The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris

The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris

Series: stand alone
Genre: drama, fiction, historical fiction
Published: January 1st 2015Available: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Rating: 2.5/5
Author’s website:

“She listened as if she’d waited her whole life for someone to play this song for her. This was no hand-me-down. Nobody else had this first. It was all hers and she wrapped herself in it like a blanket where she’d find her rest.”



Acclaimed author Mary Morris returns to her Chicago roots in this sweeping novel that brilliantly captures the dynamic atmosphere and the dazzling music of the Jazz Age.

In the midst of boomtown Chicago, two Jewish families have suffered terrible blows. The Lehrmans, who run a small hat factory, lost their beloved son Harold in a blizzard. The Chimbrovas, who run a saloon, lost three of their boys on the SS Eastland when it sank in 1915. Each family holds out hope that one of their remaining children will rise to carry on the family business. But Benny Lehrman has no interest in making hats. His true passion is piano—especially jazz.

At night he sneaks down to the South Side, slipping into predominantly black clubs to hear jazz groups play. Along the way he meets a black trumpeter, a man named Napoleon who becomes Benny’s close friend and musical collaborator. Their adventures together take Benny far from the life he knew as a delivery boy. Pearl Chimbrova recognizes their talent and invites them to start playing at her family’s saloon, which Napoleon dubs The Jazz Palace. Even as the novel charts the story of its characters, it also tells the tale of the city where they live. It is a world of gangsters, musicians, and clubs, in which black musicians are no freer than they were before the Civil War, white youths head down to the South Side to “slum,” and Al Capone and Louis Armstrong become legends. As The Jazz Palace steams through the 1920s, Benny, Pearl, and Napoleon forge a bond that is as memorable as it is lasting. 


Personal notes

I found this book through a booksale and gripped my attention. Historical fiction and music (altough jazz is not exactly up my alley, but whatever) sold it to me on the spot. I had really high hopes for it, and it failed to deliver. Historical fictions lately tend to do that. I don’t know if it’s me or the genre or I just have bad luck picking books. Oh well, I won’t give up, my beloved history won’t refuse giving me some joy for long, I swear.

I’ve read The Jazz Palace in early April, so it’s been a few weeks, but I’ll somehow manage to write up a review 😉



The Jazz Palace is a saloon opened by the jewish Chimbrova family in Chicago in the 20’s and is run by 4 siblings. This is the place where white man gather to drink and to listen to music. And this is the place, where Napoleon, a black jazz musician comes to play every monday against all rules. He also brings with himself Benny Lehrmann, son of a jewish business owner, who has no interest in taking over from his dad and spends most of his time wandering the south side of the city, where black people live and entertain everyone who comes over. Benny has a good ear for music and picks up jazz pretty quickly and starts jamming. Together with Napoleon they mesmerize the audience. Benny enjoys life as a famous musician and charms the Chimbrova girls. But life is not all about rainbows and unicorns so Benny and the others faces tragedies, death, poverty, the rise of the gangsters and learn the hard way how unfair the world can be.

Morris’ writing is OK, nothing exceptional, but not so bad either, and she had some nice lines I highlighted (look at the line above for example). She was able to give it back the atmosphere of the pretty wide period of time this story is set in: the end of WWI, the ban of alcohol, the rise of the gangsters (Al Capone above all), the beginning of the Great Depression. The story focuses on the lifes of the main characters and actual historical events are only mentioned marginally. Al Capone himself appears twice, but his appearance doesn’t add anything to the story. Sure, he has a great influence on one of the characters, but that’s all. What this book missing is some depth, I wanted to read more about the era, to better understand the characters, what drove them, how it really affected their life. Instead we get a lot of brooding, and miserabe characters with whom the reader couldn’t really connect. Sure, their pain and suffering and all that are understandable, they all led a hard life. But it’s hard to really feel sorry for them.

And then there were passages totally irrelevant to the story. Felt like they were just thrown in without any purpose so the pages would be filled. They didn’t really add to the atmosphere either. If she really wanted to create a rich, vivid, full of life kind of book, she should have written more about the gangsters, how the saloons and clubs really worked, what they had to do to stay alive. Some more added general history would have made The Jazz Palace a much more interesting book. I have to hand it to Morris though that she gives a good description of how life were for black people at the time and what it meant for white and black people to make friendships or any kind of relationship really. Benny and Napoleon set a new standard and showed to Chicago what they can accomplish on their own and together, stereotypes be damned.

This book is recommended for those who’d like to get a glimpse into the history of Chicago, into the birth of jazz and what effect it has on a handful of lives and don’t mind getting thrown off balance with the sudden change of POV or timeline ocassionally. The Jazz Palace while an easy read in terms of style and writing, it is full of tragedy with some light moments here and there. Overall, if not an exactly enjoyable read, but one which will make you wonder about life and music and the choices we make in our lifes. And in the end, that can count as an accomplishment in itself.