In his debut novel, Joe Okonkwo composes a melodic tale that is as arousing and jarring as one might imagine the roaring jazz era of 1920’s Harlem. Jazz Moon, (Kensington Books), affords the reader a seat in any smoky speakeasy of that period, high on gin and jazz, enticed by the discord of the south and change; enraptured by the crescendo of New York City, art and love; compelled by the resonance of Paris and race.
Jazz Moon, in part, is a love story. The beautiful complicated love story of main character Ben Charles, a burgeoning poet from the south who arrives in New York in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance. Ben boards a train headed north desperate to distance himself from the yoke of southern life and a forbidden love. By the time the train pulls into the New York railway station, Ben has married fellow traveler Angeline, united out of sympathy.
Ben and Angeline exemplify the lives of many who fled the south during the great migration for a better life up north. They work hard during the day and immerse themselves in the free spirit of the Harlem nights. Jazz music is an intoxicant wafting through the night air drawing Ben and Angeline into small spaces with bold sounds.
The boldness of trumpeter Baby Back Johnston takes hold of the couple late one evening. Baby Back introduces himself after his set. He is as smooth as his horn playing. It becomes apparent to Angeline that he is showing a strong interest in her husband, causing tension between she and Ben.
Baby Back represents a past memory from the south that Ben would rather not revisit and a future in Paris that he can’t imagine. In spite of Baby Back’s promise of Paris being a magical refuge for black Americans, Ben is presented some harsh realities and personal challenges calling for an unwavering resolve.
In Jazz Moon, Okonkwo skillfully manages to encapsulate the essence of what it was to exist during that period in history when black artistic and musical culture rose to prominence in Harlem and Paris. The novel satisfies the imagination of all of us who wishes we had been a poet, musician, writer, artist, immersed in the spirit of creativity and love during the Harlem Renaissance.
By Joe Okonkwo
Paperback, 9781496701169, 352 pp.
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