Guest Post: Travis McGee & All That Jazz


By Kevin Comer (for Sue Martin)

I prowled the place. I looked at the books and the records. Aside from an unwholesome taste for string quartets, and a certain gullibility about pre-digested sociology, she passed the McGee test with about a B+. Hell, an A–.

— Assessing Nina Gibson in A Nightmare in Pink (1964)

Travis McGee is a man of refined tastes, despite his bohemian lifestyle. He is a sophisticated collector of fine arts. He can appreciate—and will pay for—superior gin and beer. Both his pipe and the weed he smokes are first rate. He has an eye for country club sports. So it isn’t surprising that he is particular about the music he listens to.

T. McGee is taking his new runabout, the Muñequita, on her maiden run after six weeks of futzing around, setting her up just the way he wants in Pale Gray for Guilt (1968). He’s on his way to see soon-to-be-murdered old friend, Tush Bannon. As Travis cruises a mile off shore, he adjusts rpm and fuel flowmeter searching for the optimum relationship between fuel consumption and distance:

I switched the FM-UHF marine radio to the commercial frequencies and tried to find something that didn’t sound like somebody trying to break up a dogfight in a sorority house by banging drums and cymbals. Not that I want to say it isn’t music. Of course it is music, styled to accompany teenage fertility rites, and thus is as far out of my range as “Rockabye Baby.” FM radio was a great product when it was servicing a fringe area of the great American market. But it has turned into a commercial success, so they have denigrated the sound, and they have mickey-moused the stereo, and you have to really search that dial to find something that isn’t either folk hoke, rickyticky rock, or the saccharine they pump into elevators, bus stations and Howard Johnsons.

As I was about to give up I found some pleasant eccentric, or somebody who’d grabbed the wrong record, playing Brubeck doing Cole Porter, and I caught it just as he opened up “Love for Sale” in a fine and gentle manner, and then handed it delicately over to Desmond, who set up a witty dialogue with Joe Morello.

Columbia released Anything Goes! The Dave Brubeck Quartet Plays Cole Porter in 1966. Dave Brubeck (Piano), Paul Desmond (Alto Sax), Joe Morello (Drums), and Gene Wright (Double Bass) are the essence of cool.

The lounge aboard Travis’ houseboat, the Busted Flush, is equipped with the best in high-fidelity equipment. When Harry Broll empties his blue-steel automatic at scrambling McGee in A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971), the only serious casualties are Travis’ self-esteem and his stereo. Six minutes after Harry’s departure, Meyer comes aboard flaunting his garishly festive party outfit and chastened Trav is quick to remonstrate:

“You are supposed to walk in here, and instead of giving me a fashion show, you are supposed to snuff the air, look about with darting glances. Then you are supposed to find those six cartridge cases in that ashtray and snuff at them. Then you prowl around and find where all six hit, including the one that’s hard to find. It hit right smack in the middle of my model 18 Marantz and killed it as dead as Harry tried to kill me.”

When it debuted in 1968, the American built Marantz model 18 receiver was cutting edge. The ads declared: “Flawless performance was the engineering objective – flawless performance is the final result.” The model 18 weighed over 40 lbs and had an MSRP of $1,000. A new Ford Mustang had an MSRP of $2,578 and a curb weight of 2,758 lbs.

In Tan, Jillian Brent-Archer is intent on making McGee a permanent fixture on her 70 foot custom trimaran motor sailer. Travis is sorely tempted, but knows he’ll never be able to accept the inevitable compromises of being arm candy. He declares his independence by refusing to attend a party with Jilly:

She went clicking down the outside ladderway and clacked her way aft and off the Flush and down the dock and away into the night. I went below, turned on a few lights, built a drink, ran a thumb down the stack of tapes, picked Eydie [Gormé], and chunked her into the tape player and fixed the volume.

Eydie has comforted me many times in periods of stress. She has the effortlessness of total professionalism. She is just so damned good that people have not been able to believe she is as good as she is. She’s been handed a lot of dull material, some of it so bad that even her best hasn’t been able to bring it to life. She’s been mishandled, booked into the right places at the wrong time, the wrong places at the right time. But she can do every style and do it a little better than the people who can’t do any other. Maybe a generation from now those old discs and tapes of Eydie will be the collectors’ joy, because she does it all true, does it all with pride, does it all with heart.

So I settled back and listened to her open her throat and let go, backed by the Trio Los Panchos, Mexican love songs in flawless Mexican Spanish. She eased the little itch of remembering just how good my Irish lady had smelled, tasted, and felt.

Travis’ beloved Marantz suffers more insult in The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974) when McGee narrowly escapes being blown to bits in the lounge of the Flush. Returning from the hospital with five days permanently erased from memory, he’s shocked at the sad state of his houseboat:

I went below and checked out my stereo set. I put on the new record, Ruby Braff and George Barnes. It is nice to have one that is just out and know that it is destined to become one of the great jazz classics. I knew I had lost one speaker. I suspected I had lost more. Delicate micro-circuitry cannot take that kind of explosive compression. When the noise came out, sounding like someone gargling a throatful of crickets, I snapped it off in haste.

Back to the shop. No new components. Get the Marantz stuff fixed. I did not think I could placidly endure another gleaming salesman tell me that I had to have quadraphony sound, coming at me from all directions. I have never felt any urge to stand in the middle of a group of musicians. They belong over there, damn it, and I belong over here, listening to what they are doing over there. Music that enfolds you, coming from some undetectable set of sources, is gimmicky, unreal, and eminently forgettable.

The new record was The Ruby Braff George Barnes Quartet Plays Gershwin (1974).

In the final entry of the series, The Lonely Silver Rain (1985), McGee explains: “It had been an oddly aimless year for me.” He’s been getting things in order. The Flush is “running well”, Miss Agnes is “docile and obedient,” and he’s upgraded the hi-fi:

… I had a few thousand stashed in my bulkhead bank forward, and the only recent expense of any moment was when I pulled out all the old music equipment, the tuner, amplifier, tape deck, turntable and speakers, and replaced it all with mostly Pioneer and Sony. The state of the art had left me far behind, and last summer I kept myself busy putting the best parts of the record collection onto cassettes, and the best parts of the reel-to-reel tapes onto cassettes as well. I set up a filing system. I was like a combination accountant, librarian and music director. I kept the editing function going for sixteen hours a day, and when everything was all neatened up and labeled, I found myself so sick of the sound of music I didn’t want to hear any at all, even from a boat moored three slips away. I knew I would get back into it later, carefully. After I’d given the records and the reel-to-reel tapes away to the local jazz appreciation society, along with the equipment I’d discarded, I had twice the fidelity in half the space, very clean sound, crisp as bread sticks. And tired ears.

This reminds me of ripping my CDs into iTunes. What a drag physical media is. I’m glad to be done with it.

I suppose it goes without saying that Travis doesn’t know a thing about jazz or high-fidelity equipment that he didn’t learn from JDM.



5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Travis McGee & All That Jazz

  1. Thanks, Kevin. One of your best.

    I think, though, that modern audiophiles and vinyl fans would be horrified at McGee transferring his LPs and reel-to-reels to cassette…then getting rid of the originals. It makes me a little sick to think of it.

  2. Kevin: Just simply excellent guest blog! I remember a few of these entries but the way you made them so cohesive was just what the doctor ordered.

    As most everyone here knows, I’ve read JDM and TM, all of TM, going on the third time now.

    And I read mysteries, thrillers, etc. 80% of the time. Harry Bosch is one of my favorites. Because of Harry, Travis and a few others, I’m now listening to jazz. Maybe the contemporary writers got the jazz connection from JDM because many of today’s writer’s claim a strong connection to MacDonald’s writing…and especially TM.

    But I’ve never been a jazz fan until the past six months or so and it’s been fun for me to find exactly the kind of instruments I like and the type of jazz I enjoy. So your guest blog comes at a great time for me personally. Many thanks…and so much fun to read!

    By the way, my granddaughter has LPs…a lot of vinyl LPs. She loves the sound. I just shake my head.

  3. I remember my first readthrough of the McGee canon back in the 1970’s and coming across our hero’s love for Eydie Gormé. Both me and my future wife snickered at the reference in the finest hipper-than-thou attitudes of the era. Then in 1989 CBS Records re-released (on CD) her first album with Trio Los Panchos, AMOR, retitled EYDIE GORMÉ CANTA EN ESPAÑOL, and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try and see what Trav was going on about.’ While I knew that Eydie could sing, I wasn’t prepared for the material, which was beautiful and evocative, and the musicianship of Los Panchos was impeccable. It quickly became one of my favorite albums and contained two of the three songs Gormé performs in the video you included (the first two, “Piel Canela” and “Sabor a Mi”). It was produced in that important JDM year of 1964 and was followed up by a second Los Panchos collaboration in 1965 called MORE AMOR, and while it was good it wasn’t nearly as sublime as the original. The artists went on to make future albums together but never really captured the magic of AMOR. I have to agree with Travis: Eydie has comforted me many times… at least when she’s singing in Spanish and performing with Trio Los Panchos.

    Another excellent essay Kevin. Keep ‘em coming.

  4. Too bad about the Marantz 18…notice that it had an oscilloscope to tune the FM signal.
    I-Tunes data compression ruins it for me…

    • Hi Steve –

      I think a lossless codec like Apple Lossless might be what you want to use. There are others that require an iTunes plug-in.

      Thanks for reading my stuff and weighing in. I enjoy the feedback from folks.



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