During a recent appearance on Desert Island Discs, a breathless Molly Parkin told a story about meeting Louis Armstrong in her early days at Goldsmiths College, London: she was ignorant of jazz, but the crowd she’d fallen in with insisted she join them at one of the trumpeter’s concerts of that year. After the show, which came as a revelation to her, Parkin and the others went backstage, and, as she tells it, Armstrong propositioned her; when she demurred, and revealed she was not just a virgin but had never been kissed, Satchmo took her face in his hands and laid his lips to hers. Two weeks later, Parkin wasn’t a virgin anymore.
Armstrong appears as a secondary character in Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, but rather than the impish, mercurial, passionate figure revealed in Parkin’s story, here he is re-figured somewhat bloodlessly as an unscrupulous sage: falling in with the group of musicians who will record the fictional jazz great which gives the novel its title, he gives each of them a pep talk about love, live and music – and then flees the Nazi advance without taking any of them, including his road girlfriend Delilah, with him. In this way, his role is less that of a character and more as an embodiment of Edugyan’s conception of music: for a musician, it is both driving purpose and unfaithful lover, both bosom buddy and betrayer.
The narrator of Half Blood Blues is Sid Griffiths, the averagely talented bassist with the Hot-Time Swingers, a popular jazz act in Weimar Germany which is quite literally struggling to survive in the face of Nazification. In the course of the book, the band move between Berlin, Hamburg and Paris, shedding members to coincidence and persecution: their Jewish pianist is betrayed to the Nazis by a rival; an aristocratic German member of the group opts to stay behind in his father’s country pile, having secured exit papers for the others; and Hiero, the band’s youthful and mercurial trumpet player, is arrested in a Paris nightclub after the German army occupy the Swingers’ last redoubt. It is this final loss which is the emotional core of the book: in the decades since 1940, Hieronymous Falk has come to be appreciated as a jazz genius, a trumpeter of uncommon and tragically unrealised talent, and in 1992 the surviving members of the band – Sid and his childhood friend, the now famous drummer Chip Jones – are invited to a Berlin festival devoted to the genius Sid still refers to as ‘the kid’.
Sid, however, is an unreliable narrator – this is clear as soon as the novel starts full of unspoken tensions and difficulties, when we are dumped into the Paris of 1940, and the Swingers are working hard and feverishly, in hiding and behind back-out curtains, on their last ever recording – and there are a number of betrayals which are slowly unwound through the course of the book. Armstrong’s girlfriend, Delilah Brown, is a key figure in these machinations; but so, too, is the ambivalent force of great jazz – the pressure it exerts upon those who play it to push themselves, to prove themselves, to excel and to record that excellence for the ages. Indeed, and somewhat disappointingly, the degradations of the period are here very much in the background: they offer a reason for the Swingers to be running around and under stress, and they offer a peril which forces urgency onto their slow disintegration, but at the same time this is a story, all jealousy, frustration and thwarted egos, which could have taken place in Sid and Chip’s native Baltimore. This more than anything else represents the novel’s real missed opportunity – and failing.
Sid is a light-skinned African-American, able to avoid all but the most suspicious of Nazi glares; yet Hiero, who is in fact German – one of the ‘Rhineland bastards’ born to French colonial troops and local women during the inter-war years – is so dark that in Paris his only alibi is that he is from Senegal; meanwhile, the Swingers’ pianist, though Jewish, is blonde-haired and blue-eyed, capable of convincing camaraderie on long train rides with sneering Gestapo officers. The arbitrariness of race and nationality is thus constantly underlined, and yet to little effect. “So we passed, sure,” admits Sid. “But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed we’d passed right out of our own skins.” [pp. 78-9] Despite sly references here and there, this backdrop never becomes foreground – Edugyan simply relies on the modern reader’s a priori assumption that the persecution is absurd and reprehensible, and therefore assumes no responsibility for analysing and addressing it except as frame for her plot.
Perhaps this is all part of her subtle purpose – yet the foregrounded plot does not speak thematically to its context, either. Sid’s secrets are born of personal and individualised envy, his love and lust for a woman and embittered acceptance of his own musical limitations; we can’t transpose Sid’s small acts of betrayal, or indeed those of Chip or Armstrong, onto the system which has marginalised, and seeks to murder, them. The novel is built around Hiero’s coming of age – when we first meet him, he mimics Sid or sounds like Satchmo, but come the final recording session his music is “the very sound of age, of growing older, of adolescent rage being tempered by a man’s heart.” [pg. 310] That is, this is a book about a coming of age, about moving on. Given the lack of English language work on the Afro-German experience under the Nazis, this seems an odd choice. The reader is struck, for instance, by the young trumpeter’s reaction when he and Sid visit a ‘human zoo’, in which spoils of colonial conquest – chiefs and their tribes – are displayed for public consumption in full regalia: “Hiero ain’t even blinked. There wasn’t no sense of curiosity in that gaze, no sense of shock. Just calm resignation, like when a man gazes at a portrait of himself from another time.” [pg. 171]
That creole voice is present throughout – a potent mix of Baltimore bar slang and German, of jazz scat and self-recrimination. This works better in some places than in others – at times the prose loses its characteristics so completely one wonders if the perspective hasn’t changed; at others it reads more like Uncle Remus than a 1940s jazz musician in Europe. It lacks, then, the remarkable, supple control of deWitt’s work in The Sisters Brothers; likewise, its scope and courage fall well below that of Jamrach’s Menagerie. We are sometimes exposed to cliché – embarassed by rejection, Sid bites the inside of his mouth so hard he can taste the blood, and the femme fatale has a sad secret hidden behind her glamorous exterior – and at others the attempts to précis history as if living it are clumsy: “The Krauts hurtled through Belgium, Holland Luxembourg […] the British ain’t got a government, […] some joker named Churchill taken over. Then the Frogs sent their armies north, and the Limeys opened a front against the Krauts. Then it was the Krauts leading parachutists in behind our lines. Hell.” [pg. 279]
There’s no denying that Edugyan can conjure the atmosphere of a 1930s jazz bar, or the weird liminality of a city under siege, with economy and great effect. She is good, too, at male banter and the condition of the musician. But she is also occasionally cavalier, and hesitant to push her story and her characters further than might be polite. It’s hard not to conclude that Half Blood Blues might not be a better book had its two halves – the recriminations of a jazz band, the persecutions of Africans in Nazi Germany – been separated. As it is, this is a readable, elegant and at times moving book (its epilogue, in particular, makes great use of the emotional power of the novel’s premise); but it isn’t all it could – and arguably should – have been.