Half Blood Blues is one of the books recently named on The Man Booker Prize shortlist for this year. Like many of the books on this list I don't think I would have come across it without that particular publicity and recognition - one of the reasons I do keep an eye on the various writing awards - whether a book wins or not is really inconsequential to me - I just like to keep adding to my pile of wonderful reads!
Half Blood Blues tells the story of a group of American and German jazz musicians caught up in Berlin and Paris just prior to and during World War 2. As black musicians in Europe at this time they have a lot to offer the cultural community but they are inevitably singled out as enemies and risks with the rise of the Nazi regime. Two of the Americans, Sid and Chip are introduced to Hieronymous Falk, a young black trumpet player being hailed as the new Louis Armstrong. Hiero forms part of their band and when tension in Germany escalates the group are forced to flee to Paris with the assistance of Delilah Brown, a talented jazz singer and associate of Armstrong's who offers the group the chance to play and record tracks with their hero.
This book strongly evokes a sense of its place and its characters - the language and dialogue feel particularly genuine and believable and the tension rising within Europe at the time is also found in the escalating tension between and within the characters. I am not a big fan of jazz music but in reading this book I found a new appreciation of the role it might play for musicians and audiences, particularly in times of turmoil. The descriptions of the impacts of the music on the characters was especially powerful:
It made even me sound solar. Hot in a simmering, other-worldly way. And all at once I understood what the kid was to me. That only playing with him was I pulled out of my own sound. Alone, I wasn't nothing. Just a stiff line, just a regular keeper of the beat. But the kid, hell, his horn somehow push all that forward too, he shove me on up into the front sound with him. Like he was holding me in time.
I certainly felt held in the time and place of this story while reading this book - a wonderful addition to the Man Booker shortlist for 2011.