Published by Nan A. Talese
Publication date: April 7th 2015
The Jazz Palace begins with a tragedy, the sinking of the SS Eastland while it was still tied to the dock in the Chicago River. The boat was full of workers for a local company headed out for a day of picnicking when the top heavy ship rolled over on it’s side trapping and killing 844 people. In this way author Mary Morris introduces us to Chicago in the early 1900s and sets the stage for a novel that is a love letter to her hometown. There are two people standing at a nearby bridge watching all the chaos: Benny Lehrman, a 15-year-old running errands, and Pearl Chimbrova, who is celebrating her seventh birthday that day. As the tragedy unfolds before them they have no way of knowing their lives are irretrievably linked.
Pearl and Benny are just two of the characters Morris nurtures in The Jazz Palace. With skill, love and prose that pulsates with the same energy found in the Jazz Age Morris assembles a cast that is the lifeblood of that era. For each, Chicago in the 1920s is not a time of fountain jumping, wealth, wild parties, and flappers. Instead, her characters are the ones who make such madcap gaiety possible. They run the bars and play the music even when Prohibition tries to shut them down and a club system shackles black musicians into contracts-for-life where playing at another club will get you beaten or killed. In the midst of this is Benny who wants only to play the piano with the best-of-the-best black musicians but is turned away by both sides and so lives in fear of losing his gift.
The music had come so easily to him. He feared it would leave in the same way. By stealth. In the night. He’d wake up and find it gone…He couldn’t explain this to anyone. How dead he felt, how ordinary he was when he wasn’t playing or thinking about playing or composing a tune or tapping out what was in his head.
Pearl and her brothers try and keep their family’s saloon open by hiding it behind their candy store and turning it into a home for the best bands, calling it The Jazz Palace, but she is haunted by the sight of so much death and despair in her family and now their future rests on her young shoulders.
Against the background of the syncopated rhythms of jazz Morris blends her fictional characters with some of Chicago’s notable citizens like Al Capone, Louis Armstrong and Joe “King” Oliver. But for all the exuberance of the music there are the low and slow notes her multi-faceted characters play as life and dreams pass by, mistakes are made, and tragedy strikes. Morris doesn’t shy away from the pain and by presenting both her beloved Chicago and the Jazz Age with a piercing clarity she makes The Jazz Palace a reading experience that is not to be missed.