NPR Story
11:00 am
Mon March 26, 2012

Jazz, Race Collide With War In 1930s Europe

Originally published on Mon March 26, 2012 10:41 am

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away this week. Now we're going to take a trip back in time with the help of a prize-winning novelist.

The novel, "Half Blood Blues," considers a slice of history that often gets overlooked: black jazz musicians and their fate in Germany just before World War II. The novel moves back and forth from 1992 to 1939, from Baltimore to Berlin, Berlin to Paris and it's told through the eyes of an elderly Baltimore black jazz musician, Sid Griffiths, and his lifelong friend, Chippewa Jones, all in invented period slang.

The novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize this year and won the Giller Prize in Canada and its author, Esi Edugyan, joins us now from member station KUOW in Seattle. Welcome.

ESI EDUGYAN: Thank you.

LYDEN: Esi, just to establish, you are a Canadian author.

EDUGYAN: I am.

LYDEN: And you live in...

EDUGYAN: I was born and raised in Calgary.

LYDEN: Born and raised in Calgary, of Ghanaian parents and you live in Victoria?

EDUGYAN: Yes.

LYDEN: Well, please tell us about this novel, which has had so much success. Tell us about the men at the center of your story. They're jazz musicians from a group called the Hot Time Swingers. We meet them in Paris. They already have escaped from Berlin. They've met Duke Ellington and at the center of the group is this really intriguing character you've invented called Hieronymus Falk. And he is eventually picked up by the Gestapo in June of 1940. Tell us about these fellows and Hieronymus.

EDUGYAN: Well, essentially, the novel is told in two parts and the first part centers around the Hot Time Swingers who, you know, are a jazz band who's had quite a bit of success playing in Berlin. And, you know, now the Third Reich has been ushered in and they're trying to decide exactly how to proceed now that they've been prohibited from playing in public.

And so the band consists of two African-American players, Sid and Chip from Baltimore, as well as the German players, Paul, who's a pianist who has a Jewish background, and Ernst. And then Hieronymus Falk, who is an Afro-German, the child of a French colonial soldier and a German mother, and he's the trumpet prodigy.

LYDEN: Hieronymus Falk really intrigued me, Esi Edugyan. He is, you say in the novel, the German word was mishling. He is of mixed race and there really were such Afro-Germans prior to the Nazis taking power.

EDUGYAN: Yes, there were. In the time after the First World War, the Rhineland was ceded to France and, you know, in terms of having their soldiers policing the area, they didn't use French soldiers. They initially brought over men from French colonies in Africa and so you had all of these young black men policing that area. And, you know, some of the German populace - this didn't sit well with them.

But there were some who ended up having children with German women and so you had all of these Afro-German children. There weren't many of them, but they ended up being known in a derogatory way.

LYDEN: Well, derogatory way. I mean, they're actually called - forgive me - Rhineland bastards by the Gestapo, made to wear black stars. That doesn't all happen in your novel, but still, this really beguiling young trumpeter, Hieronymus, he speaks German.

EDUGYAN: Yes. He's a German citizen, born and raised in that area and so - yeah. He is very much a German and this is how he would, you know, identify himself if questioned. But, of course, you know, in this kind of horribly fraught regime, he's other.

LYDEN: He's other. And they have to escape and they don't all make it out. We won't say who does and who doesn't. But did you write some of this novel in Germany?

EDUGYAN: I did, but only, you know, in the very final drafts. The novel was conceived because I was living in Germany. I was in southern Germany for over a year starting in 2006. I had an artist fellowship there and so just being a black woman in Germany, I started to think about the history of African people or people of African descent in Germany and, you know, started doing some research and found some - you know, not many, but - you know, a few terrific sources that gave whole histories.

But I was very interested in this era of the Third Reich just because these were stories I really hadn't heard before and it grew out of that.

LYDEN: The other place that this story goes is to Baltimore because both Sid and Chip are from there. They're boyhood friends there. They grow up listening to music. You have this whole slang and I was wondering where you got it. Men, for example, refer to each other as gates - G-A-T-E-S - like a swinging gate.

EDUGYAN: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: And women are Janes. And there's a whole lot more that goes on in your really wonderfully plastic language.

EDUGYAN: Yeah. And things like gates to describe male musicians and Janes to describe – this is the actual slang of the time. But I have to say, I did extrapolate a lot, simply because you would need words to describe Nazis and things like this, and in the book they're called, you know, the Boots. And that was one of the great pleasures of writing the book, was, you know, was just being able to riff off of the language of the time and, you know, bend it, and yeah, it was just a lot of fun.

LYDEN: Well, this book has won a lot of prizes. And I thought that calling the Nazis the Boots was a fantastic thing for people who are musicians to say, because after all, they're hearing them, they're feeling them. They're literally pulsing through their lives. At one point you have all these men hiding in the studio from the Boots in Berlin and it's really, really riveting.

I don't think it gives anything away to say they do escape. They make their way to Paris. They don't all make it, but some of them do. Our main protagonists we've been talking about do. Could you please read from your novel? As they're driving a way, Sid is remembering what it was like to discover Hieronymus, this young, black, African-German trumpet prodigy in Germany.

EDUGYAN: Sure. The rest of us come in behind him, and I tell you, it ain't took but a minute for me to understand just what kind of player this kid was. He sounded broody, slow, holding the notes way longer than seemed sane. The music should've sounded something like a ship's horn carrying across water - hard, bright, clear. But the kid, hell, he made it muddy, passing his notes not only overseas but through soil too. It sounded rich, which might've been fine for an older gate but felt fake from him.

The slow dialogue between him and us had a sort of preacher-choir feel to it. But there wasn't no grace. His was the voice of a country preacher too green to convince the flock. He talked against us like he begging us to listen. He wailed. He moaned. He pleaded and seethed. He dragged every damned feeling out that trumpet but hate - a sort of naked, pathetic way of playing, like he done flipped the whole thing inside out, its nerves flailing in the air. He bent the notes, slurred them in a way that made us play harder against him. And the more we disagreed, the stronger he pleaded. But his pleading ain't never asked for nothing; just seemed to be there for its own damned sake.

In a weird way, he sounded both old and like he touching the trumpet for the very first time.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with the Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan about her novel "Half-Blood Blues," which is narrated by an African-American jazz musician who once played in Berlin clubs just before World War II.

You know, Esi, this is one of those novels you kind of wish that I were hearing you read the whole thing to me because the language you've invented for these guys to speak is so very alive, as that example you just read us attests. I just want to ask you, did you consider this turn, how welcome black musicians had been in Weimar, and how hunted and fearful they were as the Nazis came to power?

What did the Third Reich have to say about jazz?

EDUGYAN: This was something where, you know, this was a music that obviously was foreign music. And not only was it a foreign influence, it was a music that was played by, you know, as they call it, Negroes. And so it was very much a very undesirable artform in the Third Reich. And, you know, it was banned from the airwaves and banned from clubs. And in the case of something like the Swing Boys, you know, this was seen as something that was corrupting German youth. And so they had these secret clubs where they would go and dance to Swing music and, you know, if you're caught doing that, there were dire consequences. You know, if you think of people who had sort of joined the Hitler Youth or something, they would be hunting down these Swing Boys and, you know, shaving their heads and beating them up and clubbing them. And there were raids on, you know, in various clubs and it was very - almost a form of resistance to be listening to and certainly to be playing it.

LYDEN: It isn't only a novel about being a black jazz musician in a time in which that's dangerous. It's also about some of the jealousy and envy that really besets art and creativity. Sid is almost heartbreakingly jealous of Hiero, and for much of the novel, because you leap ahead 50 years later, Sid is wooed back to Berlin by his friend Chip to attend a documentary and watches it and sees himself being accused of basically turning Hiero over to the Nazis.

What was going on in that sense of great creative jealousy?

EDUGYAN: I think it's always with someone like genius, which is a word that gets thrown around quite a bit. But I think it's something that's really unfathomable and unquantifiable and, you know, probably very vexing, you know, if you're pursuing the same art as your great friend who is a genius and it seems to come so easily to him. And, you know, between Sid and Hiero, Sid really loves Hiero and he respects Hiero and all these things, but it's all very complicated by the fact that he is really jealous of him and he doesn't understand why Hiero doesn't have to work as hard as he does and he sounds, you know, perfect.

LYDEN: Hiero's chosen to cut a record with Louis Armstrong and Sid's left out.

EDUGYAN: Yeah. And this is just the very final straw for him. He just, he's always kind of lived in the shadow of Hiero's genius. And so, yeah, when it comes down to it, it's more than he can bear.

LYDEN: I also wondered, you're so good at male banter in this book. Did you grow up with a lot of brothers or uncles or...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EDUGYAN: No. I have one brother. It's more probably the result of my best friend is male and he's also good friends with my husband. But listening to the two of them talk is ridiculous sometimes, the things that they come up with. So probably a lot of it comes from there.

LYDEN: Well, you can blame it on them. It was interesting to read that this novel almost didn't see the light of day at all.

EDUGYAN: Yeah. That's true. It was a long time between my first novel and this one. The book was finally bought - actually overseas in England. They were the first - Serpent's Tail out of England - out of London - were the first people to pick it up and then it was purchased shortly thereafter by a Canadian house called Key Porter. But then just as the book with about to go to press, you know, I got an email saying that Key Porter had gone under. So...

LYDEN: Oh.

EDUGYAN: But it was eventually picked up by, you know, another great house and came out last year.

LYDEN: And then it wins the Scotiabank Giller and gets shortlisted for the Booker. Well, it's been a great pleasure talking to you, Esi Edugyan, and it'll be interesting to see what you do next.

EDUGYAN: Well, thank you so much.

LYDEN: The Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan. Her newest book is called "Half-Blood Blues." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.