“The Jazz Palace” by Mary Morris is part historical novel, part mystery, and is filled with cultural heritage. She writes how poverty, race relations, romance, immigrants, migrants, and gangsters shaped the city of Chicago. The mystery comes into play as readers wonder what will happen to those struggling “outsiders” as they face triumphs and tribulations. Although the primary story is fictional the many historical details and characters add to the plot’s authenticity.
The novel opens with the sinking of the SS Eastland in 1915 where hundreds drowned in a capsized Lake Michigan ferry. Through this tragedy the author introduces two of the main characters, Benny Lehrman and Pearl Chimbrova. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent there are three main protagonists with a major supporting character, the music of jazz, which is inseparable from the character’s lives.
Benny is a Jewish teenager growing up on the North side of Chicago in the early twentieth century. His father wants him to participate in the family business of making hats, but Benny’s real passion is playing piano, especially jazz. At night he sneaks down to the South Side, slipping into predominantly black clubs to hear jazz groups play, until one night when he plays an improvisational piece. It is here that he is befriended by a black trumpeter, Napoleon, who resembles the famous Louis Armstrong.
“During that era in Chicago there were migration, immigration, Anti-Semitism, and racism,” Morris said. “Jews and blacks have felt a certain connection. Louis Armstrong wore a Jewish star around his neck. He talked about a Jewish family giving him the money to buy his first instrument.”
Napoleon Hill brings together Benny and Pearl. She runs a saloon, offering drinks and jazz to its customers. Recognizing the talents of Benny and Napoleon, she invites them to start playing at her family’s saloon, which Napoleon dubs “The Jazz Palace.” But, Napoleon must contend with mob bosses who see him as their property, including the real life gangster Al Capone, a lover of the music. A powerful quote in the book emphasizes this point, “The Stroll (the center of urban black entertainment) is a big plantation. The musicians had their jazz slave masters, just like in the old days.”
She noted, “Nothing was better for live music in Chicago than prohibition. Al Capone said people want booze and music so that is what I am giving them. Even though alcohol was illegal throughout the US, in Chicago it was a thriving business. It was like a toxic soup that fed into the music. People would go from club to club to drink, dance, and hang out. But, the gangsters owned the musicians. They were not free to go from place to place, and were at risk if they tried to play at a different club. Blacks were exploited, but in subtle ways. If they tried to leave they faced horrific cruelty.”
Readers are spell bound as they wonder what will happen to the characters while they can picture the music playing in the background. The action ratchets up like a jazz crescendo with the ending a triumphant climax. As Morris wrote about Benny, “He was inside a globe like a paperweight and around him the music swirled, shaking, and what had been outside was inside of him now.” (http://bit.ly/1ugLZd1)
“The Jazz Palace” brings to life the jazz era of the 1920s. Readers will feel they are actually in the saloons with Al Capone, Louis Armstrong, and those who ignored the prohibition laws. They will be transported to another place and time with the well-developed characters, historical plot, and mysterious story.