Review: Novel draws on jazz legend's music

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"Tiger Rag" (The Dial Press), by Nicholas Christopher

Buddy Bolden is a jazz legend whose powerful, original sound at the turn of the last century was so enthralling that some now call him the first big star of that lively American art form.

But his own star died quickly. Increasingly erratic, even violent, he was institutionalized in Louisiana in 1907 when he was still in his late 20s and before the word "jazz" had even entered the musical lexicon. He died without ever performing in a rocking, smoke-filled club again.

Nicholas Christopher, in his new novel, "Tiger Rag," brings Bolden back to life, full of outsize charm and drive, a virtuoso on his beloved cornet, but quickly 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 moving, page turner of a story that spans a century and a hunt for the lost Bolden cylinder.

It also spans four generations of Dr. Ruby Cardillo's family. A highly regarded 48-year-old anesthesiologist, Ruby is in the midst of an emotional breakdown. Her husband, a wealthy cardiologist, has divorced her to marry his 26-year-old girlfriend — almost the same age as their daughter, 25-year-old Devon, a troubled jazz pianist and would-be journalist fighting her own demons.

Christopher weaves the narrative by moving back and forth in time and place, from New Orleans in the early 1900s, after "Kid" Bolden burst on the scene and became "King" Bolden, to pre-Christmas 2010, as Ruby and Devon drive from Ruby's coastal Florida villa to the Pierre Hotel in snowy Manhattan.

As the tale of Bolden and the lost recording moves through the decades, right up to 2010, the saga of Ruby's life unfolds as well, turning through some of those same decades with similar notes of hope and despair. These parallel stories, well-syncopated in Christopher's skilled hands, soon begin to merge, at times in fascinating, unexpected ways.

While the book is fiction, its characters include some of the real figures in Bolden's life, including the trombonist, Willie Cornish, devoted to Bolden to the end. There is also the matter of the missing Edison cylinder, which has been called jazz's "Maltese Falcon" or "Holy Grail."

With "Tiger Rag," 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.

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