January 4, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Nicholas Christopher skillfully melds the past with the present in his new novel, Tiger Rag. Utilizing dual narratives, Christopher brings to life the mythical recordings of legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden as well as the turn-of-the-century New Orleans jazz scene.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Talented poet and novelist Christopher (The Bestiary, 2007, etc.) returns to the rich vein of early-20th-century American history for his elegiac and expressive sixth novel."
My recently published novel, Tiger Rag, takes its name from the famous early New Orleans jazz standard that was originally titled "Number 2." One of the great musicians known to have played "Number 2" was the virtuoso cornet player Charles “Buddy” Bolden. According to legend, Bolden thought his version of the song so unique that he renamed it. In 1900, Buddy Bolden fused blues, ragtime, African and Caribbean syncopations into a new musical form. It would come to be called “jazz,” and no less than Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong would pay homage to Bolden as its inventor — an opinion shared today by many jazz critics. Bolden was called King Bolden by his admirers because he was the first king of jazz. It was a title two of his successors, Freddie Keppard and Joe Oliver, inherited for a short time. Bolden sometimes played eight gigs in a single night — bars, dance halls, and parades. A ladies man and a drinker, he lived hard and fast in the roughly ten years that his band was on top. Eventually his demons — in the form of alcoholism and schizophrenia — overtook him. Even while many of his lesser known contemporaries recorded Edison phonograph cylinders, Bolden refused, supposedly because he feared his sound would be imitated. And so the groundbreaking sound of his horn was lost forever. But rumors of a lost Edison phonographic cylinder have persisted for a hundred years, and have evolved into a powerful myth: that the first jazzman had in fact left behind a seminal recording, a kind of holy grail of jazz. In Tiger Rag I weave the central part of my story around this myth.
The novel's other, interlocking narrative revolves around a woman on the brink, a respected, middle-aged anesthesiologist in present-day Miami whose life is falling apart. Her name is Ruby Cardillo. The daughter of a failed trumpeter with an unsavory reputation and a tenuous connection to Bolden's rumored Edison cylinder, Ruby has endured numerous shocks in a short time: her husband, a prominent cardiologist, has left her for a twenty-six year old; her daughter, Devon, a once promising jazz pianist, has recently finished an enforced stint picking up trash along the interstate after a drug conviction; and her estranged mother has just passed away, but not before dredging up dark memories that Ruby thought had been buried away long ago. After years of steadiness and professionalism, Ruby jumps the tracks, forgetting to eat and sleep, indulging her every whim, wearing only purple, consuming expensive bottles of 1988 Chateau Latour, unbeknowst to her, proceeding at breakneck speed toward her rendezvous with Buddy Bolden's ghost.
These are some of the songs that we hear, or hear about, in the pages of Tiger Rag:
"Tiger Rag" - Louis Armstrong, live in Copenhagen, 1933. (His performance can be enjoyed on YouTube)
He plays the song in tough-as-nails early New Orleans style: hard-stomping, heartfelt, and soaring. I would guess this is the way Armstrong would have heard as a boy it when he listened to Buddy Bolden. Armstrong and his mother Mayann lived near Funky Butt Hall (which took its name from a song by Bolden), one of Bolden's regular venues. In his memoirs, Armstrong describes Bolden's distinctive loud, clear sound. This may be as close as any of us will get to hearing a Bolden recording.
"Tiger Rag" - Art Tatum
Tatum was as much of a genius as Armstrong. Maybe the greatest jazz pianist of all time. His elegant, electric version of this song is one of the most unusual. In few other standards can we hear such a perfect fusion of blues and ragtime, the high-octane fuel of the earliest jazz.
"Deep Purple" - Art Tatum
There was a reason Vladimir Horowitz attended at least one Tatum performance and admired his recordings: Tatum's dazzling technique, interpretive brilliance, and spiritual depth were on a par with any pianist of the 20th century, jazz or classical. Ruby's daughter Devon, the lapsed pianist and recovering addict, hears "Deep Purple" performed by a young performer in a Harlem nightclub called Algiers and only wishes she could play the piece as well.
"I Hate Myself for Loving You" - Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
At their peak. One of the angriest, grittiest love songs ever recorded. Jett just spits it out. She loves the object of her affection enough to hate herself: that’s not so complicated, but she makes it so. And Ruby is obsessed with the song. She has burned a CD with the song occupying all eleven tracks but one, a CD she plays constantly after her husband has betrayed her and they have divorced. In her car, driving from Miami to New York in a terrible winter storm, Ruby plays nothing but that CD, driving Devon to distraction.
"It's All Over Now" - The Rolling Stones
This is the one other song on Ruby's personal CD, and both its title and lyrics mesh neatly with Jett's. It's another song of love gone sour, a typical early Stones (1964) R&B number with strong country overtones. An upbeat song with downbeat lyrics. "She put me out, it was a pity how I cried,/Tables turning, now it's her turn to cry,/Because I used to love her/But it's all over now."
"Home! Sweet Home!" - original lyrics by John Howard Payne
This sentimental number was banned from Union Army camps during the Civil War for fear it would encourage homesick soldiers to desert. In Tiger Rag I recount a famous story about Bolden's playing it on a New Orleans pier for a shipload of American soldiers who were setting sail for Cuba and the Spanish-American War. Bolden and his band played the song so well that, sure enough, a good number of soldiers jumped overboard and swam to shore. Bolden's trombonist and closest friend Willie Cornish was among the soldiers who remained on the ship. He fought bravely, and was wounded in Cuba, but returned to the Bolden band a year later. It was because of Cornish's presence on the ship that Bolden, possessed of a wry sense of humor, had uncharacteristically risen at dawn in order to see that troop ship off.
"But Not for Me" - Ahmad Jamal
Miles Davis's favorite pianist. Also a favorite of Devon's in Tiger Rag. When she was busy making herself into a jazz pianist in happier times (landing gigs in various clubs, but never quite making it), Devon is entranced by Jamal's recordings. "But Not for Me," "Poinciana," and "Perfidia" —with their radical chord shifts, complex arpeggios, and Afro-Cuban rhythms tempered by subtle colorations reminiscent of Satie or Fauré — represent the pinnacle of jazz piano for her.
"Frankie and Johnny" - Memphis Slim
Another heavy influence on Devon, who, if she stays sober, still has it in her to become a fine pianist. The exemplar of Boogie-woogie, Memphis Slim could seemingly play anything he wanted to, and play it well. Among his best known boogies are cuts dedicated to various friends and sidekicks — Albert, Slim, Eddie, Lloyd — as well as his "Boogie for Roosevelt," dedicated to the president. Forty years after Bolden's heyday, musicians were still working over the blues for new forms of jazz. "Frankie and Johnny," a popular ballad, was first published in 1904, based on a notorious murder in St. Louis in 1899. It was recorded by countless musicians as varied as Sam Cooke and Pete Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy and Van Morrison. The song's lyrics are crucially important, but so well known that an elite group of instrumentalists, including Duke Ellington. Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and — in a tremendous solo recording — Memphis Slim have been able to convey the song's pathos without a vocal track.
"Characteristic Blues" - Sidney Bechet
Along with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, one of the greatest jazz clarinetists of all time. Unlike Shaw and Goodman, Bechet's roots, musical and otherwise, went back to Buddy Bolden's New Orleans. The son of a shoemaker, Bechet began his professional career at age eleven. He joined the Eagle Orchestra, which at that time was comprised of remnants of the Bolden Band. Like most other prominent New Orleans jazzmen, Bechet migrated north to Chicago, where he began what would become an international career. Lionized in Europe, as early as 1919 he gave a command performance at Buckingham Palace for King George V and a thousand royal guests. When Bechet launched into his powerful, zigzag solo on "Characteristic Blues" — a song in which he would engage in a scintillating musical conversation with Louis Armstrong when they were members of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band — the English monarch stood up to applaud and the rest of the audience followed. In Tiger Rag, Willie Cornish is in the audience when Bechet performs "Characteristic Blues" with Armstrong and King Oliver. It was during that 1919 trip to London that Bechet discovered in a second-hand music store the soprano saxophone which was to become his signature instrument.
After his death at fifty-four at the East Louisiana State Asylum, where he had been confined for twenty-four years, Charles Bolden was buried in a potter's field called Holt Cemetery in New Orleans. A musician of his stature was customarily given a boisterous sendoff at which a band of his peers played for thousands of fans and mourners. But Bolden had been forgotten. In addition to his mother and sister, only a single musician showed up at the funeral, the man who was to be the longest surviving member of the Bolden Band, Willie Cornish. After playing a spiritual from his boyhood that Bolden had been partial to, Cornish let loose with one of the few original Bolden compositions we know of. The title, "Careless Love," fit Bolden perfectly. It is a low slow blues Bolden wrote for a girl named Ella, with whom he was in love. All we know about her is that she was eighteen years old and very beautiful when she met Bolden, that she wore yellow (his favorite color) for him, and that after he was sent away she ended up working in a brothel run by a woman named Mrs. Vance. There are two purported endings to her story: one is that she was murdered at twenty by a drunken pimp; the other that she lived to be ninety, the mistress and heir of a prosperous orange farmer in Florida.
Nicholas Christopher and Tiger Rag links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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