Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

18 March 2009

The unrecorded stories of King/Charles/Buddy Bolden.

Intro to Buddy Bolden – Wynton Marsalis (Septet) – Live at the Village Vanguard

“This story begins with a man who’s name was Buddy Bolden. Now, he was from New Orleans, Louisiana. He plays the cornet. But since we’re telling the story, we’ll just say that he’s a trumpet player.

“People like Buddy Bolden mainly because Buddy Bolden knew how to listen. He would listen to anybody. You probably figured out already, Buddy Bolden was a barber. Because you know, barbering is mainly dispensing logic with attitude. So he would stand up all day in his barbershop underneath the slow moving wooden fan, with razor in hand, listening to the hottest gossip known to man and woman. Now as you probably figured out from that, he was also the editor of a newspaper. Now the newspaper that he edited was called The Cricket. But the Tripp sisters had loaned him the money to get the printing press, so he couldn’t put that hottest gossip in the paper, or they would take the press away. So the hottest gossip, he let that come steaming out of his horn on the weekends, and on late nights of the weekdays.

“The people loved to hear Buddy Bolden play. Because his music was synchopated, they danced. Because his music was the blues they danced with feeling. And because it was also jazz music, they danced with feeling and accuracy.

“Buddy Bolden could play so loud, that when he opened up his horn in New Olreans, Louisiana, people way across the river in Algiers could hear it, and it made them feel good because they knew it was time to swing. And that’s where everyone likes to be.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Buddy Bolden, also called King Bolden by some, is a touchstone of North American storytelling. As a barber, newspaper editor and cornet player, Bolden listened to many, and repeated their tales in his own inimitable style. Although he is cited as an influential force in the development of Jazz in New Orleans, he was never recorded, and as such, there are many stories about him: the true, the apocryphal and the fantastic. As a result of this enigmatic characteristic, Buddy Bolden well symbolises storytelling in North America at the turn of the 20th Century – through journalism (and its fictions), through his cornet (and the jazz sound particular to him) and through his mythologisation through all the stories told about him.

Coming Through Slaughter is a fine example of the interweaving of all these forms, and reads like a riffing jazz piece.


From Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

p 14
He was the best and the loudest and most loved jazzman of his time, but never professional in the brain. Unconcerned with the crack of the lip he threw out and held immense notes, could reach a force on the first note that attacked the ear. He was obsessed with the magic of air, those smells that turned neuter as they revolved in his lungs then spat out in the chosen key. The way the sides of his mouth would drag a net of air in and dress it in notes an 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 a room by the colour.

Bolden played nearly everything in B-Flat.

[Webb, now a police detective, searches for the missing Bolden, whom he had known since childhood.]

Alcohol burning down his throat as she tells him that Buddy went, disappeared, got lost, I don’t know Webb but he’s gone.
How long?
5 or 6 months.
Nora opening out the curtains so the light falls over him, the cup with the drink in front of his face, between them, shielding him from the story, gulping more down.

What was Bolden’s favourite story? Whose moment of terror did he want to witness, Webb thought…

Looked at objectively The Cricket contained excessive reference to death. The possibilities were terrifying to Bolden and he hunted out examples obsessively as if building a wall. … And then there was the first death, almost on top of him, saved by its fictional quality and nothing else.

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore about the plot – see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes.

Always listening, listening to the wet fluid speech with no order, unfinished stories, badly told jokes that he sober as a spider perfected in silence.

On his last night Webb went to hear Bolden play. Far back, by the door, he stood alone and listened for an hour. He watched him drive into the stories found in the barber shop, his whole plot of song covered with scandal and incident and change. The music was coarse 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.

Webb had spoken to Bellocq and discovered nothing. Had spoken to Nora, Crawley, to Cornish, had met the children – Bernadine, Charlie. Their stories were like spokes on a rimless wheel ending in air. Buddy had lived a different life with every one of them.

Dude Botley followed him and tells this story which some believe and which others don’t believe at all.

Then I hear Bolden’s cornet, very quiet, and I move across the street, closer. There he is, relaxed back in a chair blowing that silver softly, just above a whisper adn I see he’s got the hat over the bell of the horn… Thought 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. … This is the first time I ever heard hymns and blues cooked up together. … It sounded like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil. Something told me to listen and see who wins.


Canada’s heart of darkness

14 February 2009

Timothey Findley’s Headhunter reflects how far up the river we’ve traveled.

Marlow used literature as psychotherapy. He believed in its
healing powers – not because of its sentiments, but because of
its complexities. No human life need ever be as knotted as Anna
Karenina’s life had been – since the living had the benefit, as she
had not, of her own example. Many a suicide had been thwarted
because of Anna’s death. The trouble was, with books, that no
one read anymore. That way, trains still claimed many victims.”

see also: Medicinal Fiction

from Headhunter

[the character Fagan, an academic from Dublin, describes his journey via the Russian ship Neva, to Montreal to an assembly of guests in Toronto, made up entirely of other characters. Italics are the author’s.]

Fagan went on to describe the journey upstream to Montreal – past a landscape still and grey along the dead shore. He pointed out the fetid colours of the water and the rivers, frothing with chemicals, running down from the mined interior and the boarded-up towns giving way to the cities pouring yellow waste into the wake of the ship and the sick, dying whales that rose from the deep. He said there were many wonders, too – the Saguenay – the Citadel of Quebec – and farms where actual cows could be seen in actual fields… And then to Montreal, where
he debarked and the Neva turned back towards its ocean voyage.

“You make the landscape sound horrific,” said Fabiana.
“I mean to,” said Fagan. Adn then: “it was not for nothing that I came that way.”
“What does that mean?” said Appleby.
“It means that I was not the first to come. It means I followed where others had gone before me.”
“Immigrants?” said Fabiana.
“All of us are immigrants,” said Fagan. “Even the so-called aboriginal peoples of this continent came from somewhere else. I believe it was across an ice bridge, now the Bering Sea.”
“We don’t call them aboriginals,” said Appleby. “We call them Indians.”
“Oh, yes.” Fagan smiled. “I had forgotten where I was.”
“Well, they aren’t Chinese,” said Appleby.
“One name I recall is Cree,” said Fagan. “Another is Ojibway. And what are you, my lord?”
“English,” said Appleby. “What difference does that make?”
“Order of arrival,” said Fagan, still smiling. “Order of arrival, you see, equals order of perception. I only mean to say – this place was once perceived as nothing more or less than a place in which to survive. A place to live.”
“Still is,” said Appleby.
“You think so?”
“What else could it be?”
“A place to buy. A place to alter. A place to destroy.”
“Are you a communist, Fagan?”
“Well, now. I’ve never thought about it.”
“People like you,” said Appleby. “You hate everything, don’t you.”
“Now, Mace – don’t start in on that,” said Rena, waking up from a snooze.
“Couldn’t agree more,” said Marlow, fearing that politics were going to wreck the evening.
“You see,” said Fagan, “my journey up the river made me think about what it was those others who came before us had in mind. they might be greatly surprised by what they found here today. And greatly dismayed, I fear.”
“How do you mean? said Fabiana.
“I mean there is nothing here of what anyone proposed. There is little beauty left – but much ugliness. Little wilderness – but much emptiness. No explorers – but many exploiters. There is no art – no music – no literature – but only entertainment. And there is no philosophy. This that was once a living place for humankind has become a killing ground.”
There was a brief pause.