In honor of Jazz appreciation month, we celebrate the life of Buddy Bolden.
Born in 1877 New Orleans, Cornetist Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden was a key figure in the early development of Jazz in the United States. Growing up in a City that was finding new footing in the wake of Southern reconstruction, Buddy Bolden was simultaneously carving out a unique identity and legacy for himself through music.
Bolden was raised in a double shotgun house on First Street in the Central City neighborhood, a traditionally working-class area that was the home to thousands of Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish Immigrants. It was also home to an influx of African-Americans moving to the the City from more rural locales in the post-Reconstruction era, where systemic racism and institutionalized slavery kept newly-emancipated people trapped in the same work and living situations, despite legal freedom. Buddy’s father followed a similar path, continuing to work as a drayman along the New Canal for the man who enslaved his Grandfather.
Life in the diverse Central City neighborhood shaped Buddy Bolden’s musical world, putting him only blocks from popular parade routes frequented by jubilant marching bands hosted by many New Orleans societies and clubs. Buddy also spent time at St. John Baptist Church around the corner from his home, known as a “Holy Roller” Church. Recognized for their boisterous worship filled with traditional spirituals and vigorous movement, Buddy was said to have attended St. John Baptist not for religion, but for the unique and emphatic musical experience found inside.
While absorbing the vast multicultural musical world around him, Buddy did not pick up the cornet until he was seventeen years old. Where and how Bolden learned the his instrument is unknown. Like most black Americans and other minority groups at the time, documented details of Bolden’s life are few and far between. It is possible that Bolden received a basic musical education at the Fisk School for Boys, and evidence suggests that he learnt the rudiments of the cornet from a neighbor, Manual Hall, a cook in the French Quarter. Regardless, Bolden was playing the cornet by 1894. As he improved, Buddy joined a band headed by local barber Charles Galloway, comprised of strings, clarinet, cornet, and guitar. By his early 20s, Buddy Bolden was said to have fully taken over the Galloway barbershop band, booking gigs under his own name.
WIth the dawn of the 20th century, Buddy’s style and preferences continued to develop and he began to introduce other brass instruments into the ensemble. Eventually he settled on his ideal combination: cornet, trombone, clarinet, guitar, bass, and drum. Combining the improvisational techniques and traditional spirituals of the Holy Rollers with the power and excitement of the parade marching bands, local ragtime, and blues, Bolden was part of a new, embellished sound – known as “Jas,” or “Jass.” Instead of playing the music out on the street, Bolden brought the brass band inside and played for dancers. This approach became wildly popular and Bolden’s reputation skyrocketed, making his presence a major draw for bars and clubs throughout Uptown New Orleans.
But Buddy didn’t limit his performances, and was known to play anywhere that would hire him – addicted to the possibility of financial success. As part of the first generation growing up post-Reconstruction who never knew of life without emancipation, Buddy certainly embraced the perceived opulence of the gilded age. Known to keep himself meticulously groomed and clad in the finest suits, Bolden called himself “King” – a moniker fit for his rapidly expanding celebrity. At its height, the Buddy Bolden Band was playing in bars, grocery stores, tonks, saloons, social clubs, and parades. Consisting of Jimmy Johnson, Willy Cornish, Willy Warner, Brock Mumford, and Frank Lewis, the Bolden Band was the talk of the town.
Sadly, Buddy Bolden’s career was cut short when violent episodes of alcoholic psychosis had him committed to a mental institution by 1907. In an era of primitive and notoriously abusive care for mental health patients, especially for patients of color, Bolden remained sequestered in the State Hospital for the Insane in Jackson, Louisiana, until his death in 1931. The true sound of Bolden’s band is also a mystery, as the single known recording of the Bolden Band – taken on an Edison Phonograph – has been lost. Yet Bolden’s influence has remained apparent through tales and tunes passed from one big New Orleans Jazz musician to another – Kid Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstong, and Sidney Bechet have all reminisced on the influence of Bolden through their own careers.
For more information on Buddy Bolden, see “In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz,” by Donald M. Marquis.
This 1906 recording of the Ossman-Dudley Trio features the “Funky Butt” or “St. Louis Tickle” tune created by Buddy Bolden.