The premise and the well rendered voice of the narrator, Sid Griffiths, an American black octogenerian, are the book’s two main strengths. First, to the premise. In the 1930s many of America’s best black jazz musicians fled to Europe in order to escape Jim Crow laws. In Europe the jazz culture flourished, for a while. Our central characters, the narrator Sid and his childhood friend Chip Jones, are two American black men who went to Berlin where they formed an exceptional jazz band. Here, to highlight Sid’s jazzy cadence as a narrator, is Sid’s introduction to this background:
“See, I was born here, in Baltimore, before the Great War. And when you’re born in Baltimore before the Great War you think of getting out. Especially if you’re poor, black and full of sky-high hopes. Sure B-more ain’t south south, sure my family was light-skinned, but if you think Jim Crow hurt only gumbo country, you blind. My pals and I was as much welcome in white diners as some Byron Meriwether would be breaking bread in Jojo’s Crab House. Things was bitter. Some of my mama’s family — two of her brothers and a schoolteacher sister — they was passing as whites down Charlottesville way. Cut us off entirely. You don’t know how I dreamed of showing up there, breaking up their parade. I ain’t so sure about it now, I suppose they was just trying to get by best they could. We could’ve passed too, said we was bohunks or something, but my pa ain’t never gone for that. Negro is what the lord made us, he always said. Don’t want to be nothing else.”Edugyan, to me, does a great job of creating this voice without overdoing it and forcing the reader to reread simply to decode what was being said about Jojo’s Crab House.
In Berlin, Sid and Chip meet up with a couple of other jazz players, one in particular, “the kid,” twenty-year old Hieronymous Falk (or Hiero), would go into history as one of the best jazz trumpeters ever. Hiero’s back story is also very interesting. His mother was German, but his father was one of the black soldiers sent by the French to occupy Germany after World War I; he’s the “half-blood” of the title (“Half-Blood Blues” is also the name of one of the groups most famous songs, which, again, has a fascinating history). These soldiers would be known as “the Black Shame, the Scourge, the Black Infamy”; it was presumed that any woman who had a child with one of the soldiers was either a prostitute or a rape victim. Hieronymous Falk is a legend (and Edugyan doesn’t hesitate to create verisimilitude by listing real jazz musicians who were inspired by this fictional character), but there’s little of him. The book opens in Paris in 1939. The group fled Berlin when the Nazis rose to power, but they didn’t get as far away as they should have. At the end of the first section, Hiero is arrested by the Gestapo, never to be heard from again (we lovers of literature know that it is not rare this story of a legendary, obviously masterful artist whose life was cut tragically short by the Nazis).
I’ll admit that I was ambivalent about Half Blood Blues when I first read it but, if you check the comments following my post, some very good readers have already convinced me that I may have under-rated it — I’ll be having another look before the Shadow Jury takes up serious deliberations.