Part historical novel, part mystery, and The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris is filled with cultural heritage. Morris writes how poverty, race relations, romance, immigrants, migrants, and gangsters shaped the city of Chicago and the experience of those struggling “outsiders” in the face of the day-to-day triumphs and tribulations of the Jazz Age. 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 S.S. Eastland in 1915, when 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: jazz music, 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 befriends a black trumpeter, Napoleon, who bears a strong resemblance to Louis Armstrong.
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 and music lover Al Capone: “The Stroll is a big plantation. The musicians had their jazz slave masters, just like in the old days.”
The Jazz Palace brings to life the jazz era of the 1920s, bringing readers into 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 that will hold them in suspense over what will happen to the characters with the music playing in the background as the action ratchets up like a jazz crescendo, ending with a triumphant climax.