by Elise Cooper
The Jazz Palace brings the 1920s to life, entering Prohibition-era saloons with Al Capone, Louis Armstrong, and other the well-developed characters in a spellbinding story of poverty, race relations, romance, immigrants, migrants, and gangsters of Jazz Age Chicago.
Elise Cooper: What inspired the story behind The Jazz Palace?
Mary Morris: I spent twelve years writing this story, because it festered in me for a very long time. It grew out of an attempt to understand my dad, who was born in 1902 and lived through the subsequent 103 years. The Jazz Palace was by no means his story, but as an amateur musician who played piano, my father’s influence is in this novel. Since I left Chicago when I was eighteen and never came back, this is my way of heading back home.
EC: How and why did you bring Jewish cultural heritage into the novel?
MM: A lot of my personal journey is to regain my Jewish heritage. It was my way of understanding my past and history, since I am “100% Jewish.” My parents named me Mary because they did not want my name to be recognizable Jewish, and gave me a minimal Jewish upbringing.
EC: How did you relate this Jewish heritage to the black American experience of the 1920s?
MM: During that era in Chicago there was migration, immigration, antisemitism, and racism, and at the time Jewish and black Americans felt a certain connection. Louis Armstrong,for example, wore a Jewish star around his neck; he talked about a Jewish family giving him the money to buy his first instrument.
EC: What about the concurrence of the Jazz Age and Prohibition?
MM: Nothing was better for live music in Chicago than Prohibition. As Al Capone said, “People want booze and music, so that is what I am giving them.” Even though alcohol was illegal throughout the United States, 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.
EC: Why does The Jazz Palace compare the experience of black musicians in the 1920s to living on a plantation?
MM: 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—and if they tried to leave they faced horrific cruelty.
EC: How did you manage to describe the events of the story through music?
MM: When I described the boat accident, for example, words became the notes. It was like a song I was playing, since the sinking of the Eastland set all the other stories in motion: Benny meets Pearl, he is driven to go to the South Side of Chicago, and it historically happened just before the Jazz Age began.
MM: Remember both are deeply misunderstood by their parents, and feel like outsiders. They also both carry emotional wounds that need to be healed. Pearl finds her solace when she goes to the water, and Benny finds it with his music. They both lose themselves for a time and find peace.
EC: What do you hope readers will get out of the book?
MM: I want them to enjoy the story, the characters, and the music. People should learn that there were hundreds of clubs on the South Side of Chicago within one square mile. Chicago was the epicenter of live music until the recordings, the Depression, the repeal of Prohibition policies, and jukebox players helped to end the Jazz era. This book is an attempt to bring back that culture that has been lost.
Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and interviews for many different outlets, including the Military Press.
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