Tiger Rag by Nicholas Christopher

I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say …

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<i>Tiger Rag</i> by Nicholas Christopher

For a musician whose entire recording career consists of one take of one song—most likely, a single, rumored phonograph cylinder—turn-of-the-20th-century New Orleans cornet player Charles “Buddy” Bolden looms extraordinarily large in musical fact and fiction.

Jazz luminaries Sidney Bechet, Freddie Keppard, Joe Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong rose to fame long after Bolden’s career ended, but saw his bands perform at New Orleans’ Odd Fellows Hall and other Black Storyville venues, as well as in parades. These greats counted Bolden as a primary influence.

Duke Ellington also paid tribute to Bolden in a suite called A Drum is a Woman (1957). And trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who has been developing a Bolden biopic for years, credits the cornet player with introducing Big Four, a syncopated rhythmic variation on a traditional marching beat that begat jazz improvisation. Music historians exalt Bolden for marrying brass band music to blues, ragtime and the polyrhythms and tonalisms of antebellum-era Congo Square ring shouts in a new genre-defining sound—jazz.

Like Ellington and Marsalis, none of the historians ever heard Bolden play. And while it’s easy to understand why Ellington and Marsalis would recognize and revere the lineage of their art, Bolden’s signature blaring cornet sound also rings loudly in the ears of an assortment of novelists who have populated books with “Buddy Bolden” characters—most recently, Nicholas Christopher, whose Tiger Rag arrived in January.

What makes Bolden’s legend so irresistible to so many?

His persistent mystique resembles that of Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. Demons clearly haunted both men, spawning troubles that possibly contributed to the power of their music but also to personal tragedies that cut both careers short.

Johnson died at 27, almost certainly poisoned by a jealous husband. Bolden succumbed to crippling mental illness at 30 and, after allegedly assaulting his mother-in-law, spent the last 24 years of his life in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum.

The facts of both men’s lives appear muddled by myth. Johnson, the stories say, transformed himself from journeyman guitarist to genius by selling his soul to the devil. King Bolden, they say, day-jobbed as a barber and a local scandal-sheet writer/publisher. Whether you buy that Johnson sold his soul—and which cultural variation on the devil he sold it to—depends mostly on what you believe. Bolden’s purported barbering and publishing careers, on the other hand, stand as matters of understandable misinterpretation … but discredited fact.

More interestingly, Johnson’s legend and fame derive in large measure from the 32-song body of work he left behind from two recording sessions of 1936-37. Startlingly clear and well-engineered for their time, Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 1 & 2 has been consistently available on LP and CD in North America and Europe since 1961.

Conversely, Bolden’s music made an enormous impact on his contemporaries … but he left nothing behind for successive generations except the stories other musicians told and a few tunes, such as “Get Out of Here and Go Home” and “Funky Butt” (aka “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”). Later musicians performed and recorded those tunes and credited Bolden.

In addition to inspiring legions of rural and urban American blues singers and a generation of white British guitarists, Johnson has been resurrected in the fiction of Walter Mosley (RL’s Dream) and Sherman Alexie (Reservation Blues). Bolden too has found his way into a host of novels, including Michael Ondaatje’s scattershot Coming Through Slaughter and Louis Maistros’ relentlessly absorbing and voodoo-drenched The Sound of Building Coffins.

And now we have Christopher’s Tiger Rag.

It counts off with a phenomenally vivid and precise reimagining of Bolden’s single recording session, the three cylinders he cut there, the three men who walked out of the hotel room-turned-recording studio each with a cylinder, and how quickly one of the men left his under a bed in a French Quarter whorehouse.

Thus the mystery begins.

Readers of Magic Realist fiction know Christopher for plying his trade at the far-realist, least-gimmick-driven end of that spectrum, and evincing, in his work, an inexhaustible and irresistible faith in improbable coincidence. The writer’s work soared most luminously in the epic A Trip to the Stars, a novel of breathtaking sweep and power, rich in esoteric detail and plausibility, scope and ambition, brilliant characterization, and far-flung, constant movement. It’s hard to imagine a writer ever fully rising to the same heights after composing such a book.

So one can hardly fault Christopher for delivering a book like Tiger Rag that rises less high, but still succeeds on its own terms. The novel tells several gripping stories, delving with conviction into Buddy Bolden’s life and the persistence of his music and legend in others’ lives. It never reads like a history lesson, or betrays the historical record with irresponsible flights of fictional license. Tiger Rag stakes its credibility on not contradicting history in any obvious or distracting way.

Tiger Rag isn’t magic realism in the way of A Trip to the Stars or Veronica or The Bestiary, Christopher’s earlier works. In fact, the work’s reliance on unlikely coincidence seems to compel the author to drop anchors of plausibility at regular intervals. Thus he consistently conveys in Tiger Rag a sense that he’s recording faithful and accurate history—albeit with lively, imagined, character-driven conversation (and without footnotes).

Other recent books with a Buddy Bolden character provide interesting counterpoints.

Early in his career, Michael Ondaatje of (later) English Patient fame wrote an impressionistic novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976). More a succession of riffs than a novel, it portrays Buddy Bolden as (among other, more intriguing, exploring-the-nature-of-his-genius-and-madness things) a barber and a scandal-sheet publisher. Again, Bolden was neither. We can think of Ondaatje’s take on the Bolden story/mystique/legend as high-toned art and, at the same time, a product of the folk process. Ondaatje’s individual imagination and our collective, cumulative and flawed cultural imagination comingle in this Buddy Bolden.

Maistros’s book, The Sound of Building Coffins (2009), exhumes volumes of New Orleans myth and legend and folk-historical matters on death and rebirth and spirituality and epic storms. It’s the story of a haunted family of five children named after dread diseases—Diphtheria, Dropsy, Cholera, Malaria and Typhus—out of their father’s respect for the redemptive inevitability of death.

Here, Buddy Bolden appears as Diphtheria’s feckless love interest, but also as a teenage witness and musical accompanist to a searingly intense New Orleans-style exorcism. In that moment, Bolden sees God’s face and begins to play cornet like a man who’s experienced ungodly awe and terror. This Bolden, largely unsympathetic—at times unforgivable—feels very much the author’s own.

Christopher makes Bolden his own too. But this possession comes at a much later point in the musician’s life, when he’s in fact a musician no more, simply a permanent resident of the state asylum. But Tiger Rag concerns itself less with Bolden’s life than with its impact on the lives of those who play their parts (good and bad) in the loss and destruction of the first two recorded cylinders of his songs and then the travels of the cylinder that might survive.

More to the point, Tiger Rag concerns itself with the 21st-century lives of mother and daughter Ruby Cardillo and Devon Sheresky.

Their narrative unfolds alongside the tale of Bolden and his cohort and the lost cylinders. Ruby, an anesthesiologist, finds her life crumbling and her mind unraveling in the immediate aftermath of an ugly divorce and the death of her estranged mother. Ruby convinces her daughter, Devon—a failed jazz pianist with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, now clean for 71 days after a bust—to accompany her on a road trip to New York City.

Mother and daughter quickly swap traditional roles. Ruby drifts further into a fascinatingly quirky sort of dissolution, and Devon attempts to rein in her mother’s self-destructive (and hitherto out-of-character) excesses. Meanwhile, the fractured tale of Ruby’s own drink- and drug-addled, indifferent mother and reprobate father—a fourth-rate New Orleans jazz trumpeter and second-rate con man—wends into the present. Christopher in this way draws the family history ever closer to what remains of Bolden two generations on … and to the mystery of his lost cylinder.

Tiger Rag, like A Trip to the Stars, alternates nimbly between narratives that collide near the end of the book. Their ultimate intersection feels inevitable, but it happens every bit as unexpectedly, rewardingly … and with just as much redemption … as a reader could hope.

The redemption isn’t Bolden’s. He gets his best shot at that midway through the book, five months before the end of his life. Christopher gives us the scene.

Bolden hasn’t touched a musical instrument in 24 years, since he was committed to the asylum. He picks up a cornet that a younger musician has just played (not particularly well) for the assembled patients. In the presence of nurses and orderlies who have no clue who he is, Bolden plays “Tiger Rag,” the tune he cut on that disappeared cylinder.

From the book:

In 1931 Charles Bolden picked up where he had left off in 1906, just that once stepping back into real time by way of his music, which had thrived in the outside world while he was wasting away. It was as if, for a few minutes, without being remotely aware of it, much less imagining the possibility in such grand terms, he had been allowed to participate in his own immortality.

If only.

Buddy Bolden would have found himself in great company.

Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.