The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Jazz Palace,
a novel gangsters, musicians, and intrigue by Mary Morris, set in 1920s Chicago.
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.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. When the SS Eastland capsized in 1915, 844 passengers and 4 crew members lost their lives. What did you think about the author’s decision to begin the novel with this event?
2. Did you find Benny’s attempts to save passengers admirable or foolish?
3. Why doesn’t Benny tell his father about the Eastland when he returns to the factory? What does it say about their relationship?
4. Hannah and Leo Lehrman have lofty ambitions for their son, Benny, and they are unable to accept his passion for jazz. Do you think they would have been more open to Benny’s love of jazz had they not already lost one son?
5. Is Benny rejecting his family and his faith with is music? Or is he “coming closer to God” as his music teacher Mr. Marcopolis tells him?
6. Chicago is the author’s hometown. The sights, smells, and sounds of the city are beautifully described in detail. Did reading the novel inspire you to visit? If you live there or if you’ve already visited, does the novel enable to see the city with fresh eyes?
7. The author breathes new life into historical figures such as Al Capone, Louis Armstrong and Rudolph Valentino. How do these celebrities contribute to narrative of the novel?
8. Napoleon’s grandmother tells him “Everyone needs a trickster in this world.” Do you agree?
9. Discuss the significance of Pearl’s discovery of the “absence of sound” beneath the waters of Lake Michigan.
10. Do you think that Pearl is the wise, quiet strength of the novel?
11. Benny and Napoleon experience anti-Semitism and racism at different points in the novel. Do these injustices provide a bond between them that is even stronger than their love of music?
12. Did the scene in which Benny rushes Napoleon to Marta’s surprise you? Discuss the author’s skill in setting up this fictive moment, and how that scene made you feel.
13. Discuss Opal and how she embodies the novel’s central them of the freedom to pursue one’s passion in a very powerful and poignant way.
14. Does Benny’s return to a more traditional way of life—work, family, and marriage—seem like a failure or a new beginning?
15. What do you think the future holds for Benny and Pearl as we leave them bathed in the glow of “The Century of Progress”?
About this 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.
MARY MORRIS’S FAVORITE JAZZ ERA NOVELS The Adventures of Augie March
by Saul Bellow Dandelion Wine
by Ray Bradbury Ragtime
by E.L. Doctorow Sanctuary
by William Faulkner The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald The Jazz Age
by F. Scott Fitzgerald (essays) Six Tales of the Jazz Age
by F. Scott Fitzgerald (This volume includes “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” that was made into a film with Brad Pitt) The Sun Also Rises
by Ernest Hemingway A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway Child of the Century
by Ben Hecht Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston Babbitt
by Sinclair Lewis Really The Blues
by Mezz Mezzrow Coming through Slaughter
by Michael Ondaatje The Color Purple
by Alice Walker Native Son
by Richard Wright