A friend of mine is a great niece to Arthur Briggs, a jazz trumpeter, who was known as the greatest trumpet player in Europe, in the years from the end of World War I to World War 2. She asked me to read a book written about her great uncle, Better Days Will Come Again: The Life of Arthur Briggs, Jazz Genius of Harlem, Paris, and a Nazi Prison Camp, by Travis Atria, and I am glad I did.
To my embarrassment, I was completely unaware of Arthur Briggs, even though I DJ’ed a jazz show, on my college radio station, as an undergraduate. But there is a good reason why Briggs was so unfamiliar.
Though he was born on the island of Grenada, he made his way as a teenager to Harlem, during World War 1, and learned the art of jazz trumpet. However, America would not remain home for Arthur Briggs, as the pernicious effects of racism left him a strong distaste for American life. Briggs was most likely a descendant of London Bourne, an early 19th century African slave-turned-abolitionist, on the island of Barbados. Arthur Briggs had no patience for racist bigotry, so he no desire to stay living in America.
Arthur Briggs left America at the end of World War I to advance his career as a jazz trumpeter in Europe, where he finally settled in Paris, France. The years between the world wars were the hey-day for early jazz in Europe, and Briggs was at the top of his game. While the more familiar Louis Armstrong wowed audiences in America, Briggs toured nearly all of Europe with various jazz ensembles, but made his reputation primarily in Paris, where racism was much less an issue than it was in America. He played with the likes of guitarist Django Reinhardt and singer/dancer Josephine Baker. Briggs’ years in Europe explains why many like myself never knew of him.
The most challenging period of Briggs’ life was when Nazi Germany overran Paris in 1940. Briggs failed to escape Paris and was sent to a Nazi prison, at St. Denis, on the outskirts of the city, and spent the remainder of the war there. He experienced brutal dehumanizing conditions at St. Denis, along with the added insult of Nazi-imposed racism. Yet he survived the war, largely through the exercise of his extraordinary talents, which entertained his fellow prisoners, along with his Nazi guards and prison commanders.
Author Travis Artis introduces each chapter with a quote from the Bible, meaningful to Arthur Briggs, thus indicating a spiritual side to the great musician, but makes little emphasis on that aspect of Briggs’ extraordinary life. Better Days Will Come Again is a remarkable story of how one man stood up against the brutality of racism, excelling at his craft as a musician, as a crucial figure in the history of jazz.