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Theme of Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje Essay

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Updated: Dec 15th, 2021

The book Coming Through Slaughter creates a vivid and interesting narration of the development and proliferation of jazz music and its impact on society. The author portrays that the relative melodies of New Orleans jazz bands were based on intuition, for all the recordings of the early groups were made in Chicago while the musicians were working there for black audiences. Jazz was indeed faster than other musical genres and styles of that time; so the author’s suggestion is logical and probable. The purpose of the book is to prove the importance of classic New Orleans jazz. It is important to note that these features are not exclusive to jazz. Improvisation is not limited entirely to jazz musicians, and we may see it in the work of European organists and many avant-garde ensembles today (Blumenthal 43). Furthermore, it was a major practice in the music of the Baroque, the Renaissance, and other great periods of Western classical music (Gioia 66). Buddy Bolden made a great contribution to jazz development and promotion of new ideas and cultural values represented by jazz.

A metronomic pulse can be observed in marches and classical symphonies, and additive rhythms may be observed in French secular music of the late fourteenth century as well as in African drumming. It is the employment of several of these features in combination that is unique to jazz and that characterizes its distinctive sound and spiritual essence (Ondaatje 11). American minstrelsy had disseminated the coon song and cakewalk, and ragtime piano playing had become popular. The latter proliferated from the saloons, whorehouses, and riverboats They spurred public interest in the purchase of sheet music and made the latest musical sounds familiar. Some of the places where performances were held had only a piano, others used a small ensemble and only a few employed full-sized orchestras. Ragtime, like other popular music, was adaptable to the circumstances, and improvisation was the cheapest and most practical way of filling out an arrangement with the forces available (Blumenthal 43). Most of the musical considerations that permeate the historical analysis for what most people now call jazz were unrecorded in any form that can be accurately brought back to life (Gioia 34). The best musical record of that period is the piano-roll archives, and even here we can see that the great classic ragtime composers and players, such as Scott Joplin, added embellishment and did not play their music literally from the published scores, as our conservatory-trained pianists of today would do. Still, using the best evidence available, we can reconstruct a fairly accurate musical picture of the improvising New Orleans ensemble in the years before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Gunther Schuller underscores the difficulty of determining the real sound of early jazz by pointing out the many contradictions that writers and musicians face when they discuss early jazz, ragtime, novelty, minstrel, and blues (Ondaatje 4). He wisely states: Buddy Bolden is the almost legendary cornet player and bandleader who is said to have been the first or one of the first New Orleans musicians to play in the style subsequently called jazz. Charles “Buddy” Bolden was born in New Orleans in 1868 and died there in 1931. He was a barber by trade and supposedly led several early jazz bands. Bunk Johnson, who claimed to have played with him from 1895 to 1899, was one of the chief witnesses to the existence of Bolden and his music. “Legend has it that Buddy Bolden, when playing in Johnson Park, would stick his horn in the park fence and play a call that people would recognize as a signal to leave Lincoln Park for Johnson Park and the entertainment of the Buddy Bolden Band” (Blumenthal 76). The memory of a musician may not be the most reliable witness to events that occurred when he was five years old, but the authority of a Louis Armstrong is not something to dismiss lightly. Bolden played all over New Orleans, and, with extra musicians, he marched in the streets of the city. For funerals, the band would improvise Baptist hymns like What a Friend We Have in Jesus and lead the people away from the cemetery to the traditional Oh Didn’t He Ramble (Gioia 68).

They marched for Mardi Gras and for whatever occasion a little festive music was appropriate, and they marched through the red-light district so frequently that the “working girls,” according to legend, would recognize the band by its theme song, the second strain of Sensation Rag Bolden’s heavy drinking and syphilis led to symptoms of insanity beginning around 1906, and the last job he is known to have held was as a cornetist in the Allen Brass Band in the spring of 1907. “What he did too little of was sleep and what he did too much of was drink and many interpreted his later crack-up as a morality tale of a talent that debauched itself. But his life at this time had a fine and precise balance to it, with a careful allotment of hours?” (Ondaatje 23). He was committed to a state institution in June of that year and died there in 1931 (Gioia 88). A well-known orchestra leader, John Robichaux, hired the best musicians and took over most of the city’s best jobs (Ondaatje 62). Where there had been a tendency for black music on both sides of Canal Street to move toward a common polished goal, no such attempt was made after the odious law was passed (Gioia 23).

The uptown musicians reacted by playing as loudly as possible because the Creoles prided themselves on their soft, delicate tone. Even the uptown musicians who could read music, and it was reported that Buddy Bolden had been trained in the solfeggio method of sight-reading, reacted by emphasizing the attributes of the musically illiterate. A few years later, in 1897, the city council passed another ordinance that would have a profound effect on music in New Orleans. There were two Storyvilles, one white and the other black (Gioia 32). White Storyville, which ran several blocks deep, was bordered by Canal, Basin, and North Robertson Streets. Black Storyville (Uptown or ‘Back o’ Town), on the west side of Canal Street, was bordered by Perdido, Gravier, Locust, and Franklin Streets. The lines were drawn. Lewd women were not permitted to occupy any house, room, or closet outside Storyville (Blumenthal 77). Among the early bandleaders working the district, in addition to Buddy Bolden and his follower Frankie Dusen,

What these musicians played and how well they played it is almost entirely speculation based on the friendly recollections of interested parties. The repertoire included polite social dances by string orchestras, instrumental blues, ragtime on the piano and in combination, and every variety of entertainment music appropriate for the patrons of a red-light district (Gioia 83). The influence of Storyville on New Orleans jazz performers, especially black musicians, was profound, but one should not forget that similar music was also played in the cabarets and dance halls surrounding the district, at the resort areas around Lake Pontchartrain, on the riverboats, in the French Quarter, and the cafes and hotels scattered all over town. At least one music historian has argued that no jazz was being played anywhere before 1916. In sum, The weight of the evidence leans heavily the other way, and even if Buddy Bolden was not playing jazz around 1895, some other black musician in the New Orleans area probably was. It is less likely that the New Orleans Creole groups were playing jazz in the early days, but one technical innovation, introduced by the Creole musician John Robichaux in 1894 or 1895, profoundly influenced its development. His invention proved to be a sensation and was widely imitated (Ondaatje 55). Chandler helped establish Robichaux’s reputation as the first person to add traps to the orchestra. An important trumpet player who functioned as a kind of transition between Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong was Joseph “King” Oliver. Born in 1885, he was but a young man when he first played in the Melrose Brass Band in 1907. Oliver worked with several brass bands before leaving New Orleans, among them the Olympia Band under A. J. Piron, the Eagle Brass Band, the Onward Brass Band, and the Magnolia Brass Band. He also played with trombonist Kid Ory’s group and, in 1915, led his band with Sidney Bechet on clarinet as a sideman (Gioia 89).

Ondaatje writes that the melodies of Buddy Bolden were unique and authentic. Still, he followed jazz traditions of other bands and groups and reflected in his pieces rated on three levels of rhyme: the quarter-note pulse, the half-note harmonic unit, and the eighth-note melodic or ornamental unit. The uniqueness was that New Orleans’s melodies were probably slower than those commonly used by the groups recording in Chicago and New York in the later years, and the volume level of New Orleans bands exceeded that used elsewhere. The improvisations of Buddy Bolden consisted of ornamentation, obbligato playing, and countermelody invention. In many other jazz groups, the lead cornet would rag an identifiable melody and superimpose a rhythmic configuration upon the basic structure laid down by the rhythm section—quarter notes syncopated by the addition of eighth-note values. The clarinet obbligato moved primarily at eighth-note speeds or faster, and the trombone moved at the slow half-note or whole-note harmonic-rhythm speed. Ondaatje admits that when the trombone played countermelodies, it moved at approximately the same speed as the lead cornet. When the lead cornet broke the melody at the end of a phrase to take a breath, the trombone or clarinet picked up the slack with an improvised “fill,” and this is a procedure that most writers on early jazz-like to compare with the call-and-response patterns of African tribal music (Blumenthal 106).

In sum, Ondaatje creates a vivid and impressive life story of one of the great musicians of the early jazz era and his contribution to the development of jazz. Ondaatje states that jazz was closely tied to social functions in that it provided music for weddings, and dances, and as background in the whorehouses. New Orleans jazz and melodies of Buddy Bolden employed the diatonic system of harmony and kept extensions. The main preparation in Buddy Bolden’s style was not restricted to black music. Without any music surviving from the period, this supposition seems a bit presumptive. It is possible that Buddy Bolden’s jazz style was limited to a harmonic role, and it is thought by some that the evolution to a melodic-harmonic function took place during this historical period. Despite his bohemian lifestyle and alcohol addiction, Buddy Bolden changed the role and importance of jazz for local communities and society in general.

Works Cited

Blumenthal, B. Jazz: An Introduction to the History and Legends Behind America’s Music. Harper Paperbacks, 2007.

Gioia, T. History of Jazz. Oxford University Press, USA, 1998.

Ondaatje, M. Coming Through Slaughter. Vintage; First Edition edition, 1996.

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