Not unlike its counterpart rock 'n' roll, memorable jazz novels occupy a pretty slim shelf at the local bookstore. Though the music has been gracefully spun into fiction by Roddy Doyle, Michael Ondaatje and — most distinctively — Rafi Zabor in the surreal, ursine-centric "The Bear Comes Home," it's a fringe topic for the most part.
Maybe that's because when people want to read about jazz, the characters behind the real story are rich enough to transcend any fiction — or maybe it's just a reflection of how well-meaning writers can run into trouble once they start putting into words something as ephemeral and personal as a saxophone solo.
Enter Esi Edugyan's "Half-Blood Blues," a 2011 Man Booker Prize finalist making its stateside debut in paperback after first appearing in Europe and in Edugyan's native Canada. On the surface, with its colorful scenes of playing, drinking and bickering among a mixed-race ensemble called the Hot-Time Swingers, Edugyan's second novel could be a relatively conventional story of the jazz life. But she tweaks the formula by splitting the book's action between the chaos of 1939 Europe and modern times as old friends struggle to reconcile with a past that shaped them as men and as artists.
At the center is Sidney Griffiths, an African American bassist who performed with the Swingers in Berlin during the rise of "the housepainter" — just one of the bent nicknames that pingpong through Griffith's narration with the true echo of a snare drum's crack. In Griffiths' casual, jazz-hipster patter, everyone is a "jack," "gate" or "buck," including his bandmates in brash drummer and childhood friend Chip C. Jones and a quiet, 20-year-old phenom named Hieronymus Falk (or "Hiero" for short, introducing a rather tasty homophone).
A mixed-race "mischling" born in Germany with roots in Africa, Falk spends much of the book as a haunted figure, an outsider even in his own country who eventually falls under Griffith's wing. Though Edugyan spends comparatively little time trying to put jazz into words, she includes lovely allusions to Falk's assured genius on trumpet, comparing his sound to "a thicket of flowers in a bone-dry field" or, to Griffiths' doubtful ears, "a country preacher too green to convince the flock."
Edugyan starts the book with a taut, war-time confessional of sorts as Griffiths describes a sickly, desperate recording session in occupied Paris for the song that gives the book its name. Eventually arrested by "the Boots" in a French café, Falk and his music would've been lost to history were it not for a single pressing that Griffiths hid away only to be found after the war.
Falk quickly becomes a cult figure, and Edugyan colors her description of his influence with a record nerd's eye for detail, elevating him as a mythic cross between Robert Johnson "a German Louis Armstrong" with reality-blurring cameos from Bill Coleman, Albert Hammond Jr. and Wynton Marsalis.
In "present day" 1992, a forgotten Griffiths is invited by Jones to accompany him to a jazz festival in Berlin for the premiere of a documentary on Falk. Now touring jazz royalty, Jones sweetens the deal by adding that their long-lost bandmate Hiero is alive and hoping for a visit from them in the Polish countryside.
What follows is Griffiths' account of the Hot-Time Swingers' being branded degenerates and bottled up in a club after a violent encounter with German police. Slowly losing members to tragedy or circumstance, the group makes a tense escape to France after catching the eye of Louis Armstrong, who appears as a wise but crumbling monarch in a Parisian apartment. Along the way Griffiths and Falk get tangled with one of Armstrong's associates, a beautiful singer named Delilah, who falls into a turbulent relationship with Griffiths that all too easily brings out the envy and insecurity in his artistry with ugly, disastrous results.
In populating such a richly rendered world, Edugyan allows a few details to slip through the cracks. Though Hiero is described as fluent only in German and needing Griffiths to translate for him with Armstrong, he capably communicates around Paris and elsewhere as the primary language becomes unclear. Though there are few situations as emotionally complex as a love triangle, the volatile exchanges between Griffiths and Delilah leave so much unsaid that their breakup feels more confusing than affecting. Still, taken with the book's wealth of immersive details and tense, toe-tapping pace, these are minor passing notes.
Though "Half-Blood Blues" is a jazz book, its greatest strength lies more in the rhythms of its conversations and Griffiths' pitch-perfect voice than in any musical exchanges. A simple, one-word sentence that could be just an expletive — "Hell" — becomes so much more as Griffiths watches Nazis march into Paris under "that dancing black spider," and his dazed account of a band of weary survivors coalescing around Hiero's "Half-Blood Blues" is intoxicating enough to send you crate-digging through a record store's back room for anything like it.
"This was it, this was everything," Griffiths says with a delirious awe that nearly excuses his unforgivable selfishness. "We was all of us free, brother. For that night at least, we was free."
If there's a better description of jazz and its brilliant, in-the-moment power, you're not likely to find it.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun