Berlin in 1939 was not a happy place. But for a handful of young jazz musicians, it offered freedom. For African-Americans, like bassist Sid Griffiths and drummer Chip Jones, the last gasp of the Weimar Republic had been a more accepting environment than their Jim Crow hometown of Baltimore. And for a black German musician, Hieronymous Falk, the cosmopolitan city had provided a chance to be who he was: a shy, skinny, and incredibly talented trumpet player.
Together, they were the Hot-Time Swingers, and when the Nazis crack down on their “degenerate’’ music, they flee to Paris on the invitation of Delilah, a beautiful singer. She introduces them to Louis Armstrong, who is holed up in a Montmartre flat. Inspired, the band records a few deathless tracks. History is against them, however, and before the record can be finished, tragedy strikes. More than 50 years later, as the band is about to be honored with a documentary film, Chip unearths Sid, and the fallout from their past is apparent. Chip has made a career, but Sid has sunk into himself, the result of a momentary betrayal made all those years before in Paris.
History is at the core of Esi Edugyan’s brilliant second novel, “Half-Blood Blues.’’ Told in the jazzy patter of Sid’s first-person monologue, which makes the Nazis into “Boots’’ and every woman a “jane,’’ even the well-known prelude to war feels intensely lived in. In Berlin, for example, a German musician makes a practical but unexpected choice between his aristocratic family and his friends. And as the Nazis approach Paris, the musicians experience the march of fate as a kind of chilling uncertainty: A corner store closes, and a cafe’s staff becomes edgy and cold. But the history at the crux of this novel is more personal than global, as the musical and romantic rivalries between these passionate young men become matters of life and death in a terrible time.
In many ways, the confrontations between the three are inevitable. In addition to the differences in their backgrounds, the bandmates are unevenly matched in terms of talent and maturity. Chip is good, Sid says, but his skills seem to be failing him. “I wasn’t sure what it was, at first. A late buzz on the bass, maybe, a sluggish tap of my old toe. But there just wasn’t no crackle in the gut, the bass just walking real flat-footed along them lines.’’ And Hiero, as they call Falk, is a genius. “Hell, though, he was a child. Stupid young for what all he do on a horn. You heard a lifetime in one brutal note.’’ Delilah, meanwhile, serves as a catalyst. A multifaceted character, rather than a simple femme fatale, she gets them out of Germany and introduces them to Armstrong; but for Sid, she’s the cause of one more conflict than he can bear.
Swinging back and forth between the eras, this book - which won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize - is both lively and imbued with regret: A confession related in jazz patter, and the guilt that infuses Sid’s retelling is palpable. His remembrance even starts with an admonition - “Chip told us not to go out’’ - and as the book makes its winding way toward uniting the two tales, we learn why. When the secret is revealed, it is less horrible than it could have been, more a sin of omission than an active betrayal. But it has accrued weight over time, and not even the strange denouement can lift that from Sid’s shoulders. The past is a scratchy old record, he learns. “Turn it,’’ he is commanded, as the final scene winds up. “Play it again.’’