Michael Ondaatje In Coming Through Slaughter: Summary

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Michael Ondaatje in Coming Through Slaughter presents his own take on the man credited with the invention of jazz, Buddy Bolden. The book is a fictional rendition of Bolden’s years before he was diagnosed as mentally ill. By using the character of Bolden, descriptive passages of music and style, Ondaatje shows how transience pervades the work of an artist and how the artist is quickly forgotten.
The character of Buddy Bolden is based on the real Charles Bolden. Charles Bolden is considered to be the originator of jazz music. However, few people know his name. There are no recordings of his music and his reputation is staked only on the word of mouth. Little is known of the real Bolden and Ondaatje's work is merely an imagining of who this person might have been. Ondaatje's novel is filled with anachronisms and erroneous facts about the life of Charles Bolden. Bolden never worked as a barber, he never edited a gossip journal known as The Cricket and he never drove a car as those were popularized after his time. By choosing such an obscure historical character, Ondaatje demonstrates how little is actually known about many musicians of the past. No matter their skill or fame during their lifetime, these musician's names do not appear in the pages of history and their music has also faded away never to be heard again. The novel is set during Bolden's golden years, he is a famous cornet player in New Orleans.
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Bolden's music is a spontaneous creation. His strength lies in improvisation and his every performance is unique. Bolden states that he will not "let [him]self-control the world of [his] music" (97). While improvisation is a thing to be admired, it also means that few if any of Bolden's pieces had scores. Each unique performance was lost almost as soon as it was created because preserving the pieces would give Bolden control over his works.

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