Edgar Payne is the catalyst for the action of novel. When he was a young man, he refused to have anything to do with the kind of music his brother, Sonny, played, but shortly after he heard that Sonny had died, Edgar happened to hear a jazz station play an all-night tribute to his brother. He listened, and by morning he went out and bought every record his brother had released. He finally understood jazz. Edgar has changed since he was young, and his extended family is now his major concern. The concert to which he invites Hattie and young Sonny is a way for Edgar to make up for the years of neglect of his brother and a way to resolve the late jazz musician’s anger with his family in Brooklyn.
The fate of young Sonny rests in the hands of Hattie Carmichael. She is the novel’s major link to a past that makes up a great deal of its plot, as she is the one whose memories of Sonny Rett Payne in France compose the background of the unfolding story. She has great strength of character, determination, and practical competence, having ably handled the business and publicity demands on her musician lover when he was alive. After his death, she adopted his child. Although she provides as well as she can for the boy and seems to have raised him well, young Sonny has none of the advantages that are considered standard in an American middle-class childhood. She is bitter on behalf of her late lover, but she is able to change when she understands how much richer a life young Sonny can have in the United States. There is a thaw within her at the end of the novel.
Both Edgar and Hattie change throughout the novel, becoming fully realized, successful characters. Sonny, only eight years old, also changes during the novel. He learns to accept his family with all their physical and mental quirks, and he is quick to respond to their well-intentioned kindnesses and love. The novel ends with the hope of a bright future for the boy, in which he will enjoy a loving family and opportunities to develop his strengths. In their struggles with the past and the present, these characters transcend their circumstances and become universal.