By the time I finally picked up a copy of Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s novel already had quite a reputation going for it, the result of having won Canada’s Giller prize and having been a short-listed candidate for Britain’s Booker Prize. I am happy to report that this story of three black jazz musicians, who find themselves trapped in Paris when Hitler’s Nazis overrun the city, largely lives up to that reputation – except for maybe a quibble or two I will mention later.
Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones have known each other forever. The two grew up together in Baltimore where they honed their musical talents to so a high level - Sid on base and Chip on drums - that they would become popular in Berlin as the core of a jazz band they called the Hot-Time Swingers. But they really hit the big time when they add trumpeter Hieronymous Falk to the mix. Hiero, a mixed-race German, is so special a talent that he catches the attention of one Louis Armstrong - who invites the band to join him in Paris to cut a record.
The tough decision to shut things down in Berlin is made easy for the band when Hitler labels jazz as “degenerate music” and bans public performances of it. When the Hot Swingers, including its German members, realize that more than their mere livelihood is at stake, the scramble is on to find papers good enough to get them across the border and on their way to Paris. Little do they know it, but Hitler’s army is not all that far behind them.
Sid Griffiths, the book’s narrator, tells this intriguing story from the perspective of just over fifty years in the future. Sid and Chip are old men living in 1992 Baltimore with plans to attend the imminent Berlin debut of a documentary film honoring the now legendary jazz trumpeter Hiero Falk. Hiero, caught in a Nazi roundup of “undesirables,” has not been heard from since the day of his arrest and is presumed to have died in a Nazi death camp. The mystery surrounding his arrest, details of which only Sid knows, have turned Hiero into the kind of musical legend that only dying young can do for a musician.
But Sid knows the whole story, and even though the truth is still eating at his soul, he does not really expect, or want, to go public with it. Surprise, surprise, Sid.
Esi Edugyan has Sid speak in the vernacular of jazz musicians of the thirties. While this initially slows the reader down, once the speech pattern becomes familiar, this technique gives Half-Blood Blues a feeling of authenticity it otherwise would not have had. This does, however, bring me to my first “quibble.” When Sid is thinking out loud for the reader, he sounds nothing like he does in conversation with his friends - even in 1992 – and that is sometimes a little jarring to the reader’s ear.
But more importantly, the book’s ending does not quite measure up to the hugely dramatic build-up leading to it. Perhaps unrealistically, I was hoping for more. I did, however, still very much enjoy this one, and I suspect that I will be thinking about it for a good while, so if you like WWII history from a civilian point-of-view, you will likely love Half-Blood Blues. Esi Edugyan is most certainly a talent to be watched.