Lack of jazz lore leaves fam­ily in the spot­light

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ron Kirbyson

DIS­AP­POINT­MENT is the word that might come to mind within the first few pages of Last Night at the Blue An­gel. The notes on the fly­leaf iden­tify Chicago of the early 1960s, home to one of the coun­try’s most vi­brant jazz scenes, as the set­ting for the novel. Ex­am­ples of these, how­ever, are hard to find. The reader learns that the Blue An­gel, a piv­otal set­ting in the novel, is a jazz club; even so, the jazz el­e­ment is mar­ginal. It ap­pears as names dropped oc­ca­sion­ally — Ella Fitzgerald, Di­nah Wash­ing­ton, Bix Bei­der­becke — but read­ers won’t find much be­yond that sug­ges­tion. Au­thor Re­becca Rotert is a res­i­dent of Omaha, Neb. A singer, song­writer and con­trib­u­tor to jour­nals and mag­a­zines, she also teaches with the Ne­braska Writ­ers Col­lec­tive. Op­por­tu­ni­ties for build­ing jazz mu­sic into the nar­ra­tive are fre­quent. Naomi, the mother of some­time-nar­ra­tor Sophia, is a club singer. Naomi works with Ben­nett, a piano player whose char­ac­ter could have been de­vel­oped into a Nat King Cole- or Fats Waller-type man. The novel de­liv­ers a nar­ra­tive of com­plex re­la­tion­ships rather than the nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion of Chicago jazz, and of­fers al­most noth­ing about the jazz scene. As the novel opens, Naomi has been per­form­ing for a few months in the Blue An­gel. The club is a mar­ginal op­er­a­tion, kept go­ing in spite of its pa­thetic, run-down con­di­tion. Naomi’s dresser Hilda makes do with shabby stage gar­ments; Naomi, mean­while, knows that her time at the Blue An­gel is draw­ing to a close. Daugh­ter Sophia, a de­light­ful child, is wise be­yond her 10 years. The reader is likely to be some­what in­trigued by the char­ac­ters in Sophia’s world who have be­come like fam­ily to Sophia and her mother. Hav­ing been raised in small-town poverty and forced to leave said town, Naomi now main­tains a rather flam­boy­ant per­sonal style, with peo­ple of var­i­ous gen­ders and life­styles com­ing and go­ing: Laura the flight at­ten­dant, Laura’s brother David (who turns out to be Sophia’s birth fa­ther), Sis­ter Italia and Rita (born Ricky), to name a few. Sophia keeps lists — one of the vis­i­tors to her mother’s bed­room, and another of things she would need in the event of a dis­as­ter. At its core, Last Night at the Blue An­gel is a story of a mother-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship, and in­volves as­sorted other char­ac­ters who have be­come a kind of fam­ily to Sophia and Naomi. The plot is fairly sim­ple, in as much as the cen­tral fig­ure, Naomi, dom­i­nates the ac­tion. She is a self-cen­tred prima donna who ex­ploits most of the peo­ple around her in her quest to be­come a star. Naomi lives, as Sophia ex­plains, in the “dark mar­gins.” The main durable re­la­tion­ship is that be­tween mother and daugh­ter. Jim, the ma­jor male char­ac­ter, is a po­lice of­fi­cer-turned­pho­tog­ra­pher who projects his af­fec­tion for Naomi to Sophia, who con­sid­ers him her fa­ther. One of Jim’s pho­to­graphs of Naomi ends up on the cover of Look magazine, which be­comes a ca­reer-chang­ing event for her. Naomi, how­ever, barely gives Jim the time of day un­til it’s too late. Some would say that the style of Last Night at the Blue An­gel is awk­ward, punc­tu­ated by short sen­tences and phrases that fail to flow nat­u­rally. The use of ital­ics, rather than quo­ta­tion marks, for the di­a­logue may also be ir­ri­tat­ing to read­ers. But over­all, as a first novel, Rotert’s Last Night at the Blue An­gel is a re­mark­able piece of writ­ing. Ron Kirbyson is a Win­nipeg writer with a

long­time in­ter­est in jazz.

Last Night at the

Blue An­gel

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