‘Tiger Rag’: a novel of jazz and its devotees
Nicholas Christopher’s “Tiger Rag,” a novel for jazz lovers, tells a story of how three recordings of a long-ago New Orleans jam session disappear and reappear throughout the ensuing century.
The Washington Post
by Nicholas Christopher
Dial, 266 pp., $26
On July 5, 1904, this novel tells us, seven New Orleans musicians — the Buddy Bolden Band — gathered for a recording session. In those early days, they used wax cylinders attached to an Edison recorder, each cylinder capable of recording four minutes. This invention was just one of many innovations of what became a new technological age.
The head of the band was Charles “Buddy” Bolden, a masterly cornetist playing a new kind of music: jazz. The session went on through a stiflingly hot afternoon, and three cylinders came out of it, two with imperfections, the third close to perfect. “The three Edison cylinders left that room separately,” Nicholas Christopher writes: one with the engineer’s assistant, one with the recording engineer and the last (and best) with Willie Cornish, a fine musician who was Bolden’s best friend.
You just know those three Bolden cylinders are going to go missing. The first falls into the hands of an oafish, second-rate cornetist who suffers from a bad case of envy and the unshakable delusion that he’s a better musician than Bolden.
The second wanders at random through the narrative, and the third ends up, at the beginning of the next century, as the most precious possession of another first-rate musician: Sammy LeMond, a prosperous, generous nightclub owner in Harlem. He has a beautiful wife and a fine career; music is a religion for him.
But his lifestyle is catching up with him, as it did 100 years before with Bolden. After LeMond dies, who will end up with the lost cylinder, which is worth, by this time, hundreds of thousands of dollars?
Long ago, The New Yorker ran a cartoon that became famous: A man resembling Dizzy Gillespie — black beret set at a rakish tilt, dapper little goatee — sits at his son’s bedside. The kid, snug under the covers, asks for a favorite bedtime story: “Tell me again, Daddy, how jazz came up the river from New Orleans.”
This is Christopher’s version of that quintessentially American story, and he uses it to lay out an almost exhaustive version of that lifestyle. He also explores the musicians’ states of mind: the debilitating envy when it becomes clear you’re never going to be more than a sideman; the grinding rage when it becomes clear that they’re not going to ask you to sit in after hours (when the real creative work is done).
And the author also talks about women and their uneasy place in the world of jazz, from Bolden’s beautiful mistress, who’s expected to do no more than decorate a couch by sitting on it, to a female singer named Devon, who along with her mother, Ruby, occupies half of this narrative.
Ruby, a physician, is on her way up to New York City to give a speech on anesthetic-induced amnesia. Devon has lived her life on the fringes of jazz; she has played middle-level clubs and is just good enough to know her limitations. And there is another woman whom we see in various disguises, a caster of spells and a user of mysterious herbs and potions.
The structure here is like a long and complex jazz arrangement. The themes of the male performers and the female audiences come together, separate, then come together again. If you love the world of jazz, if it’s a little like a religion to you, you’ll love this ambitious, thoughtful novel.