Book Review: Jazz Girl

For some time now I’ve had posted a link to literary blog Layered Pages, advertising my soon-to-come review for Sarah Bruce Kelly’s young-adult novel about jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. I am pleased to announce it is up on Wednesday Reviews.

I will cross-post it here as well, but encourage you to visit the link above, as I am one of a team of reviewers, so you’ll find news of many other great books.

If you enjoy music, history, young adult novels, stories of rising above circumstances, or even just a great yarn, read on!

Jazz Girl

by Sarah Bruce Kelly

From Sarah Bruce Kelly, author of award-winning Vivaldi’s Muse comes another historical novel, this based in post-Great War Pittsburgh and focusing on the early teen era of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. Written for roughly the same age group as its protagonist, Jazz Girl is told from Mary Lou’s perspective, no mean feat considering the writer essentially must enter the mind of her subject, speaking for and thus representing a real person, as opposed to imparting biographical details. Arranged in chapters, titles indicative of their focus, the novel’s prologue, “The Sign of the Caul,” introduces us to a piece of family lore Mary Lou must have heard hundreds of times before she repeats it for us: Born with a caul, a piece of amniotic membrane covering the newborn infant’s head, she is thus gifted with a second sight that turns out to be, as she herself recognizes, more burden than prize.

Her mother, not naturally inclined to parent or hardened by years of drinking, or perhaps both, repeatedly rejects Mary Lou through her childhood. She is taunted mercilessly by neighborhood children who follow their parents’ lead in ostracizing Mary in particular because of her black skin darker than most of her other family members’. Plagued by a stutter, her music saves her from misery, even if it is imprisoned inside her, owing to her “night squalling of an old alley cat” voice and lack of piano. “So most times the music stayed inside my head, leaping and dancing around like the spirits who used to play with me in the Georgia woods around our old house.”

Mary Lou’s fortunes, as so often happens in life, rise and fall. She has her Grandpa to share company and interests with, and he is sympathetic to her sensitive, artistic nature. To the extent that he can, he makes up for her lack of a father figure, despite the family divide linked to her mother’s alcoholism. A stepfather and piano later come into her life and the girl who at age three had played tunes following her mother’s example—indicative of her mother’s own talent lost or squandered—wastes no time in becoming a neighborhood sensation. “The little piano girl” begins to earn money for her music, enduring humiliation and deception on many occasions from those jealous or contemptuous of her. She loses a soul mate in her cousin Max, who moves away, her Grandpa dies and her stepfather threatens to sell the piano he gifted her. Her kind and beautiful teacher leads her to a standing gig playing for the other teacher ladies. Overjoyed that she finally has made her mother proud following an invitation to play at the teachers’ special tea party, she is distraught when her mother fails to show up, engaged as she is at home with the gin jug.

How Mary Lou not only gets through life but also manages herself, endures and thrives is not just a testament of the human spirit, an indicator of the resilience that brings some of us past misery and on to greatness. It also speaks to the idea that the individual indeed can rise above collective negativity, whether it be cultural or imposed, from strangers or one’s own family. This may be one of the caul’s gifts to her, as well as her strength in making choices: what to do, where to go, even how to respond and whether to become angry or upset. She has a special ability to understand people’s motives even if they themselves do not, and because she is naturally inclined to build bridges rather than tear them down, she is capable of compassion even in the face of utter meanness. A series of these choices leads her to play alongside Fats Waller and other jazz superstars, before she moves on to her own successful career, where she can build love and bring people together.

For a relatively short book, and a fairly easy read from my adult perspective, Kelly has packed a powerhouse into these 195 pages. Staid as it may be to enthuse over economy of words, it is a talent the author imparts with a grace like magic—I came away from and looked back upon the book in awe: How could she have said so much when saying so little? Moreover, the authenticity of Kelly’s dialogue captures perfectly the voice of someone whose life circumstances make her vulnerable, talent raises her to heights few other children even know the existence of, and early maturity helps navigate her through pathways both perilous and extraordinary.

The quality and style of her verbiage reflect authentically the time as well as speakers, who display awareness of this as well. “’You slay me, Nannie,’ [Mamie] said, acting all uppity with her teenage slang.” Mary Lou occasionally refers to acts or behavior this or that person won’t abide, a phrase often still heard used in contemporary black English. Kelly also utilizes styles typically identified with this speech, unencumbered by the weightiness that wears readers down in other books seeking to replicate, say, Southern or Cockney accents. But more than just Kelly’s authentic use of language, Mary Lou herself keeps it real, to turn a modern phrase. She even seems to reach out to us, the readers, telling an inclusive story that acknowledges our presence and part of it all: “Can you believe [what Hugh said]?”

Through the novel runs a train motif, sometimes used to reflect on the rail that brought Mary Lou’s family from Georgia to Pittsburgh, a new life, a fresh start. She reasons that trains bring people together, hence her long admiration of them, and linking her music to the rhythmic railway sounds, she reckons she can do the same with what she produces. The connectedness she yearns for herself and to pass to others links also to a re-creation, in turn opening like a bloom to more of the novel’s other pleasures for the senses. When her Nanny calls her “contrary” and refers to a poem she once knew that featured a garden, Mary Lou reflects on why she likes it: “Because it is about growing a garden. And that’s what my music is to me. All the time I spend at the piano is like planting seeds I hope will grow into beautiful flowers.”

Like the creation of new life, this book establishes in a number of ways connections with readers, from the cover art and information presented to the narrative itself and further references at the end—and in my experience these connections are no small matter. The easy-to-find cover credit for Maria Termini’s Piano Jazz Plant to go with the vision of a keyboard juxtaposed on the vibrant, filled-with-life colors of a plant, a synesthesiac sensation that causes Mary Lou’s fingers to itch as she lets loose with that strong left hand. The Author’s Note addressing some unanswered questions, and link to hear Mary Lou’s music and see some pictures. All invitations to stay connected to Mary Lou Williams past the time when the cover closes. Sarah Bruce Kelly has made us heirs to a brilliant legacy.

Jazz Girl by Sarah Bruce Kelly
2010, Bel Canto Press
ISBN 978-0-615-35376-0

A copy of Jazz Girl was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

Image courtesy Sarah Bruce Kelly.

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