Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues depicts a tale of a sextet of musicians living, loving and playing hot jazz in Berlin and Paris at the onset of the second World War. In those trying times, this musical group, the Hot-Time Swingers, is remarkably diverse with four Germans and two Americans; three blacks; three whites. Sid, the bassist, and Chip, the drummer, are the Americans. They are boyhood friends from Baltimore. They are joined by the Germans: Friitz, the alto sax player; Ernst, the clarinetist; the pianist Paul; and the amazing wunderkind, Hiero, on the trumpet. Paul is Jewish, and Hiero is a Mischling, German for a half-blood, whose mother was a white German and whose father was Senegalese.
As the story unfolds, the mysterious jazz-singer Delilah, who represents the great Louis Armstrong, arrives in Berlin in 1939. She meets the group and lets them know that Satchmo is aware of them and likes their sound and would like to play with them and cut a record in Paris. The resourceful Delilah works hard to obtain forged travel documents for the Germans to get out of Nazi Germany. However fate intervenes with tragic consequences for Paul, Fritz and Ernst, and only Sid, Chip and Hiero manage to make it to Paris.
Armstrong is determined to record with the remnant of the Hot-Time Swingers, as he sees immense talent in Hiero, someone he sees as a possible protege. Satchmo puts together a new ensemble, excluding Sid, to play and make a record together. However soon Paris is occupied by the Nazis, and the final cut of the record is never made. Hiero is arrested by the Gestapo, ostensibly to be sent to a concentration camp, while Sid and Chip return home to Baltimore.
As the years go by, Chip has a career as an accomplished jazz drummer, still playing and touring the world well into his eighties. Sid, unable to get over his rejection by Armstrong, gives up playing, and turns to a career as a medical transcriber. Then, surprisingly, Chip recieves a letter from the assumed-dead Hiero, inviting him to visit him in his home in Poland.
In the meantime, a documentary film has been made by a young German-Finnish director about the life and times of the Hot-Time Swingers and it features interviews with Sid and Chip. The debut of the film will be at a jazz festival in homage to Hiero in reunified Berlin, as Hiero has become a cult figure among German jazz aficionados. The two octogenarians, Sid and Chip, are asked to participate in the festival, all expenses paid. While in Berlin, Chip decides to take up Hiero’s invitation and Sid comes along for the ride, concluding in a dramatic reunion in Poland.
Ms. Edugyan makes Sid the narrator of the entire story. The narrative and the dialogue are delievered in a rich patois that flows naturally and comfortably for the reader. The author has taken fascinating historical material and wove it into a creative piece of literature.
The depiction of the long, strong, yet strained, friendship between Sid and Chip is masterfully done. Yet Sid and Delilah’s romance comes across as artificially constructed. Otherwise the novel as a whole is strong and a compelling read.
Half Blood Blues has been selected for this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. This has catapulted Ms. Edugyan into the world’s literary spotlight. She herself has an interesting background as a Canadian-born daughter of immigrant parents from Ghana. Her writing reflects her strong Canadian, American, African and European cultural influences. This novel has set the bar high for all her future work.