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Syncopated storyline




BUDDY “King” Bolden is a mythical figure in the jazz world. He is regarded by many as the father of jazz and one of the greatest jazz musicians to ever live. The problem is that there are no known recordings of Bolden, and his legacy is based solely upon the words of those who knew and heard him play, and they are all now gone.

Nicholas Christopher’s new novel “Tiger Rag” posits that Bolden did, however, make a recording in 1904 and the recording has survived. For jazz enthusiasts it is a tempting fantasy where at long last they might compare Bolden’s gifts to those of Louis Armstrong, whom witnesses to Bolden anointed as the only one who came close to matching the King’s enormous musical talents. And, of course, such a recording would be incredibly valuable and the kind of thing that people might kill or be killed over—so it is fertile ground for “Tiger Rag.”

The modern story that Christopher interweaves with the path of the recording is a modern one between a mother and daughter who barely know one another. The mother, Ruby, is recently divorced, her mother has just passed away and she is scheduled to give a speech at a doctor’s conference in New York. She asks her daughter, Devon, to go with her on this improbable road trip. Devon is trying to get her life on track after a period of substance abuse and self-pity that has her able, if not altogether willing, to join her mother as they drive up the East Coast.

The jazz story lines are the most compelling part of “Tiger Rag.” Bolden emerges as a fascinating figure and pioneer shrouded in mystery, for just as he reached the pinnacle of his fame in New Orleans, he slipped into madness and was sent to a mental institution where he stayed for the next 24 years of his life until he died in 1931.

Bolden and his long-lost recording are the story that runs central through “Tiger Rag,” but it is Ruby who reflects upon a thought of her grandmother’s regarding the making of our own stories.

“If your life is a story that begins when you’re born and ends when you die—and what else could it be?—you can write it yourself, or let other people write it. If you write it, you have to accept that sometimes something outside of you, that you can’t explain, will push the pen this way or that, and suddenly your story becomes someone else’s story.”

Perhaps the biggest take away from “Tiger Rag” is that Bolden’s story influenced so many that followed whileThe biggest regret from “Tiger Rag” is that it is fiction and there is no recording to preserve his legacy—at least not one that has been discovered yet.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance reviewer in Spotsylvania County.


By Nicholas Christopher

(Dial Press, $26, 288 pp.)


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