Friday, 20 July 2018

#Aye. Ken it wis like this...with Jeffrey K. Walker

Dunkeld Cathedral
My Friday blog series continues 
where guest authors are invited to share a post with us about the historical background to their writing.

Today, I welcome Jeffrey K. Walker who transports us to the era that followed the First World War. Jeffrey is sharing a terrific addition to the series with us since his novel brings together elements of history and popular musical and art culture Truly Are The Free. 
My husband is the Jazz fan in our house, but since he was the president of a local jazz club for more than a dozen years, I've been to many a jazz concert and I've heard the music of lots of the jazz stars of the time Jeffrey writes about. The art aspects I'm less familiar with, but I'll leave it to Jeffrey to explain about that. 

Welcome to my blog, Jeffrey. Please give us the background to your featured novel....

One of the unexpected pleasures from writing my second novel, Truly Are the Free, was having an excuse to wallow in two very interesting places: jazz age Harlem and avant-garde Paris.

These two remarkable moments in time were born from the devastation of the First World War. The Great War upended smug Victorian assumptions about the inevitability of social progress and the universal beneficence of science and technological innovation. After 52 months of mindless destruction, the inevitable rejection of the arrogant assumptions that had sleepwalked Europe into the sausage grinder of the Western Front would be tectonic.

Paris had nearly suffocated under its crushing four-year load of fear and deprivation. Parisians were dying for diversion and frivolity after the grinding sacrifices demanded by the War. And with a quarter of their young men gone, another quarter deeply scarred, Paris had great need of forgetfulness, too.

There is an interesting thread connecting Harlem and Paris in this period. By the kind of serendipity only the vagaries of war can produce, one of the American’s “colored” regiments that came to France’s in 1917 had been recruited in Harlem. They brought along a regimental band stuffed with the most innovative young musicians that section of Manhattan could offer, skilled in ragtime and the emerging new jazz sound. The band of the 369th U.S. Infantry—Harlem’s Hell Fighters— has a cameo role in Truly Are the Free, with one of the more important supporting characters a coronet player pulled from its ranks.

There was nothing that characterized avant-garde society better than the Parisians’ wild embrace of American jazz and the black musicians who purveyed it. It was the soundtrack to the wild, exuberant, over-the-top life of Paris in the ‘20s. Of course, jazz was a defining feature of post-War Harlem as well. Because of its proximity to the center of wealthy white society just the other side of Central Park, Harlem became much more than a vibrant African-American enclave. Fashionable young white men and women thronged to the new music clubs and small “buffet flats” that sprung up like mushrooms throughout the tightly packed four square miles of Harlem, all efficiently extracting copious amounts of money from the white patrons who came “slumming” in their thousands. Along with the music, all manner of diversion was on offer: prostitution, gambling, reefer, and of course oceans of bootleg liquor.

One of the major differences between Harlem and Paris was the overlay of unlawfulness that Prohibition brought in its wake. There was never a more epic failure of law enforcement in modern history than America’s ludicrous experiment with creating a dry nation, resulting in little more than opportunities for both colossal gangster riches and rampant official corruption. But in the hundreds of speakeasies that permeated Harlem, the Volstead Act added another delicious taste of forbidden fruit to the already taboo-flaunting mingling of races. It made for a heady mix—one that I gleefully depict in Truly Are the Free.

The over-the-top license granted to the artists of Paris by their rejection of old rules and constraints produced startling results. Although the seeds of avant-garde visual and performing art were sown immediately before and during the Great War, the end of the conflict harvested an effusion of new forms and methods. And at the very leading edge of this artistic upheaval stood the Dadaists.
Dada Exhibition 1920 Wikimedia Commons

A strangely self-aware bunch were the Dadaists. 
They formed and christened themselves in neutral Switzerland during the War, only to break out and spread across the continent and beyond to France and Germany and New York. With evidence of what Dada artists saw as the collective homicide of eight million human beings laid out before them, they made their protest against this tragic failure of modernity by taking their stand against the rules, the conventions, even the very idea of art. They defined themselves as anti-artists. This led to some interesting results.

You see, if you’re creating anti-art, anything can become art. It’s all in the context and the viewer’s emotional and subconscious reaction to it. As a result, the Dadaists invented methods still in wide use, mostly in the early grades of primary schools, like collage and photo montage and gluing random stuff like macaroni and googly eyes to construction paper. Alas, being in the anti-art business was a tough lift to make and still remain, well, artists. By1924, the Paris Dadaists had very publicly declared themselves dead, fragmenting into surrealists like Salvador Dali with his limp clocks or Socialist Realists or kindergarten teachers. (I may have wistfully imagined that last one.) But their short lives as an artistic movement laid the foundation for all the sub-genres of Post-Modernism.

Jazz, on the other hand, has endured more or less intact. Sure, jazz has evolved from the exuberance of its ragtime-fueled early days, but the old stuff is still widely played by musicians and loved by fans around the world. It shares, however, an enduring primal connection with the Dadaists. Both art forms were born of the freedom found in rejecting old, stale, and failed rules, norms, and methods, brashly grabbing at something entirely new and confident and bold. This is what drew me to them and convinced me to write them into Truly Are the Free. It was a wild pleasure to live for a little while in their world.

Jeffrey K. Walker
JEFFREY K. WALKER is a Midwesterner, born in what was once the Glass Container Capital of the World. A retired military officer, he served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, planned the Kosovo air campaign and ran a State Department program in Baghdad. He’s been shelled, rocketed and sniped by various groups, all with bad aim. He’s lived in ten states and three foreign countries, managing to get degrees from Tulane, Syracuse, Harvard and Georgetown along the way. An attorney and professor, he taught legal history at Georgetown, law of war at William & Mary and criminal and international law while an assistant dean at St. John’s. He's been a contributor on NPR and a speaker at federal judicial conferences. He dotes on his wife, with whom he lives in Virginia, and his children, who are spread across the United States. Jeffrey has never been beaten at Whack-a-Mole. 

Find Jeffrey and his books at the following places: 


Barnes & Noble:



Website and Blog: 

Twitter: @jkwalkerAuthor

2017 The Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards Finalist
2017 B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree 
2017 Wishing Shelf Book Awards Bronze Medal
2017 Discovering Diamonds Review

Thank you so much for visiting today and for contributing to the series, Jeffrey. My very best wishes for continued success with Truly Are the Free and with all of your other writing, current and future. 


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