Cornet player “King” Bolden is a real historical figure whose reputation is disproportionate to his recorded output: While his band’s loose, improvisational merging of ragtime and blues elements ranks them as key figures in the development of jazz, Bolden’s documented contributions are few and far between. The novel Tiger Rag, from novelist/poet Nicholas Christopher (The Soloist, A Trip To The Stars) opens with Bolden’s band’s first and last recording session, but the three takes from that day in 1904 disappear into the bars and brothels of New Orleans when the band finds a way to profit from the record. One take reportedly resurfaces decades later in New York, where Devon Sheresky has accompanied her unstable mother Ruby to a conference, but Devon isn’t the only one looking for or captivated by the artifact.
The Edison cylinder of “Tiger Rag” these characters are searching for, apocryphal in life, isn’t so much a treasure for its financial worth as for the miracle of its existence in the first place. Devon, a frustrated musician fresh out of rehab, is a pioneer whose problems made his art even more resonant. For Bolden’s bandmate Willie Cornish, the recording represents the chance to earn his old friend the respect (and compensation) he deserves in the New Orleans scene. The owner of a Harlem nightclub sees it as an emblem of his success, to be kept away from the public. Bolden’s elusiveness leads the people who believe they’re following in his footsteps to project their own desires onto his legacy and ignore his ignominious end. Some of those participants are dead ends for souvenir hunters and for Christopher’s narrative; only when Devon arrives in New York does the pace of the hunt pick up.
One of Tiger Rag’s strengths is in the way it keeps Bolden’s thoughts opaque at the moment of creation: The novel hovers around the artistic process, but zeroes in on those who envy its shape in Bolden’s life, in spite of the consequences. Bolden has inspired other tale-spinners, most notably Michael Ondaatje, whose Coming Through Slaughter places Bolden and his creative heat at center stage, with extra emphasis on his later years, when his violent outbursts—now recognized as symptoms of schizophrenia—made his erratic behavior outpace the brilliance of his playing. The fate of his musical legacy anchors a suspenseful story that weaves its shifting perspectives so there are no loose ends.