Night in Shanghai

Written by Nicole Mones
Review by Richard Bourgeois

Shanghai in 1936 is an open city, strictly controlled yet in its own way lawless. Several foreign powers rule their own quarters; only Chinese forces themselves are forbidden to enter. Farther north the Communists and Nationalists fight over China’s destiny even as Imperial Japan prepares to invade. But for now it is Ye Shanghai – Night in Shanghai, a brief moment when the precarious balance between these destructive forces allows peace, and jazz.

Enter Thomas Greene, a classically trained American pianist. He can only play from written music; can barely manage swing, can’t improvise at all. But the dark skin that bars him from playing Chopin and Bach under Jim Crow laws in America qualifies him to lead a jazz orchestra in Shanghai. The years pass by; Greene falls in love with a Chinese woman who is secretly a Communist. He learns the blues from his bandmates and begins to play his own, unwritten tunes. Meanwhile the situation in Europe darkens. Thousands of refugee Jews arrive, including several excellent musicians. The band plays on as Ye Shanghai fades away forever like the memory of a dream. Soon Japanese bombs will begin to fall, and any ship home to America could be the last.

Mones works seamlessly with a large and disparate group of characters – gangsters and Communists, jazz men and diplomats – always with a sympathetic hand. Music jumps from every page; even if the reader doesn’t know quite what it means to flat the 7th, the sound comes through just fine in Thomas Greene’s voice. A touching story and highly recommended.