The Life of Arthur Briggs, Jazz Genius of Harlem, Paris, and a Nazi Prison Camp
Email this review


The authorized biography of Jazz Age trumpeter Arthur Briggs, who spent four of his prime years in a German concentration camp.

Granted access to Briggs’ personal details thanks to his only daughter, Atria (co-author: Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield, 2016) fashions a sympathetic look at this thoroughly upright musician, who chose to ply his art in Europe rather than America largely because of the racism and segregation that prevailed at the time. In that regard, he was joined by many others who crossed his path in the 1920s, such as Josephine Baker. Born in Grenada in 1901—his birth date is often listed as 1899 because he lied about it in order to join the military—and thus a British citizen, Briggs received training in classical music at a young age. In 1917, he moved to New York to join his sister, arriving just in time for the explosion of the Harlem Renaissance. During World War I, he joined the Harlem Hellfighters reserve band, under the mentorship of James Reese Europe, and toured Europe with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, led by Will Marion Cook. These were his legendary mentors along with jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet, a lifelong friend. Due to his strong work ethic, Briggs was often the organizer of his own groups—e.g., the popular Savoy Syncops Orchestra and others that included Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. Many of these bands were popular in Paris and elsewhere, even in Egypt—until the war, when Briggs chose, to his detriment, not to return to America. After trying to hide when the Nazis occupied Paris, he was arrested in October 1940 as “an enemy of the Reich.” As Atria reports in his readable, straightforward narrative, performing for the prisoners and the Nazi guards kept him sane during his imprisonment.

A clear picture of an extraordinary life of resilience, talent, and determination.

Pub Date: Jan. 7th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-914090-10-6
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2019