Sooner or later, everyone who is at all interested in the history of jazz has got to deal with Buddy Bolden. By the time researchers began looking into the origins of the music in the 1930s, Charles Bolden (1877-1931) was already more legend than man. The Bolden story usually included these elements:
Buddy Bolden was the first jazz musician. (Well, maybe.)
He could blow his cornet so powerfully that when he was playing in Lincoln Park off Carrollton Avenue, he could be heard downtown in the French Quarter. (Um... no. Please!)
He could blow his cornet so powerfully that when he was playing across the river in Algiers, he could be heard downtown in the French Quarter. (Theoretically possible, considering the lack of automobile traffic noise and the way sound carries in New Orleans.)
Bolden was a barber, a scandal sheet editor, a police informant. (No, no, and no.)
He blew out his brains, figuratively speaking, going beserk during while playing a parade. (Sorta.)
Okay, let's deal with the first thing everyone "knows" about Buddy Bolden - he was the first jazz musician. It seems kind of ridiculous that the beginnings of this wonderful music called jazz could be pinned down to one person. Except.... Musician after musician who lived through the Bolden era and survived long enough to be interviewed has stated that he was the first to put together the strands of ragtime, blues, spirituals, and Creole songs in such a way that something new was created. Typical is an account by the great Creole trumpeter Peter Bocage, who was born in 1887 (and so was a young man of 19 when Bolden's career ended). Bocage was interviewed by Dick Allen and William Russell in 1959 [clarifications in brackets are mine]:
Q: Who do you think was the first band to play jazz or ragtime?
A: Well, I attribute it to Bolden. Bolden was a fellow, he didn't know a note as big as this house [he couldn't read music], whatever they played, they caught [by ear], or made up. They made up their own music and played it their own way. So that's the way jazz started. Just his improvisation.
This passage is transcribed in the book which contains pretty much all of what we know (and probably will ever know) about Bolden: In Search of Buddy Bolden by Donald Marquis. Marquis' book, first published in 1978, is meticulously researched, and so might come off as disappointing in a roundabout way: Marquis resists the temptation to embellish the Bolden story. He dispels many of the myths, and simply presents everything he has been able to find out about Bolden. The problem is that even Marquis was not able to find out that much - there are plenty of gaps in the story, and we are left without a real feel for what kind of person he was. But the book is extremely valuable for showing us as true a picture of Bolden as we are likely to get.
But what did he sound like? If Bolden recorded (and accounts of a cylinder recording persist), nothing has survived. But Freddie Keppard (1890-1933) did record, and many early New Orleans musicians said that he sounded something like Bolden. Peter Bocage again:
Q: Did anyone or does anyone play like Bolden?
A: Keppard, they were most on the same style. The improvisations is always gonna be a little different, no two men alike.
Keppard recorded several times during the 1920s, but only the 1926 date by Freddie Keppard and His Jazz Cardinals presents him on his own terms. His playing on "Stockyard Strut" and "Salty Dog" is clipped and raggy, built around short phrases. It is powerful, but doesn't swing in the way jazz had already started to swing by that time. It's easy to imagine that Keppard's cornet style may contain an echo of Buddy Bolden.
A group of traditional jazz musicians built around cornetist Marc Caparone issued a CD in 1999 which, although little known, is an impressive piece of jazz scholarship, as well as a fun listen: Music of the Bolden Era on the Stomp Off label, by the Imperial Serenaders. The selections, instrumentation, and performance styles are based on the best available research about what and how Bolden played. It's archaic, lively, and pretty convincing.
When I first visited New Orleans in 1990, I made my own Bolden pilgrimages. My first evening there, I drove several miles out St. Charles and Carrollton Avenues to the sites of Lincoln and Johnson Parks, two recreation areas for the "colored" citizens of the city where Bolden played. There's not much to see there; my first wife wryly commented that "that sure is a historic gas station." But Bolden's house on First Street is still standing, and will most likely remain intact until New Orleans is finally washed away, since the house has been placed on the National Register of Historical Places. It looks as it probably did 110 years ago, although during Bolden's lifetime this was a middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood. Now it is one of the poorest parts of the city, full of vacant and decaying buildings - depressing and a little frightening to drive through, let along walk in.
But my real Bolden moment came when I was walking through Armstrong Park, which was carved out of the Treme neighborhood. The Masonic hall known locally as Perseverance Hall was formerly on St. Claude St., but it now stands on the park grounds. One morning I walked up at a time when the building was being renovated. The workers had left the doors unlocked, so I walked in and stood on the wooden floor where Buddy Bolden had played for dancers a century earlier. Standing on the boards Bolden had stood on, looking up at the high ceiling, and imagining the sound of the Bolden band in 1900 was a moving experience.
Buddy Bolden had mental/emotional issues which were exacerbated by alcohol abuse. In 1907 he was arrested and sent to the Lousiana Insane Asylum in Jackson. He stayed there for 25 years before dying a forgotten man. The exact location of his grave is unkown, but it's somewhere in Section C of New Orleans' Holt Cemetery. All of us jazz people owe him a debt. Thank you, Buddy Bolden, and rest in peace.