Charles “Buddy” Bolden. For those in the know, the cornetist’s name conjures up an entire world of turn-of-the-19th century New Orleans and the jazz music of which he was probably the first major innovator. And with that come the myth and the mystery of his life, music and demise, which has influenced everyone up to the coming Tribute to Buddy Bolden at the Economy Hall stage.
According to Donald Marquis’ canonical study In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz, Bolden grew up in the musically rich neighborhood of Central City. As an adult, he lived at 2309 First St., and formed his first bands in 1895. He played dances, some parades, and gigs that focused both in the Black Storyville neighborhood centered around South Rampart and Perdido streets and at Lincoln and Johnson Park. By 1900, Bolden had acquired a reputation as a loud player whose ways of combining and embellishing the rags, blues, waltzes, and mazurkas that made up the repertoire in that time was unparalleled. He also was known to keep the company of many women and he was never far from a drink.
People called him “King” Bolden. However, by 1906, his life started to unravel. His behavior became erratic and his playing worsened. Over the last century, there has been much thought as to the causes of this and whether it was due to alcoholism, insanity, inability to reconcile the different roles of his life—or, as writer and musician Ned Sublette recently speculated, acute cocaine psychosis. By 1907, he was committed to the State Mental Hospital in Jackson, Louisiana. He stayed there until his death in 1931 and was buried in the Holt Cemetery. Although there were no recordings of him (some of his fellow musicians state that he and the band did a wax cylinder recording, but none have been found), his music and life was a great influence on everyone who came after including Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton (who wrote the song, “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.”), Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, and many more.
Bolden’s influence continues to touch people to this day. Dr. Michael White is one. White, one of the great clarinetists and composers of the traditional New Orleans music that Bolden started, is a man who thinks about Bolden a lot. He is the perfect person to organize the Tribute set for Bolden at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this year. As White says, “I’ve done a lot of specialized concerts for Jazz Fest before. There’s never been a Buddy Bolden tribute. It might be a good thing, because he’s one of the first jazz musicians. Of course, there are no recordings of him but we know enough of his songs or songs that were played in that era.”
On a personal level, White feels a great connection to Bolden. “When I started playing in brass bands in social club and church parades, I played a lot in that neighborhood,” he says, “and we used to pass his home on First and South Liberty streets. The barbershop on the corner where he used hang out was owned by my relatives. He played some of the same functions in the neighborhood that I did—some of the same songs, probably.
I think that Buddy Bolden was one of the most important figures in American music and culture because he was among the first to really kind of figure out and put into action jazz and all its cultural and social and musical implications. That’s one of the reasons to do the tribute. In many ways, he remains a mythical figure. It’s kind of rare in this country and New Orleans that he is really given any serious consideration beyond the couple of lines here and there. His music is very important and, personally, I feel a personal, musical, and spiritual connection—not only did my relatives interact with him but I went to elementary school in that neighborhood. I still drive around the neighborhood and sit outside the house and think about him.”
In some ways, the myth of Bolden makes him the archetypal jazz musician. According to the myth, he was a black, innovative musician who played loud, womanized, drank too much, and then went crazy and died broke and alone. That archetype, either in part or in full, can be applied to countless musicians who came after him, from Freddie Keppard to Bix Beiderbecke to Charlie Parker and Bud Powell to Lester Young to Woody Shaw and, as White points out, several musicians who currently live in New Orleans today. But there is much, much more to him.
As a musician, White points out, “In Bolden’s time, one of the concepts was to incorporate the music of different genres. Of course, they used rags and marches and blues and popular songs and quadrilles and mazurkas and others, and they converted it and turned it into a language that became traditional New Orleans jazz. He started a revolution. And the thing was, the beauty of it was in order to play that style, you didn’t have to copy Bolden as such, but you had to find your own creative sound and improvisation in the style to sound like that style.
And I think that most of the musicians in that era had to do that because it became so popular in the community at dances and functions. They had to learn how to improvise and one of Bolden’s great developments was learning to improvise off of popular tunes, learning to develop it and to personalize the sound that included many of the characteristics of the black blues and church singing. He used vibrato and vocal expression on the instrument that people hadn’t heard before. I think everybody started to use those expressions that Bolden popularized. Everybody was influenced by that, all the young trumpeters and it got passed into King Oliver and Louis Armstrong and quite a few others.”
Even though there are no recordings of Bolden, White has done research into what Bolden played. And he has assembled a top-notch band including Greg Stafford and Leon Brown on horn, Lucien Barbarin on trombone, Tyler Thompson on bass, Herman LeBeaux on drums, Anthony Brown on banjo, and David Boddinghaus on piano. White explains: “Even though they are mostly instrumental, we’re going to do some vocals, too. And I’m going to try to do as much as possible to use the musical concepts and try to keep it as I would imagine as Bolden-esque as possible. I think that Buddy Bolden’s music swung in a certain way. It was dance music, and one of the things about the Economy Hall tent that I look forward to is seeing people dance. The beauty of the music was that it encouraged people to be more creative and free, and that’s what we are looking for.”
Beyond Bolden’s music, White sees a much deeper significance to Buddy Bolden, what he did, and when he did it. “I think that Bolden means more to New Orleans and music than most people realize,” he explains. “He helped to make NOLA special. The most famous thing to come out of New Orleans was jazz. And if you really think about it in the big sense, that’s what put New Orleans on the map. It’s immeasurable in terms of the city’s reputation and the tourism industry. It’s ironic that Buddy Bolden never appeared in the newspapers for music—not once. He appeared for being arrested for hitting his mother-in-law in the head with a water pitcher. Ironically, he’s subsequently responsible for untold billions of dollars in the tourist industry. He’s why people come here. He started the whole thing. The importance of that is immeasurable.”
Most probably, Bolden never thought about such a legacy when he was onstage at the Funky Butt Hall or Lincoln Park playing and being heard all over the city. The legend is that he could play at Carrollton and Claiborne and be heard in the French Quarter. People scoff at that, but given the lack of industrialization and noise in the first decade of the 20th century, and the fact that due to the topography and humidity and other reasons, sound carries in unconventional ways in New Orleans. In some ways, that sound and the implications of it touched many people then and carries on to this day. White is passionate in connecting Bolden to his time and ours.
He states: “The social meaning of the music is a lot more, in a lot of ways, more significant. In any sense of the word, he launched this idea of greater freedom and individuality in American society. The music is about putting democratic ideals in action. And it was extremely important in the African-American community. It gave a voice and visibility to a people who were essentially declared invisible. It came along at a time when all of the things that people were fighting for in American society, this is the perfect model. It shows how you can maintain rules and order but you can ultimately incorporate individuality and individual ideas and concept and ethnic diversity. We’re talking about the same time as Plessy versus Ferguson—well that was a little earlier, but the reaction of that was there, and the results of that were going forth. And you had the Robert Charles riot in 1900. That whole incident happened within walking distance of Buddy Bolden. That had a big impact on musicians in a lot of ways. That was such an important thing.”
White continues: “I just like to think about and imagine what it must have been like the very first time he started playing what was the earliest jazz. I wonder what it was like for the musicians and the community. I mean, did he take a theme like ‘Careless Love’ and he started improvising the theme, and the dancers started hearing something that was the song and wasn’t the song and was very different from what they were used to hearing from the Robicheaux band [one of the Bolden Band’s contemporaries and rivals]. What was the first reaction to that? Were they aware? Did they stop in amazement? Did people even know? Did they accept it? Did they all of a sudden realize that it was a moment of musical and social liberation? I think that was the magic moment that changed the world. I think about that quite a lot. And I wonder if he knew and how much and if he felt a burden or responsibility? Did he want to develop it more? Did he realize what the hell he was doing in a sense—not musically—and I wonder if he knew what he was on the verge of. I think of what I call that magic moment with Bolden and it’s such an exciting thing. It’s like an explosion that didn’t explode.”
White’s voice quickens as he follows this train of thought like Bolden might have added ornaments to finish out a melody. “Did he consciously do it or did it just happen?” he asks. “Did he work on those ideas or did he talk about it? Or was he reacting to what was going on around him and in society? He found a way to show democracy. Did he know that at the time? He actually showed the rules that incorporate freedom of expression and diversity of ideas. It’s also a philosophy of life and existence and how you could incorporate the idea of endless possibility. That’s a lot of heavy stuff.”
White finishes with a laugh: “All that in one man’s music and innovation.”