Jazz. If there is one word for the musical genius of Black people, jazz is that word.
From New Orleans to Cape Town, from Canada to Cuba, thousands of Africans in the Diaspora have turned their triumphs and tribulations into brilliant music.
This art form is both documentation and vehicle, according to Esi Edugyan (The Second Life of Samuel Tyne) in Half-Blood Blues. In this book she recalls the little known fate of Black people trapped in Hitler’s Germany.
The narrative centers on the fictitious and ill-fated Hieronymus Falk (aka Hiero). He is a self-taught jazz genius on the trombone. Not yet 20, Hiero is the heir apparent to Louis Armstrong. The boy is also a Mischling, meaning he’s half German and half Cameroonian, the half-blood of the title.
Like thousands of Black Germans, Hiero is kidnapped by the Nazis. Because he is Black, he is labeled a defiler of the pure Aryan race, a “Foreign...Stateless person of Negro descent.” At the beginning of the novel he is taken away, most likely to be killed in a death camp.
The novel is told in flashbacks. While it centers on Hiero, his story is not the main one of the book. The real story is that of the narrator, Sid. He is Hiero’s band mate in the quintet, The Hot-Time Swingers. Early in the work, Sid admits that he witnessed Hiero’s arrest and did nothing. Initially, the author lets the reader wonder what he could have done. Sid is also Black. However, he is so light-skinned that he can pass for white. The Nazis might have listened to him had he at least attempted to save Hiero. We learn that Sid passes for white when it suits him.
Why didn’t he help Hiero? As Edugyan outlines, Sid is a complicated man and not a very self-aware one. He begins to see his envy of Hiero when a woman named Delilah Brown scouts the band. The novel combines fictional and factual characters, and the fictitious Brown is the assistant to the factual Louis Armstrong.
Soon after Sid meets her, the two fall in love. Because Delilah pays special attention to the orphaned Hiero, Sid becomes jealous. Edugyan leads the reader to believe that Sid betrays his friend because of two all consuming emotions—jealousy and envy. At Delilah’s suggestion, Armstrong “auditions” the band himself and plays a duet with Hiero. Sid is the unwilling witness to the interplay of two titans.
“Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake…It was then that I finally heard it. I heard how damn brilliant the kid really was. I hated it.”
Sid’s playing is so substandard that his band mates wince. Although he says nothing to Sid, Armstrong replaces him on the recording that the band makes soon after. Then Delilah dumps Sid after he accuses her of having a romantic relationship with Hiero.
However, these are the least of Sid’s or the band’s troubles. Light-skinned or not, he’s an American living in Berlin when the fascists take over. If native Germans are in danger from their own government, foreigners are special targets.
However, Germany didn’t become a monster overnight, according to the author. The rise of the Third Reich was the culmination of decades of moral disintegration. In one passage, Hiero takes Sid to Hagenbecks, the human zoo in Hamburg, Germany. “These are the dangerous animals,” Hiero said bitterly. Germany was the first country to have an exhibition of live human beings. Later on in the paragraph, it seems apparent that one of the people on display might be Hiero’s own father. Germans, and indeed anyone, come to the zoo to gawk at the natives whom they believe are a sub-species.
Edugyan goes on to demonstrate the treatment of Jews by the Nazis in wrenching detail. Paul, the band’s pianist is a blonde, blue-eyed, Jewish man, who passes for Aryan to survive. At one point, the Nazis attack him and Hiero. Sid explains how he and the other band members save the two from certain death. “Big Fritz. He seized the Boot brawling with Paul by the back of the neck. Lifting him clean off his feet, he thrown him down on the cobblestones like a sack of meat. Started stomping him shitless.” It’s clear that Paul and Hiero were lucky to have friends willing to fight for and with them. It’s also clear that millions of other Jews weren’t so fortunate.
Hitler was the duly elected abomination of a people who had waited for him for decades, as this book clarifies. Worse, his regime was unstoppable—at least in Europe, as history clarifies. No sooner do the Hot Time Swingers escape to Paris, than France declares war on Germany.
Edugyan’s imagery creates an immediacy that places the reader in Paris. Slowly, the French start to lose the war. There are food shortages for short periods of time. Then the periods are longer. Then there is no food. Businesses close over night. By the time winter sets in, there is no fuel. The French burn their furniture to stay warm. All the trains stop running. There is no electricity. The French government abandons its citizens. One day, German tanks roll into the city, and the German soldiers round up the people that they want to kill. The band members are trapped inside the country that was to have been their sanctuary.
German soldiers come for all of them in different ways and at different times. Because the love of the music has made the band a family, the Hot Time Swingers protect and sometimes sacrifice for each other. Despite being hunted like animals, the band rehearses for a record. For the most part, they live for the music and one another.
Like a riff, the narrative switches to the 1990s where some of the band’s survivors are trying to make a go of their lives. A filmmaker makes a documentary about the Hot Time Swingers, and forces these now elderly men to relive painful events of their pasts.
An untrustworthy guide at times, Sid reveals a multi-layered and harmonic story. All of the pieces of this book work in unison like instruments. One melody traces the moral degeneration of a people. Another appreciates the sacrifices thousands made to help others.
Yet, the riff that runs through the book is that the love of jazz and, equally important, the love for each other sustained the band members when they had nothing and no one else. Edugyan has recounted a little known but important history. Hers is a beautifully written book. She shows the music is in the blood lines of a people and in all those that love jazz. Love of this art form transcends all kinds of barriers.