I’m in Central City in New Orleans, searching for Buddy Bolden.
Tourists don’t come to Central City much, if at all. Just a mile south of here are the mansions of the Garden District, standing proud and sumptuous on avenues of live oak - but here in Central City there are few trees, just rows of clapboard houses baking and peeling in the sun.
I’m hot and sweaty; my camera bag is heavy. There are storm clouds over the Business District a mile to the east, and I can hear a rumble of thunder. I approach a lady sitting on the raised stoop of her pink and blue house; she has been watching me, wondering perhaps what I’m doing.
I introduce myself, and explain - I’m searching for Buddy Bolden. She hasn’t heard of him.
I reach for the book in my bag - Michael Ondaatje’s ‘Coming Through Slaughter’. Inside, there’s a photo from the early 1900s: Buddy Bolden and his band. Bolden is holding a cornet, Wally Cornish a valve trombone, Frank Lewis a clarinet. The plate is scratched and acidified.
The lady is named Samanthina. She says she’s 80, and has lived on the street for thirty years. I tell her she doesn’t look 80 (which is true, she doesn’t), and she beams at me. I explain that over a century ago, Buddy Bolden’s mother lived across the street - 2527 First Street, just next door to the Mount Ararat Missionary Baptist Church. Samanthina attends the church - a red clapboard building directly opposite - and she wonders if the pastor might know. I ask if I can take her picture, and she beams again and poses.
Further down the street I chat to Terence and his brother Clarence. They’re mid argument. Clarence is shouting at Terence because he said he’d leave for Atlanta a decade ago and if he wants to, why doesn’t he just go? They break off the argument and turn to me and say it’s just good humored - they’ve been having this argument for years. Terence wants me to take his picture but then gets bashful and covers his face. I laugh and shake his hand.
Around the corner on Freret Street I take pictures of a colorful row of houses painted in pastel shades, their eaves carved in a modest 'steamboat' style. Sitting nearby is a man named Chris, and yes, he’s heard of Buddy Bolden. Chris plays the trumpet in a band in church, so Bolden is part of his story - an inspiration. Bolden predates Louis Armstrong, he predates everyone. Buddy was the pioneer, the true original.
Back in the mid 1970s Michael Ondaatje came here, searching for Buddy Bolden.
Ondaatje is most famous for his 1992 Booker prizewinner, ‘The English Patient’ - a marvelous novel. So when a friend mentioned that Ondaatje’s first novel concerned early jazz musicians in New Orleans, I added ‘Coming Through Slaughter’ - sight unseen - to this year’s Bookpackers New Orleans syllabus. And I told my students that I’d save reading it till we were on the road; we’d read it together, experiencing it ‘in place’ - the essence of Bookpacking.
I’m glad I did. Reading it here has been a revelation.
Ondaatje based the novel on the merest snatch of anecdote - the story of a cornet player who went mad playing in a New Orleans street parade in 1907. Charles “Buddy” Bolden was 31 at the time. He was institutionalized 'in a bug house’ north of Baton Rouge, where, in 1931, he died forgotten and alone. But in his day he was something. A barber in the mornings, a jazzman by night, playing in Liberty Hall, Masonic Hall, the Globe, fusing hymns and the blues - the Lord’s Music and the Devil’s Music - into a new and raucous form. He played it loud. Ondaatje says of Buddy and Frank and Wally, ‘their bursts of air were animals fighting in the room’.
Ondaatje was 31 himself when he started researching the novel. He came to Central City, he walked these streets. As I’m doing now, he took photos of the places where Buddy lived and worked. I find a barber’s pole at the junction of First and Liberty, standing bereft in front of a boarded up building. Was this N. Joseph’s barber’s salon, the place where Buddy worked? Ondaatje describes the language of jazz forged in a Black experience of community and hardship, ‘the stories found in the barber shop, his whole plot of song covered with scandal and incident and change. The music was coarse and rough, immediate, dated in half an hour, was about bodies in the river, knives, love pains, cockiness.’
So many stories. I talk to a man named Perry who sits next to a house with planks and plywood nailed over the windows. He talks about Katrina, about those that went away after and never returned. So many stories, so many ghosts.
Buddy lived in New Orleans in the Storyville days. Nora, his common law wife, was an prostitute in Lulu White’s brothel. She was one of those girls photographed by E. J. Bellocq, a dwarfish and hydrocephalic Creole who catalogued the underside of New Orleans in the 1900s. Bellocq walked the streets of Storyville, the Swamp and Smoky Row with a cumbersome plate camera. The picture of Buddy and his band was taken by Bellocq. In the novel, the two men form an unlikely friendship.
Storyville lay north of Rampart Street, just outside the French Quarter. It was modeled on the red light districts of late 19th century Amsterdam and Hamburg, a place where prostitution could be controlled. Madams offered opulent boudoirs for white customers who sampled girls listed by skin color in the notorious ‘Blue Books’, sold for 25 cents on street corners. There was gambling and opium available, and music, played by Black musicians. In 1917, Storyville was closed down, for fear it might corrupt soldiers embarking for France; the Secretary of War wanted our boys not just clothed and fed by the government, but protected in ‘an invisible armor’ of righteousness. The district fell into decay; now it's the Iberville Projects, another part of town where tourists don’t go.
In 1907, Buddy was part of a street parade heading down Iberville Street, south of Storyville, when something in his mind snapped. In Ondaatje’s novel, he is watching a girl, seductive in the crowd, dancing, eyeing him, eyeing his proto-celebrity, testing him. He is playing discordant notes on his cornet, disconcerting those that are listening, a ‘parade of ego, cakewalk, strut, every fucking dance and walk I remember working up through the air to get it ready for the note sharp as a rat mouth…'. He lets out a ‘last long squawk… to spear her and all those watching like a javelin through the brain’ - and at that moment, blood vessels in his neck burst, and he collapses. He is institutionalized, he fades into obscurity, he is forgotten.
But not completely. In an uber, on Rampart, I pass the Little Gem Saloon, a jazz bar where I’ve eaten a couple of times and where they play great jazz in the evenings. Buddy used to play here a century ago. And on the wall of the parking lot is a mural that wasn’t here last year. It’s Bellocq’s photo of Buddy’s band, massive, in vibrant shades of purple and black. There’s a broken yellow halo around Buddy’s head to suggest his insanity and interrupted promise. The mural - by New Orleans artist Brandan Odums - was unveiled just last month, as part of New Orleans’ tercentenary celebrations. I bring my students there; we pose with copies of the novel.
Ondaatje describes a curious quality of jazz in New Orleans, how it is heard in snatches. Street parades come around the corner, and - standing still, watching the parade pass - you don’t hear the beginning of the music, nor the end; you find yourself caught, rather, in the middle of the story. That’s how Buddy wanted it. He rejected the form of conventional music. In Ondaatje’s words, ‘he tore away the plot'. The novel has the same quality - it is fractured, full of shifts in time. Stories interweave and then crystallize in the moment; they exist in a perpetual ‘now’. There are blank spaces on the page which seem like pauses for breath, and then, the next burst: fights of verbal brilliance, cadenzas of force and poetry.
In some sense I feel this is how I’ve received the Black story in New Orleans. Buddy Bolden’s life, like his music, seems syncopated, disconnected, displaced - but there is a trajectory here. We visit the Whitney Plantation, which preserves with profound and harrowing subtlety the experience of enslaved African Americans in Louisiana; we visit Congo Square, where slaves once danced and traded goods on Sundays in the days of the Code Noir; we visit the Voodoo Museum, a hotchpotch of mystic imaginings with its roots in the traditions of Haiti and Benin; we visit the grave of Marie Laveau, 19th Century Voodoo Queen; we visit the Tremé and the Marigny, where ‘free people of color’ built shotgun houses and made good lives; we listen to jazz in the streets and at Preservation Hall; we take a streetcar past Lee Circle, where a column stands now denuded of the statue of Robert E. Lee. We exist in a nation in dialogue, at last - painful, slow, too little, too late - but the ‘now’ is cathartic and necessary, and all around us. And Buddy’s ghost follows us through the streets, squawking in victory and pain.
I take my students to a Second Line parade. Second Line clubs are a New Orleans tradition. They originated a century ago to offer financial support and a decent burial. Now they are expressions of community and survival and exuberant joy. Every Sunday, for forty weeks of the year, a Second Line club meets and parades through the streets. This Sunday, it’s the turn of the Divine Ladies.
We meet at the junction of Washington and Claibourne, just west of Buddy’s old stomping ground. We’ve timed it well; we can hear the music approaching. All around, the community has come out onto the streets. People sit on the stoop and drink beer. Hawkers sell bottled water from ice buckets. And then, the first float, and following the float, the Divine Ladies, in brocaded aquamarine, and the men dressed as Indian potentates with turbans and tunics in white and gold. Here is Buddy’s cakewalk and strut. And behind them, the band, trumpets and trombones and tubas and drums. A kid - he can’t be more than nine or ten, with goggle-eyed spectacles and a flannel on his head - plays slide trombone with measured insouciance. People clap and laugh and dance.
I fire off 450 shots on my camera in just over an hour. Everywhere I look there’s a moment, a life, a story.
I ask before I snap, and people beam and strike poses. There is attitude, but such joy, too. They pick up on my accent and we talk about Meghan Markle (the wedding was yesterday) and how good she is for Britain, this inclusivity, this breaking through. Despite my palpable privilege I feel a rush of love for humanity and a sense of possibility despite the inequality and hardship. Coming Through Slaughter - yes - because it has been unspeakably cruel, this journey, for many. But I still believe in this country, America, and here in this moment that potential finds expression.
I watch a trumpeter in the band. He is lost in the now. I hear Buddy playing, and I think about Ondaatje, and the 400 year old story that is unfolding before my eyes, and I feel, I think, a kind of hope.