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Lady's Time by Alan V. Hewat (Harper & Row: $16.95; 338 pp.)

January 12, 1986|Tom Nolan | Nolan writes for Los Angeles Magazine

There's a saying Kansas City jazz players use on one another before they solo. Tell us a story, the saying goes, and don't let it be a lie.

Jazz itself has not been especially well served by written stories. All the novels in the last 70 years that have told satisfying fictional truths about America's indigenous music could be counted on the fingers of Wingy Manone. Now Alan V. Hewat has added to that small shelf with "Lady's Time," a first novel that conjures up the spirit and early milieu of jazz as vividly as an old 78 by Louis Armstrong's Hot Five.

"Lady's Time" concerns itself with the life of Alice Beaudette, fair-skinned child of a Creole washerwoman in New Orleans. After her mother is viciously slain on New Year's Eve, 1900, little Alice learns the pianistic skills that will see her through her own troubled days--the "sunshine music" of ragtime, and the nighttime music of the blues. A teen-age Alice inherits her tutor's slot as keyboard "tickler" at the sporting house of Countess Eulalie Welcome. Later, transformed into Lady Winslow, Alice and her infant son settle in the New England town of Sand Springs, where she passes for white and finds work as a music teacher.

Along the way, Lady almost subconsciously has also acquired knowledge of some of the more secret New Orleans practices. Hewat's rendering of the sensibility of spell casting is as straightforward and lyrical as are his descriptions of the blues and rags and jazz that provide alternative protections and consolations to their disciples.

The heart of "Lady's Time" is its evocation of New Orleans life at the crack of the Modern Age. Hewat brings the city so alive you can nearly smell it.

With a remarkable cast worthy of a David Lean film or a Fletcher Henderson orchestra, "Lady's Time" makes the birth of jazz as real and strange as a vivid dream.

As they say in Kansas City, after an especially satisfying solo: Take one more.

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