Jazz fanatics have no peers in the world of aficionados. They search out their idols on the wrong side of town, in smoky urban cellars, in forgotten record bins, in festivals halfway across the world. One thinks of the German lieutenant who disturbed the negotiations for surrender of his troops at Saint-Nazaire by inquiring of the victors whether anyone collected Benny Goodman records. Even Hemingway's matador mania must seem a casual whim to the collector who lives for the rasp of Satchmo's scatting on an old 78.

Patrick Skene Catling, who boasts on the book jacket of having been hugged by Billie Holiday, is just such a devotee. His new novel, "Jazz Jazz Jazz," is the ultimate jazz fan's fantasy. It rubs shoulders with the early giants of jazz as they make their way upriver from the bordellos and brass bands of New Orleans to the big-band clubs of Chicago and New York and eventually to the respectability of the White House lawn.

Catling has created two fictional musicians, one white and one black, to tell the story of jazz in the good old days before synthesizers and free music. Alan Poindexter, the restless, insecure son of a snobbish New Orleans cotton broker, learns conventional piano techniques from a respectable Garden District conservatory, but prefers the improvisation he has picked up from street-corner spasm bands and from the ceremonious brass bands that enliven the parties and funerals of the city's black residents.

Moses Decatur, the adopted son of the Poindexters' cook and butler, is banished from the Poindexter household after an episode of petty theft and becomes an inmate of the Colored Waifs' Home, where Louis Armstrong has become the star of the house band. Poindexter, who runs away from military school and shortens his name to Al Dexter, becomes resident pianist at the grandest whorehouse in Storyville, while Decatur, who learns the horn from Armstrong, plays in a French Quarter honky-tonk.

Both men take the epic steamboat ride upriver, Dexter to entertain gangsters at a Chicago speakeasy, Decatur to join Armstrong and King Oliver in New York. Decatur finds a comfortable sinecure on Long Island, but Dexter begins that long slow slide into dissipation and obscurity that has made martyrs of so many jazz heroes. Dexter becomes the archetypal jazz outcast, hanging around New York be-bop clubs like a hip specter, shooting smack in a dingy third-floor walk-up.

Only when his friend Decatur comes to the rescue does Dexter pull out of his self-destructive nose dive and go on to lead a famous big band in Washington. Like the grand old men of jazz who manage to survive long enough to become living legends, Dexter and Decatur meet the president of the United States and become goodwill ambassadors to the Third World. Richard Nixon tells Dexter that he and Pat love to dance to his records: "Real smoochy music," he quips.

Although real people collide with fictional characters in "Jazz Jazz Jazz," and the central figure is an alienated jazz pianist, Catling cannot do for jazz what E.L. Doctorow did for ragtime. The music of the novel does not offer a counterpoint to the rhythms of an age, but simply reduces musical history into snippets, like a four-album set issued by the Smithsonian.

Al Dexter appears to be a composite character based on Bix Beiderbecke, who was expelled from a military academy and played on riverboats before taking big-band jobs in Chicago, and Kid Ross, the only white piano player known to have played in Storyville. But eventually he seems a mere cardboard cutout in a big jigsaw puzzle of jazz styles.

The narrative voice of "Jazz Jazz Jazz" has the curiously stilted, leering quality of the academic who tries to slum it: "Stately, plump Louis Armstrong . . . weighed two hundred and twenty-six pounds, representing a lot of chitlins and turnip greens. . . . The amply cushioned protuberances of his lips facilitated the arrangement of a jutting embouchure that readily fitted beer mugs, brass musical instruments and other mouths." The characters in the novel talk as a naive jazz fan would have them talk. They talk a little sex and a lot of music. They talk about jam sessions, about musical freedom and sincerity, about great gigs of the past.

Al Dexter counts musicians instead of sheep in order to fall asleep. But the soporific litany of famous names that comes at the end of the book is a strange catalogue. It includes crowd-pleaser Pete Fountain and jolly amateur Allan Jaffe but omits Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy, among others. Catling's heavenly Preservation Hall would be another fan's jar of moldy-fig preserves.