Buddy Bolden’s original sound at the turn of the last century was so enthralling that some call him the first big jazz star. But his star died quickly. Increasingly erratic, even violent, he was institutionalized in his late 20s and died without ever performing in a rocking, smoke-filled club again.
Nicholas Christopher’s new novel, “Tiger Rag,” brings Bolden back to life, a cornet virtuoso who is losing his mental grip – and ending at the center of a full-blown mystery.
To this day, no recording of Bolden has been found. Historical accounts indicate at least one session was captured on an Edison cylinder, the clunky recording equipment of the time. And as “Tiger Rag” opens, Christopher recreates that session and sets spinning a page turner of a story that spans a century and a hunt for the lost cylinder.
It also spans four generations of Dr. Ruby Cardillo’s family. A highly regarded anesthesiologist, Ruby is in the midst of an emotional breakdown. Her husband has divorced her to marry his 26-year-old girlfriend – almost the same age as their daughter Devon, 25, who is fighting her own demons.
Christopher moves back and forth in time and place, from New Orleans in the early 1900s, after “Kid” Bolden burst on the scene, to 2010, as Ruby and Devon drive from Florida to snowy Manhattan.
As the tale of the lost recording moves through the decades, the saga of Ruby’s life unfolds as well, with similar notes of hope and despair. These parallel stories, well-syncopated in Christopher’s skilled hands, soon begin to merge in fascinating, unexpected ways.
While the book is fiction, its characters include some of the real figures in Bolden’s life, as well as the missing Edison cylinder, which has been called jazz’s “Maltese Falcon” or “Holy Grail.” Christopher has reached into jazz history to produce a novel that enriches the Bolden story and is a suspenseful modern drama about a fractured family as well.