Half-Blood Blues is the story of a group of black musicians trying to record a successful jazz album in the middle of WWII. Sidney "Sid" Griffiths is the main voice in this novel. He is the bassist in the German/African-American jazz band, The Hot-Time Swingers. Other important members include Charles "Chip" Jones on drums and the ever young and talented Hiero (Hieronymus) Falk on horn. Paul, Fritz and Ernst are the other minor and additional characters in the band. The plot surrounds WWII and the Nazis. The majority of the story plays off the relationship that Sid and Hiero have, while Chip throws in his persuasive antics to keep the group together along with providing some comic relief. Sid was born in America and can often pass for being white, while Hiero is a "Mischling" a half-breed; he was born in Germany with a mix of German and African blood. His skin tone is quite dark as a result, making it substantially more difficult for him to get around during the Nazi invasion. Sid is older than Hiero and Sid often refers to him as "the kid". The pinnacle and basis of the story is that the famous Louis Armstrong has extreme interests in the talent of Hiero and he wants to record an album. Each chapter starts in a different time-frame to bring the story together:
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Paris 1940. The band members are hiding out in a studio to escape the impending German invasion. They have attempted to record the album numerous times but Hiero is unsatisfied with them all. In his frustration, he is threatens to give up on the album. It's late in the evening but he feels the need to leave the flat and says that he wants some milk. His fellow band-members remind him of the dangers of being out in the evening especially because he still does not have any papers to prove who he is or why he is in Paris but Hiero insists. Sid, reluctantly goes with him. They find themselves in cafe in which Hiero finally orders some milk while Sid heads to the bathroom. While in there, Sid can hear commotion coming from the cafe. He peeks out to see that the Boots (Germans) have come in and are checking people's papers. Sid watches the Germans take Hiero away.
Berlin, 1992. The story jumps far into the future. Sid is old and has not seen or heard of any of the band members in years. Some of whom are dead. He receives a visit from Chip who is looking to get Sid to join him in a music festival that is being held in Hiero's name. More surprisingly, he also says that he had received a letter from Hiero and that, he was, still alive and wanting to see them. Sid is extremely cynical and reluctant towards Chip but he agrees in the end. The festival does not go well for Sid. He is put on the spot and blamed for Hiero's capture. Sid is furious with Chip and nearly leaves to go back home but he knows that there is something that he has to do and say to Hiero, which the author does not reveal until near the end of the book.
Berlin, 1939. Delilah Brown is introduced to the band. She is the one carrying the proposition from, none other than, Louis Armstrong himself. She herself is a fairly well know jazz singer and attributes her fame to Louis. She tells them that it isn't safe for them in Berlin anymore and that if they agree to meet and work with Louis she will help them get out of Germany. Delilah has an extreme soft spot for Hiero and almost mothers him. This ends up bothering Sid later as he becomes romantically involved with Delilah and suspects their relationship to be more than that. With the help of Ernest's father, who provides them with visas, the group agrees to go to Paris in the end to meet with Louis. Ernest does not go with them. Fritz decides to stay and play with a rival band, and Paul, while wanting to go with them, ends up being captured by the Germans while attempted to go back home for some seizure medication that he needs. Delilah goes with him but evades capture. Sid and the rest of the group have no idea where Paul and Delilah have gone but they proceed to Paris anyway in hopes of finding them.
Paris, 1939. They thankfully find Delilah once they arrive in Paris. Sid is relieved and confused to see her. They press forward and finally get to meet Louis Armstrong. Louis plays with them and admires Hiero's talents. Sid, unfortunately did not play to the best of his abilities and Louis asks him to sit out on the recording. Sid is devastated and the band starts recording an album without him. Sid's relationship with Hiero and Delilah starts to deteriorate. Louis goes on a tour before France declares war with Germany. The war starts moving closer and closer to Paris. Knowing that they cannot stay where they are out of fear of being in a war zone, Delilah arranges to get them some visas so that they can escape. Everyone's visas but Hiero's arrive, and to make matters worse the military started making rounds to takeout any Germans that were in Paris. With Hiero not being able to leave they decide that they are going to try and finish recording together in hiding, without Louis, instead of leaving Hiero behind. The turning point comes when Sid makes a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. The story in the first chapter is what takes place immediately after this one.
Poland, 1992. Sid and Chip are still together and on their way to see Hiero. Hiero is happy to see them though he is blind. They spend some time catching up before Sid finally tells Hiero the guilt he has been hiding all of these years. The story concludes with them listening to a classic jazz record.
Best part of story, including ending:
I found the story to be a bit hard to follow as I didn't feel that the chapters we're laid out in a order that worked for the story. It was very choppy. The writing is strong but it lacked in some character development. Hiero very rarely speaks considering the story ends up being about his talents. Sid and Chip's characters are developed further but I still felt it was lacking the essential flare that would allow readers to connect with them further.
Best scene in story:
There is a flashback scene in which Sid and Chip, who are underage at the time, find themselves in bar after a gig. They find themselves alone with two prostitutes who, are surprisingly kind and willing to offer up their services. Sid and Chip are young and very naive however and they end up finding themselves in a situation in which they are forced to run away.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Sid is dynamic. He is flawed and so very human. He is plagued with regrets about his past mistakes, like so many of us.