Cornetist Buddy Bolden’s life is shrouded in mystery. In some ways he was the George Washington of jazz in that he was the first at nearly everything. As with Washington, many legends and fictional stories have been written about him. While the first president allegedly never told a lie even when he cut down a cherry tree, Bolden supposedly was a barber and edited a scandal sheet called the Cricket, two assertions that are both dubious and false. Washington set the precedent for being president while Bolden was the first major name in jazz history, and some would say helped found jazz itself. But just as no one today has the slightest idea what Washington sounded like when he spoke, the sound of Buddy Bolden’s cornet has been silent ever since he stopped playing in 1906.
As of this writing, the Hollywood film called Bolden has not yet been released. Wynton Marsalis wrote the music for the film but, at best, his contributions will be an educated guess because Bolden never recorded. No one alive today really knows what he sounded like, and nobody has really known since his occasional bassist Ed Garland died in 1980. No one was interviewed during Bolden’s career about the cornetist, and in fact there was no real interest in his music until the mid-1930s which was long after his horn was stilled.
A definitive and highly recommended book, In Search Of Buddy Bolden – First Man Of Jazz by Donald Marquis (available from Da Capo Press), was written in 1978 and it does its best to set the record straight on jazz’s first martyr. But still, there are many mysteries.
Charles “Buddy” Bolden was born on September 6, 1877 in New Orleans. His father died when he was six and he was raised by his widowed mother. Growing up, he attended the local Baptist church where he heard the spirited music. Most important was the regular opportunity to see some of the local brass bands that played at parades, funerals, and social functions. Their music, which was dominated by marches in the 1880s and ‘90s but also included some popular songs and possibly even a few blues, featured ensembles and was mostly worked out in advance. There were also string groups and larger orchestras all of which were part of New Orleans’ day-to-day life.
It is believed that Bolden probably graduated from high school and began taking cornet lessons in 1894 when he was nearly 17. While that is a pretty late start to begin the cornet, Bolden developed quickly and within a few months was already beginning to play professionally.
Perhaps the legend that Bolden was a barber began because he often hung out at barbershops which were meeting places in the African-American community, often for musicians. Guitarist Charley Galloway, who was a barber, had a string band and by late 1894 was often augmenting his group with Bolden and a clarinetist. The cornetist gained some of his earliest experiences playing with Galloway at dances and parties. Galloway was a bit of a mentor to Bolden, who learned how to book jobs and lead a band from the guitarist. Soon Galloway was a sideman in the early Bolden band, performing at dances and parties. Ironically, Buddy Bolden only played at parades on an occasional basis.
While it is mostly speculation as to what the music sounded like in Bolden’s first band in 1895, it seems as if he performed bluesy and ragged versions of dance songs, hymns, folk tunes, rags and perhaps some marches. His sound was very powerful as he led the ensembles and he was considered a real crowd pleaser who had the knack for exciting audiences. Within a short period of time, Bolden was leading one of the most popular bands in the Crescent City, one with its own musical identity and personality. While he had a variety of menial jobs during 1895-99 including as a plasterer, by the turn of the century he was so well known in New Orleans that he was able to make his fulltime living as a musician.
There has always been a rumor that Buddy Bolden and his group recorded a cylinder or two around 1897-98. In 1939 valve trombonist Willie Cornish confirmed that and said that he was in the band at the time. Unfortunately although many searches have taken place, no proof has ever been found. If a cylinder was recorded, it did not survive.
It has long been a theory of mine that jazz was born and developed by some of the many brass bands that played in New Orleans around that era. The ensembles played lengthy parades and, tired of stating the same theme and arrangement over and over while they marched, they improvised a bit, interacted with each other, and got a bit away from the melody. While Bolden did not perform at many parades, he seems to have taken this idea and created melodic improvisations before dancers, building up ensembles by using dynamics and bending notes to excite his audiences.
After developing his approach and going through many musicians, Bolden had a stable personnel in his band by 1900 that matched his cornet with valve trombonist Willie Cornish, Frank Lewis and Willie Warner on clarinets, guitarist Jefferson Mumford, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and either Henry Zeno or Cornelius Tillman on drums.
During 1900-06 when Bolden was at the peak of his powers and popularity. He performed at park concerts and saloons, dance halls and parties, but not at brothels (another false legend). While most of his gigs were in New Orleans, Bolden also took his band to Baton Rouge and other areas of Louisiana. During one season, Bolden played at a park where a vaudeville act featured a man named Buddy Bartley flying in a hot air balloon and then jumping out of it with a parachute. Some have since claimed that it was Bolden that was in the balloon and that he played his cornet on the way down to the ground, but they got their Buddys mixed up.
However Bolden did become known for what he said was “calling the children home.” He would be playing in one park, increase the volume drastically, and steal audiences from bands in other nearby parks.
A teenaged trombonist, Kid Ory, impressed Bolden and was offered the chance to join his band in 1900 when he was 14 but had to turn it down to take care of his family in LaPlace, Louisiana. Banjoist-guitarist Johnny St. Cyr and bassist Pops Foster recalled seeing Bolden and remembering that his band was a lot rougher than the society bands of the era. Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet both claimed to have seen Bolden perform although if they did, they were five and seven years at the time. Cornetist Bunk Johnson’s always asserted that he played with Bolden. Born in 1889, Johnson moved back his birthdate to 1879 to give credence to his claim but that has since been found to be false. Jelly Roll Morton, who at one point late in life claimed to have invented jazz in 1902 (temporarily forgetting about Bolden’s earlier accomplishments), remembered seeing the cornetist and always praised him and his power.
By 1904, the cornetist was often called King Bolden. By then he was the most famous black musician in New Orleans, leading one of the very few bands that could take a recent rag and improvise on it. Bolden set the pace for the city’s music scene, whether playing sweetly on waltzes or much rougher on blues. His repertoire included an early version of “Tiger Rag,” “The Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor” and “Funky Butt.” “Funky Butt,” which had rather risqué and even obscene lyrics, was cleaned up a bit by Jelly Roll Morton who recorded it in the late 1930s as “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” (also known as “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”).
Buddy Bolden, who sometimes drank excessively and had quite a few women in his time, was at his peak when 1906 began but it would not last long. In March he started having severe headaches which affected the consistency of his playing. He began to hallucinate and, while sick in bed, he imagined that his mother was trying to poison him, hit her over the head with a water pitcher. (causing a minor wound), and was arrested and confined until the spell passed. Bolden became severely depressed and full of paranoia. His behavior became so erratic that most of his musicians left his band. The replacements did their best to keep the group going but Bolden was having trouble with his memory and became very unreliable.
On Labor Day he played at a parade along with many other bands but he soon dropped out; that was his last gig. His dementia worsened and he was arrested on Sept. 9 for insanity. While he was soon released, he never recovered, turning into a derelict and a drunk who no longer cared about music. On March 13, 1907 Bolden was arrested again and a month later was committed to the East Louisiana State Hospital, a mental institution. It was believed at the time that his insanity was caused by alcoholism rather than the other way around. He was just 29.
Bolden spent the last 24 years of his life in the institution. There were reports that when he was in the mood, he played a little bit with a band filled with the more musical patients but he rarely communicated with others and did not recognize family members after 1920. He was completely forgotten by the music world and he passed away on November 4, 1931 at the age of 54. No musicians attended his funeral.
Ironically it is possible that Buddy Bolden, who is sometimes called the founding father of jazz, never even heard the word “jazz” applied to his music. In 1906 it was sometimes used as a synonym for pep while “jass” had a sexual meaning. The word jazz would not catch on as a musical term for another decade.
What if Buddy Bolden’s mental health had not deteriorated? While he may not have been the first jazz musician to record (there were no recording studios in New Orleans), he might very well have been leading the band at Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens in 1923 (rather than King Oliver) and he could have made recordings that year when he was still just 45. How would he have fared in the roaring 1920s, the swing era, or even with bebop (he would have turned 68 in 1945)? It makes one wonder how the history of jazz might have been different if Buddy Bolden had been on the scene after 1906.