The novel follows talented young saxophonist Latif James-Pearson as he migrates from Boston to New York in hopes of apprenticing himself to his hero, Albert Van Horn. The centers of Latif's universe soon become his room in a Harlem boarding house, where he spends his days alone, practicing intensely, and a downtown nightclub called Dutchman's, where Van Horn's group performs. There, Latif studies the musicians from afar, unwilling to meet Van Horn until he feels musically ready. It is at Dutchman's that Latif stumbles into another apprenticeship, this one to a charismatic drug dealer named Say Brother, and inadvertently comes under the wing of Van Horn's pianist, Sonny Burma. Latif also meets Mona, a white painter who is a regular at the club, and they begin a complex affair, which causes both of them to question their ideas about artistry, race, and love.
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