Spanning three continents and two centuries, Twelve Bar Blues is an epic tale of fate, family, friendship and jazz. At its heart is Lick Holden, a young jazz musician, who sets New Orleans on fire with his cornet at the beginning of the last century. But Lick's passion is to find his lost step-sister and that's a journey that leads him to a place he can call 'home'. Meanwhile, at the other end of the century, we find Sylvia, an English prostitute, and Jim, a young drifter. They're in search of Sylvia's past, lost somewhere in the mists of the Louisiana bayou.
Patrick Neate has written a story that straddles time and space, love and friendship, roots and pilgrimage and everything between. Poignant and hilarious, it will hook you - like a favourite tune - till the end.
Neate's novel (winner of the Whitbread) poses the question: Can an English writer pen the great American jazz novel? In the 18th-century African kingdom of Zimindo, a Zimindian named Zike is abducted by complicated magical/erotic means and eventually ends up on the slave market in New Orleans. There Zike disappears from history. A descendant, however, blows his way, if not into history, at least into legend. Fortis "Lick" Holden from Mount Marter, La., is a cornet player of the same generation as Louis Armstrong. Lick learns his licks in reform school. His mentor, Professor Hoop, keys him into the secret of the whole musician, which entails using all four parts of the body. Lick progresses from his chops to his head to his heart, but he doesn't get the fourth part down the groin until he meets back up with his adopted sister, Sylvie, who is pale enough to pass for white. After Lick returns from New Orleans to his native town, he discovers Sylvie living as the quadroon mistress of a white plantation owner. Lick's affair with her spells disaster in the racially charged atmosphere of the South, but Sylvie escapes to New York City, passes for white and marries an Italian man. Her skin color skips a generation, but expresses itself luxuriously in her granddaughter, Sylvia Di Napoli, who thereby arouses the wrath of her racist father. The novel waltzes between Lick's woes and Sylvie's genealogical quest, with a subplot involving the return to Africa of another of Zike's descendants, Coretta Pink, aka "Olurunbunmi Durowoju." Neate's story is shot through with salient observations about jazz culture, although in the end it doesn't grab the brass ring: the great American jazz novel is yet to be written.