Monday, May 21, 2012
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
In Berlin, between World War I and II, jazz was the thing. Black musicians flocked there and to Paris, fleeing the discrimination at home. One group formed then had members from all over. There were Sid and Chip, the bass player and drummer, childhood friends who came over from Baltimore. Ernst was a German, son of a rich and powerful industrialist. Big Fritz was also German, as was Paul, the group's only Jewish member.
Then there was Hieronymus, or Hiero Falk, the band's trumpeter. Hiero is young, barely twenty, a decade or so younger than the rest of the band. He is also German, but most people would be surprised to learn this. Born of a German mother and a Senegalese father, he is one of a handful of 'half-bloods' born in a region where Senegalese troops had been stationed. These children were not accepted but shunned and singled out for unfair treatment. But Hiero has a gift; he plays the trumpet in a manner that rivals the king of all trumpeters, Louis Armstrong.
By 1939, things had gotten bad in Berlin. The SS were everywhere, targeting Jews first, but also blacks and other minorities. Jazz was denounced as savage music not worthy of a true German's attention. As tensions mount and the men start to fear for their lives, a woman appears. She is Deliliah Brown, the singer in Louis Armstrong's band, and she wants them to come to Paris and play with Louis. After Paul is captured on the streets one day, the men decide to go there.
Once there, things are better for a time, but not for long. Dissension starts to strain the band as members vie for Deliliah's attention and time to record. The group falls apart when Hiero is swept up and sent to a camp, but Sid manages to sneak out one precious recording, 'Half-Blood Blues' when he and Chip go back to America that makes the group's reputation. Hiero survives the war, but dies soon afterward.
As the book opens, Chip and Sid are on their way to a Hiero Falk Festival in Berlin, put together by a German documentary maker who wants to reestablish the glory of those days when jazz ruled the music scene. This is surprising enough, but Chip has a shock in his pocket. It turns out that Hiero did not die, but has been living in obscurity for forty years. The men are reunited and all the old disagreements and tensions are resolved.
Esi Edugyan has written a glorious book. The reader is transported into the world of jazz musicians, where the music is the thing, the only thing that matters. The tension and danger of the Nazi government is strikingly portrayed, and how it swept apart friends and families and whole generations of people. There is friendship and betrayal, sacrifice and pain along with a determination to survive and make the music survival. This book was long-listed for the Mann Booker Prize and is recommended for all readers.