Buddy Bolden’s blues: The birth of a mad genius — and of jazz
Born in the Crescent City in 1877, cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden toiled on sidewalks and in clubs during a time of encroaching racial oppression. Persevering through the tightening grip of Jim Crow, he was instrumental in gathering together the folk, ragtime, blues, sacred and European musics that permeated the freewheeling Storyville section of NOLA. The result: jazz, the first musical phenomenon that America could truly and proudly claim as its own.
Nearly a century and a half after his birth and more than 80 years after his death, the music and academic worlds — not to mention his legions of global fans — are still attempting to study, re-create and honor Bolden’s life and legacy. It hasn’t been easy, because only tatters of solid evidence and memorials remain. Bolden was buried in Holt Cemetery, a city-owned pauper’s field, and the exact location of his final resting place remains unknown, although a community effort succeeded in erecting a monument in the cemetery. Local enthusiasts have also forged ahead in preserving and marking many of Bolden’s haunts, including the Eagle Cafe and Saloon, and the Odd Fellows Masonic Ballroom on Rampart Street.
- Bolden paid a heavy price for his genius, succumbing to alcohol-induced psychosis in 1907 and languishing in a state asylum until his death in 1931.
- No recordings of Bolden are known to exist, but that hasn’t stopped Bolden scholars and admirers from feverishly looking. The mythical “Bolden Cylinder” is a long-rumored but as-yet-undiscovered recording that, if uncovered, would virtually be the Dead Sea Scrolls of jazz. Before his own death in 1942, Willie Cornish, Bolden’s trombonist, claimed that he, Bolden and their band had recorded a cylinder in 1898, nearly 20 years before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band produced the first commercial recording of the burgeoning genre.
- Some of the most illuminating — and colorful — sources of Bolden lore come from interviews with his contemporaries. Especially revealing are the tales of how Bolden played. In short: It was frantic, and it was loud. “I played with Buddy Bolden,” clarinetist Alphonse Picou told folklorist Alan Lomax in 1949. “Sure, we never did use a piece of music at all. It was nothin’ but head stuff. … He used to blow that cornet, you used to hear it for blocks.”
- Buddy Bolden’s reported repertoire back in the day included many traditional pop songs, ballads and rags, but his most famous and enduring composition is “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” the much-covered jazz standard that evolved from Bolden’s “Funky Butt,” named after the grimy, grooving Funky Butt Hall and containing one of the first references to “funk” and “funky” in popular music.
- Perhaps the most impressive literary accumulation of Bolden’s legacy is Don Marquis’ 2005 biography “In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz,” for which Marquis spent years digging through city archives and records depositories, and conducting dozens of interviews. “He’s gotten more focus after he’s been gone,” the author says now. “He was one of the people who started jazz, and he’s a very important part of the city and its traditions. But he was never appreciated until years and years (after his death).”
- In a 1968 BBC interview, Louis Armstrong said of Bolden and his band, “They used to play on the sidewalk before they go into the Funky Butt Hall on Saturday nights, so we couldn’t go in there. We were too young. But we could hear that half-hour (of them) playing before they’d go in. So when people pass by, they stop in and hear a few sets on their way home. … (Bolden) could probably be heard from here to Sheffield.”
- One way to (sort of) track Bolden in his lifetime is the U.S. Census, which recorded his residence from each decade from 1880 through 1930 (minus 1890; that year’s rolls were destroyed in a fire). In 1880, he was living in the 400 block of Prytania Street, with his father, Westmore; mother, Alice; and two sisters and baby brother. By 1990, Buddy had shifted to the 300 block of First Street, with his mother and sister Cora and was reportedly working as a plasterer. Finally, in 1910, 1920 and 1930, he’s listed in the rolls at the state asylum in Jackson. (Known at the time as the East Louisiana State Hospital, the facility opened in 1847 and is still in operation today.)
- In the end, it’s impossible to evaluate and explain Bolden’s influence on Louisiana and American culture without placing his life and work in the context of the time in which he lived. In a lecture at Harvard in 2014, jazzman Wynton Marsalis dubbed Bolden’s creation the “music of freedom,” an “unapologetic counterstatement” to the encroachment of Jim Crow and oppression on Southern blacks’ rights and livelihoods in the last three decades of the 19th century. Buddy, he said, helped to make sure that New Orleans would be different. “America may have thought it would be easy to turn New Orleans into a typical 19th century Southern town. Some mistake,” Marsalis said. “… That Afro-Franco culture could not just be legislated away. The desire for freedom was ingrained in all classes of this populace. The ending of slavery and the death of the promise of Reconstruction created a reaffirmation of freedom in the form of music. And that music would be called jazz.”