In a lyrical, captivating debut set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and glittering Jazz Age Paris, Joe Okonkwo creates an evocative story of emotional and artistic awakening.
On a sweltering summer night in 1925, beauties in beaded dresses mingle with hepcats in dapper suits on the streets of Harlem. The air is thick with reefer smoke, and jazz pours out of speakeasy doorways. Ben Charles and his devoted wife, Angeline, are among the locals crammed into a basement club to hear jazz and drink bootleg liquor. For aspiring poet Ben, the swirling, heady rhythms are a revelation. So is Baby Back Johnston, an ambitious trumpet player who flashes a devilish grin and blasts jazz dynamite from his horn. Ben finds himself drawn to the trumpeter—and to Paris where Baby Back says everything is happening.
In Paris, jazz and champagne flow eternally, and blacks are welcomed as exotic celebrities, especially those from Harlem. It’s an easy life that quickly leaves Ben adrift and alone, craving solace through anonymous dalliances in the city’s decadent underground scene. From chic Parisian cafés to seedy opium dens, his odyssey will bring new love, trials, and heartache, even as echoes from the past urge him to decide where true fulfillment and inspiration lie.
“Jazz Moon mashes up essences of Hurston and Hughes and Fitzgerald into a heady mixtape of a romance: driving and rhythmic as an Armstrong Hot Five record, sensuous as the small of a Cotton Club chorus girl’s back. I enjoyed it immensely. Frankly, I wish I'd written it.”—Larry Duplechan, author of Blackbird and Got 'til It's Gone
Related collections and offers
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Joe Okonkwo
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Joe Okonkwo
All rights reserved.
Harlem had been hit by a hurricane: It was raining cats and jazz. White folks called it race music. Old colored folks branded it the devil's music because its saucy beats made men pump their hips in slow pirouettes and women lift their skirts above the knee with a sweltering look that said come and get it, papa. But, whatever you called it, it was everywhere. Gliding out of glossy nightclubs; smoking lush and torrid out of basement speakeasies; in the streets, louder than a growling subway train. And if you ventured down Lenox Avenue or 125th Street, you wouldn't be surprised to pass a first-floor apartment, window open, and glimpse a couple dancing as jazz crackled out of a phonograph. You'd stand on that sidewalk — right outside their window — and watch them for a while, but they wouldn't even notice you.
In 1925 the devil did his best work in Jungle Alley — a stretch of 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues splattered with glittering clubs where Duke Ellington brushstroked his jazz canvas, café au lait chorus cuties high-kicked it, and a hoofing Bojangles took and shook center stage. Clubs gorged themselves on white swells from downtown drawn to the sensual, the primitive, the exotic; who, after seeing a Cole Porter musical on Broadway or a Verdi opera at The Met, cabbed it to Harlem in droves to slum to the tune of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and romp in the jungle of their uptown backyard.
The swells paid good money to see Negroes sing and dance in supper clubs, but drew the line at sharing supper, which is why Ben and Angeline, arm in arm, half walking, half prancing up Seventh Avenue, didn't bother with the clubs in Jungle Alley. They bypassed 133rd Street altogether and shot onto 136th instead, laughing like fools the whole time.
"You have a good time, Angel?" Ben asked.
"Ooh, baby," Angeline said between giggles. "That party was jumping. Hot, hot, hot."
"Yeah. Donny Boy know how to swing it."
"Where'd he learn to cook? Them pig's feet and black-eyed peas reminded me of back home," Angeline said.
They rollicked down 136th. The street was besieged with people leaving rent parties, clubs, picture shows, most laughing like Ben and Angeline, some downright drunk, and you could smell reefer everywhere. An eternal line of brownstones rose above them on either side of the street, high flights of steps with black wrought-iron railings ascending to stoops where people talked and drank. Folks hung out of windows or sat on fire escapes and shouted down to the people on the stoops or to passersby on the sidewalk as taxis streaked by.
And it was hot. Two a.m. and the July air was so humid and thick, Ben felt he was wading through it. He was tempted to loosen his tie for some relief, but on Saturday night he wanted to shine.
"Ben, you remember where we going? What's this lap joint called?" Angeline asked.
"Teddy's. All the hepcats go there. Reggie told me about it. Says the band's a killer-diller."
"That's great, baby, but maybe we should go on home and kill some dill in private." They walked side by side, but she managed to nudge her breasts against him. "If you know what I mean."
"Girl, you a mess."
They heard the music before they even descended the short flight of steps to the basement bar. The rough, concrete floor held two dozen rickety tables crushed in close together and filled with boisterous men in tight suits and chicks in beaded dresses and pearl-studded headbands. The air was steeped in smoke from cigars, cigarettes, and reefer. The July heat made it steam. Teddy's vibrated with the clinking of glasses and rousing conversations and torrents of laughter. At the rear of the club, a band: piano, drums, banjo, and trombone beating it out and how. A bit of light hit the stage with the rest of Teddy's smothered in shadows.
"Hello, suckers!" the hostess greeted them, voice thundering, her abundant frame housed in a loose-fitting black dress decked with an ocean of multicolored beads and sequins. The low-cut number showed off her big breasts. A horsehair wig decorated with a red rose sat atop her head, and she carried a fluffy, red feather boa around her ample shoulders.
"Welcome to Teddy's," she said, "where the jazz is hot and the liquor's bootleggin' cold! Just y'all two tonight? Ooh, girl, where'd you find this cat? If I was you, I wouldn't come in here. I'd take him home and blow his ... top."
"Honey, I'ma do just that!" Angeline said. "A couple of drinks and we out of here."
Ben slung her an admonishing look. She knew he didn't favor such graphic talk in public.
The hostess laughed. A big, robust guffaw. "Girl, I heard that! Y'all come with me."
She got between them, hooked her arms in theirs, and guided them to a table. A woman appeared onstage just as they sat down, singing in a raspy, down-home voice, the kind that made you think she was the blues.
"My man sho ain't lazy, He goes all day and works downtown. My man sho ain't lazy, He goes all day and works downtown. When he comes home at night, I make him turn my damper down."
A waitress arrived at the table. In her sleeveless satin dress with its thigh-high hem, she looked like a chorus girl in one of those all-colored musical revues. She carried a tray with two teacups, which she placed before Ben and Angeline. They each took a big gulp of tea. It sent a shudder from their eyebrows to their toes.
Ben recovered first. "This some good damn tea." His voice was hoarse.
"Righteous," Angeline said. "Benny?" She tickled her knee against his under the table. "Benny," she said again, her voice a cross between an innocent coo and a seductive purr. "Can't wait to get you home."
The spot where she rubbed his knee burned. Without warning, she leaned over and kissed him, rough, her tongue flicking over his lips. Ben didn't like doing this in front of people, but had no choice but to respond in kind.
"Yeah, man!" someone behind them yelled. "You go on and kiss that chick!"
Others chimed in, cheering them on as they kissed.
"Mmm-hmm. That's his main queen. I can see that!"
"She sure is! And she a good piece of barbecue!"
"That chick sure is some fine dinner!"
The crowd whooped and applauded as if Ben and Angeline were the opening act of a floor show. He jerked away from her, leaving her reeling from the sudden stop. He was embarrassed, but intoxicated, too. The gin. The crowd. The salty funk of sweat and the odor of reefer wafting through the place. And now the real show began as the hostess mounted the stage, big breasts leading the way, dress rustling as she climbed the steps.
"Hey, suckers! How y'all doing tonight? Everybody got enough tea? Glad to hear it 'cause at Teddy's it's always teatime. But you know what, honey? I need me a man to pour my tea — right out of a nice, long spout. You know that's right! If you know a man got a good spout, you send him right on over. And if he ain't got a good spout, tell him to keep his ass home with his wife! And if anyone here tonight got a good spout, you come see me in the back room! Mmm-hmm. Well, suckers, we got a good show for y'all tonight, so let's get started. Ladies and gentlemens, Teddy's is proud to present to y'all The Blackberry Jam featuring Sweeeeeeet Baby Back Johnston!"
The light dimmed more. The audience clapped. Ben watched as a cat with a trumpet came up onstage and began to play.
Mellow. That was the only word Ben could think of to describe Baby Back Johnston. No fanfare like Armstrong. Just a sound that was blue and smooth. One moment it floated up with the reefer smoke, the next it was low down. Baby Back took that horn through a swirling maze of rhythm as the band underscored his every lick. He caressed those flats and sharps, fondled those swinging eighth notes, fingered that melody till it cried. Yeah. Baby Back broke it up. The crowd fell out. Ben was hypnotized. Hypnotized by Baby Back's horn. A horn attached to a face coffee-colored and soft as polish. A tall man, his broad shoulders flared down to a trim waist accentuated by his tight suit. His eyes were shut, lightly, as he blew. As he blew. That. Horn.
The lights brightened a little when Baby Back's set ended.
Someone called out to him from far away, from the edge of someplace.
Ben bounced back to consciousness.
"What's the matter, baby?" Angeline asked. "You clocked out for a minute. You OK?"
"Sure, Angel. Just knocked out by this band. This trumpeter is ... something."
Then the trumpeter appeared, glad-handing from table to table. "Hey, how y'all doing? Baby Back Johnston. Y'all enjoying the show? Thank you. Nice to meet you. Y'all come back to Teddy's, hear?"
He schmoozed and joked and flirted his way through the club with a devilish smile and brilliant eyes that muted just a shade when they fell on Ben.
"Baby Back Johnston. How y'all doing?" His voice reverberated, a plush baritone.
"We're pretty solid," Ben said as the trumpeter clasped his hand. When Ben tried to retrieve it, Baby Back held on a second longer than he should have. "You sure can play."
"All in a night's work."
"Ben Charles. My wife, Angeline."
"My husband's right," Angeline said. "You can play."
Baby Back's eyes found Ben and clung to him. "What do you folks do?"
"Angeline does hair."
"And sells cosmetics," she said. "Little side business."
"I work in a hotel. Downtown. Waiting tables," Ben said, then lowered his head. "But I'm really a writer. Poetry."
The devilish smile stretched Baby Back's face till it was as broad as his shoulders. "Killer. Anything published?"
"One thing in The Crisis. And I just sent something to a new magazine called Fire that's starting up."
From the corner of his eye, Ben saw Angeline's bottom lip quiver. A subtle twitch nobody but himself would notice, especially in the speakeasy's murky light.
"Benny," Angeline said. She scooted her chair closer and draped her arms around him. "Mr. Johnston's a busy cat. He don't want to hear about your poetry, even though I know he'd love it. He needs to get back to work." She relaxed her head on Ben's shoulder, then trained her eyes on Baby Back. "Ain't that right, Mr. Johnston?"
Baby Back looked down at her. "Please. It's Baby Back. And I'd love to hear about Ben's poetry. Next time you come, recite one for me."
All three got quiet. Angeline pulled herself closer to her husband till she was almost in his lap. Ben's eyes alternated between Baby Back's face and the teacup in front of him, but he knew the musician's eyes kept steady on him.
"My next set's about to start," Baby Back said. "Sure was nice meeting you folks. Hope to see you again soon."
He got back onstage. The lights dimmed again and the band flung itself into a raucous dance number, the notes from Baby Back's trumpet ricocheting off the walls. The hostess shimmied out in front of the stage holding a tea kettle.
"All right, suckers! Party time!"
The patrons unleashed a holler and, as if on cue, stood up and let loose, kicking up the Charleston, the Mess Around, the Black Bottom, while the hostess ambled deftly through the ruckus filling teacups, her big hips swerving in rhythm like a metronome. More folks piled into Teddy's, clowning, smoking reefer, and chugging out of teacups faster than the hostess could replenish them. Men bumped and grinded against women whose breasts were thrust forward, arms hoisted above their heads, heat sparkling in their eyes.
Ben and Angeline did not dance. Her head still snuggled against him. And his eyes stayed glued to the stage, to the trumpeter whose licks whizzed out of his horn like fireworks.CHAPTER 2
Three a.m. when they cut out of Teddy's. She had been set on getting home, but once outside the smoky speakeasy, Angeline allowed them to take their time. Warmed by the tea-kettle gin, jazz still chiming in their ears, they strolled hand in hand down Seventh Avenue, stopping every so often to giggle or talk or so Angeline could smooth down the lapels of Ben's jacket and straighten his tie so the knot didn't veer to the side as the knots of all his ties tended to.
"You know, Benny," she said, "it's been a long time since we ..." She gave his tie a final nudge, then her lips drifted to his cheek and lingered there.
It was his fault they hadn't been intimate in so long. He'd make it up to her tonight. Try to.
By three thirty they had turned onto 128th Street and moments later scaled the stone steps to their four-story brownstone. As Ben fumbled in his pocket for the keys, Angeline took him from behind, turned him around, and kissed him as if they had already made it to their bedroom.
"Angeline," Ben said, withdrawing from her for the second time that evening. "The neighbors gonna see us."
"No they ain't, neither. That no-good super still ain't fixed this porch light. Remind me to thank him."
She resumed kissing him.
"Humph. You need to be thankful for not getting struck down with lightning."
Ben and Angeline froze mid-kiss.
"I've never seen such behavior in all my life. Practically having relations right on the front stoop. And at almost four in the morning, to boot."
With the porch light out and their heads swimming in bootleg gin, Ben and Angeline had been unaware of anyone else's presence. But the person sharpened into focus now: an old colored woman with white hair done up in plaits. Their next-door neighbor: Mrs. Evelyn Harrisburg. She sat in a wicker chair, hand hooked onto the head of her walking stick, facing straight ahead onto 128th Street. Upright, stolid. In the darkness, her silhouette resembled the statue of a goddess sitting in judgment.
Ben squirmed away from Angeline. "Mrs. Harrisburg, what you doing out here at this hour?"
"Snooping," Angeline said. "As usual. What you think she doing?"
"I'm not snooping," Evelyn Harrisburg said, without facing them. Her voice was scratchy. "I'm sitting here, minding my own business."
Angeline stepped toward the old lady. "You never mind your own business."
Though feeble, Mrs. Harrisburg was everywhere and heard everything. Terrified that she would abruptly materialize, folks kept conversations in the hallways short and scandal-free. Even good morning or doin' fine, child were sometimes whispered.
She gave Angeline a once-over. "In my day, proper young ladies didn't go gallivanting out in public wearing dresses that showed off their bare legs and arms. We called that type of women jezebels."
Angeline balled her hands into fists, fixed them to her hips, and started toward the old woman. Ben intercepted her and then crouched by Evelyn Harrisburg's chair.
"Tell you what, Mrs. Harrisburg. Let me help you upstairs," he said, offering his hand.
She slapped it away. "I can't go inside. I can't. I won't! I won't! I won't! They're playing that devil's music. The folks right above me. Been playing it and partying all night. Hollering and stomping like they don't have a bit of sense. Inconsiderate. If my late husband was here, he'd go up there and tell them a thing or two." She paused. "God bless his dear soul."
Angeline rolled her eyes. "That's it. This jezebel's going in. Ben, if I was you, I'd leave her ass there." From the front door, she looked back. "Don't take too long, Benny, you hear?" She pursed her lips in a kiss, then disappeared into the building, slim hips bumping.
"Tell you what," Ben said to Mrs. Harrisburg. "I'll ask the folks to turn the music down. Let's go inside."
She nodded and took his arm. During the slow tramp up the stairs, he pondered how someone who moved with such difficulty could be everywhere hearing people's gossip. From above, he heard a phonograph, full-throated laughter, and the pounding of dancing feet. Mrs. Harrisburg stopped and sniffed the air.
"They're still cooking up that stinky, Southern food."
Ben inhaled the scent of collard greens and chitterlings, and was famished. They continued their haul up the stairs. "You know what?" Ben said. "You ain't lived till you had a good plate of chitterlings."
"That mess is for ignorant, backwoods niggers from down South, not civilized folks."
Angeline was right: He should have left her on the stoop.
"They come up here by the trainload," Mrs. Harrisburg said, "with their Uncle Tom ways and their bad English and their stinky food. They make respectable colored folks look bad."
She became stoic again and her pace waned as she took the stairs like a soon-to-be martyr ascending a scaffold. They finally reached the second floor and arrived at the old lady's door. The party sounds from up above were clearer, the smell of collard greens potent.
She held on to his arm. "You go up there and tell them to stop that noise."
"I'll go up there now and ask them."
"No. You tell them."
Then she stepped into her apartment and slammed the door.
Ben walked up to the third floor and to the door of the offending neighbors. With all their cackling, singing, and shouting, Ben didn't know how his request would be received. He raised his hand to knock and stopped cold. A record played behind the door: a sweet ballad, a trumpet soloing through it, the notes dipping and diving and weaving in and out. Suddenly that trumpeter — the one from earlier — Baby Back — suddenly Baby Back's face flooded Ben's eyes and he couldn't bring himself to knock. He descended the stairs to his apartment. Angeline's waiting.
He drew a few breaths — to brace himself — and went inside.
Excerpted from Jazz Moon by Joe Okonkwo. Copyright © 2016 Joe Okonkwo. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsAdvance praise for Joe Okonkwo and Jazz Moon,
this thing - 1925,
come with me - 1926,
ambition - 1926,
distance & color - 1926,
shadows - 1926–1927,
art - 1927,
love - 1928,
A READING GROUP GUIDE,
Jazzing the Moon: A Harlem Renaissance Playlist,