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 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 Le- Mond, 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: how good musicians lived, and the bad ones, too; how they dressed when they were successful and when they were not; the kinds of food they ate 100 years ago and what constitutes luxury to them now; and their distinctive marks of poverty. 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); all the agonizing emotional places where sloth, incompetence and ambition intersect.
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 the 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. She has dabbled in drugs and is at loose ends. She seems to be depending on Ruby for moral support, but it’s hard to tell. Ruby’s father, whom she never knew, was a failed musician, a woman-beater and a lowdown thief – as far as you can go on the bad end of the jazz spectrum.
And there is another woman whom we see in various disguises. She is a caster of spells and a user of mysterious herbs and potions. She’s crucial to the plot and important in showing African influences in the world of jazz.
The structure here is like a long and complex jazz arrangement. There is a comparatively simple theme set up against what might be thought of as distinctive chord changes. And then, against this main story, the author sets up what might be seen as highly individualistic solos. 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.