Award-winning author Mary Morris’ The Jazz Palace was in the works for almost twenty years while she went on to write a number of novels and non-fiction books. It is an ode to Chicago, a city she may have left a long time ago but one that holds a special place in her heart – and it shows. It’s also the story of two families and a story about African Americans fleeing the turbulent South who brought their own special heart-felt music that became known as jazz to Chicago, creating the Jazz Age. If you like historical novels, you’ll want to learn more about this one.
“I want to thank my hometown of Chicago for its richness of history, stories, and its wild cast of characters.” The Jazz Palace, Acknowledgements.
Benny Lehrman carries guilt and sorrow in his heart for the loss of a small brother – a brother for whom he was responsible – a brother named Harold who he lost during a blinding snow storm on the way to school. He also carries guilt and sorrow for how that terrible loss changed his entire family. Maybe that’s why he did what he did years later.
On a warm summer day in 1915, employees of a Chicago company, Western Electric, were headed out to an island in the lake for a company picnic and celebration. Benny was one of the people watching them board the SS Eastland. Also watching very near him was Pearl Chimbrovos, along with other members of the Chimbrovos family, while her brothers boarded the SS Eastland for a day of fun. Pearl was envious of the happy party goers, and, even though they were strangers, she chattered away to Benny while they stood side-by-side watching the partygoers board. And then the unthinkable happened. As the boat pulled away from the dock, it became unbalanced and sank right before her eyes with everyone on board trapped.
“Then he [Pearl’s brother Wren] stopped [dancing] and frowned. He sniffed the air like a hunting dog. Looking up at his mother, the boy shook his head. He held his empty palms up to the sky. Then raced towards the stairwell to warn his brothers.
‘Something is wrong,’ his mother said as he disappeared below.
The ship was unmoored. It listed to starboard, then over to port…On the wharves a watchman shouted to a crew member, ‘You’re leaning.’”
“All Benny could hear was water slapping the hull.
He was still waving when the Eastland, just feet from the wharf, tilted ever so slightly, and then more, until the ship pitched under the weight of its lifeboats. It made a gurgling sound as if someone had pulled an enormous plug. Benny’s hand froze in midair as the ship turned on her side and sank in twenty feet of water onto the river’s bottom…”
“As Benny raced to the dock, his eyes met those of the woman who’d stood on the bridge beside him. Her mouth was opened wide as a continuous shriek came from somewhere deeper inside of her than the water in which the Eastland sank…The woman seemed to be drowning as if one could drown not only from water but from air as well.”
Without any conscious thought, Benny dove into the water to try to rescue anyone who might be alive. It was pointless but he didn’t know it. He felt like a failure that he couldn’t save any of the passengers and horrified by what he saw in the water. Pearl and her family were devastated and in deep shock. They had seen all of their sons who worked for that company die before their eyes while they stood by helplessly, all except one who had stayed at home because he felt sick. But one thing Pearl did take away in her grief was the amazing bravery of the boy who dove into the water to try to save passengers with no thought of his own safety.
Maybe it was because of his sorrow that Benny was drawn like a magnet to the South Side of Chicago, an area where he was forbidden to go. Benny had always loved music and played the piano by ear, even though his mother insisted that he take lessons to learn to play classical pieces. Classical was not Benny’s taste at all. What he loved were the sounds coming from the jive joints on the South Side. In fact, the whole city played music as he moved through it. All you had to do was listen.
“There was something in that alleyway music he’d [Benny had] never heard. He couldn’t see where it was taking him. It was as if it had no rules, except for the ones it was making up. It had no beginning, no end. No one to scold him or tell him what to do. No one to be mad if he was late or his homework was due. This music just went on, the piano talking and the cornet listening, then the cornet talking back, the piano laughing as if two strangers, bent over drinks, were having a conversation into the night.”
At first Benny just stood outside the South Side clubs and listened in fascination until he was run off. Then he got braver and began talking bouncers into letting him into the clubs to listen to the African American musicians play jazz. The musicians noticed how often he showed up, so it wasn’t long after that when he was asked to join in – mostly as a joke because in their experience no white boy could ever hope to match their style. To their amazement, he was good – damn good. He actually seemed to understand the pain and sorrow that flowed beneath the notes and he had an ear for improvisation. This boy’s feelings ran deep.
Napoleon, a horn player who’d escaped some bad stuff in New Orleans and run to Chicago, was particularly impressed with Benny’s abilities and intrigued by what was behind this Jewish white boy’s ability to understand the pathos that lay beneath jazz and the blues. It wasn’t long before they became friends and musical kindred spirits. When they played together, it was magical. Napoleon had been playing at Pearl Chimbrovo’s speakeasy/saloon and one night in the 1920’s he took Benny with him. Although Pearl thought Benny looked familiar, she couldn’t think why or how she might know him. What she did recognize was his amazing talent and the synergy he and Napoleon created on stage. Napoleon decided to christen Pearl’s bar The Jazz Palace and it stuck.
Unfortunately, Napoleon is a musician owned by the mob and they aren’t pleased that he’s freelancing at a speakeasy they don’t own. Now we all know what could happen to people with whom the mob became displeased for whatever reason. It might seem a foregone conclusion that Napoleon will end up fitted with a pair of concrete shoes but will he? Will the world lose a formidable talent just because Al Capone gets ticked off? And what will Benny do if the mob gets upset with Napoleon? Will he get into the middle of it and end up dead or maimed too? And will Pearl ever realize how she knows Benny? If so, how will she react?
Benny is a fish out of water in his family of hard working factory owners. His father’s plan for Benny to take over the factory one day is the last thing Benny wants. Benny’s guilt and sorrow seems to drive him almost as much as his passion for music. Pearl is never the same after seeing her brothers die. She is the practical one in the family and is terrified of water – no surprise there. But inside she’s a different person, a passionate person trapped in a fearful shell. Napoleon loves music above all else in life, and just wants to find a place where he can play his beloved horn without fearing for his life for as long as his lips will last. I haven’t said anything about Pearl’s sisters and other brothers, or about other members of Benny’s family; however, all figure prominently in this uniquely Chicago story. I also haven’t said anything about Al Capone, except for a hint to let you know he’s involved in this tale as well – and you know life is going to get interesting if Capone is around.
Mary Morris has written a saga that’s actually a gritty, beautiful love letter to Chicago, showcased during its golden Jazz Age. I had no idea what to expect when I picked it up but it didn’t take long for me to get completely entranced by these people’s lives, loves, and losses, and by a city in the midst of a musical renaissance. My parents both loved jazz and instilled that love in me, so it’s probably no wonder that I was spellbound while I read about how jazz came to Chicago and from there to the whole world. If you like historical novels and/or jazz, I think you’ll love this one every bit as much as I did.
I found a playlist for The Jazz Palace on the author’s web site and thought you might like to hear it…
Can’t wait to read it?
The Jazz Palace was published on April 7, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks).
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