#Aye. Ken it wis like this...with Jeffrey K. Walker
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 fanin 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-gardeParis.
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
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
2017 The Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards
2017 Wishing Shelf
Book Awards Bronze Medal
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.