Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Bolden, Buddy (Charles)

New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden played loud, fat and brassy. Or so they say, since no one alive ever heard him play. Others claim he was a madman, whose out-of-control addictions to alcohol and prostitution accelerated his descent into mental illness. And then there are those who say he invented jazz.

Not one scrap of evidence exists to confirm the truth of any of these claims. But enough facts have emerged through newspaper accounts and painstaking research done by archivist Donald M. Marquis to give us a pretty clear picture. Buddy Bolden may not have single-handedly invented jazz, but he was its first rock star.

Charles "Buddy" Bolden was born in New Orleans on September 6, 1877 to Westmore and Alice Bolden at 319 Howard Street, an address convenient to his father’s work as a teamster. Buddy grew up at various addresses within close proximity to his birthplace, putting him within walking distance of two prominent New Orleans districts: Uptown and the more infamous Storyville. Named for alderman Sidney Story, who on October 1, 1897 drafted legislation to cordon off twenty square blocks of the city to contain prostitution and other unlawful activities.

Buddy Bolden's band (circa 1905)

The Boldens were solid, middle-class citizens of African-American origin who had grown up during the Civil War, an era gladly forgotten by the family. It’s hard to imagine a world of challenge and opportunity amid the chaos of late 19th-century New Orleans, but young Buddy was exposed to a type of cultural renaissance in the city, which was fired by freedom of expression and fueled by music.

New Orleans teemed with a heterophony of musical instruments and players, which included concert bands, dance bands, and funeral bands, which included Blacks and Creoles as well as Irish, Italians and European Jews. Turners Hall, where German brass bands played for weddings and other festive events was within hearing distance of Bolden’s home. Like the “Krewes” which marched in Mardi Gras parades, the Crescent City's early brass bands were social organizations that would stage daylong events, beginning with a street parade and ending with a ball-dance at night.

In the 1880s, the city was wide open to these events, and families of all races participated. But if there was an idyllic phase in young Bolden’s life, it ended abruptly. His sister died of encephalitis in 1881, then his father died in 1883 at age 32, when Buddy was seven years old. Persevering through the decade, Buddy, his mother and his sister Cora witnessed the first changes stemming from the post-Reconstruction era, which introduced segregation to the city.

There is no definitive record of exactly how Bolden became a musician. Some suggest he attended the Fish School for Boys, an experience which would have taught him music in a disciplined manner. Some say it was church, a place where music abounded. In 1894, he had apparently received coronet lessons from a neighbor, who was having an affair with his mother at the time. Embellishing an ordinary fact, like taking coronet lessons, but from his mother’s lover, could make it a tall tale straight from the heart of the New Orleans storytelling tradition.

What is known is that Bolden became a barber, as no man in the city could support a decent living as a musician. Yet by the onset of the Spanish-American war in 1898, Bolden had earned a title, “Kid Bolden,” having played his way as a young sensation into Uptown and Storyville clubs. In those days gigging in New Orleans wasn’t just a routine appearance at dance halls, it was a matter of adherence to social and professional obligations: a musician would play at Miss Cole’s garden parties during the day to secure a gig at night at her popular Josephine Street pavilion at night.

Back at the barbershop on Franklin Street during slow periods, Bolden would rehearse with like-minded musicians in the back room. They were attempting to twist a wide range of tunes, everything from ragtime marches, mazurka waltzes, polkas, gospel and spiritual standards into newly composed blues tunes with a dance beat called "Tin-Tin Type," named for the Tin Type Hall. Originally built for the typesetter’s guild, the Tin Type Hall on Liberty Street in Uptown was rented out to social clubs by a janitor on the condition that they hire the Buddy Bolden Band. Does that make this janitor the first jazz promoter?

The core members of Bolden's band included, valve-piston trombonist Willy Cornish, clarinetists William Warner or Frank Lewis, drummer Cornelius Tillman, guitarist Brock Mumford, and bassist James Johnson.

In addition to working as a barber and musician, Bolden published a New Orleans gossip sheet called The Cricket, which connected some of the city’s leading citizens to Storyville’s vice and corruption. As backlash to the publication, Bolden’s music was attacked for being loud and lewd. Perhaps this is where his reputation of playing too loud came from. More likely, it stemmed from the fact that brass and other wind instruments of the day were emerging from centuries of reserved use even in marching bands. Playing with volume, in a style which was emulated by descendant horn masters like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong was downright bold.

Around the turn of the century Buddy Bolden was crowned the "King" of New Orleans jazz, and was expected by townspeople to appear at every event of significance. Parades, baseball games, ship launchings, political picnics, block parties, which wouldn’t get into swing until he stepped onto the stage. At night, he’d play for carnival masquerade balls, or at Storyville’s red-light district saloons until 11:00 PM. Afterwards, late into the evening he’d appear for the third shift of his 20-hour workday for black dance venues at Perseverance Hall, Jackson Hall, the Odd Fellows Hall, and the Union Sons Hall on Presidio Street.

An old Uptown meeting hall converted into a church, the Union Sons Hall was also called Kinney’s or Kenney’s Hall, and later became known as the "Funky Butt," because of its association with Bolden’s band and one of their hit tunes for which Willy Cornish was supposed to have improvised the lyrics “Funky Butt, Funky Butt, take it away, open up the windows and let the bad air out.” The lyric supposedly captures Bolden's distaste for the pungent odors emanating from sweaty dancers in the tiny hall.

Bolden’s band was famous for vulgar lyrics and raunchy rhythms of a medium or slow beat laced with blues. Tunes with immense popularity, predecessors perhaps to pop hits of the future, including Don’t Go ‘Way––Nobody, Ti-Na-Na, which was later recorded by Jelly Roll Morton, Ida, Sweet as Apple Cid’a, and the closing tune, Home Sweet Home, which the band also played for troop ships embarking for the Spanish-American War. One more tune, Get Outta Here, was played at the Funky Butt Hall at 5:00 a.m. sharp.

None of Bolden’s tunes or performances were successfully recorded. Oscar V. Zahn was supposed to have recorded Bolden on an Edison cylinder in 1906. But the cylinder was reported to have burned with Zahn’s family shed in the 1960s, apparently the one and only Bolden recording on earth.

Perhaps it would be prudent to search in the dank corners of the East Louisiana State Hospital, which still stands in Jackson. Bolden began his journey to the insane asylum after he snapped during the Labor Day Parade in 1906. Witnesses insist that he went into a rampage, kicking and screaming his way through the crowd. He hid out with his mother and sister for most of a year, but ended up threatening them after receiving visions. They committed him to the asylum on June 5, 1907.

The music was yet unnamed when Bolden was diagnosed with Dementia Praecox, or schizophrenia. He was never interviewed or recorded after being committed at age 29. He lived there for 24 years before dying alone and forgotten on November 4, 1931 at age 55.

Like every rock star who followed in his footsteps, alcohol, drugs, and women remain the legendary causes of why King Bolden fell from stardom. Yet overwork and struggling with the onset of schizophrenia seem an equally reasonable cause and effect.

Recommended Reading

Non-Fiction:

In Search Of Buddy Bolden: First Man Of Jazz by Donald Marquis, Louisiana State University Press. 1993 (Paperback)

Fiction:

Chasing the Devil's Tail: A Mystery of Storyville, New Orleans by David Fulmer, Harcourt Books. 2001

Coming through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje, Penguin Books, 1984.

Contributor: Dave Krikorian