitch thrown to him with a baseball.
Through a fluke he became a college sports hero and landed a banking job where we meet him. On a banking conference in New York City he hears Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot. Through that encounter he learns about his sexuality, gay pride, and the Black civil rights movement. Back home that knowledge inadvertently lands him a visit from the Ku Klux Klan.
Some folks have called the last story, “The Sidewinder,” the epic in the book. It’s really a giant love letter to Philadelphia culture. It’s a coming of age story about a Black kid from one side of Philadelphia and a Jewish kid from another side and how the tumultuous events of 1964, the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team and the Lee Morgan song “The Sidewinder” tied them together for 14 years. There’s a lot of history in this story especially the Phillies as well as Philly music history in jazz, R&B, pop, and just a bit of classical.
I’ve been asked why is there a guy on the cover wearing a Cleveland Browns uniform. I wouldn’t spoil that for anything.
Where did you get the idea for this collection?
In the 1990s I fell in love with screenwriting, and had the opportunity to be a part of a very elite group of writers in Chicago who all wanted to write screenplays. All the members were from major print organizations or successful authors. Our leader was a guy named Ted Shen who was a columnist at The Chicago Reader. Because there were so many of us we always had a script to destroy at our monthly meetings. We even made two movies, including Tangled, which was my first Music Supervision gig.
My first screenplay was titled Cash For Your Trash, and was about Fats Waller being kidnapped by Al Capone. Once I learned the craft, all of these jazz stories started invading my mind. Mind you I was already more than a dozen years into my radio and journalism career.
By my fourth screenplay I was convinced by the group and others, including Spike Lee, that history period pieces cost money and at that time no one was going to spend money on an unknown writer. I was urged to try to write something from my life which I didn’t find interesting except for the fact that I was once stalked for 17 months. It was a frightening experience that at the time people, including police officers, thought was funny. (How times have changed. I had an order of protection and was laughed at. Today that woman would be in jail. But I digress.)
In retrospect, two years later, I saw the humor, too. I stitched some of those episodes into a semi-autographical story titled The Spark That Caused The Flame. It was universally panned by the group, except our leader. A year later it was my responsibility to send a script we were working on into competitions. In addition, I sent mine out to a number of them, too.
I ended up making the first cut as a semi-finalist in the Sundance screenwriting competition. Nothing came of it as I didn’t make the next cut. However, in the interim, one of my famous friends, Malcolm Jamal-Warner said “You have a Robert Redford See-An-Agent-Free Card,” and encouraged me to come out to L.A. for a few weeks.
He was right, people did talk to me. But L.A. discouraged me more than encouraged, mostly because I kept hearing that same refrain that history cost money, and for some reason that is all that came out of me.
I’ll never forget the moment of inspiration for the book. Malcolm took me to a party at an unbelievably beautiful apartment on the ocean in Marina Del Ray that was owned by the actress Kim Fields. At the time Malcolm and Ms. Fields were heavily into poetry. They both did some poetry slamming with a band which had as special guest saxophonist and flute player Najee. At one point I was talking to a guy who was being sympathetic to my cause, and he pointed out that the hot movie at the moment, Brokeback Mountain, came from a book of short stories, and that I should try it. That was the moment of inspiration. That was 2003. I wrote four screenplays in seven years, but it took me 17 to write this book.
And where did you get the idea for the individual stories?
Once I got into fiction so many jazz stories invaded my head. Fats Waller was just low hanging fruit. Once the idea of the book struck I took my best ideas and tried to get them down as prose. There are many reasons why it took so long, including how I kept going back and forth working on different stories.
I actually had six ideas, [but] I chose the three that were in the best shape to finish, especially when I noticed that two of them has baseball as part of the plot.
Fairy tales are typically thought of as being kids’ stuff. But not always. Do you think Bebop Fairy Tales is a book for kids, is it for adults, or is it for everyone?
One of my earliest memories in my education was being part of what today is known as the Great Books Foundation. Through them I discovered all the great fairy tales including Aesop’s Fables. I just thought of a play on the word Aesop and changed it to Bebop Fables. Then, for some reason, I thought Bebop Fairy Tales had a better ring.
The honest truth is I didn’t think about the misconception of the book being perceived as kids until a prominent Washington Post sports journalist told me he saw it listed under “Children’s Books” on Amazon and was buying one for his young daughter. I panicked, but the cat was out the barn. I explained it to him and to Amazon that it is not a children’s book, as it is very straight-forward and in-your-face on gender and race issues.
What writers do you see as having the biggest influence on Bebop Fairy Tales?
The first two people I thank in the book are Smokey Robinson and Gil Scott-Heron, whose first two novels were major with me as far as developing my own voice when I was young.
As far as authors, the biggest inspiration for these stories I think are Octavia Butler, David Halberstam, Erik Larson, and the screenwriter William Goldman.
What about non-literary influences; do you think the stories in Bebop Fairy Tales were influenced by any movies or TV shows?
They were all influenced by the hundreds of screenplays I’ve read in my life.
And do you think your own experiences in screenplay writing had any influence on the way you wrote the stories in Bebop Fairy Tales?
Absolutely. Getting to the point is huge in screenwriting. For me, outlines were critical for figuring out plot points. There’s a lot less, for lack of a better term, coloring in writing screenplays where you can leave a lot to the imagination. In writing this book, I had to learn to fill in between the numbers and lines.
So do you think any of the stories in Bebop Fairy Tales could work as a movie?
Another reason it took 17 years is that an employee of the actor Zachary Quinto’s Before The Door Productions read “Round Midnight With The Ku Klux Klan,” and instead of even listening to an option offer I immediately asserted that I should write the screenplay. They worked with me for almost two years before they gave up trying to get something going for it. I learned an awful lot and it was pretty exciting. The two main things they didn’t like about my original story is that there was no strong female lead and there weren’t enough scenes in New York. So, there is a screenplay with some differences in the story and how it’s structured.
One thing that struck me as odd about Bebop Fairy Tales is that there isn’t an audiobook version, even though you’re a radio DJ and have a cool voice. Why isn’t there?
Money and time. I’ve already thought it out and was really charged to learn that audiobooks rights are based on the system used with music and not the very expensive rights structure in the movie biz. I was hoping to make enough noise and sell enough copies to find a company that might be interested. But that’s been slow. I thought it would be a marathon, but it’s more like a walk-a-thon.
Finally, if someone enjoys the stories in Bebop Fairy Tales, what short story collection of someone else’s would you suggest they check out?
That would depend on what you liked about my wicked tales. If you love music trivia mixed with history I mentioned Mitch Myers’ book The Boy Who Cried Freebird. I love the story about the glockenspiel player for those massive Phil Spector productions.
One of the most ingenious uses of history and fiction to me is Devil In The White City by Erik Larson, although it is not about music or baseball.