When Louis Armstrong was five years old, he remembered peeking through a window at Funky Butt Hall on Perdido Street in New Orleans to listen to a cornet player. “He blew so hard,” Armstrong said, “that I used to wonder if I would ever have enough lung power to fill one of those cornets.”
The year was 1905 and the cornet player that young Louis was so in awe of was Charles “Buddy” Bolden. Bolden was born in New Orleans in 1877 and was the most popular musician in the city between 1900 and 1906. By 1907, not yet 30 years old, his music career, and for all practical purposes, his life were over. Yet, in that short time, he created the most lasting legend of all New Orleans jazz men.
Bolden played all over the city—Lincoln and Johnson Parks in Carrollton, Globe Hall and Perseverance Hall in Treme, the Fair Grounds, picnics on the Lakefront and two famous places near South Rampart and Perdido Streets—Masonic and Odd Fellows Hall and Union Sons (or Funky Butt) Hall.
Bolden was the first to play the new music, jazz. His driving, powerful cornet was said to carry for miles. You could hear him across the river and you could hear him Uptown. His best advertisement was himself blowing loud and clear.
People flocked to dance to his new music. His band began to take jobs away from the more established bands, like that of John Robichaux. He experimented with his personnel and by about 1905 settled on the lineup that would achieve his greatest fame. Bolden himself was on cornet, Big Willie Cornish on trombone, Frank Lewis and Wille “Red” Warner on clarinets, Jimmy Johnson on bass, Cornelius Tillman on drums, Jefferson “Brock” Mumford on guitar. Most of them lived in the Uptown area of New Orleans and were family friends. The oldest was Tillman at 28, and youngest was Jimmy Johnson at 15. It was evidently an exciting time for all of them, to be in on this new music from the beginning.
By 1910, Bolden’s musical contributions were pretty much forgotten, as other great musicians like Freddie Keppard, Kid Ory, King Oliver and Sidney Bechet began to make names for themselves. The credit for resurrecting the memory of Buddy Bolden and making him the stuff of myth and legend, is usually given to the book Jazzmen, published in 1939, over 30 years after he stopped playing. The Bolden story in Jazzmen said that he was a full-time barber who had his own barber shop, that he edited and wrote a scandal sheet titled “The Cricket,” he drank a lot, had a lot of women, blew the loudest horn ever heard and was popular as early as 1890.
Careful research has revealed that he was not a barber, there was no scandal sheet and he was probably not even playing cornet as early as 1890. On the truth side, it can be said that he was a heavy drinker, did not hurt for women and certainly could blow the horn.
Jelly Roll Morton, the great piano player, was in New Orleans during Bolden’s heyday. Morton was a colorful, but pretty accurate spokesman for the early jazz days in New Orleans. Morton recalled Bolden: “He was the blowingest man since Gabriel.” Morton said he could be heard 16 miles away. When asked if Bolden drank much, Morton replied: “He drank all the whiskey he could find or that anyone else could find for him.”
So what happened to this powerful man, the first “King” of cornet in New Orleans? What cut his career short at such an early age?
Many reasons are given for his demise due to insanity. Most blamed it on his drinking. Even the official commitment papers say “Insanity due to alcoholism.” But, it was much more complex than that. Buddy Bolden came from a strict Baptist family. (In fact, some of his musical ideas came from the Baptist Hymn Book). He was very close to his mother and sister. His life in music took him into a much different life. The South Rampart and Perdido Street area was a rough area. It was full of honky tonks, pawn shops, saloons and cribs. The inhabitants of this area were gamblers, pimps, hustlers and prostitutes. And those were some of the more legitimate occupations.
Bolden tried to balance those two lives, not letting one encroach on the other. As his musical popularity grew, it became increasingly difficult for him to do so. At the same time, he was attempting to give vent to new musical ideas, but his lack of formal or technical training in music left him somewhat limited in that capacity. He experienced great frustrations in being able to go only so far with his new ideas.
How early he began drinking is not known, but undoubtedly the frustrations stated above acted as a catalyst in his monumental bouts with alcohol. It is known that he was drinking heavily by 1906. He was arrested for insanity three times between March 1906 and April 1907. His last known job was playing in a Labor Day parade in September 1906. He supposedly went berserk during the parade and was led off home. This is probably true, because he was arrested the next day, booked as “insane” and incarcerated for several days. After that, his condition grew worse and his April 1907 arrest led to his commitment at the East Louisiana State Hospital at Jackson in June 1907. He would never leave there, never again be coherent. He spent the last 24 years of his life, just sort of aimlessly wandering around the ward and the grounds. He no longer recognized his mother or sister. He died there in November 1931 and his body was returned to New Orleans to be buried in Holts Cemetery. He was forgotten. There was no jazz funeral, just a handful of curious people who remembered his name and his sister.
All traces of the Bolden family disappear at about the same time. Buddy, his mother, sister and son all died within a year of each other. His father had died long before. His wife and daughter had left New Orleans around 1906 and disclaimed any knowledge of him.
There has always been a paradox in history as to whether the man makes history or history makes the man. In the case of Buddy Bolden, it is apparent that jazz was very close at hand.
He was a pivotal figure who lacked the musical knowledge to refine something that he gave seed to. Others picked it up from him, nurtured and experimented with it and saw it blossom into the music we know as jazz.
Bolden played jazz in its most basic form. He may not have been the first to play jazz, but he was the first to popularize it and give the music a base from which to grow. He lit a fire that caught the heads and ears of others who followed him. He did not influence many cornetists directly by his playing but he did influence the style of their music. He contributed only what he was capable of contributing. If he did not do what he did, someone else eventually would have. He was a man a short step ahead of his time and time for him was so limited that that step was all he needed to achieve what he did.