Michael Ondaatje

This week I overheard two boys, about 8 years old, at the magazines section of WHSmith. One asked the other if he read comics. “Back in the day.” was the reply.

Back in the day, this designer worked on the cover for Michael Ondaatje‘s early novel, Coming Through Slaughter. Michael is a very charming man who writes like an angel. This book is a ‘fictionalised’ account of the brief life of Buddy Bolden. Fictionalised because so little documentation remains. But – back in the day – in New Orleans, he played Jazz on the trumpet for the very first time. The Birth of Jazz. 
 slaughter
Miles Davis & Coltrane move me but Jazz is not my first musical port of call. And I am sure that is my short-coming, not the music’s.

But this story makes the hairs on the neck stand up. He was called the first great jazz trumpet player. No recorded music. How tremendous does your impact have to have been for that colossal appellation to form your legend? Now that, for me, occasions use of the over-worked word ‘awesome’.

Ondatjee relates a tale of massive, high-impact collision. The explosion of a creative talent. The implosion of drink, drugs, excess, squalor and madness. His description of Bolden’s rampant trumpet outpouring, in a public town parade, at his musical peak, and at the same moment as the fissure to his final insanity.  This is one of those very rare times a writer truely does justice to the potent alchemy of music.

Not only are there no recordings and sparse documentation of this pyrotechnic talent, there is little visual record. One fire damaged glass plate. At the time it seemed to0 obvious to use it on the cover. Beautiful, on reflection but as a grabber maybe just another bunch of sepia negroes as entertainers. Once into the text, it holds a howl of melancholy. On the shelf, another poignant, but passive moment awaiting Ken Burns‘ genius for his trade-mark, slow-motion, re-ignition of the past.

This is probably the point where I should tell design students to sit up straight and learn what you do when you want someone’s image but do not have the subject available. Nah. All I can do is tell you what I did. On that day with that problem.

I fibbed a bit about me and Jazz. I love Louis Armstrong too. In fact I once speculated about my funeral music (as you do) and chose two tunes to bookend my experience of adult life. I fancied David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust‘ at the start and Louis Armstrong’s ‘Stardust‘ at the end. Then I forgot about it. Until just then.

I remembered that a signature visual for Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong was the way, during performance, he would mop the sweat from his face with his handkerchief. Some rascals suggest he kept cocaine in it to revive him during a particularly vigourous set. I doubt it. In fact, I expect that would produce a Woody Allen moment. But the point is that it totally obscured his face.

And I had it. My muse moment. A portrait of a man who was not there. A hope for a pause in performance of exhaustion, intensity and pain. I wanted a close-up study and often have a mischievous desire to commission out of genre. I took the idea to Robert Golden. At that time he was the man for food photography. A serious man, he now makes documentary film, I believe.

No drug dust. Maybe just a little Stardust. Back in the day.

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