Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


So Black and So Blue

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I first heard the buzz about Esi Edugyan’s novel Half-Blood Blues when it hit last year’s prize lists. When a book is nominated for the Giller Prize (which it won), the Governor General’s Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Man Booker Prize, you know something special is going on.

Half-Blood Blues straddles two time periods. The first is Europe, tipping into World War II. We meet a rag-tag group of talented jazz musicians holed up in a faded apartment in occupied Paris. Most of them are Americans, taking advantage of the European fascination with jazz. The dazzling talent in the group, a trumpet player named Heironymus Falk, is German.

The musicians have left Berlin in an attempt to evade the ever-widening dominion of the Third Reich. The narrative kicks into gear when Heiro forfeits safety in favour of a glass of milk. He is twenty—brilliant, impetuous, fed up with oppressive restrictions, and vulnerable in ways he cannot imagine. As the offspring of a German mother and an African father, in the eyes of the Nazis he is a “Rhineland bastard.” In broad daylight, he is arrested by German soldiers and disappears.

Fast forward fifty years. The band members have worked hard and played hard. Like everybody else, they are carrying their successes and failures into old age. The discovery of an unreleased recording in the walls of a German house catapults Heironymus Falk into public attention again, and the old jazzmen return to Germany to revisit their earlier selves and all the complex years and emotions that have gathered in the space Heiro has left vacant.

The novel is beautifully plotted and alive with jazz lore, and its ethical terrain is challenging enough to nourish a reader. But it’s really the language that gives this novel its muscle. Vernacular, grainy, mannered—the sound of the telling is even more important than the thing that is being told. And to me that’s what makes Half-Blood Blues a jazz novel: it glories in the distinctiveness of its voices, and the weaving together of multiple angles. As a reader, you have to give over to the authority of a voice that is not your own. You have to be willing to be taken over and led to a place that nobody can really anticipate because everybody has to discover it together.

Like many critically-acclaimed books, Half-Blood Blues has its fair share of nay-sayers. Some readers get frustrated and then bored because the words are uncommon and the sentences come out crooked. This is Edugyan’s brilliance, though: given a chance, those crooked sentences can transport us right inside the lives of people who lived out loud in an art form that demanded every ounce of creativity they could muster and a culture that both elevated and denied them.

February is Black History Month. The stories of the African diaspora have so much to tell us about where we have been and how far we still have to go. Put Half-Blood Blues on your night table.

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