City of the Big Shoulders

The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris

The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris

The Jazz Palace

by Mary Morris

Review by Christopher R. Craddock

The themes of The Jazz Palace are the rise of Jazz in the early part of the 20th Century, prohibition, and the resulting bootleggers, gangsters and corruption, and how Chicago, Hog Butcher to the World, the City of the Big Shoulders, was the crucible where a lot of the important changes in the music took place. The city of Chicago itself is one of the novel’s major characters. The reader is treated to numerous descriptions of the environs of Chicago–from State Street, that great street, to the Great Lakes.

“It was a hot July morning and the green river stank.” That’s the first line. The Indian word for the river that smelled of garlic was Chicagoua. The opening scene describes the tragic sinking of The Eastland. President Woodrow Wilson decreed that there must be adequate life boats for all passengers, not wanting another Titanic; so they were added to the Eastlander. The vessel was extremely top heavy. Unintended consequence: the boat capsized; drowning almost a thousand. The book starts with a catastrophe, and it is all downhill from there. But seriously, it did remind me of An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser–its so-called realistic prose being quite wooden and clunky.

The Jazz Palace is well researched and paints a vivid picture of Chicago, Chicago, that topplin’ town. There’s a mixture of historical facts, and actual people with fictional characters–with mixed results. Sometimes fact and fiction are woven into a rich tapestry where one supports the other, but sometimes it is more of a shotgun marriage. For instance, when Benny, the Jazz pianist protagonist, makes love to a woman there is an abrupt segue to the case of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold who kidnapped and killed Bobby Franks, a child, chosen at random, with a chisel. “Illicit love was everywhere,” Morris actually writes, on page 176. Smooth transition–NOT!. She then quotes Clarence Darrow’s defense of the indefensible Loeb and Leopold as if it could apply to Benny as well, but generously allows that at least he hadn’t murdered anyone.

Among the mostly ‘on key’ notes struck, there were a few clams, such as the name chosen for the Black trumpet player, Napoleon Hill. Napoleon Hill is also the name of the author of Think and Grow Rich, a very well-known book on the philosophy of prosperity that is still widely read today. You’d think that with all of the research Mary Morris did she or some of her consultants or editors would have caught this. Google the name, how about? If you are married to the name, Napoleon, you could at least change the last name to something else, Mary. Like Napoleon Solo. Wait. That’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. How about Bonaparte? That has a nice ring to it.

I really enjoyed when Morris delved into the depths of the music. Benny for instance not only had perfect pitch, he also experienced seeing sound as colors, a phenomenon known as synesthesia. Benny’s piano teacher, Mr. Marcopolis tells him about the Kabbalah and the works of Abraham Abulafia. He says that the improvisation of Jazz is akin to Hokhmah ha-Tseruf, the Science of the Combination of the Letters. He tells him that the entire universe comes from a musical vibration, and that perfect order is expressed in music. Benny doesn’t seem to get what Mr. Marcopolis is driving at, but nevertheless, Benny follows his quest to play jazz, as if it were his religion.

The vivid descriptions of Chicago, The Jazz Age, and the music carried me along, but there were some questionable choices about the characters that dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. Also in the enthusiasm dampening department, the Great Depression comes along, and the Jazz Age ends not with a bang, but a whimper. Not saying I wanted some kind of sappy Hollywood ending, but maybe a little ray of Hope? The ending is kind of a downer, but we know that the music was just getting started. The Golden Age of the Great American Songbook was just around the corner, and Jazz’s best years were ahead, not behind. As Sinatra would sing, “The Best is Yet To Come.”

All in all, I enjoyed the story of Benny “Moon Jelly” Lehrman, Napoleon “Black Butterfly” Hill, the “gem” sisters: Ruby, Pearl, and Opal, and their swinging nightclub, where the piano was always in tune: The Jazz Palace.

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