Nat(han Irving) Hentoff Annie Gottlieb - Essay

Annie Gottlieb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Does This School Have Capital Punishment?" is] a sentimental fantasy, complete with good guys who need to learn compassion, bad guys who turn out to have soft hearts and a fairy godfather in the form of a great old black jazz musician.

It is improbable, to say the least, that a renowned trumpeter named Major Kelley would travel from New York to Chicago to help a bright, smart-alecky white kid beat an unfair accusation of marijuana possession—and then buy a cake inscribed "INNOCENT" to celebrate the victory for the boy…. But then almost everything in this book is a little unreal. Both kids and teachers at tough, exclusive Burr Academy are impossibly clever; Major Kelley is often impossibly oracular; and any character can in an instant become a mouthpiece for a minilecture (thoroughly worthy, mind you) on why jazz should be taught in the schools or why it feels better to tell the truth. The creepy kid who pins the bum rap on Sam is impossibly victimized by a newspaper-tycoon father who's a moustache-twirling capitalist villain … and so on.

The whole mix might appeal only to urban preppies were it not for Mr. Hentoff's virtuoso writing on jazz, which soars out of its silly setting like a silver phoenix. This book is worth reading just to meet a clarinetist with a "sound like hot spice," to learn that jazz can "bring you back from the dead" and to hear about an era in the Kansas City of the 1930's when "the air, the air itself, moved in jazz time." And Major Kelley and his ancient father are grand characters, despite the mawkish roles they are made to play vis à vis Sam and friends.

Annie Gottlieb, in her review of "Does This School Have Capital Punishment?" in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 26, 1981, p. 13.