Tiger Rag by Nicholas Christopher | Book review
Christopher riffs on jazz history in his new novel.
According to legend, jazz was invented in the early 1900s by Charles “Buddy” Bolden, a cornet player from New Orleans. But accounts of his influence are all secondhand: No recordings of his music exist. Nicholas Christopher riffs on this missing bit of history in his sixth novel, Tiger Rag, imagining that a single phonograph cylinder of Bolden’s work has survived the ages. By tracing the story of this cylinder—a holy grail in the jazz world—as it passes through the hands of both musical legends and small-time players, Christopher explores the evolution of a genre without ever seeming pedantic. The book begins with Bolden himself, a genius debilitated by schizophrenia, and follows his only recording through the eras to reveal how, in spite of his psychosis and eventual institutionalization, he impacted the course of music.
The book’s other main narrative, running alongside the story of the cylinder, has a similar tune, delving into mental illness and music’s transformative power. Devon, a one-time jazz pianist and recovering drug addict, returns to Florida to comfort her ailing mother, Ruby, who has become manic and a spendthrift following her bitter divorce to Devon’s dad. Soon the two are launched on a road trip to New York, investigating the possibility that Ruby’s trumpeter father once possessed the Bolden cylinder. Struggling with her recovery and Ruby’s illness, Devon finds herself drawn back to her musical roots through the mystery of the lost recording.
The scenes of Bolden’s New Orleans are so vivid and engaging that, unfortunately, Tiger Rag loses steam every time it toggles chapters back to Ruby and Devon. The mother/daughter plot line could be equally compelling if Christopher had given a fuller description of Ruby’s mania and Devon’s addictive personality. The result is a lopsided read, making the reader wish Christopher had stuck to a powerful solo instead of creating an uneven duet.