Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
published 2011 section set in Paris 1939
A long shadow hovered suddenly above us. I glanced up. A handsome black gent stood there wearing a fine black suit, his shirt ironed so sharp its collar look like folded paper. ‘Lilah?’ he said. ‘You alright, girl?’ She give a angry laugh through her tears, looked up.
‘Oh, hi, Billy. I’m fine, I am. Jesus.’ She sniffled. ‘I thought you were gone.’
‘Aw, I been tryin to call you, girl.’…
The jack’s eyes slid over to me, his shine fading a little. ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ She folded her napkin. ‘Bill, this is Sidney Griffiths. Sid, Bill Coleman. I believe you’re both in the business.’
Bill Coleman? I rose from my seat. ‘Sure I know you, brother. You out of this world. You got to be this city’s second trumpet.’
‘You kind,’ he said.
‘It ain’t kindness. You that good, brother. You know it.’
‘Used to be maybe. But who’s this damn kid come in on the tide? I heard he plays like wildfire.’
observations: Bill Coleman is one of various real people who drift through the pages of this book – the most notable is Louis Armstrong. It’s the story of a group of jazz musicians who are in Germany and then France just before and during the second world war, and who are trying to get on with making music but keep getting caught up in the world events around them, which are getting ever more dramatic. The story is framed with a thread from the later years of the narrator, Sid, a double-bass player. The ‘damn kid’ mentioned above is a genius trumpeter, and a black German, and there is a question-mark over what exactly happened to him in the 1940s.
Race and jazz are two of the main themes of the book. The real Bill Coleman – who by foreshadowing coincidence was an American born in Paris, Kentucky – spent much of his career and life in France because of the racial segregation he encountered in the USA.
Links up with: More Americans in Paris here, here and here. An American jazz fan here.
The picture of Bill Coleman is from the fabulous Gottlieb jazz collection which is available at the Library of Congress – we used another of his photos – of Frank Sinatra - here.