Books: Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter


Buddy Bolden’s sound is the ultimate projective test.

A grabber of a headline, yes? It’s true, though: the shrink in me, plus the jazz lover/player, knows this to be true. Please do allow me to share this conclusion with you.

A projective test is something that, when used by good shrinks, allows you to express your personality in a vaguely-narrative form; in the process you suggest, sometimes strongly, what your personality is like.

Charles “Buddy” Bolden was never recorded. We have no true idea what he sounded like (at best, we have Bunk Johnson’s whistled version of his music); all we really have (though he’s hailed by such luminaries as Wynton Marsalis as the “father” of jazz) is an impression of him.

Depending on your artistic soul, how great he is depends on you– the imaginer.

For instance, what do a truly-reverent hymn and a devil-influenced blues sound like played together? You a musician? Write that. Stop reading this and go write what that combo sounds like.

p 81: “‘There [Bolden] is, relaxed back in a chair, blowing that silver softly, just above a whisper and I see he’s got the hat over the bell of the horn… Though I knew his blues before, and the hymns at funerals, but what he is playing now is real strange and I listen careful for he’s playing something that sounds like both. I cannot make out the tune and then I catch on. He’s mixing them up. He’s playing the blues and the hymn sadder than the blues and then the blues sadder than the hymn. That is the first time I ever heard hymns and blues cooked up together….
…I’m sorta scared because I know the Lord don’t like that mixing the Devil’s music with His music. But I still listen because the music sounds so strange and I guess I’m hypnotised. When he blows blues I can see Lincoln Park with all the sinners and whores shaking and belly rubbing and the chicks getting way down and slapping themselves on the cheeks of their behind. Then when he blows the hymn I’m in my mother’s church with everybody humming. The picture kept changing with the music. It sounded like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil. Something tells me to listen and see who wins. If Bolden stops on the hymn, the Good Lord wins. If he stops on the blues, the Devil wins.'”

…Where did that take you? Did you feel that struggle for your soul?

If not, you did it wrong.

Bolden didn’t do it wrong.

How do we know? Because he lost his goddamned mind.

Yes, that’s artistic license; yes, he had what is technically a psychotic break, and probably had a family history of this type of disorder, which may or may not’ve had an inevitable impact on him….

But part of me, the jazz musician… knows it was the mix of devil and hymnal that did it…

…not the irreducible biology of his neocortex….

Michael Ondjaatje (perhaps ironically?) gives us, in my mind, the best version of what the cornetist might’ve sounded like (and why not a musician? What does that tell us?)– he also, along the way, gives us suggestive, expansive views of music and what we call “jazz”…

p 33: “With every sweet stylizing gesture that he knew no one could see he aimed for the gentlest music he knew. So softly it was a siren twenty blocks away. He played till his body was frozen and all that was alive and warm were the few inches from where his stomach forced the air up through his chest and head into the instrument.
“The music was course and rough, immediate, dated in half an hour, was about bodies in the river, knives, lovepains, cockiness. Up there on stage he was showing all the possibilities in the middle of the story.”
“As a photograph, it is not good or precise, partly because the print was found after the fire. The picture, waterlogged by climbing horses, stayed in the possession of Willy Cornish [valve trombone, third from left, rear] for several years.” (p. 66)

What fuels a “jazz” musician? What installs the need to create in him/herself the need to elaborate a cerebral system allowing the spontaneous creation of music ideally representative of one’s soul…?

P 79 “He lay there crucified and drunk. Brought his left wrist to his teeth and bit hard and harder for several seconds then lost his nerve. Flopped it back outstretched. Going to sleep while feeling his vein tingling at the near chance it had of almost going free. Ecstasy before death. It marched through him while he slept.”

Is it really the deathurge?

Or, is it the sheer tenacity of the artistic soul…?

p 89: “Our friendship had nothing accidental did it. Even at the start you set out to breed me into something better. Which you did. You removed my immaturity at just the right time and saved me a lot of energy and I sped away happy and alone in a new town away from you, and now you produce a leash, curl the leather round and round your fist, and walk straight into me. And you pull me home. Like those breeders of bull terriers in the Storyville pits who can prove anything of their creatures, can prove how determined their dogs are by setting them onto an animal and while the jaws clamp shut they can slice the dog’s body in half knowing the jaws will still not let go.
All the time I hate what I am doing and want the other. In a room full of people I get frantic in their air and their shout and when I’m alone I sniff the smell of their bodies against my clothes. I’m scared, Webb, don’t think I will find one person who will be the right audience. All you’ve done is cut me in half, pointing me here. Where I don’t want these answers.”

And to what, specifically, does that artistic soul aspire?

p 94 [during a parade]: “…People would hear just the fragment I happened to be playing and it would fade as I went further down Canal. They would not be there to hear the end of phrases, Robichaux’s arches. I wanted them to be able to come in where they pleased and leave when they pleased and somehow hear the germs of the start and all the possible endings at whatever point in the music I had reached then.”
p 95/96: “So [he] taught me not craft but to play a mood of sound I would recognize and remember. Every note new and raw and chance. Never repeated. His mouth also moving and trying to mime the sound but never able to for his brain had lost control of his fingers.
In mirror to him Carrey’s trumpet was a technician– which went gliding down river and missed all the shit on the bottom. His single strong notes pelting out into the crowds, able to reach any note that he wished for but always reaching for the purest.”

Ondaatje further elaborates, with the florid, succulent imagination of the writer, the training process of such shamanistic alchemy:

p 100: “After breakfast I train. Mouth and lips and breathing. Exercises. Scales. For hours till my jaws and stomach ache. But no music or tune that I long to play. Just the notes, can you understand that? It is like perfecting 100 yard starts and stopping after the third yard and back again to the beginning. In this way the notes jerk forward in a spurt.”
p 101: “Come back you said. All that music. I don’t want that way anymore. There is this other path I beat the bushes away from with exercise so I can walk down it knowing it is just stone. I’ve got more theoretical with no one to talk to.
…The day got better with the opening of bottles and all of us were vaguely drunk by the time they left and me rambling on as they were about to leave, leaning against the driver’s window apologizing, explaining what I wanted to do. About the empty room when I get up and put metal onto my mouth and hit the squawk at just the right note to equal the tone of the room and that’s all you do….
You learn to play like that and no band will play with you, he says.”

And even when he doesn’t provide the Rosetta stone of jazz performance, the details, the poetry, of one’s –anyone’s– life are expertly detailed:

p 111: “…together closing up her skirt, slipping the buttons back into their holes so she was dressed again. Not going further because it was friendship that had to be guarded, that they both wanted. The diamond had to love the earth it passed along the way, every speck and angle of the other’s history, for the diamond had been earth too.”
p 112: “I had wanted to be the reservoir where engines and people drank, blood sperm music pouring out and getting hooked in someone’s ear. The way flowers were still and fed bees. And we took from the others too this way, music that was nothing till [we] joined Cornish and made him furious because we wouldn’t let him even finish the song before we changed it to our blood. Cornish who played the same note the same way every time who was our frame, our diving board that we leapt off, the one we sacrificed so he could remain the overlooked metronome.”

And finally, though it’s detailed only in retrospect, details about the Final Act, the price to be payed (inevitably?) for your gander into divinity, into angelic (Luciferian?) heraldry via the horn:

p 134: “…You like a weatherbird arcing round to exact opposites and burning your brains out so that from June 5, 1907 till 1931 you were dropped into amber in the East Louisiana State Hospital. Some saying you went mad trying to play the devil’s music and hymns at the same time and Armstrong telling historians that you went mad by playing too hard and too often drunk too wild too crazy. The excesses cloud up the page. There was the climax of the parade and then you removed yourself from the 20th century game of fame, the rest of your life a desert of facts.”

Do you play?

Do you listen?

Then read this and make it yours.

Isn’t that jazz?

[Also published as “Buddy Bolden’s Blues.”]

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