So this is Half-Blood Blues:
A motley group of jazz musicians is trapped in Berlin, 1939. The group is composed of various races and ethnicities, and they all have conflicts about leaving even though the “boots” are closing in. Into the group steps Delilah with a message from Paris. From Louis Armstrong. He wants the Hot Time Swingers, especially their prodigy trumpeter, Hieronymus Falk, to join him. Fast forward to 1992.
A couple of guys from that old group—Sidney Griffiths (bass) and Charles C. “Chip” Jones (drums)—are off to Germany (Chip enthusiastically, Sid reluctantly) to view the premiere of a documentary about the group. Eventually, it becomes clear that Chip has another agenda. He’s heard from Hiero, now in Poland, and wants to inveigle Sid to join him in a visit the friend they thought dead. Off they go, and off we go, bouncing back and forth between 30’s/40’s and 1992 just after the fall of the Wall. We follow the intricate personal conflicts within the group, the arc of their musical careers, and a searing revelation in the end.
Sid is our narrator, truculent, insecure, not very likable, but the perfect teller of this rather grim tale because he, the outsider, is, it turns out, the ultimate insider. That’s just the logistics. The ambience, the color, the flavor owes everything to Esi Edugyan’s wonderful language.
I recently read a blog and attendant comments re the lack of music in fiction. Well, Half-Blood Blues is music as much as it is language. Maybe you can’t actually hear Louis Armstrong by reading a description of his playing, but you’ll come as close as heaven allows in this novel. And the poetry of the woven melodies and counter-melodies and messages that is jazz leaps from the page and grabs your heart every time Edugyan sits down with her characters for a session.
Hiero raise up his horn, real soft, and start playing a uneasy, nervous beat . . . Armstrong ain’t said nothing. . . He come in on the loose beat. It was the sound of the gods, all that brass. It was the old Armstrong and the new, that mature distilled essence of a master and the boy he used to be. the boy who could make his glissandi snap like marbles, the high C’s piercing. Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake , and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought . . .Hiero, he just reaching out seeking the shore, Armstrong stood there calling across to him. . . .just two golden ropes of sound [intertwining.]
Half-Blood Blues was short-listed for the 2011 Booker, and I suppose something marvelous beat it out, but whatever it was, it must have been chosen by a hair’s breadth. And prize or not, every reader of this “loser” will be treated to a high-level jam session on every page.