Mary Morris is the author of fourteen books—six novels, three collections of short stories, and four travel memoirs, including Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. Recently her short stories have appeared in such places as The Atlantic, Ploughshares, and Electric Literature. The recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature, Mary teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Her new novel, The Jazz Palace, set in Chicago during the Jazz Age, releases today from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. For more information visit her website.
Excerpt from The Jazz Palace
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
©Mary Morris 2015
The Eastland still lay on her side while a pitch-black tug with the strange name of Favorite was trying to right her. Benny sat on the dock as the sailors on the hull struggled to secure more lines. He thought about how many people in his neighborhood died when she sank in the river just a week ago. A man across the way had lost his wife and his daughter. At night Benny heard his sobs. One woman had lost all six of her children. How could a person go on after something like that?
His mother had only lost Harold. But he was the youngest and the sweetest of her boys. Benny couldn’t help but chuckle as he looked again at the tugboat’s name. Favorite. That’s what Harold was. Her favorite. It had been a knife in Benny’s heart. How Hannah doted on him. She saved for him the juicy chicken thighs, the marrow bones in the soup. The tenderest cut of brisket was never for her husband, always for Harold. And then she’d lost him, and though she’d never say it, Benny really was to blame. She had entrusted him with the boys. She cried for a year, then one day she stopped. But the headaches began, and they’d never gone away. Somehow the three boys who were left didn’t count. It made no difference when Benny said to her, “You still have me.”
“How’s it coming?” he shouted to the pilot of the tug.
“Good as can be expected,” the pilot called back with a wave. Benny lingered on the docks, then hopped the “el” that they called “the Alley” that would take him downtown. He was happiest in motion. He didn’t want to sit still. If he could, he’d just keep going. He had thoughts of getting away, heading to some of the river towns. Davenport or St. Louis. Maybe even to New Orleans. He rocked with the rhythm of the “el” as it took him down Satan’s Mile past the saloons where Mickey Finn rolled customers for their wallets and left them naked on the streets. Benny didn’t care if the South Side was dirty or dangerous. He got off at 31st Street and walked the rest of the way.
The alleyway smelled of grease and dog shit, of piss and smoldering trash. The stink of a Chicago summer got into his clothes and his hair, but Benny didn’t care. He put his ear up to the tavern door and soon the music seeped out as he knew it would. Even at this early hour someone was playing the keyboard. At first he thought it was two people. It didn’t seem possible that it was only one. Whoever was playing seemed to be hitting all the notes at once, but the right hand ran wild while the left kept a steady bass. The notes swirled in murky colors and the key kept changing. He couldn’t make sense of the chords.
He didn’t know what this new music was called or if it even had a name. He just knew he heard it when he went to those places where his mother said he didn’t belong. Often Hannah chastised his father. “You shouldn’t be sending that boy on deliveries down to the South Side. He’s too young to go there.” She had read Chicago and Its Cess-Pools of Sin. Evils awaited her son in that part of town. “Lost souls” was what she called those who went there. But Leo protested, “He’s the only one who wants to go.”
Not many of the boys would venture down to the South Side because it was rough. Sometimes they had their tips stolen, but Benny begged his father for those jobs. Leo didn’t care who did the South Side as long as it got done. He didn’t want any competition in the area of rail and stockyard workers so he gave Benny that part of town whenever he asked.
When the music stopped, the silence was slow to reach him. He stood motionless as a huge caramel-skinned man in a soaked white shirt flung open the door. His hair, the color of molasses, was cut short, making his big head look like a balloon. His eyes were molasses too. Bees must flock to him, Benny thought. The man glared at the boy who stood, gaping. “What’re you doing here, son?”
“Just listening.” Benny shook as he said it. The man gave him a smile, and a diamond stud glittered in his front tooth. “Was that you playing?” The man nodded, staring down at Benny so he thought he’d better say something more. “I was wondering, that music, what’s it called?”
“Why do you wanta know?”
Benny shrugged. “I haven’t heard anything like it before.”
“What’s it worth to you?”
Benny dug into his pockets. All he had was his carfare home. “I’ve got this.”
“Ah, forget about it.” The man gave him a grin. “It’s called jass.”
Benny stood, not moving, repeating the word. “Jass.”
“You know, son, this is the devil’s music. The demon dwells here. It’s Negro music, boy. Whorehouse stomping. Coon shouting.” The man was taunting him now. “It’s what your mama told you to stay away from. So you better do that. Now you get outta here.” And the man planted a kick in the air.
In August the White Sox bought Shoeless Joe Jackson from Cleveland for twenty-five thousand dollars. In sandlots boys were slamming line drives into left field, hoping that one day Shoeless Joe would miss one of theirs. On a hot Saturday afternoon Benny hit a grounder onto Leland Avenue. He had a good stance and a strong swing, and he whacked it out of the lot. He rounded the bases with his mother hollering from the window that he’d be late for his piano lesson. As he touched home plate, he gave her a wave and waited until she went back inside. Pocketing the money she gave him to pay his teacher, he hopped a trolley, heading south.
Once more Benny got off at the Shadows and walked along the docks. Now the black tug was gone, and so was the Eastland. The river was devoid of the tragedy as if it had never occurred. Nothing marked the spot where eight hundred and forty-four people drowned in the hull of a ship. The river flowed, greasy and dark, and Benny shuddered as he walked along Clark Street. The sounds of Tom Brown’s Ragtime Band, coming from the Lamb’s Inn, made him pause.
Inside a piano man was warming up. Benny stared at the poster of Joe Frisco, the “American Apache” as he danced “the frisco” bug-eyed with derby and cigar. At the bottom of the poster Benny saw the word written for the first time. “Jass Band.” He stuck his head in as the band was setting up. “Hey, when’s the show?” he called to a waiter in a white tie and tuxedo, but the waiter shooed him away.
“Scram, kid,” the waiter chimed, slamming the door in his face. Benny waited outside, hoping the band would warm up again. When it didn’t, he took a school pencil from his pocket and crossed the “j” out of “Jass.” “Ass Band,” it read. Then he caught “The Alley” to Satan’s Mile until he stood again in the alleyway near the trashcans where a dog chewed a bone. The stink of rancid meat made him swoon. He put his ear to the door and recognized the sound.
That caramel man was pounding out a tune, and those buttery hands never missed a note. Pigeons roosted overhead. The shadows grew longer as Benny tried to see the music in his head. But the colors weren’t coming out clear. They were kind of gray, fuzzy around the edges. Everything that was jumbled up inside him was flowing through that door. He tried taking the notes apart, but nothing was making sense. This was no written-down, planned-out thing. Nobody had played like this before. Benny listened the way a sleeper listens to his own dream. He wanted more “jass.”
As he was leaning against the door, it opened, and he tumbled against the trash cans. Startled at first, the big man laughed. “You back again?” He was rolling a cigarette, licking the paper with his long pink tongue as Benny nodded. “You must be stealing,” the man said nonchalantly.
Benny looked around the alleyway. What was there to take? “Stealing? I never stole anything in my life.”
The man laughed. “Music. That’s what white kids steal.”
Benny shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
The man lit his cigarette. “So what d’you want here, boy?”
Benny tried to find the words for what he wanted, but they eluded him. “Nothing,” he replied, though he knew this wasn’t true. He did want something.
“Then why you keep showing up?” The man stared at him, but Benny held his ground.
A few minutes ago he hadn’t known what he wanted, but now he did. “I want to come inside.”
The man let out a gruff laugh, thick with smoke. “Well, be my guest.” He flashed a smile with his diamond stud and poppy seed kernels between his teeth. Making a deep bow, he let the boy pass through a haze of perfume and smoke. Billiard balls clacked in a corner while two girls with red nails and creamy red lipstick leaned against the bar. Their breasts were pushed up almost to their chins and they wore black lace stockings hooked on to a garter belt and red bows in their hair. Benny had never seen girls dressed like this before, and he looked at them more with curiosity than desire.
Honey Boy Bailey crossed the room, his buttocks shaking like Jell-O. “Hey, Honey,” one of the girls called, “You gonna let that doughboy sit in with you?”
“He’s not white.” Honey Boy held up Benny’s tanned arm. “Look at him. He’s almost black as us. Besides this boy likes our rhythms. And you can see he’s got the heebie-jeebies so why don’t you go outside and get us some business, Velvet?”
The man pulled up a chair beside the piano. “Okay, you just sit here and watch.” He stretched out his long black fingers that moved like termites in a house on fire. He took up the whole keyboard as his pink nails flitted up and down. His hands went in different directions while his feet danced on the floor. His elbows jabbed the air as he kept the melody moving with his right hand. Benny kept his eye on the left hand as he tried to figure out the chords.
Honey Boy played his rags and the blues, but then the tunes took off on their own, and Benny had no way of following. His right hand crossed over his left and Benny couldn’t keep up. Honey Boy seemed to be using the instrument more like a drum than a piano.
His hands glided for an hour, a day; Benny had no idea how long. All he knew was that he couldn’t follow the tune by just sitting there. And that this man wasn’t called Honey Boy because of the golden brown color of his skin. He was Honey Boy because when he played, what came out of him was sweet and smooth.
When Honey Boy was finished, he looked at Benny who was concentrating very hard. “What are you thinking?”
Benny shook his head. “I’m thinking about how you do that.”
Honey Boy laughed. “Well, when you solve it, you come back and show me.” Reaching into a jar, he swallowed a handful of poppy seeds. “Jelly Roll Morton, he thinks he invented jazz. But let me tell you, I taught him a thing or two before you were born. Now you go work on that, then come back for your next lesson.” Honey Boy laughed, giving Benny a pat on the back. “And eat poppy seeds,” he said, holding up the jar. “It’s good luck. It’ll make a success out of you.”
As Benny stepped into the warm air, he was surprised at how dark it was. He tried to ignore the laughter trailing after him. They were making fun of him, but he didn’t care. He was too busy, trying to figure out what he’d just heard. He ran the music over in his head. There were two or three chords he could make sense of. The rest was a cloudy river with no bottom in sight. As he walked, his fingers worked, laying out a melody on top. He didn’t even notice that he was heading the wrong way home.
It was called the Stroll, that part of South State Street where the music lived. The Dahomey Stroll to some. A strip of flashing bulbs, all blue, red and yellow where midnight was like noon. The music was coming from there twenty-four hours a day. From the Elite and the Vendome. From the Grand and the Deluxe. It was said that if you held a trumpet in the air, it would play all by itself. They called it the Bohemia of the Colored Folks. Rome, Athens, Jerusalem and South State Street, those were the epicenters of the world.
Postal workers and delivery boys, hotel maids who cleaned toilets and men who hosed down the stockyard floor, they went home, took a shower, dressed to the nines, then headed out again. They put on their fur coats and sharkskin suits, their felt fedoras, their boas and flapper dresses and moved to the music, dancing until dawn. They paused at the dance halls and the cabarets, the thousand bars that filled one square mile, dining on hot chili, chop suey and ice cream. Then at five in the morning they went to the public baths, took a long steam, went home, slept for an hour, put on their uniforms and went back to work.
Benny ambled on. Blacks in their shiny green and purple suits, women in long white gloves and cigarette holders, sauntered by. He paused at the Dreamland Ballroom. Beneath the flashing lights bouncers in red capes swung open doors. From inside the sounds of horns and laughter rose. At the Firefly Senator Sam’s Rhythm Band from New Orleans was featured. Even from the street the fast dance tempo made him move his feet, but it was almost too fast. He wanted something slower that suited his mood. He walked around the corner at 35th until he stood beneath the flickering red light of the cock’s comb.
The Rooster wasn’t much of a spot. Nothing fancy like Dreamland or the Firefly. It was more of a sawdust joint that served ribs, but the music caught Benny’s ear as he gazed down the corridor into a smoky room with a few bare bulbs. On the door a scribbled note read “Napoleon Hill on Trumpet” and from the street he heard the melody the piano set, the rhythm of the drums, and the soft smooth rise of the trumpet, quiet as a secret, and Benny had to lean in to listen. He went around into the urine-soaked alleyway where a window was ajar, and he rested his back against the brick wall. There were no barroom distractions. No drinks being poured or voices shouting. No scraping of chairs, toilets flushing. No din he had to strain to hear above.
There was something sad in that trumpet he’d only heard in the winter wind. It sounded lonely as a boy who comes home to an empty house. A boy who’s lost his rabbit’s foot or a China blue marble. Maybe he dropped it on the street, and someone picked it up and didn’t know it was his. Or maybe they just wanted to keep it for themselves. Sad as an orphan boy, searching for his true father. But that sound wasn’t only sad. It was something else he couldn’t name. It went through him so that he didn’t know where the music stopped and his body began. As the tune picked up and grew warmer, it radiated through his bones.
Someone tapped him on the arm. “Past your bedtime, isn’t it, son?” Benny shook his head as if awakening and stared at the policeman. Why did everyone treat him as if he was a boy? He was almost sixteen, old enough to be out on his own. “What time is it, officer?”
“Time for a fellow like you to be tucked in, don’t you think?” The officer tapped his billy club against the side of the building, then pointed towards the street.
“Yes, sir.” Without bothering to ask again, because he couldn’t bear to have his father come and fish him out, Benny caught the “el” north. It was an almost empty train with two or three other people on it—night workers heading back, sleepy people who had to be at their jobs in a few hours. He collapsed into a seat as the train rumbled along. He hoped his parents were asleep and that they hadn’t noticed he was gone. He didn’t care. If he had to, he’d come up with a good lie.
The “el” clanged as it moved on its tracks. The stifling air smelled of leather and tired bodies. Benny rocked back and forth. He shut his eyes. He went to that place by the window where he’d stood, listening to the lilt of a trumpet he couldn’t see. “Let me play,” Benny said, making his pact with no one in particular. “I’ll do anything if you’ll let me play.”