The following is an excerpt from the book Better Days Will Come Again – The Life of Arthur Briggs – Jazz Genius of Harlem, Paris, and a Nazi Prison Camp by Travis Atria. Reprinted with permission and available from Chicago Review Press.
Arthur Briggs’s life was Homeric in scope. Born on the tiny island of Grenada, he set sail for Harlem during the renaissance, then to Europe in the aftermath of World War I, where he was among the first pioneers to introduce jazz music to the world. During the legendary Jazz Age in Paris, Briggs’s trumpet provided the soundtrack while Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the rest of the Lost Generation created their indelible masterpieces. By the 1930s, Briggs was considered the “Louis Armstrong of France,” and was the peer of the greatest names of his time, from Django Reinhardt to Josephine Baker. When the Nazis stormed Paris at the start of World War II, they arrested Briggs and threw him in the prison camp at St. Denis, where he spent four years on starvation rations, and where he directed the brass section of an orchestra comprised of fellow prisoners. Below is an excerpt from Wax Poetics contributor Travis Atria’s groundbreaking biography of Briggs, Better Days Will Come Again.
In 1942, the men at St. Denis began to break. Some succumbed to pneumonia. Others braved death to escape. One hanged himself in his cell. “Oh, it looks very bad,” wrote William Joseph Webb, a prisoner who kept a secret diary in the camp. “For supper on Sunday night, we got nothing, besides the little square piece of margarine handed out . . . For our dinner we had barley soup, fit for feeding to pigs.”
One freezing morning in February, a guard burst into Arthur Briggs’s barracks and ordered him to play the Reveille. It was three a.m.
“Now?” Briggs asked.
“That was the only answer,” Briggs recalled. “So I took my instrument, blew it a bit to warm it up, went to the window and played the alarm twice so that everyone in the barracks and the courtyard was sure to have heard it. When I turned around, I saw that there was already a soldier for inspection and counting of internees. It lasted two hours, and then they brought dogs and inspected the cellars and attics to see if anyone was hiding.”
More men had escaped.
At noon, two soldiers arrived and posted a message from Carl Heinrich von Stülpnagel, commander of occupied France: “Wanting to escape is normal for someone who is deprived of their freedom. But those who try to escape must know that they risk death in this attempt.” The prisoners had now suffered two winters on starvation rations. Snow covered the camp again, and dinner was thin vegetable soup with a dollop of grease. For many, death was a risk worth taking.
Meanwhile, Briggs continued to salve the men’s souls with music. In mid-April, he prepared a concert of scenes from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” along with Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture,” and after intermission, a set of swing tunes. For “Don Giovanni,” two actors were chosen from among the men: Joseph Blumberg as the licentious cad Don Giovanni, and Jimmy Hale as the young peasant girl Zerlina, who is drawn to Giovanni’s sexual charisma. The orchestra performed five excerpts from the opera, including the sensuous overture, as well as Giovanni’s plaintive plea, “I Am Under Your Window.” Then came the brooding, tragic, “Egmont Overture,” which Beethoven composed for a play by the great Goethe. These were extraordinary pieces to attempt in a prison camp, but Briggs had too much pride to do anything less than astound his audience.
By summer, morale cratered again. The sex-starved men began avoiding the fence on visiting day—seeing the line of women only added to their agony. Homosexuality became normal. As one prisoner recalled, “I can truly testify . . . we were no longer interested in women. There was the rise of homosexuality, and it brought about conflicts that we wouldn’t have had if the women were with us: Ferocious jealousies, loves of three or four prisoners for the same object, for the same subject. So there were open and hysterical fights.” He noted that behavior in the camp, sexual and otherwise, changed incrementally, so that “a man who came back after the first year, if he should see himself would not recognize himself.”
In August, a shipment of hopeless French Jews crowded into the camp. “So down and out, children separated from parents etc.,” Webb wrote. “Hear one of them jumped out of a window . . . God only knows what’s in store for all of us, poor British’s in here, especially when one sees what is happening to the Jews!” Three days later, he wrote again, “Our Internees Jews have had some squealing and gnashing of teeth this past week. I saw a case of mother and son, about 6 yr. old, come in Thursday morning instead of 2 pm visit-time. She had to give herself up at 2 pm to be taken away and the kiddy separated from parents. Allowed to see hubby, but boy not allowed to see his father, boy ran back to say goodbye, crying ‘Daddy!’ But not permitted in, although kid got near to gate and mother. Separate and taken away, but where to?”
The worst horrors of the Holocaust had begun. At Auschwitz, gold was pulled from the teeth of Jewish corpses and melted to enrich the Nazis. At Treblinka, prisoners were forced to cut wood to fuel the cremation pits where they were soon to die. At Belzec, only seven Jewish prisoners out of half a million survived the war. At Sobibór, many female prisoners were raped before being killed. At Lublin, more than 18,000 Jews were killed on a single day. At Chelmno, prisoners were made to think they were about to take baths for disinfection as they were herded into the gas chamber.
Hitler had gone too far, figuratively and literally. In August 1942, he penetrated deep into Russia, reaching Stalingrad, where his troops would suffer an apocalyptic winter. At roughly the same time, the Allies scored their first decisive victory in the Pacific theatre at the Battle of Guadalcanal. In November came another Allied victory at the Battle of Casablanca. “There began to be a lot of gossip circulating in the camp as there was an Allied landing in North Africa,” Briggs recalled. “Our German guards were not very happy to know that the Allies had taken a step forward.” The Allies had not only taken a step forward, they had pushed the Axis back thirteen hundred miles from Egypt to Tunisia, pinning them between newly arrived American and British troops in Morocco and Algeria. The tide was turning.
Briggs was emboldened. At the end of every concert, before leaving the bandstand, he performed an old Negro work song called “Better Days Will Come Again.” During slavery, work songs were the secular counterpart to Negro spirituals, sung in the fields to ease the backbreaking labor with rhythm. Briggs drew from this deep well of history to deliver a coded message of hope to his fellow prisoners. He passed courage to them through the blast of his trumpet. The effect was electric. “As soon as I hit the first note, all the internees would come to attention,” Briggs recalled. There he stood, facing two thousand hope-starved men, wobbling on hunger-weakened legs, but standing nonetheless, standing in defiance of their captivity, and thanking him with their eyes for his strength, because it was now theirs too.
Seeing the men standing, the Nazi guards demanded to know what Briggs was playing. “It’s our signature tune,” he lied. “It’s the end of the concert. That’s all there is. They’re getting up because they’re thanking us for the concert we just played.” Later, he slyly added, “You know it wasn’t that.” One internee recalled the Nazis’ reaction: “When at the end of a performance the master trumpeter in clear tones would blow us into ‘Better Days Will Come Again’ the Germans would look with envy at their caged victims.” The German guards could not understand the strange power that straightened the spines of their prisoners, any more than the American slave driver could understand the power that gave succor to his slaves. The power was the song, the song of the unconquerable human spirit, the song that gave birth to jazz. Briggs spent his entire adult life trying to teach Europeans this song. He wanted them not just to hear it or play it, but also to feel it. Finally, he succeeded.
One can only imagine the punishment Briggs would have faced for such insubordination, but he risked it anyway. With emotion, with passion, with fire, he breathed the melody into his horn, while the lyrics sounded silently in his head:
Don’t be sighing, little darling,
Sunshine follows after rain;
Though the shadows now are falling,
Better days will come again.