Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lack of jazz lore leaves family in the spotlight

  • Print

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-turned-photographer 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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 G6


Updated on Saturday, July 26, 2014 at 8:49 AM CDT: Formatting.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Total Body Tune-Up: Farmer's Carry

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Local- Peregrine Falcon Recovery Project. Baby peregrine falcons. 21 days old. Three baby falcons. Born on ledge on roof of Radisson hotel on Portage Avenue. Project Coordinator Tracy Maconachie said that these are third generation falcons to call the hotel home. Maconachie banded the legs of the birds for future identification as seen on this adult bird swooping just metres above. June 16, 2004.
  • A monarch butterfly looks for nectar in Mexican sunflowers at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Monday afternoon-Monarch butterflys start their annual migration usually in late August with the first sign of frost- Standup photo– August 22, 2011   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Do you think the Jets will win Game 4 on Wednesday?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google