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By Mary Morris (writing)

Jazz Palace

As a girl my head was full of stories. Stories of how my great-grandmother, Anna, raised twenty-two children, only nine of whom were her own. Of how my grandmother, Lena, and her family fled the Cossacks and her mother buried her ten children in little graves when the Cossacks rode through. And then there were stories on my father’s side. My mysterious grandfather and his secret family. The story of how my husband and I came to own our marital bed. All these long, convoluted tales that grew and festered in my mind.


In 1997 I began to write them down. It was at this time that I was at a party and found myself talking with Salman Rushdie. Over dinner Rushdie, referring to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, said that Marquez has prepared his entire life to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. That statement resonated for me. Marquez was an enormous influence in my work. Not that I can compare my work or this novel to his, but I did feel as if I had been preparing my entire life to write what has become The Jazz Palace.

At that time I wrote a brief personal essay— the origin story of my bed. It began with my father being told one morning when he was almost twenty that he had to go to the train with his brothers and pick up his sister. And my father replied, “I don’t have a sister.” But in fact he did. My grandmother had had a dream that one of her sons met his sister by accident and committed incest with her. So the sister came to Chicago. There was no incest but there was bankruptcy and deceits and a falling out that lasted for decades until my mother walked into an antique shop on Oak Street in Chicago and met a man who looked just like her husband. The antique dealer was the son of the sister with whom everyone had fallen out. Years later it was this antique dealer who would, as a wedding present, give my husband and me a magnificent ancient bed—provenance unknown.


I wrote this as a twenty-page essay and shared it with fellow writer, Stuart Dybek, who replied, “This isn’t a story; it’s a saga. And you should write it.”


I have always been interested in origin stories, stories of migration, of falling out and coming together again. And so I began a novel in the summer of 1997 that involved a cast of characters equal to Ben Hur (without the chariot races) and spanned decades from the sinking of the Eastland in 1915 (an event my father witnessed) into the world of jazz and prohibition, through the Second World War, and ending at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 where my main character, Benny’s, daughter would duke it out in the streets of Chicago.

I’m not sure I remember when jazz became an important part of the story, except that it was quite early on. There was, for example, always a piano in the saloon. My father played jazz piano as a young man, and I thought he was pretty good. He was never a professional but he played at parties and for his friends. And he had come of age in the era of Capone. He was born in 1902. He would die in 2005. And in truth he had seen it all—the entire 20th century. I loved my father very much, but I can’t say that I ever understood him. Nor did I ever understand my parents’ fraught union. The novel that emerged, while perhaps an attempt to understand them, in the end has little to do with who they are were or what their marriage was about.

I read everything I could about jazz—dozens of books. I took jazz lessons from an excellent pianist named Roberta Piket. I talked to musicians. I made research trips to Chicago. I went to the Chicago Historical Society often to look at original photographs of the era—the sinking of the Eastland, the jazz musicians and clubs of the era. I needed to see what “the Stroll” looked like, what it was like when the South Side of Chicago was alive with music and jazz and people dressed to the nines and not the housing projects and poverty and hopelessness on feels there now.


I completed that early version that weighed in at 750 pages in 2002, and I loved it. Its cast of dozens of characters spanned decades. My agent, Ellen Levine, loved it too. And we couldn’t sell it. Everyone said it was too big, too rambling; they couldn’t follow all the characters. One editor, referring to Benny, said that he had “legs.” I held on to that thought and over the years revised, honed, and cut the novel.


Then one day I was in a cab on my way to the airport and as we drove through some projects near the BQE, we passed a building that had the name Napoleon Hill scrawled in huge black letters. Was it a memorial or just some boy’s tag. For whatever reason the name struck me and the character of Napoleon was born. A black trumpeter who becomes Benny’s guide. Napoleon seemed to come to me in whole cloth, entirely imagined, no one I have ever known. And yet I loved writing his story as much as anyone’s.


In 2005 and 2009 Ellen Levine, tried to sell The Jazz Palace again, and each time it failed. Perhaps because I am a masochist, or a writer, and they may be one in the same thing, I printed out every rejection and kept them in a folder. I kept reading them over and over. If one editor said they didn’t like something, I thought about it. If five said they didn’t, I made special note of it. Still for whatever reason I couldn’t get it right. Even Nan Talese, who had been my editor for many of my books in the 1980s and 90s, read and rejected the novel three of those times.

In 2009, after ten more rejections, I knew that it was over. The book of my life was finished. It would never see the light of day. I put it away and worked on other things. I tried to move on, the way you do when any difficult relationship ends, but something kept festering. I couldn’t let go of it. I couldn’t really put it away.


One morning in 2012 I woke up and I knew what was wrong. It was a hot summer day in August, 5:30 in the morning, and I knew what I had to do. I saw it as clearly as if I’d had an epiphany. The book was too long. It needed to end much sooner. And I knew where the ending was. I went to my desk where I’d kept a hardcopy. I turned to the place at the 1933 World’s Fair and the repeal of Prohibition. And then I knew. The book had to end here, not in 1968, and I took all those other pages away. In my hands I had a tight, small, focused novel that I would spend the next two years revising and refining.


Seventeen years and almost forty rejections later, I called my agent once again. Terrified, I told her that I had revised the novel, and I expected her to tell me to find a new agent. Instead she said, “I’ve always loved that book.” And so she went out with it a 4th time—something I’m not sure any agent would do— and Nan Talese read it for the 4th time. And at last it found its place in the world. Many of the stories that began it are no longer in its pages. Not the 22 children, not the story of the man whose sister is found and brought to Chicago. But what is left brought me enormous pleasure to write and research. Many writers will say that their work is agony, but I was blessed with this book for many years.

I love Chicago. It is my home and it will always be. But again like Marquez I had to leave my home in order to write about it. And indeed most of the Midwestern writers such as Twain, Cather, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, all wrote about home from away. I left, moved east to go to college, then New York, and I never went back. Once about ten years ago I needed a pen and went into my father’s bed stand to find one. I didn’t find a pen, but what he had were maps. Many maps. My father was not a traveler, but I opened one of these and realized that they were the old Triple A maps of the route he’d taken to drive me to college. The maps were a loop up through Canada and back to Chicago through the Ohio Valley. But my father never brought my home. But this novel did.

It is possible that I should be the poster child for perseverance, but this is the book I had to finish. If anyone ever asks me to give a speech, I will thank the thirty-odd editors who had the good sense to reject the earlier version. They forced me to look inward again, back into the pages, and finish the book that would not go away. When people ask me why I didn’t give up on this story, my answer is always the same. Why didn’t it give up on me?