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Michael Ondaatje: Coming Through Slaughter

Buddy Bolden may well have been the greatest jazz cornet player ever. Unfortunately, none of his recordings – if, indeed, he made any – has survived. One did turn up a few years ago but it turned out to be a fake. What is fairly certain that, while he did not invent jazz, he was the person who brought it together and set it on the road to its later success in the way that Charley Patton did for blues. As with Patton, it is his successors – Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson and others – who are remembered, not least because they left recordings behind and he did not. Bolden died in 1931, well after jazz was a huge success. Unfortunately, he spent the last 24 years of his life in East Louisiana State Hospital, a mental hospital near Baton Rouge.

Ondaatje’s novel is an attempt – and a very excellent one – to give an idea of Bolden’s life during the period leading up to Bolden’s breakdown while playing for Henry Allen’s Brass Band. Ondaatje does not, cannot give a straight narrative, not least because a lot of the facts are not known. While he certainly includes facts, he gives a wonderful impressionistic account of Bolden’s activities, his love for two women, his often troubled relationships and his upbringing as well as his work as a barber and newsletter editor. While clearly interested in Bolden’s life – he even tells us about his journey to New Orleans to take photos of key landmarks – Ondaatje is more interested in getting a feel for what the man was like, the aura of death hanging around him, his inability to decide who he was and where he was going. If you want to know about Bolden, you might read Donald Marquis’ In Search of Buddy Bolden, an excellent book, or Danny Barker‘s Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville. But if you want a good novel, read Ondaatje’s books. By the way, the photo on the front cover of the novel is the wrong way round and the title of the novel refers to the journey his body took back from the mental hospital to New Orleans, via Slaughter, Louisiana.

Publishing history

First published 1976 by House of Anansi