This book almost didn’t see the light of day. Originally to be published by Key Porter Books in 2011, the author soon learned that her editor, as well as most of the publisher’s staff, were laid off. It took her some time to reacquire the rights to it, but advance reader’s copies soon began circulation to publishing insiders and eventually is was picked up by another publisher and the book went on to enormous success. And it’s to the world’s benefit that it did find a home because it’s an amazing book, with a very unique story.
The story opens in Paris in 1939. A group of Jazz musicians are working on a record - in a very low-fi way (using a recording machine that records straight to acetate discs) and the leader of this group - the 20 year old Hieronymous Falk, who’s reputation as a “genius” had been rapidly spreading - keeps stopping the performances, scratching deep cuts into the acetate in order to make them useless. The rest of the band is a little restless from “Heiro’s” perfectionism and it is the bass player, Sidney “Sid” Griffiths, who decides to rescue one from the trash and hide it in his bass case. It is this simple move that sets in motion the rest of the story. It is soon after this session that Hiero and Sid are in a bar and Heiro is whisked away by the Gestapo for not having the right papers.
The group is in Paris because they had to escape the increasingly oppressive laws of Nazi Germany. The band had been in Berlin, playing in all the hottest Jazz clubs until the Nazi’s determined that Jazz was “Degenerate Music”. But there were other problems. The 20 year old genius was a “Michling”, that is product of a Senaglese father and a German mother. The bass player Sid was also of mixed race, but being he was very light skinned, could “pass” for being white. The other members of the band were either African-American (as Sid’s childhood friend Chip Jones, who figures prominently in the story) and Paul, who is Jewish. Feeling completely stifled and unable to make a living - not to mention the increasingly harsh racial laws being enacted - they had no choice but to flee Berlin. Enter Delilah Brown, a Jazz singer herself as well as an assistant to none other than Louis Armstrong, who was presently in Paris on a European tour. Hearing this band of young musicians play, she offers them a way out, to get them to Paris and meet Armstrong and quite possibly play on one of his recordings. And after a fateful incident one evening with some jackbooted thugs, their fate is sealed and they have no choice but to flee.
The story then flash forwards 50 years to the early 1990s. Sid is now in his late 70s and his friend Chip - who went on to become a very famous Jazz musician - turns up at his house in Baltimore to tell him that a documentary was made about Hieronymous Falk and the film was going to be screened in Berlin. After some reluctance, Sid agrees to travel to Berlin for the festival and take part of the Q&A after the screening. But it’s during the screening of the film that a controversial incident is brought up by none other than Sid’s childhood friend Chip, which threatens their life long friendship. This controversial comment then sets the stage for the rest of the story.
Flashback again to Berlin 1939 and how they fled Germany for Paris.
The central part of the book primarily takes place in Pre-War Paris, where the band gets to meet Louis Armstrong and Armstrong invites them to play on some of his new recordings - all except Sid, who blundered his way through a jam session with Louis. What follows from that, I will leave to the reader because it figures prominently with the opening chapter of the novel.
There are also some subplots taking place: the difficult relationship between Sid and Delilah, the feeling of “statelessness”, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, jealousy, the “fairness”/”unfairness” of being blessed with real talent racial politics in pre-war Europe, the complexities of racial identity and how it relates to history, and how history in and of itself can sometimes be the wild card in the deck which can destroy people’s lives, dreams and aspirations. And although the novel takes some liberties with history, it is a very well written, well developed story, expertly paced and structured. Not to mention the dynamic between the characters and the snappy dialogue, mostly made up of German-American slang.
It is also about the power of music and how it can transform - and even threaten - to the point where it can be seen as “dangerous” to those who have a particular ideology to spread. It’s a wonderfully complex story but the writing is so conversational and free - like Jazz itself - that one gets taken from the first moment and pulled along until it’s final, emotional pages.
This is a novel that meant to be in the world, especially when you consider how the workings of business almost didn’t allow this wonderful novel to come to light. If you are a fan of Jazz, Jazz history, and just history in general, you will definitely enjoy this book. Highly recommended.