Coming Through Slaughter is a raw, fractured book, much like its subject, the turn of the century New Orleans cornet player Buddy Bolden. Bolden died in a lunatic asylum after ‘going mad’ playing in a street parade. He had had apparent schizophrenic episodes before but nothing like this – he always came back. This time he didn’t return.
He was the best and the loudest and the 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 the 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 a room by the colour.
The book has no real structure as such; rather it is like a rotting bridge, or one made only of the supporting spars. (As Geoff Dyer said of Monk: It shouldn't have held together but it did and the excitement came from the way that it looked like it might collapse at any moment.) The supports are the various voices Ondaatje sources – primary, secondary, and those he merely channels. There is his own too, which he invests with a kind of incantatory fever, summoning Bolden from the walls of his house, the dank shadows of the asylum. These are voices that attempt to represent that which resists representation: jazz's burning star core. It is in Monk's notes, it is in Dave Holland's frantic description of Miles' arcane playing directions: ' "What he means is…he's saying 'Don't play what's there. Play what's not there… He's saying 'Don't play what your fingers fall into…Play something else. Don't play what you go for. Play the next thing'.'
Frank Lewis: It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note he passed, passed it seemed along the way as if travelling in a car, passed before he even approached it and saw it properly. There was non control except the mood of his power...and it is for this reason it is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never heard him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes – then you should never have heard him at all. He was never recorded. He stayed away while others moved into wax history, electronic history, those who said later that Bolden broke the path. It was just as important to watch him stretch and wheel around on the last notes or to watch nerves jumping under the sweat of his head.
There are howling gaps between these voices, figured in the wide white spaces between the blocks of text; Bolden emerges from these too. He is the ghost in the white spaces. Even in the one surviving photograph of him, he fades from the surface, an uncertain wraith.
Bolden, second left, standing
Unrecorded, even his music is a phantasm, his diabolic mix of gospel and the blues scored only in legend and in what came after. The perfect invisible source.
Bolden: John Robichaux! Playing his waltzes. And I hate to admit it but I enjoyed listening to the clear forms...Did you ever meet Robichaux? I never did. I loathed everything he stood for. He dominated his audiences. He put his emotions into patters which a listening crowd had to follow. My enjoyment tonight was because I wanted something that was just a utensil. Had a bath, washed my hair, and wanted the same sort of clarity and open-headedness. But I don't believe it for a second...When I played parades we would be going down Canal Street and at each intersection 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 the 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 that I had reached them. Like your radio without the beginnings or endings. The right ending is an open door you can't see too far out of. It can mean exactly the opposite of what you are thinking.
Finally, that title? Incidental though it seems, it captures the essence of Bolden’s movement – the swing of his music, his nervous energy, his periodic disappearances, his uncertain navigations of the terrains of his self; and the last journey from which he never returned, away on a freight train into the bayou, through Slaughter to the asylum.
All my life I seemed to be a parcel on a bus. I am the famous fucker. I am the famous barber. I am the famous cornet player. Read the labels. The labels are coming home.
Coming Through Slaughter
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