According to legend and hearsay, Buddy Bolden invented
jazz. And perhaps he did. No one has a better claim to
the honor. But no recordings exist to give credence to the
scattered first-hand testimonies. Bolden himself didn't stay
on the scene long enough to offer his own assessment of
his contributions to the music. He lived until 1931, but spent
the last 24 years in a mental institution. No music historian
ever paid him a visit or sent him a letter,
and it's not clear he was in any state to
respond to such queries.
But others have jumped into the breach
to offer up their own versions of Buddy
Bolden. Michael Ondaatje is hardly the
only novelist to transform the mysterious
New Orleans cornetist into a fictional
character. Nicholas Christopher recently
did the same in his book Tiger Rag,
Stefan Berg turned the jazz musician's
story into his graphic novel Let That Bad
Air Out, and Peter J. Hecks teams up
Bolden with Mark Twain in A Connecticut
Yankee in Criminal Court. Sad to say, even
many non-fiction accounts of Bolden's life read like
fanciful folklore, for example Danny Barker's Buddy Bolden
and the Last Days of Storyville, which draws heavily on a
single source (Dude Botley) who appears to have never
existed, although perhaps he was a composite of unnamed
real individuals of dubious credibility.
For many decades, those who tried to write about Bolden
had few facts to go on. But I feel especially sorry for Mr.
Ondaatje. He published his Bolden novel Coming Through
Slaughter in 1976, and clearly put a lot of effort into learning
all the stories and rumors about the musician. But just two
years later, Donald Marquis proved that most of these
'facts' were plain wrong. Marquis's pathbreaking book
In Search of Buddy Bolden ranks among the most
important works of jazz scholarship from the last half-century,
and even today remains the starting-point for anyone who
wants to know about the 'first man of jazz'.
So don’t read Ondaatje's novel in the hope
of learning about Buddy Bolden. Despite
what you find in its pages (and elsewhere—
the half-life of disproved historical claims is
unsettlingly long when colorful figures from the
past are involved), Bolden was not a barber.
He did not edit a scandal sheet called The
Cricket. He did not get arrested because he
went beserk during a 1906 Labor Day parade.
In short, the fictional Buddy Bolden presented
in Coming Through Slaughter bears little
resemblance to the man as we know him
Then again, how much did Ondaatje care about historical
accuracy? During the course of this novel, Bolden listens to
the radio, talks with a friend for an hour on the telephone,
and drives a car—three activities I seriously doubt the
cornetist had much opportunity to pursue, circa 1905.
There were only 8,000 cars and 144 miles of paved road
in the entire United States back then, and fewer than 10%
of homes had a telephone. I've visited Bolden’s old
neighborhood in New Orleans, even walked up to the
door of his house, and feel confident in stating that Bell
Telephone wasn't fastracking phone lines for this street
during the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
In other words, I hesitate to call Coming Through Slaughter
a historical novel. In fact, it may not be a novel of any
description. Ondaatje's fractured presentation—made
up of juxtaposed pieces of text rather than conventional
chapters—often veers closer to poetry than prose.
Here's an example:
He was obsessed with the magic of air, those smells that
turned neuter as they revolved in his lung then spat out in
the chosen key. The way the side of his mouth would drag
a net of air in and dress it in notes and make it last and last,
yearning to leave it up there in the sky like air transformed
into cloud. He could see the air, could tell where it was
freshest in the room by the colour.
Realistic? Not in the least. I haven't met a single musician
who could turn an air into cloud with a horn. Or even tried.
But the description is vivid and evocative. It showcases
Ondaatje, a writer known sometimes to try the patience of
his readers, at his best.
Such horn pyrotechnics notwithstanding, very little of the
plot here is actually about music. Bolden gets involved in
several different love triangles, which eventually preoccupy
him so much that he stops playing the cornet. He leaves
town with one couple and manages to turn their already
less-than-satisfying relationship into a queasy threesome.
Yet Bolden is less than pleased when an interloper tries
out the same gambit with his own wife Nora. And, almost
testing the reader's credulity, Ondaatje also puts the real-
life Bolden bandmate Willy Cornish into a third threesome
with Nora and Buddy. In other words, the historical Buddy
Bolden may have led a sextet, but he is sticking to trios in
Ondaatje's account of his life.
Yet Ondaatje does a credible job of capturing the psychology
of the jazz artist, that peculiar state of mind that puts so much
trust in spontaneity and resists cold calculation. The central
role of improvisation in jazz attracts precisely this kind of
attitude, and only a rare few can thrive amidst the demands
that America's make-it-happen-in-the-instant art form
imposes on its practitioners. Yet Ondaatje loses these
hard-won gains when, later in the book, he decides to
present much of the narrative in Bolden's own voice. All of
a sudden, the artist who earlier in the novel had impressed
us with his daring and unpredictable ways now comes across
as neurotically cautious and ponderously self-reflective.
Perhaps this shift is a necessary prelude to the Bolden's
later mental breakdown—or, at least, Ondaatje may believe
such a transformation is required to propel his story onward
—but the dramatic change strikes me as unconvincing and
unrealistic. Based on everything I know about this musician,
Buddy Bolden was aptly named: boldness was his calling
card, and his presentation in the second half of Coming
Through Slaughter as tentative and second-guessing his
every impulse just doesn't ring true.
But there is someone very bold moving this book ahead
towards its tragic conclusion…namely author Michael
Ondaatje. At almost every turn of Coming Through
Slaughter, he takes big chances. The fragmented structure,
the deliberate anachronisms, the prose turning into poetry,
the intricate and ever-changing relationships between the
characters—these constantly surprise us, and the book as
a whole anticipates the celebrated volumes still to come
in Ondaatje's career, most notably The English Patient.
So don’t read this novel to learn about Buddy Bolden or
even about the spirit of early jazz. It won’t tell you much,
and most of the facts it supplies are plain wrong. Instead
enjoy the audacity of a young author trying to shake things
up, and who will take no prisoners. I imagine if Buddy
Bolden were around to read this book, he might not
recognize himself in its pages, but he would recognize
and applaud that spirit of transgressive discovery—since
he made his mark on history with an almost identical attitude.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
|Michael Ondaatje's Jazz Novel
by Ted Gioia
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