Coming through Slaughter
Ph. D Research Scholar Avinashilingam Deemed University for Women
Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.
Jazz is regarded as a marginal music, enjoying neither the straightforward commerciality of rock and popular music, nor the levels of public support afforded to classical music and opera. The marginal status of jazz music is confirmed by its stereotypical socio-cultural associations. It is mainly colligated with the bordellos and prostitutes of New Orleans and to the alcoholics and the drug addicts of the nightclubs in New York and Los Angeles. New Orleans has been situated on a nexus of French, Spanish, and British territory. The control of all the three powers has created a truly unique environment for people of different cultural backgrounds to interact. The African culture is also bestowed to New Orleans as a result of the slave trade and the vortex of people from these four major cultures is the codependent factors in the creation of jazz.
Coming through Slaughter explicitly signals its participation in a larger movement to assimilate people of colour into history. The novel establishes the historical significance of previously marginalized groups by overthrowing the specifically white male individual from the heart of the narrative. Ondaatje fictionalises the tormented life and tragic death of the black American cornetist, Charles Buddy Bolden who is believed to have been one of the first and most powerful musicians to play what was subsequently called hard jazz and blues for dancing. Bolden inaugurated the rich musical transformations of African-American music across the country. He is known as a jazz originator with a good band but there is no extant recording of Bolden’s music and so his reputation is staked only on the word of mouth. The novel coerces Bolden’s exclusion from emerging histories of jazz and corroborates that his illiteracy as a musician and his place within an especially marginalized African-American community in New Orleans as the grounds for his exclusion from the history.
Buddy Bolden was born during the Civil War period in New Orleans on September 6, 1877 to Westmore and Alice Bolden. In the scenario of civil war, one’s racial identity determined the course of their life. Bolden’s mother and thousands of other slaves were allowed to choose only one path which is that of slavery. However, once when the rules were abolished they were allowed to choose their own paths. Bolden belonged to the first generation of blacks to be born after the abolition of slavery. He did not know or particularly care what the rules had been and saw life as an open challenge instead of being within a confined domain.
Ondaatje addresses the issue of literacy at the core of the black tradition. The slaves were forbidden by law from reading and writing. For enslaved African-Americans, literacy was a communal act, a political demonstration of resistance to oppression and of self-determination. Mutt Carey, Bud Scott, Happy Galloway were Bolden’s teachers but he does not consider Hall
and Carey his “real teachers,” (99) because they taught him craft and “the real teachers never teach you craft” (99). Bolden did not like the trumpet’s usual role of providing the structure to the song. He sees this in Mutt Carey’s playing and expresses his dislike of it. Bolden explains that “the trumpet was usually the steel shoe you couldn’t get out of because you led the music and there was an end you had to get to” (99). He believes that if there is an end that must be achieved, there must also be a beginning and middle, and the trumpet player usually leads the band through this structure. Bolden feels that the role of a musician to evolve a structure in his music turns out to be a burden, something one is chained to and cannot move very far from it.
Hall taught Bolden the fundamentals of how to play and Carey taught him the strategies of how he should not play. Galloway on the other hand taught him how to improvise and how to be a jazz musician. Bolden explains that “Galloway taught me not craft but to play a mood of sound I would recognize and remember. Every note new and raw and chance. Never repeated” (99). Bolden learns from Galloway how to find a mood and improvise on it by shifting the emphasis on every note producing new notes that is different from Hall and Carey’s “steel shoe”
(99) trumpets. Bolden feels that “[i]t was good when you listened to Galloway bubble underneath the others and come through slipping and squealing into neighborhoods that had nothing to do with the thumper tunes coming out of the rest” (99).
The rest of the musicians are like Carey and Hall provide the structure of the song by playing the same note the same way every time. In this way, they play “thumper tunes” (95) in contrast to Galloway who “bubble[s],” “slip[s],” and “squeal[s]” (95) into notes that no one could have anticipated by improvising every note. Bolden admires the fact that Galloway’s “guitar was much closer to the voice than the other instruments. It swallowed moods and kept three or four going at the same time which was what I wanted” (95). Bolden wants to play like Galloway reflecting multiple moods at the same time, a style that parallels his multi-faceted identity and contrasts the single “strong notes” (95) of those who play “thumper tunes” (95).
The crucial distinction between Bolden’s untutored music and that of his contemporary Robichaux who dominated the New Orleans music scene during Bolden’s day is that Robbichaux’s music is based on the formal musical education. Coomi S. Vevaina remarks that “Bolden’s spontaneous, anarchic and transient music was an expression of his life” (57). He was “never professional in the brain” (8), and would “stop and talk to the crowd” (8). He “tore apart the plot … hunting for the right accidental notes” (35). He was “formless … tormented by order” (35). His music was “covered with scandal and incident and change … was coarse and rough, immediate, dated in half an hour” (41). He “showed all the possibilities in the middle of the story” (41). He wanted people 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 then” (98).
Ondaatje indicates that Bolden took full advantage of what life had to offer, for “[h]e did nothing but leap into the mass of changes and explore them and all the tiny facets so that eventually he was almost completely governed by fears of certainty” (9). He refused to “control the world of my music because I had no power over anything else that went on around me, in or
around my body” (104). He wants “to overcome this awful and stupid clarity” (105). Bolden confides that the life is full of possibilities, never settling on just one because to do so would limit the possibilities; it would mean being certain about the world around him, and he feared the limitations that such certainty would bring.
Bolden lived a life without any order. His detective friend, Webb realizes that Bolden pinned down the possibility of any limitations in life. He “never spoke of his past. Simply about which way to go for the next ten minutes” (36). Webb’s interview with Bolden’s neighbours makes him to ascertain that “[t]heir stories were like spokes on a rimless wheel ending in air. Buddy had lived a different life with every one of them” (64). Bolden privileges emotion and its inherent flux over form and its inherent stasis. His music was custom tailored to his audience and their environment: “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” (35).
The inherent values of jazz, its apparent variability and unpredictability are diametrically opposed to Robichaux’s “clear forms” (97). Bolden criticizes Robichaux’s music by saying that “I loathed everything he stood for. He dominated his audiences. He put his emotions into patterns which a listening crowd had to follow” (97). As an artist Robichaux is keen in imposing a dominating structure and pattern and rigidly wants to control what his listeners must hear. Bolden’s music sharply contrasted with the perfect arches and “mechanistic pleasure” (97) of that of Robichaux. Despite the surface anarchy “there was a discipline” (35) in his music but his contemporaries fails to comprehend it. Robichaux being part of a written musical culture gives him an unearned advantage to find his way into the official history of jazz.
Bolden humorously teases the official history by divulging the life in a low life district amidst prostitutes, hustlers, gamblers, alcoholics and drug addicts: “stray facts, manic theories, and well-told lies” (19) in his magazine The Cricket. He was a cornetist, a barber by day who, in his spare time, edits and publishes the magazine from 1899 to 1905. He edits the information that he receives from his customers and police, “Bolden took all the thick facts and dropped them into his pail of sub-history” (19). His position as barber enables him to be exposed to a wealth of such information and sub-histories. The sub-history accompanies official history and those who make it: “a servant’s memoirs told everyone that a certain politician spent twenty minutes each morning deciding which shirt to wear” (19). The routine of so called decision-makers is thus ridiculed.
The Cricket reverberates Bolden’s obsession with the fear of mortality: “There were descriptions of referees slashed to death by fighting cocks, pigs taking off the hand of a farmer, the unfortunate heart attack of the ninety-year-old Miss Bandeen who opened her door one night to let in her cats and let in someone’s pet iguana instead” (19). The mysterious death of his wife’s mother, Isadora Duncan reminds Bolden of his mortality for the first time. Bolden realizes that incidentally, the dance performances of Isadora like those of Bolden’s music were never recorded. He realizes that to become immortal he must record his work. On the other hand, he is
dubious of the outcome of such recordings as his “children” (19) or his creations would lose their life and become static.
Bolden repeatedly outwits the mortal enemy and escapes all confinements. He is certain that fame would posess an unseen threat to the musician “reputation made the room narrower and narrower” (88). He ascertains that reputation and fame will stifle his effort and by “drinking in only your own recycled air” (88) he will gradually suffocate “full of [his] own echoes” (88). He vindicates this by saying that “I didn’t want to be a remnant, a ladder for others” (107). He is the bottom rung on the ladder of jazz history and anyone who plays jazz must step over him, just as Bolden did with his ancestors: “Climbing over them still with me in the sense I have tried all my life to avoid becoming them” (100). He acknowledges that his father was a famous musician during their times but after his death he slipped back into the memory:
My fathers were those who put their bodies over barbed wire. For me. To slide over into the region of hell. Through their sacrifices they seduced me into the game. They showed me their autographed pictures and they told me of the even bigger names all over the country. My father’s failing. Dead before they hit the wire. (99)
Bolden’s friendship with Bellocq on the contrary infuses in Bolden a heightened sense of self- consciousness which jeopardizes his ability to improvise. He encourages Bolden to develop a conscious mind that appreciates structure in music and life. Ondaatje reveals that
Bellocq had pushed his imagination into Buddy’s brain….They had talked for hours moving gradually off the edge of the social world. As Bellocq lived at the edge…he was at ease there and as Buddy did not he moved on past him like a naive explorer looking for footholds. Bellocq thought of this. Aware it was him who had tempted Buddy on . . . . Buddy who had once been enviably public. And then this small almost unnecessary friendship with Bellocq. (65)
Bolden’s meeting with Bellocq prompts him to leave Storyville and move to the Shell Beach. He feels the destructive impact of history “on top of his own life” (35). He therefore escapes the sure lanes of his life with Nora and his nightly performances during his stay with the Brewitts by remaining anonymous and alone in a white room with no history and no parading. During his two year sojourn at the Brewitts, Bolden does not play his Cornet once and, in fact, forsakes all his musical affiliations. His detective friend, Webb finds Bolden at the home of Jaelin and Robin Brewitt. Webb convinces Bolden to return to Storyville and continue playing music, but before doing so Bolden takes practice at Webb’s cabin in Pontchartrain. During this time of total solitude, Bolden undergoes a complete transformation in his opinion of Robichaux’s playing. Bolden listens to Robichaux on the radio and says:
I hate to admit it but I enjoyed listening to the clear forms. Every note part of the large curve, so carefully patterned that for the first time I appreciated the possibilities of a mind moving ahead of the instruments in time and waiting with pleasure for them to catch up. I had never been aware of that mechanistic pleasure, that trust. (97)
Ironically, Bolden begins to admire the precision of Robichaux’s form and the conscious nature of his music. Bolden finds comfort in the fact that there is a mind moving before the instruments, planning what will come next, which completely contradicts his earlier opinion of Robichaux as dominating his audience.
Bolden exhibits his appreciation of structure in music in his newfound appreciation for Robichaux. During his time at the cabin in Pontchartrain, Bolden also comes to appreciate structure in his life, as exemplified by the fact that he constructs a brief narrative of his life, namely, about how Webb interrupted his silence and dragged him back to play music: “’Come back you said. All that music. I don’t want that way anymore. There is this other path…” (106). Bolden had wanted to explore all the possibilities in the life but after his stay at the Brewits, he clearly visualises one distinct path for himself and that path leads him away from the world of music. It was Bellocq’s friendship that introduced Bolden to “this other path” (106) and the dominating personality of Webb tries to pull Bolden off the path Bellocq has started him on. Bellocq pulls Bolden out of the public world of jazz and improvisation into a solitary world of silence; Webb, on the other hand, pulls Bolden out of solitude back into the improvisational world of jazz.
The public moment of Buddy’s private collapse occurs at the Liberty-Iberville parade when he plays the cornet for the first time since his return from the Brewitts. It is at this point that he takes a step past the boundary over the social edge and into himself. Once Bolden steps into the parade he takes over and eventually begins to play to the audience in general. Bolden and an unnamed woman in the crowd tunes completely with each other “the girl is alone now mirroring my throat in her lonely tired dance, the street silent but for us her tired breath I can hear for she’s near me as I go round and round the Liberty-Iberville connect. Then silent” (138). Bolden continues playing:
“something’s fallen in my body and I can’t hear the music as I play it….She hitting each note with her body before it is even out so I know what I do through her. God this is what I wanted to play for, if no one else I always guessed there would be this, this mirror somewhere….” (138)
She mirrors the sound of his cornet with her body, while he mirrors the movement of her body with the sound of his cornet. In this way, they are both shifting and spontaneous, the woman clearly representing his ideal audience and the experience the peak of Bolden’s career. The two continue to feed off of each other, reaching a frenzied pace, as indicated by Bolden: “it comes up flooding past my heart in a mad parade,…it is into the cornet, god can’t stop god can’t stop it can’t stop the air the red force…god I can’t choke it the music still pouring in a roughness I’ve never hit, watch it listen it listen it, can’t see I can’t see….can’t see” (139).
Bolden eventually collapses during the march with a serious hemorrhage linked to bursting of blood vessels in his neck. The throat from which the air is pushed through the cornet and into the audience has been severed: “You see I had an operation on my throat. You see I had a salvation on my throat” (139). The stomach, once a place where ideas could ferment to challenge an existing order, and the mouth, which would voice the new free sounds were
disconnected. He becomes increasingly erratic and violent, he was taken to the House of Detention and there he undergoes a surgery for his neck injury and was soon afterwards incarcerated in an asylum for the insane.
The climactic parade scene describes the role of audience participation, creative impulse and artistic vision in the musical live-performance. The parade mirrors the ideal performance where Bolden draws from the response of his roaring and dancing audience and gradually the “boundary of crowd” (137) dissolves and moves free. The parade thus reflects the live recording of a historical event where the personified audience takes an active part in negotiating the notes which become both live event and history. Bolden’s march from sanity to insanity thereby epitomizes his procession from mortality to immortality.
The official reports and chronicles of Bolden contrasts sharply with the real truth within which they are embedded. Ondaatje interrogates the tendency of official accounts to force a label on Bolden as a “Paranoid Type” (142) and “Hyperactive Individual” (148) in the segments entitled “Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden” (141), the “Interview with Lionel Gremillion at East Louisiana State Hospital” (148), and “Selections from A Brief History of East Louisiana State Hospital by Lionel Gremillion” (143). Ondaatje resists the authoritative tone of the source texts by securing a place for Bolden in jazz history. Willie Cornish says:
Then everyone was becoming famous. Jazz was now history. The library people were doing recording and interviews. They didn’t care who it was that they talked just got them talking. Like Amacker, Woodman, Porteous, anybody. They didn’t ask what happened to his wife, his children, and no one knew about the Brewitts. All I had of Buddy was the picture here. (157)
In Coming through Slaughter, Ondaatje distinguishes between conventional history and unrecorded accounts of events: “there is little recorded history, though tales . . . come down to us in fragments” (2). Sally Bachner adumbrates, “the Jazz that Bolden is enlisted to personify can hardly be separated from the lives of the people in Storyville. Storyville and Bolden’s music share a rawness and marginality that confer authenticity to both by virtue of their resistance to the respectable monumentalization that the historicization of jazz has entailed”. Ondaatje by exploring Bolden’s lifelong struggle against the closure of “wax history [and] electronic history”
- avows that Bolden has shown them new possibilities for jazz musicians by influencing the generation of musicians through his legacy.
Bachner, Sally. “He had Pushed his Imagination into Buddy’s Brain’ , or, How to Escape History in Coming through Salughter.” 9.2-3(2005) Rethinking History. 28 Jan. 2010
Ondaatje, Michael. Coming through Slaughter. 1979. London: Picador-Macmillan, 1984. Vevaina, Coomi S. “Hanging on a Question Mark: A Critical Analysis of Michael Ondaatje’s
Coming through Slaughter. Canadian Literature Today. Ed. R. K. Dhawan. New Delhi: Prestige, 1995. 54-61.