Murder In Birdland (a proposal)

Birdland canopy w T-bird carAn old homicide detective once told him — as they stood looking at a body in the street — that the motives for all murders, and even all wars, come down to three things:

sex, fear and money.”

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During the first rumblings of the turbulent Sixties, self-possessed but naive Diane McKittredge –college student by day, would-be journalist, singer and Beat poet by night– embarks on a wild journey from the back alleys of Greenwich Village to the heights of Broadway stages and trendy nightclubs. From hobnobbing with the nation’s intelligentsia in Upper West Side penthouses, to staving off unwanted advances by a Mafia capo in a Little Italy “social club”, Diane learns fast… much faster than she’s learning in any NYU classoom.
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Meanwhile Diane’s new boyfriend Bill Pugliese is trying to “make the scene” on tenor sax. When his boss–Birdland nightclub owner and record mogul Morris Levy–loses his brother in a 1959 gangland slaying at the club, Diane and Bill are key witnesses to several controversial events. Soon they are also forced to make hard choices about each other, their careers, and what they value most. As New York police detective Frank Donnelly and his FBI cohorts search for Birdland manager Irving Levy’s killer, Bill worries about geting caught in the crossfire of Mob warfare.

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MURDER IN BIRDLAND is part crime fiction, part historical dramedy about musicians, writers, dirty business and maniac mafiosi in the early Sixties. It percolates with the bigger-than-life problems of young adult identity, addiction, political wrangling and “making it big” in the Big Apple. As these hip but broke twenty-something friends Twist the night away (at the Mafia’s newly-booming Peppermint Lounge, the former gay bar where The Twist was born), Bill and Diane struggle to make sense of the inevitable clashes between glitz and gore, love and ambition, art and commerce, politics and principles.
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Murder In Birdland is also about America’s great hope — and eventual disillusionment and loss of innocence — from the dawn of the Kennedy years through his devastating assassination. By being in the wrong place at the right time, Diane, Bill and their friends are inadvertently caught up in various criminal and political crises of their era. From Diane’s hometown of Boston, to Bill’s former stomping grounds in Brooklyn (and a small-time criminal past he can’t quite extract himself from), these ordinary kids end up in extraordinary circumstances.

Against that backdrop, Diane and Bill sing and play the latest rockabilly, folk and jazz music for the original hippies of Greenwich Village, all under the watchful eyes of the infamous Five Families of New York crime. Diane waits tables and gamely fights racism and sexism from tiny coffeehouse stages. Bill works an angle to smuggle contraband out of newly-communist Cuba. And their two best friends, Amy Shavitz and Cappy Ribeiro, develop a tempestuous relationship with enough heat and adolescent angst to derail everything and everyone if it ever goes wrong. As accidental heroes in the early culture wars, these Twist Kids play small but pivotal roles in changing a society where they don’t quite fit. They also unwittingly play roles in the government’s contradictory, self-defeating and often absurd battles against organized crime, communism, and the growing civil rights movement.

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Diane and Bill, Amy and Cappy, plus Amy’s closeted gay brother Arnie and all the young lovers and aspiring activists within their inner circle try to carve out their niche. They are mentored and manipulated by double-dealers and straight shooters from the music business, the literary world, the criminal underworld, and even in big-time movies.

Murder In Birdland is the story of young, hopeful artists scrambling for significance as the sleepy Fifties give way to the explosive Sixties. But by extension, it is also about dreamers and schemers in other fields, in every era, in their struggle to gain an edge –and find love– hopefully without selling their souls.
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In scenes packed with celebrity cameos– both fact-based and audaciously fanciful–Diane and Bill rub shoulders with the likes of musician/activist Harry Belafonte and his close friends Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando, not to mention Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, Alan Arkin and the many Method actor “contenders” in Brando’s wake. These young bohos all tune into the fading swan songs of jazz giants such as Lester Young and Billie Holiday, even as they seek to emulate the enduring greats like Miles Davis, Peggy Lee, and Bill’s sometime teacher, blind pianist/composer Lennie Tristano. Diane is soon befriended by newly emergent folk icons like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Dave van Ronk, Richie Havens and Buffy St. Marie, as their melodious protest music wafts westward from nearby Washington Square through the window of her college dorm room. Meanwhile, with West Side Story continuing its historic first run on Broadway, Arnie begins a love affair with one of the show’s Sharks (Jose de Vega). Through them, we hear formerly squelched voices in America reaching a crescendo, as composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and film director Robert Wise re-invent the Great American Musical (and more quietly, the perception of homosexuality).

Rock and roll legends Frankie Lymon, Ronnie Hawkins, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, and Tommy James all make hilarious appearances at Morris Levy’s Roulette Records studio. And playwright Tennessee Williams coaches Diane about going for broke as a writer, most likely in the emerging field of television. Additionally, for a peek behind the Hollywood curtain, these Twist Kids cross paths with actresses Ava Gardner (the ex-wife Sinatra still carried a torch for), Natalie Wood, Joanne Woodward, and Diahann Carroll (the wife of Birdland founding partner Monte Kay). Finally, rounding out their list of mentors, competitors, colleagues, and critics are the likes of rock and roll deejay Alan Freed, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and the enigmatic cipher of the era, Bob Dylan.

Eventually, Diane is even pursued romantically by the recently-wed Ted Kennedy, who is not yet even a Senator, though his ambitions and vulnerabilities are already apparent to any who will look past the slick veneer. This dalliance provides Diane a small glimpse into the tenuous but powerful court of Ted’s brother John, an administration which she sees as deeply flawed, even as it is promoted as some shiny, media-savvy city on a hill.
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In smoky scenes set to the tunes of the current Broadway hit West Side Story, plus early rock and roll, and jazz classics like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, well-known stars and well-known crooks canoodle, croon and cook on bandstands, in bars, and in bedrooms. All the while, the younger generation looks on, desperately trying to join in and learn their elders’ off-kilter but endlessly entertaining rhythms and deadly dance steps.
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Three “forbidden love affairs” lie at the heart of the novel:

  • rebellious middle-class coed Diane with poor, Brooklyn-born jazz hopeful Bill…
  • their wealthy friend Arnold Levin and West Side Story dancer Jose de Vega…
  • the unlikely love triangle of Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, and Wood’s former lover: music mogul, club owner, and Mafia front Morris Levy.

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As infamous gangland figures like Crazy Joe Gallo look over Bill and Diane’s shoulders– and as music greats like Sarah Vaughan, singer/actress Pearl Bailey and tragic teenage doo-wop legend Frankie Lymon are pulled into Morris Levy’s underworld orbit– the novel’s spotlight shines brightly and spills over onto the lives of the less famous background players. Some are ground up like gravel and used to pave the road to others’ stardom. Thus Murder In Birdland also reveals the seedier side of an emerging capitalist American Dream –even as publicists, artistic competitors, drug dealers, murderers and politicians try their best to bury the awful truth.
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Will Sergeant Donnelly catch Irving Levy’s killer before Morris Levy and his not-so-secret underworld associates dish out an even bloodier form of justice? Will Diane and Bill, or Arnie and Jose, achieve success and respect in their chosen fields? Will love prevail, …and for whom?
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Furthermore –as Morris Levy’s and Roulette Records’ top teen singer (and tragic heroin addict) Frankie Lymon famously sang– why do fools fall in love?

…… finally, for a look at where I started, or an archival note about how long this project has been percolating, check out my original blog entry from 2011, where I set my intention to get this sucker done: Getting Lost In the Late Fifties .

Birdland+4AM+NY+1960 - zombie sax player photo

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