REVIEW: Sweet Jazz by Ursula Renee
The Big House’s “Coloreds Only” policy makes the club popular with Harlem residents. The same policy makes it harder for the owners to find and retain musicians. After four weeks of listening to saxophonists with bigger dreams than talent, the owners are ready to hire the first person who walks in and plays “one good note.” Their words come back to haunt them when Randy Jones auditions.
Many of the employees are not thrilled when Randy breaks the color barrier. He does find an ally in Cass, the club’s sassy singer, who goes out of her way to welcome him. Offstage, Cass Porter looks like a teenager, but when she sings she’s all woman. Inside, she’s been hurt badly and has determined never to love again.
As their relationship develops, life at the club for Randy becomes complicated when he has to fight both Cass’s fear of opening her heart and those who want to keep them apart.
SLANG WARNINGS – Period slang is used some of which could be disturbing.
SCENE BREAKS – I’m not sure if it was just the file I got but some chapter breaks appeared to be missing and some scenes seemed to run into each other without an indication of breaks.
Dear Ms. Renee,
It was actually the sequel to this book which caught my eye but after looking into it, I realized that Randy and Cass had another story out there so I bought it to start with. It’s the late 1930s in New York City and here’s an interracial romance that definitely isn’t all sweetness and light. Randy has a hard time even getting a start at The Big House due to its policy of only allowing colored performers and patrons. Sheer desperation is what causes one of the managers and the main singer to listen to him at all. After two weeks of audibly painful auditions from people who couldn’t play a sax to save their lives, they’ll take anyone. Or at least a few of them will as Randy is a white man and this is a colored club. There is definite resentment at the fact that this “ofay” is going to be working there but since the musical “powers that be” who could advance a career are mainly white and aren’t allowed in to hear the musicians, only those who can’t get a job elsewhere will audition.
Randy is immediately attracted to the sassy (and this word is used to describe Cass far too many times while Randy calls her “Girl” also too many times) young woman who listens to him play and stunned to learn she’s the headlining singer since she looks and dresses like a teenager. Cass is fearless in standing up to a manager who, if looks could kill, would have already laid Randy out in his casket. But Luther, the other manager, is willing to give Randy a chance since as he puts it, he started the club to give those denied a chance the opportunity to play. Luther is nothing if not fair. Side looks, deliberate irritations and nasty pranks greet Randy from that day forth but he knew what he faced coming into the club and will ignore the taunts and abuse for a chance to play his music. Before long, Randy is happy just to be ignored by most, tolerated by a few and accepted by a small handful. Cass is among those but still not sure about this white man but she also knows what it feels like to be rejected because her skin is darker than what most clubs are looking for. Plus she doesn’t want to suffer through more auditions.
Cass is frankly astounded at Randy’s calmness in the face of some of the ugliness directed his way by those unable or unwilling to see Randy as different from the bigots who had directed the same nastiness at them all their lives. It’s not long before Randy gets to hear Cass’s wonderful performances and soon they’re talking and joking with each other. Cass quickly lets him know that she doesn’t tolerate any familiarity or disrespect and won’t back down from anything. Her past bad relationships with a few men keep her at a distance from Randy as anyone more than a friend. Little by little, she gets Randy’s story out of him. As a fellow Southerner, he sees skin color and how shades can determine how people are treated but for his own reasons, it doesn’t faze him as he was taught to play by a black man and taken in by him and his wife. Cass also has some of her friends warning her about what Randy might be up to since a white man working in a colored business and living in Harlem sounds suspicious and must have an agenda. Randy isn’t completely rejected in Harlem as his previous playing connections lead him to a boarding house there with an owner who mothers him and scolds him when she thinks he needs either.
Luther’s mother also sticks up for Randy and calls others on their actions but Randy knows better than to think that many at the club will ever accept him. When Cass sees the results of the brutal beating Randy gets outside the club one night, she does too. Taking care of the injured man is one thing but getting romantically involved in the face of her past disappointments and her friends’ warnings is another.
This book doesn’t make the obstacles Randy and Cass face easy. His past makes him want a loving marriage and family while hers has her backing away from any long term involvement. Then there are the prevailing attitudes from both sides of the color line. Some think Randy must be up to something sordid while others look down on Cass as no better than a prostitute for being with him. Some think he’s taken an opportunity away from a colored sax player who couldn’t go anywhere else unlike Randy who has chances to play in places where they couldn’t. Others will always hate Randy or Cass merely for the color of their skin.
But the heart knows what it wants and though Cass takes a lot of persuasion to believe in Randy’s determination and difference from the men who had hurt her before – he’s stubborn. He also amazes her with his knowledge of places they can safely go and of people who will accept them as a couple. Yes, they existed even back then. Cass also gets some straight talking advice from a delightful woman who speaks little but what she says, says a lot. Mrs. Cooper doesn’t suffer fools at all and snaps these two out of their mooning and mopes. In the end, they know they can’t change the opinion of a lot of people, that most won’t accept them or trust that their feelings are true and won’t alter in time. But Randy has proven to Cass that he’s the kind of man he’s said he is and she’s decided that he’s one of the good ones among all the bad apples. Their exit from NYC isn’t without drama but they’re committed. B