"Tiger Rag"'s Nicholas Christopher: The Rhapsody Q&A
by Rob Trucks | February 28, 2013
Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin, will interview a public person of interest -- an author, actor, athlete, political wonk, etc. -- about his or her relationship with music. Today, we've got acclaimed novelist and jazz aficionado Nicholas Christopher talking about his great new novel, Tiger Rag. Listen along with his accompanying A Tiger Rag Companion playlist, and enjoy.
Nicholas Christopher's sixth and latest novel, Tiger Rag, presents the seemingly parallel yet eventually intertwined stories of a contemporary mother and daughter in crisis, and the legendary cornet player Charles "Buddy" Bolden (1877-1931), who is often credited as the inventor of jazz and who spent the last 24 years of his life in a mental institution. Throw in a cylinder, common to them both, which may or may not hold the only recorded notes from Bolden's career, and you gain a suspenseful search for the Holy Grail of America's one native art form.
Writing about music is often difficult enough. What are the challenges of writing about music that no living person has ever heard?
Well, the first thing I did was listen to tons of people who'd heard him play, from Louis Armstrong to Freddie Keppard to Jelly Roll Morton, and tried to get a sense of how he influenced these people so that I could describe how I thought he would have played. Because I kept reading that he invented jazz. And, you know, I don't take a phrase like that too seriously. That's like who invented the mambo, or even baseball. It's a big thing to say that someone would invent an entire American art form.
So when I kept reading that people like Duke Ellington, Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, guys with pretty massive egos, all used that term, and then academics and musical critics, who I respect, like Gary Giddins, just matter-of-factly say he invented jazz, that really fascinated me. And I realized what they were saying was he took blues and folk music at the time, and ragtime and field music and Caribbean music, which I think is overlooked, and just started playing the kind of music, in an improvisatory way, that no one had done before. Or that had only been done in scraps. He was a sort of fusion figure.
And, you know, Bolden was a guy who, if you used the word "jazz" with him, he wouldn't have had any idea what you were talking about. The term hadn't been invented. When he was institutionalized in 1907, there were no vinyl records. There was no radio. He invented something, and then, really, in terms of his mental life, didn't really live to see it or hear it. He never heard much music, as far as we know, when he was institutionalized. So it wasn't like writing about somebody like Artie Shaw, who I could listen to endlessly and then try to describe his sound. It was trying to invent the sound that Bolden would've made in words. In bad writing about music, in my experience, what I've found is either people go berserk with metaphors -- you know, your eyes glaze after a while after hearing about waterfalls of sound and fiery arpeggios and this and that -- or describing the emotions of listeners. How far can you go with that? So what you've got to do is really pick your shots with the metaphors and really use concrete details around how the music affected people.
Even though Buddy Bolden was never recorded, he's an historical figure. He walked this earth. But Tiger Rag is a novel. How do you reconcile fact and fiction?
Well, that's a really good question, because that's something that was in my head for four years. I'm a novelist and poet. I don't usually use "real people" in my books. I mean, I've had a few walk-ons in one of my novels. Rita Hayworth appears and Josephine Baker, but they're very much secondary characters. And, you know, because you bring Rita Hayworth into a book, she brings all her own luggage in with her, and it's a distraction.
With Bolden, I think, he's a mythic character in some ways. There's one wonderful book about him by Donald Marquis, called In Search of Buddy Bolden. And Marquis, who's a historian and a music critic, he did just painstaking research into everything that could be found about Bolden. For example, there's one photograph of Bolden, a famous one of his band. That's it. Marquis found his birth certificate. It's not like Louis Armstrong. Bolden didn't leave any written history. There's not a lot about him, so it's all apocryphal. It's myth. It's stuff like he could play for three days straight, or you could hear him across the river to Algiers. So with a mythic figure like that, I thought I could take what's really known as sort of pivot points, and then try to imagine as honestly as I could from those pivots. I mean, in a way, he was perfect for my purposes. There's a line between myth and history, and I was straddling that much more than the line between history and fiction.
You started writing this book five years ago. For someone who is not a novel writer, that may seem like a really, really long time.
By your calendar is that a really long time?
Well, it was for this book. My longest book, A Trip to the Stars, is about 230,000 words, and that took me four years to do. This book took a little longer, though it's a third the size. One of the reasons was getting the accuracy correct. The other were personal things. My father passed away the year I started the book, and for a whole year I didn't write, just because of family business, basically, and other things. I mean, I literally didn't write. And all my adult life, I write every single day for five hours. So to start a book and be about 80 pages in and put it aside for a year, I'd never had that experience. So in actual writing time, this book probably took me closer to three and a half years.
Which is still, per word, longer than your normal pace.
It's much longer. I mean, I wrote my first novel in six months and revised it in six months. I think because there were real people, real places, real circumstances [in Tiger Rag], I was very painstaking about getting the accuracy right in my head and then fictionalizing.
I would think that it would be almost impossible to write Tiger Rag if you were not a music fan. Do you need to be a musician in order to write a book like Tiger Rag?
No, I don't think so. I studied music as a young guy. I was not a really good musician. I mean, I was a drummer. Before that, I studied the piano. I can read music. But no way do you need to do that. I think it's a great myth promulgated by a lot of novelists that, you know, if they write about a surgeon, they tell you they spent years studying surgery. You're like an actor. You have to learn enough so that you sound like you know what you're talking about.
That said, I'm a huge jazz fan, and I grew up listening to jazz. My father was a huge jazz fan, and my mother worked for a record company. And he had tons of 78s when I was a kid that were outtakes of really great musicians. She worked as a secretary to the president of Decca Records, so she'd bring home things like Louis Armstrong jamming with Bing Crosby. And he was in pig heaven. I mean, he was a guy in his late twenties who was a jazz fan, and he would play this music all the time. And he loved early jazz. So I went into this book knowing who Kid Ory was and who ([Sidney] Bechet)[Art.1742] was. If I hadn't known that, if I didn't listen to jazz for pleasure, I don't think I could've conveyed that pleasure to the reader.
The book's dedication reads, "In memory of my father, who introduced me to early jazz early in my life and shared his passion." What was the trigger for this novel? What was the first seed of Tiger Rag? And did you know that this book would be for your father when you started it?
No, I didn't know that. He was in good health, and it's the only book of mine he will not have read. He died in an accident. So it was not written as an homage to him. In fact, when I started the book it had a very different focus. The focus was much more on the two women in the book and the failed trumpeter, who's the father of the heroine, Ruby. And that just wasn't taking off for me at the time. The real trigger came when I read about Bolden's cylinder. I'd heard about it years before. And I tried to read about it, and I couldn't find anything except this guy said he recorded "Tiger Rag." And then I read somewhere that "Tiger Rag" used to be called "Number 2." It was a jazz standard, and Bolden had renamed it. And I thought, "I'm approaching this completely the wrong way." And when I imagined the recording session of Bolden's, where he would have done it, like Robert Johnson really, in a hotel room, in an apartment, then the book came alive. And by that time, my father had passed away, so the book was really written after he was gone. I think I dedicated it to him because the knowledge of jazz I had going in, I owed a lot of it to him.
We've been talking about the beginnings of jazz, and if someone looks at your playlist without reading the book, there's two songs in particular that don't seem to fit.
You're not kidding [laughs].
So how do Joan Jett and The Rolling Stones make your playlist, and how do they function in Tiger Rag?
Well, Ruby is an anesthesiologist, she's a doctor, she grew up really poor, grew up with an alcoholic mother, a father who was a crummy musician who ditched her, and she's been a good girl and good woman her whole life. She's been betrayed by her husband, her mother dies, and she's having a breakdown. And I remember hearing that song years ago, "I Hate Myself for Loving You." I heard Joan Jett sing it, and I thought, "What an amazing title." And Ruby becomes compulsive. She becomes manic. I mean, she just kind of loses it. She stops eating. She's drinking more than usual. I mean, she's been a doctor, the kind of person who doesn't drink at all. And I thought that song was part of her breakdown, that chaos. And the Stones song, "It's All Over Now," which is all about breaking up and is a kind of contemptuous song about breaking up, you know, and about getting revenge, is what's going round and round her head. So those two songs really were meant to show her state of mind.
And if her daughter, Devon, gets a song on this playlist, which also provides a transition back to jazz, it's the Ahmad Jamal.
Oh, absolutely. When she's sitting in Algiers, in that club in Harlem, and she hears the young pianist, who's no big star but he's what she wanted to be -- he's a guy who's playing a top-notch club and playing well -- she's reminded of Jamal, who was Miles Davis' favorite pianist, even more than Bill Evans. I mean, [Davis] really admired Jamal and thought he was underrated. Yeah, that brings us back in. When [Devon] hears that, the beauty of that, she thinks, "That's what I want to try to do again." You're absolutely right. That's what brings us back to jazz. I mean, her interest in Bolden spurs her on one level, but her interest as a musician is really hearing that young pianist play. It's a key scene.
The hardest part of writing this book was having, you know, alternating narratives, one of which spanned the whole 20th century, and the other spanned six days [laughs]. And getting them to move in time and then dovetail until they were in the same time in New York City. I have to tell you, if I hadn't written five other novels, and I try to say this modestly, I never could have pulled that off, because that was extremely difficult to syncopate.
If Tiger Rag were your first novel, then Tiger Rag would not have been your first novel because it wouldn't have been finished.
Yeah [laughs]. I mean, I don't know how I would've handled that. I knew how to handle it now, simply by telling the stories truly and realizing it was like playing some music at 78 and some music at 33 and eventually they had to combine. And that was tricky, but hopefully it worked. I mean, I think if the book had just been the italicized portions, it would've been an interesting novella. But to make it a novel I needed these other people.
Let's talk about the song "Tiger Rag." Even if readers don't have a knowledge of jazz, there's still an almost 100% chance that they've heard "Tiger Rag" at some point in their life.
I mean, if you've been to a football game in the South, you've heard "Tiger Rag."
That's right. Exactly.
"Tiger Rag" serves as the book's title and it's what's on the cylinder. Was it obvious to you from the beginning that this was the song, this was the title, or was there any kind of search on your part to find that representation?
It came to me in the middle of the book: He's the inventor of jazz, so how about a jazz song that everybody's heard as opposed to a very obscure number that nobody's heard? Or even that someone like you and I would know about? You know, Bechet and Armstrong playing on "Cake Walking Babies (From Home)," which is a great number, that's fascinating to guys like us, but people wouldn't know what the hell I was talking about, whereas "Tiger Rag," it's interesting. The idea of Bolden being a real outsider, a guy who had no idea of what he'd done, influencing all of American culture and leaving the song like that, whether he wrote it or not -- and he did not write it; he just reinterpreted it -- was an exciting idea to me.
You know, the key scene in the book, for me, is when he plays it at the asylum. That's based on a story by one of the doctors. Supposedly that happened. He hadn't touched a cornet in 30 years. And I have photographs from the East Louisiana Asylum. They would bring musicians in to play for the patients and the inmates there. And Bolden was known to just get so bored and walk away. But he was crazy at that point. He talked to himself. He wouldn't speak to anyone. And supposedly one day out of nowhere, he picked up a cornet and played, and it sounded completely modern to the people around him. And if you think about how freaky that is. He hadn't played since 1907, and yet he sounded contemporary to these guys. So when I read that, that really caught me.
Thanks to your dad, you had a knowledge of early jazz long before you started this book. And then you did more research. What did you listen to when you were actually writing? What did you listen to for previous novels, and did the subject matter of this novel make you change what you listened to?
I used to always listen to something like Bach or Mozart or Haydn in the background when I lived in a noisier part of Manhattan. And I'm fortunate now, because off my apartment I have a studio that's soundproof. I have soundproof windows. I work in a very quiet place, but I still listen to music because it's a habit. A lot of the time I wrote the book at night. My time is very much my own now as a writer. I mean, I teach at Columbia only three months of the year, so I really can write whenever I want. And I would sit down at my normal time of the day, do my thing, get very little done, and then come back at night, which I rarely have done with any other book, and I wrote it at night.
And when I got to Bolden, yeah, I was listening to a lot of the music while I was writing. And often, when I came to very difficult parts, I had to stop, because some of that early Hot Five stuff, Freddie Keppard, is very loud, and it just takes you over. But the answer is I listened to a lot of jazz while I was writing this book, and mostly when I was revising. When I'd sit back and was going over the book, I just played this music endlessly. I wanted it to fill my head.