Read an Excerpt From Joe Okonkwo’s New Novel ‘Jazz Moon’
Author: William Johnson
June 26, 2016
This month, Kensington Press released Jazz Moon, an evocative novel that maps one character’s journey of self-discovery during the height of the Jazz Age, from author Joe Okonkwo.
From the publisher:
On a simmering summer night in a smoky speakeasy in 1925, Harlem poet Ben Charles falls for Baby Back Johnston, an ambitious trumpet player with a devilish smile who blasts jazz dynamite from his horn and hungers to be a star in Paris. Traveling a landscape of speakeasies, gay bars, chic Parisian cafés, seedy opium dens, and buffet flats (the Harlem equivalent of sex clubs), JAZZ MOON captures Ben’s emotional odyssey and unending quest for self-worth as well as the personal side of Harlem and Paris of the Roaring 1920s.
A palatial, carpeted staircase with mahogany railings provided entrance to the first-class dining hall. The hall soared three decks high. As spacious as it was elegant, all its furnishings and décor—tables, chairs, chandeliers, artwork, even the pattern on the carpet—boasted that Art Deco style so in vogue these days. A string quartet played on a small stage. Every table was full. Older, conservative gentlemen and ladies in full formal attire—tuxes, spats, full-length gowns, tiaras—looked askance at younger men and women in white dinner jackets and sparkly, sleeveless dresses with necklines that dipped rebelliously low.
The string quartet’s stately melodies did not suit the room’s festive pulse or the mood of travelers with nothing on their hands but time and champagne. The brash younger set, with their modern clothes and lawless good looks, laughed and drank and bounced in their seats. Even the stodgy older set seemed to sway.
Maybe ten Negroes—mostly musicians—sailed aboard the Bonaparte, and all were invited to dine at the captain’s table that first evening. They stood out because of their color, their status as the captain’s guests, and their clothing. None owned a tux or dinner jacket, but each wore his very best suit spruced up with a flower on the lapel. Except for Baby Back and Ben, their quarters were in tourist-class. Captain Olivier held court, sparkling on and on about his treks through Harlem’s clubs while on shore leave. But his dinner companions sat silent, hands imprisoned in their laps, on guard against this foreign white man who had thwarted the natural order of things by inviting them to break bread.
“We have le jazz-hot in France, too,” Captain Olivier said, “but I wanted pure Negro jazz. Harlem did not disappoint!” He leaned forward, professorial, hands folded on the table, his distinguished, mid forty-something face aglow. “You see, musicians of my race study and practice and learn music theory and such. But a Negro musician’s gift is primal and instinctive. Music comes from deep within you. Mon dieu. You have been gifted with a native abandon that moves listeners and makes them dance. Having musicians on board who can perform such miracles is an honor. We are honored to take you to our France.” He lifted a glass of champagne. “To le jazz-hot!”
“Told you they love us over there,” Baby Back said, his first words to Ben since the fight.
An opening. Ben raced through it. “Sorry about earlier,” he whispered.
“Yeah, I know that.”
Captain Olivier’s welcome helped his guests breathe. Hands left laps. Bodies loosened. Elbows sidled onto the table top. The table began bubbling with conversation and Baby Back put himself in the center of it, discarding Ben on the outskirts. The captain played host like a virtuoso, but Ben’s attentions shifted around the hall. Two tables in the immediate vicinity fascinated him, one filled with French speakers, the other with Americans. Members of the French party smiled and nodded if Ben caught their attention, but the Americans’ eyes shot ice at their ship’s captain sitting so amiably with a table full of Negroes.
A Negro couple approached the captain’s table.
“I’m Clifford Treadwell. My wife, Millicent.”
Olivier stood. “Bienvenu, Monsieur et Madame Treadwell. Enchanté. Sit down, s’il vous plaît.”
Millicent Treadwell wore a heavily brocaded, long sleeve brown gown and a cameo brooch. Her ensemble made her the most matronly-looking young female in the room. But her husband snazzed it up in a white dinner jacket and full-cut pleated slacks. The Treadwells were very light-complexioned—not light enough to pass, but close. Both had good hair—not a kink in sight.
Mrs. Treadwell regarded the table’s guests with skeptical eyes, then chose the seat beside the captain. The musicians elbowed each other.
“She don’t want nothin’ to do with us dark-skinned niggers,” one mumbled.
“Something tells me those two ain’t stayin’ in no tourist class,” another said.
Waiters commenced serving. The Treadwells behaved as if being served by whites was nothing extraordinary, but Ben and the musicians tittered at the role reversal.
“Can’t wait to write the folks back home and tell ‘em about this.”
“Shoot. This is too damn good to be true.”
“I feel like I done died and gone to heaven.”
“Hey, y’all, watch this.” To a passing waiter: “Oh, excuse me, garçon!”
Champagne flowed ceaselessly. The musicians, so bashful before, now bantered with the captain with the cozy irreverence of cohorts. Coziness was contagious in the rest of the dining hall, too. Old coots mixed it up with the younger set; flappers taught matrons how to smoke cigarettes; a feisty gentleman teamed up with a hot-blooded young man at the lip of the stage to bawl out the string quartet for remaining behind the times with its waltzy minuets.
For Ben the lilting-on-air strings were a change from hard-driving jazz and blues. He didn’t mind the minuets. He did mind that Baby Back wasn’t paying attention to him. He craved the surreptitious public affection they had perfected back home: holding hands and rubbing knees under a table; whispering naughty bits in each other’s ears under the outward guise of discussing serious business. But Baby Back immersed himself in the table’s conversations. It felt like a slight. When a waiter brought a tray loaded with champagne glasses, Ben took two.
“As soon as you arrive in Paris,” Captain Olivier said, “you must go see Josephine Baker perform at the Folies Bergere. Magnificent. She bends and undulates her body and crosses her eyes like you have never seen. She performs a jungle dance dressed only in a belt of bananas. Very sensual. Absolutely authentic. Ironically, rediscovering the primitive is the key to advancing the modern. Avant-garde thinkers and artists agree on this.” He folded his hands on the table again. “And I tell you, mes amis, the European must embrace the primitive sensuality that comes naturally to the African. That is essential to reinvigorating a white race that is becoming, quite frankly, boring. Mademoiselle Baker is doing Europe a great service.”
The musicians’ reactions ranged from befuddlement to annoyance. The Treadwells, neutral, sipped their champagne. Ben opened his mouth to question the captain, but Baby Back kicked him under the table.
“I just want to ask him what he means by primitive,” Ben whispered.
“Keep your mouth shut. Don’t make no trouble for me. You’ve made enough.”
The waiter came with another tray of champagne. Ben took two more.
Somebody mentioned a section of Paris called Montmartre.
“That’s where a lot of the jazz clubs are,” Clifford Treadwell said.
“Montmartre is not a respectable neighborhood,” Millicent Treadwell said. Her pretty, light, young voice was a profound contrast to her matronly garb. “That’s why the jazz clubs are there, naturally.”
Elbows bounded around the table again like a circle of falling dominoes.
Millicent appealed her case to the captain. “My husband and I prefer the classics.”
“My wife doesn’t speak for both of us,” Clifford said. “I love me some down-home jazz!”
“Clifford, you needn’t contradict me in front of people.”
“And you needn’t speak on my behalf about my musical preferences.”
The corners of Millicent’s mouth ticked up in an attempt at a smile. She picked at her crème brûlée.
“Madame Treadwell,” Olivier said, “I appreciate your love of the classics, but I am tired of this violin music.” He engaged the musicians. “Mes amis, you will be so kind as to entertain us.”
Strings were out. Jazz was in. At last, the music from the stage jibed with the mood in the room, so much that the maître d’ intervened when some of the younger set kicked up the Charleston, threatening to transform the first-class dining room into dance hall. Millicent conversed with the captain, at ease for the first time. But engrossed in le jazz-hot, he didn’t pay her much mind.
First time Ben had seen Baby Back perform in weeks, though the multiple double doses of champagne blurred his vision. He was anxious for later tonight. They had to talk. He might have to junk the idea of the trumpeter begging forgiveness. Might have to be subservient again. Maybe that didn’t matter. Maybe being in Baby Back’s center and not on his outskirts was all that mattered.
“Your friend,” Clifford Treadwell said.
He startled Ben. “You talking to me?”
“Obviously.” But his attention was locked on the band. “Your friend—Baby Back?”
Clifford’s gray eyes shifted to Ben. The man inhabited a nebulous realm of in-betweens: he was neither attractive, nor unattractive; not tall, but not short; he wasn’t fat, nor was he particularly trim; not acceptably white, yet not verifiably Negro. What was it like, Ben wondered, to live that way, never solidly one thing or the other?
“I see,” Clifford said. “What’s your cousin’s real name?”
“Well…everyone always calls him Baby Back.”
The gray eyes shifted back to the band. Clifford smiled. “Killer. So will I.”
The party roared on the Atlantic. The band pumped out jazz. Jazz got the passengers dancing. Dancing got them thirsty. Thirst compelled them to drink preposterous amounts of champagne. Preposterous amounts of champagne made them as buoyant as the Bonaparte itself. Baby Back and the band picked up on the buoyancy, fed off it, which got them jamming harder, which got the people dancing more deliriously till pellets of sweat shimmed off their bodies and they were forced to replenish the errant moisture with more champagne, which ratcheted up the buoyancy, which fired up the band which escalated the dancing which exacerbated the thirst which made them guzzle more champagne and the cycle repeated and repeated and repeated all night long and Ben got snagged in the cycle like getting snagged in a powerful whirlpool and he danced and drank and he drank and danced (right alongside white people!) until he extracted himself from the whirlpool by flat-out force of will and called it quits at 2am.
He dragged himself back to the cabin. Whipped, out of breath, and dementedly, joyously drunk. When he closed his eyes he spun out of his body and up to the sky and looked down on a fortress of bright light floating, elegantly, on the undulating water.
He wanted to sleep, but needed to wait up for Baby Back.
What a night. What a day.
The night may have beaten down his body, but it was the day with its drama and counter-drama, its checks and checkmates, that kindled his emotions. They were all over the place, he needed a map to chart them. If they were colors, they’d run the gamut: bonfire-bright, moonlight-cool, every shade in between.
What about Baby Back, his map, his spectrum? Where in the overlap with Ben’s did the lines intersect, the colors still mix harmoniously? All Ben was sure of was that they loved each other, and that love had stationed Baby Back like a sentinel at the top of the gangplank, but hadn’t been sufficient to mitigate the forgiveness wars.
Ben sighed. “Yes, indeed. What a day.”
He plummeted onto the bed, fought to stay awake by stringing together a new poem in his head.
I am a barge floating toward a city of light,
I carry the pulse of Africa,
Reinvented on the avenues
Of New Orleans and Harlem.
He was too soaked with champagne to stay awake. He undressed and went to asleep, then awoke later (an hour? two?) to the scent of the ocean breezing in through the open window.
Then the sea-scent filled out and darkened into the earthy, muscular funk of a man.
Through the window, Ben saw the moon. Its light dallied into the cabin and onto Baby Back, sitting on the bed’s edge.
“A second chance,” Baby Back said, low, mournful. “Who gets that? I thought I could forget about everything. I thought, if I can just be with my Ben, everything’ll be all right. But I can’t forget that you rejected me. For that woman.”
Ben broke out in a rash of cold sweat. At last he recognized how blind he’d been. With the blindness lifted, he could see—clearly see—for the first time and all at once—just how brutally his betrayal had cut Baby Back, exactly how deep the blade had gouged. He felt guilty. And his guilt embarrassed him. And his embarrassment made the apology that Baby Back was so valiantly entitled to rot in his throat like a thing dead.
Ben reached for him.
“Don’t,” Baby Back said.
He walked away, only to the window, but it seemed a thousand miles.