The Nazis, Jazz, and Sacrifice In the Name of Art: Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues
We all hear World War II stories. We're saturated with them. We hear them in school, from elders, on television. It's hard to bring us somewhere new; it's hard to make us feel something new. Seldom anymore do you hear a World War II story that stops you. And never do you hear a story with, say, a jazz band escaping Nazi Germany and Louis Armstrong and a young kid's disappearance -- packed in one story. That's until, of course, you read Esi Edugyan's novel, Half-Blood Blues.
It's Berlin, 1939. Hitler reigns, and the Nazi Party cracks down on all things "degenerate." This, unfortunately for the Hot-Time Swingers, a German/American jazz band, includes their music. After a scuffle with Nazi soldiers, they hide in a closed-down nightclub, surviving on little food and "czech" (cheap alcohol). As things get worse, as they lose their band mates one by one and war seems inevitable, the Hot-Time Swingers face a fact: They need to get out.
The story follows those of them who escape. There's Sid, the bassist from Baltimore, our narrator-protagonist; Chip, the drummer, also from Baltimore, and Sid's friend from childhood; and finally, the trumpeter and youngest member, "the kid," the musical genius -- Hieronymus Falk. Hiero is a black German (a "stain" on Germany's heritage, say the Nazis). He has mythical talent. As Sid says, when Hiero played the trumpet, "you heard a lifetime."
So the three of them flee; they go to Paris and stay with Delilah, a friend and representative of none other than a jazz legend -- Louis Armstrong. What's more, Armstrong's a huge fan of the Hot-Time Swingers and wants to make a record with them. It all seems so easy; their luck seems too good. But as Sid finds out, "What is luck but something to run out?" The Nazis invade Paris on June 14. With no resistance from the French, the city is captured and overrun quickly. And again, Sid, Chip, and Hiero seek safety in hiding. But one night at a cafe, while Sid watches from a safe distance, Hiero is arrested and taken away by the Nazis -- never to be seen again.
Flash forward to 1992. The Wall has just come down; Sid, who has long given up jazz, still grapples with the past; Chip tours the world, still drumming. Their lives are very much separate. But when they're both invited to Berlin for the Hieronymous Falk Festival, they go together (after much urging on Chip's part). And here, in the city where it all began, Sid must face the guilt from his past, from Hiero's past.
Edugyan's prose, her knack for voice and music, charms and removes you. It takes you far away. It takes you to a time just before the world exploded, a time that would change everything, a time when it wasn't always safe to be yourself, your blood, your skin color, a time when -- for Sid, Chip, and Hiero -- music was both an escape and a death sentence.