Mary Morris The Jazz Palace

ISBN 13: 9781101872864

The Jazz Palace

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9781101872864: The Jazz Palace
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Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

Boomtown Chicago, 1920s—a world of gangsters, musicians, and clubs. Young Benny Lehrman, born into a Jewish hat-making family, is expected to take over his father’s business, but his true passion is piano—especially jazz. After dark, he sneaks down to the South Side to hear the bands play. 

One night he is asked to sit in with a group. His playing is first-rate. The trumpeter, a black man named Napoleon, becomes Benny’s friend and musical collaborator. They are asked to play at a saloon Napoleon has christened The Jazz Palace. But Napoleon’s main gig is at a mob establishment, which doesn’t take kindly to their musicians freelancing . As Benny and Napoleon navigate the highs and the lows of the Jazz Age, a bond is forged between them that is as memorable as it is lasting. Morris brilliantly captures the dynamic atmosphere and dazzling music of an exceptional era.

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About the Author:

Mary Morris is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels A Mother’s Love and House Arrest, as well as the travel memoir classic Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. The recipient of the Rome Prize in literature and a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, she was raised in Chicago and now lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.

www.marymorris.net

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

It was a hot July morning and the green river stank. The Onion River, the French called it. The Potawatomi named this place Chicagoua after the garlic that grew along its banks. As Benny walked to the bridge, he had to hold his nose. A light rain fell, but he didn’t care. He heard the music before he saw the big ships, and it made him pick up his pace. Pausing on the Clark Street Bridge, Benny took his time. A parcel, wrapped in brown paper, dangled from his hands. Though he was short for his age, he had a sturdy chest and arms that seemed to reach the ground. His hands were big as catcher’s mitts, and he swung his parcel to the beat.

He was late, but it was Saturday. Time to be in the vacant lot, playing ball. “Time to make deliveries,” was what his father said. Benny stared into the churning waters, which flowed west toward the Mississippi, not into Lake Michigan as nature had intended. In l900, the year he was born, engineers reversed the current to make Chicago’s drinking water safe. It was the feat of the century, sending the city’s polluted waters downriver to St. Louis. Cholera and typhoid would follow.

Thousands milled on the docks. Western Electric had invited its employees on this mandatory picnic across the lake to Michigan City. They made the receivers, amplifiers, and vacuum tubes for Bell Telephone. In the twine room they sat on benches, wrapping wires. That winter Alexander Graham Bell dialed from his phone in New York, and his assistant, Thomas Watson, answered in San Francisco. These workers had woven the cables.

They came in droves. Wives in creamy linen paraded with their husbands in Panama hats. Rows of siblings in matching dresses and suits walked hand in hand. Little girls in pigtails wore satin ribbons in their hair, and budding young women who worked on the assembly lines hung on the arms of their beaus. Grandmothers chased after toddlers, and a Hungarian man had brought all of his friends. Whiskey flasks were tucked into pockets. A sea of parasols floated by. It would require five ships to take them, and the Eastland was boarding first.

Benny marveled at the state-of-the-art steamship with its white-and-gray hull and sparkling deck. The crew in navy jackets and sailor caps dazzled him. The Eastland was outfitted with the latest in life-saving equipment. Three years before, the Titanic went down with lifeboats for fewer than half on board. Afterward Woodrow Wilson signed the Seamen’s Act. Lifeboats had to accommodate every man, woman, and child. Earlier that summer, extra rafts, weighing fourteen tons, were added to the Eastland’s upper deck. The crew knew she was top heavy. The first officer just shook his head.

Because of the rain many had gone below. Others stayed on top and danced. On the bridge above, Benny swayed to the rhythm of Bradfield’s Orchestra. The piano player was pounding out a tune on a shiny Kimball upright. Couples glided along the promenade deck. They leaped to a polka, then to a daring fox-trot, their smiles bright under broad-rimmed hats. The hats made Benny remember his errand. He glanced at the parcel in his hand. His father manufactured crisp white or heavy blue uniform caps that his sons distributed throughout the city. Every butcher and motorman in Chicago wore one of these. When he delivered to the stockyards, Benny heard the shrieks from the Bridge of Sighs. Guts and animal hair coated his shoes.

Today he had only one delivery on the North Side, then he could play ball. He’d meet up with his pal Moe. In the afternoon they’d sneak into Comiskey Park to see the White Sox wallop the Yanks. Faber was pitching and Benny wanted to be there. Now he lingered as young Bohemian and Polish men and women boarded. He shuffled his feet to the tune of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” When the orchestra switched to “The Girl I Left Behind,” Benny rocked in the morning rain. He thought about the girl who sat in front of him in history class. She had a long black braid and a Polish name. Perhaps he’d see her on one of these boats. In class he pictured himself caught up in the strands of her hair. He’d climbed into its darkness until all of history was lost to him. He envisioned her in his arms, black braid swishing across his face, her hips pressing into his.

Off the bridge a street vendor was selling sausage smothered in sauerkraut. If he had a nickel, Benny would buy one, even though it was trafe, but he didn’t. He was mad at his father for not giving him more than one-way carfare when he set out on his errands. “You’ll do a better job,” his father reasoned, “if you’re working for tips.” Benny had walked home many times from the South Side or hitched a ride on the back of a trolley, cursing his father all the way.

His mouth watered as Bohemian women passed with baskets, tucked under their arms, filled with creamy potato salad, deviled eggs, chickens that had been slow roasting for days, pickled beets, sweet-smelling breads. He was tempted to tag along so he could sample what they had. Instead he tipped his cap as the women sauntered by and men in gray jackets and starched shirts tipped their straw hats back. Benny’s hands clasped the railing, and his package swung by the string. He tapped out the music his fingers heard as he went along--not the Chopin and Beethoven his mother wanted him to play, but the tunes that were caught in his head.

He heard his own music everywhere. It was in the movement of his feet on wooden sidewalks, in the clomp of horses’ hooves, in the clatter of the “el.” He banged it out on garbage-can lids and on his desk at school. In the morning he hummed in the tub. At dinner he held the beat with a knife and fork until his father ordered him to stop. Then he played on his sheets at night as he drifted to sleep. The music that came from his hands was different from the ragtime he listened to now. He heard his music on the deliveries he made to the neighborhoods where the black people lived. It came from behind closed doors or out lonely windows where men in white undershirts played horn on summer evenings.

Before he began running deliveries for Lehrman’s Caps, Benny didn’t know much of the world beyond the neighborhood where he lived, the White Sox for whom he rooted, and the piano he played. He had seen the first cars rumble down Chicago streets and heard that airplanes could fly. He knew the Great War had begun in Europe and that Wilson was president. That spring the Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes, killing most of the passengers aboard. Anti-German sentiment spread throughout Chicago. In western suburbs dachshunds were poisoned. But his deliveries took him in a different direction, down an old fur trader’s trail called State Street by some, Satan’s Mile by most. People claimed the devil lived downtown, but Benny wanted to go to the South Side where the rail workers and meat-packers lived.

In the back alleys the city was starting to roar. Hot music, he heard it called. In February Joe “King” Oliver and his New Orleans band had caused an uproar on the South Side. They had all those horns, playing at once. Joe Oliver was a big man with a wandering eye. Behind his back the musicians called him Cockeye. But he had a sixth sense. Everything was about to change. Blacks and their music were moving north. They were building shacks along the tracks where the trains let them off.

After school Benny raced through his deliveries. Then he lingered on the smoky streets. A few nights before he’d stood at a door where a cornet played beside an out-of-tune piano. It wasn’t off by much, but it grated on his nerves. Still Benny stayed. There was something in that alleyway music he’d never heard. He couldn’t see where it was taking him. It was as if it had no rules, except for the ones it was making up. It had no beginning, no end. No one to scold him or tell him what to do. No one to be mad if he was late or his homework was due. This music just went on, the piano talking and the cornet listening, then the cornet talking back, the piano laughing as if two strangers, bent over drinks, were having a conversation into the night. Eavesdropping, Benny caught what he could.

As the ballast tanks were emptied, he was tapping out a tune. He hummed, trying to remember a refrain he’d heard. Water poured from the hull of the ship. Soon the gangplank was level with the river. Now the crowds climbed more easily aboard. The boat’s horn gave a deep, harsh honk. He dallied as any child would, waving from the bridge as if he were about to leave. The passengers rushed to starboard, raising up their children and flicking their kerchiefs in the wind. A nearby tug sounded its horn and they ran to port. Benny heard the laughter as the ship pitched beneath their weight, then back again. Shouts of good-bye rose from the crowd. They would only be gone for the day, but they acted as if this were a journey across the sea.

It was 1915. The city was safe. Except for the accidents that happened in the streets because children had nowhere else to play, there was little to fear. Doors were never locked. There were no thieves. Big Bill Thompson would soon be mayor, and George Wellington Streeter was selling home brew from a sandbar he claimed to rule as the District of Lake Michigan. Except for Sundays, liquor was legal. Gangsters, bootleggers, and pimps hadn’t begun their rule. On hot summer nights people slept on the beaches and in the parks.

Benny’s eyes caught those of a woman, standing beside him. Her hair was the color of burning leaves and her body round as a plum. She had come up on the Clark Street Bridge as he had for a better view. The woman held a girl by each hand. The youngest was pale and fragile as a porcelain doll, and at first Benny mistook her for one. The older girl was dark with olive skin and looked grown-up for her years. They were dressed in creamy linen with matching hats. “It’s a beautiful sight, isn’t it?” the woman said, turning to him.

“Yes, ma’am, it is,” Benny replied, resting his arms on the railing.

“I bet you wish you were going with.”

He nodded. “Yes, I do.”

“My boys are.” She pointed to three young men who were scampering up the gangplank as a crew member motioned for them to hurry. It was ten minutes after seven, and the gangplank was raised. The crew began turning others away and sending them over to the Theodore Roosevelt, which was ready to receive them. The young men raised their fists in victory as their mother waved back. They were the last to board.

The older girl looked up, and her brown eyes caught his. “Jonah was supposed to come, too, but he wouldn’t get up,” the girl said. She spoke as if he knew about whom she was speaking. “That’s why we’re late.”

Benny smiled, not quite listening as his fingers kept time. “Who’s Jonah?”

“He’s my deaf brother’s twin. His name is Wren.” Her eyes scanned the water as she pointed to the boat. “Four of my brothers work for the company, but only Robin, Wren and Jay are going. Not Jonah. He overslept.”

“You have a lot of brothers,” Benny replied. She looked warm in her high-collar dress with the cinched waist. She kept tugging at the neck. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead and on the forehead of the little blond girl as well as they clasped the railing, looking down.

“They’re named after birds,” the girl said, waving to her brothers on the deck. “We’re named after gems.” She pointed to the blond child who held her mother’s hand.

“Pearl, leave the young man alone. Is she bothering you?” the mother asked.

“Oh, no,” Benny said. “Not at all.” He was just talking, not really paying her much heed.

The dark-haired girl spoke rapidly as if she could never get a word in. “Jonah wouldn’t get out of bed. I tried to wake him, but he wouldn’t budge.”

“Well, he must have been very tired,” Benny said, amused by her chatter. “I wouldn’t get up if I didn’t have to. Why don’t you join them?” He pointed to the boats, five of them now, ready to sail.

“Oh, I can’t. It’s my birthday,” the girl went on, her voice filled with anticipation. She gestured to her mother and her golden-haired sister. “We’re going to Buffalo’s for ice cream.”

Raising his face to the wind, Benny kept his eyes ahead. He was worried that the Sox game would be called off because of the rain. The wetness glazed his cheeks. He was glad to be standing there with the ship before him and the music pouring from its deck. He decided to humor the girl. “I bet you’ll have strawberry,” he said.

Her eyes widened. “How did you know?”

He smiled, shaking his head, not looking her way. “Oh, you seem like a strawberry kind of girl.” The horn sounded three long honks as the ship’s lines were released.

The girl blew kisses to her brothers as they vanished below. She kept waving long after they were gone. She turned to Benny once more. “They’ll have a wonderful time.”

“I’m sure they will,” he replied.

Suddenly the mother pointed. “Look,” she said, “there’s Wren.” They followed her finger to the promenade deck where the deaf boy, dressed in a snappy blue jacket and beige linen pants, signaled with the flapping motions of his arms. He fanned his face at the wet, warm air. He walked in circles, doing an imitation of Charlie Chaplin who was in Chicago that summer, making a movie about a vagabond who falls in love with a farmer’s daughter.

In the midst of the dancing passengers Wren performed a jig. He waltzed with an invisible partner, twirling her with one hand. Dipping toward the floor, he put his hands on the deck to feel the beat. He teetered back and forth like a balance, and his mother and the girls laughed. He made a clown face and they laughed some more. Then he stopped and frowned. He sniffed the air like a hunting dog. Looking up at his mother, the boy shook his head. He held his empty palms up to the sky. Then raced toward the stairwell to warn his brothers. “Something is wrong,” his mother said as he disappeared below.

The ship was unmoored. It listed to starboard, then over to port. Dancers glided from side to side. Passengers braced themselves, clasping their hats to their heads. On the wharves a watchman shouted to a crew member, "You’re leaning." A deep, harsh horn sounded again as the boat pitched. Nervous laughter rose. Deckhands noticed the sway beneath their feet, the little skips they had to do to keep from falling.

The chief engineer ordered the refilling of the ballast tanks. In the hull salt and pepper shakers rolled off tables. A cabinet toppled over, and beer bottles crashed to the floor. A player piano in the dance hall smashed into the wall. Two crew members looked at each other, then scrambled topside. The music stopped. Dancers paused in mid-step, waiting for it to begin again. On deck laughter ceased. A strange silence hung in the air. All Benny could hear was water slapping the hull.

He was still waving when the Eastland, just feet from the wharf, tilted ever so slightly, and then more, until the ship pitched under the weight of its lifeboats. It made a gurgling sound as if someone had pulled an enormous plug. Benny’s hand froze in midair as the ship turned on her side and sank in twenty feet of water onto the river’s bottom. Sheet music flew like aquatic birds. Musicians clung to the railing. A bass fiddle careened into the river, taking an infant in its wake. Mothers clutched children as they toppled over the side. Men were hurtled off the deck like torpedoes. Below passengers were tossed right, then left, from one end of the hull to the other. They raced for stairwells, men shoving women and children aside as the water rushed down upon them.

The screams did not resemble any Benny had ever heard. His mouth was open, his arms raised as if he ...

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Book Description Anchor Books, 2016. Paperback. Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Boomtown Chicago, 1920s--a world of gangsters, musicians, and clubs. Young Benny Lehrman, born into a Jewish hat-making family, is expected to take over his father s business, but his true passion is piano--especially jazz. After dark, he sneaks down to the South Side to hear the bands play. One night he is asked to sit in with a group. His playing is first-rate. The trumpeter, a black man named Napoleon, becomes Benny s friend and musical collaborator. They are asked to play at a saloon Napoleon has christened The Jazz Palace. But Napoleon s main gig is at a mob establishment, which doesn t take kindly to their musicians freelancing . As Benny and Napoleon navigate the highs and the lows of the Jazz Age, a bond is forged between them that is as memorable as it is lasting. Morris brilliantly captures the dynamic atmosphere and dazzling music of an exceptional era. Seller Inventory # AAS9781101872864

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Book Description Anchor Books, 2016. Paperback. Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Boomtown Chicago, 1920s--a world of gangsters, musicians, and clubs. Young Benny Lehrman, born into a Jewish hat-making family, is expected to take over his father s business, but his true passion is piano--especially jazz. After dark, he sneaks down to the South Side to hear the bands play. One night he is asked to sit in with a group. His playing is first-rate. The trumpeter, a black man named Napoleon, becomes Benny s friend and musical collaborator. They are asked to play at a saloon Napoleon has christened The Jazz Palace. But Napoleon s main gig is at a mob establishment, which doesn t take kindly to their musicians freelancing . As Benny and Napoleon navigate the highs and the lows of the Jazz Age, a bond is forged between them that is as memorable as it is lasting. Morris brilliantly captures the dynamic atmosphere and dazzling music of an exceptional era. Seller Inventory # AAS9781101872864

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