Jazz, gangsters and booze in a novel of 1920s Chicago

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2

  • images-2The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris (Nan A. Talese – Doubleday, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Chicago in its strength and grit comes to life in this jazz age novel. Figures such as Al Capone and Louis Armstrong add an authentic flavor to the story. If the development of jazz speaks to you, this is your book.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Chicago
  • Time: 1915-1927

There is nothing like a real life disaster to capture attention. On the shore of the Chicago River, author Mary Morris introduces two families touched by tragedy in 1915.  That summer the S.S. Eastland, an excursion boat chartered to provide factory workers an outing, tipped over, drowning 844 people, about a third of those on board.

Benny Lehrman was out delivering caps from his father’s factory when he came upon the disaster. Guilty over the loss of his youngest brother during a snowstorm, Benny jumped in to try to save others. And here his path crossed the Chimbrova family. Three of the Chimbrova brothers died, their young sisters scarred by what they witnessed and their mother destroyed by the loss.

Chicago was an industrial, cultural and social hub in 1915. It was the center of the railroads, a city of factories with immigrants jostling for jobs and housing, each group protecting its people and territory. At the same time Chicago was drawing African-American musicians from the south as part of the Great Migration. Jazz and the blues had taken root in New Orleans and Biloxi and its stars were taking the train north in search of money, fame and a safer life.

After the end of WWI, the South Side of Chicago became a honky-tonk paradise for the growing African-American community with live musicians and dancing, drinking and brothels.  The North side had a similar mix for the white community. Both were under the watchful eye and protection, at a price, of the growing gangster presence which included Al Capone.

Up from the South is Napoleon, a man as physically impressive as he is talented with the trumpet. His music is his life, fine clothes his obsession, and he pushes the envelope in pursuit of both. Despite the risks, he searches out opportunities to play across town and musicians worthy of partnership.

As the oldest child, Benny’s family rests its hopes on him. By making deliveries, rather than working in the factory he has some leeway  and can follow his beloved White Sox, mired in scandal. Convinced he has musical talent, his family sends him for him weekly classical piano lessons. Though he does play Beethoven for his mother,  Benny is consumed by jazz and dedicates his free time to writing and playing this music, leaving the lessons behind. His pursuit of this passion further alienates him from his family.

It is the Chimbrova sisters and their club, the Jazz Palace, that brings these men together and can tear them apart.

Mary Morris’s The Jazz Palace is a true period piece. She captures the excitement and the grit of Chicago as the jazz age comes in, followed shortly by Prohibition. Her characters reflect the aspirations of working class immigrants and those seeking more freedom from the discrimination of the South. The pull of Lake Michigan and the brutality of the Chicago winters play a role in the novel. All these together paint a portrait of the City of Broad Shoulders during this transformative period.

2 thoughts on “Jazz, gangsters and booze in a novel of 1920s Chicago”

  1. Well done! Your review captures the flavor and tempo of the book.
    Loved hearing the author speak about the struggle she had writing this novel. It explains some of the loose ends that she left hanging in the final published novel.

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