Honoring Buddy’s Legacy
This story appeared in the May issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door monthly? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
Charles “Buddy” Bolden is one of the central figures in New Orleans music, widely credited as the most important performer in the nascent years of jazz. But his place in history has always been tenuous. To the casual music listener in 2019, his name may mean nothing.
This can be seen partially as a byproduct of his times and circumstances. Bolden was an improviser, and he left no written music. That was his thing. He played at the very beginning of the age of recorded music and silent film, before those industries were well developed, so there are no known video or audio traces of him. There is but one photograph of Bolden that has been discovered — so far, anyway. After he died in obscurity, he was buried in Holt Cemetery, but no one knows where. Serious research into early jazz wasn’t undertaken until long after Bolden had ceased to perform. Contemporary records about his life are scarce. There’s just not much left of him.
But in a city where efforts to preserve jazz landmarks have often lagged behind the cold efficiency of development, there is one place at the very heart of Bolden’s music career that remains: the double shotgun home where he is believed to have lived throughout most of his creative period.
According to author Don Marquis, in his book, “In Search of Buddy Bolden,” Bolden was born on Sept. 6, 1877, just over a decade after the end of the Civil War and shortly after the federal government pulled the plug on Reconstruction, setting the stage for the Jim Crow era.
Bolden grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood now known as Central City. He undoubtedly witnessed brass bands parading through the streets from the time he was a child. He probably went to the Fisk School, the same school Louis Armstrong later attended, and may have even graduated. At some point, he began taking music lessons on the cornet.
In 1887, when Bolden was 10 years old, he and his family — his mother and sister; Bolden’s father, Westmore, had died of pneumonia several years earlier — moved to what was 385 First St. under the city’s old numbering system, according to Marquis. The house still stands. It is a nondescript shotgun house that today bears the address 2309 First St. If you are on the sidewalk facing the front of the home, the Boldens lived on the right side of the double. Newly discovered classified newspaper advertisements from that time period promoted laundry services available at the home’s address; Bolden’s mother and sister washed clothes for other families, suggesting perhaps that the music business was not all that lucrative at the time.
Bolden’s mother and sister were both known to be “laundresses”, working out of their First Street home. A number of these ads ran in The Times-Democrat in the early 20th century.
The house dates at least to the late 1870s, as it appeared on the Robinson’s Atlas of the City of New Orleans, published in 1883 by E. Robinson in New York City. The book was compiled from surveys of the area taken during the latter part of the 1870s.
It is not hard to imagine Bolden, as a young man, sitting on the stoop in front of the house practicing his horn. As he became a working musician with a bold, loud sound, Bolden played in parades and at picnics, at parks and union halls and at the honky-tonks that dotted the neighborhood around where City Hall sits today.
Sometime before the turn of the century, legend has it, he began to improvise passages in existing songs, perhaps because of his inability to play them as written or as others played them. The failure to play the music the way it was intended didn’t matter, of course. The people loved it. They supposedly would come from across the city to hear Bolden play.
Bolden and his band probably had in their repertoire songs that are still New Orleans standards — “Nearer My God to Thee” and “Didn’t He Ramble” during and after funerals, for example. But it was during performances at seedier venues that Bolden really became a star of the local music scene, playing tunes with suggestive or downright raunchy vocals, such as “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor” and what became considered his band’s signature song, “Funky Butt,” sometimes known today as “Buddy Bolden’s Blues.” The song’s title refers to the scent generated by people dancing in the sweltering heat in the days before air conditioning.
In this circa 1905 photo, Charles “Buddy” Bolden is pictured standing second from left with his band. Also pictured are Willie Warner; Willie Cornish; Jimmie Johnson; Frank Lewis and Brock Mumford. This is the only known photo of Buddy Bolden. Image courtesy of Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.
Much of the Bolden legend comes from oral accounts passed down decades after his death, and given the shortage of primary-source documents and other reliable evidence, preposterous myths and ridiculous exaggerations about the jazz pioneer have spread and entered the public consciousness.
One such story has Bolden ascending a hot-air balloon at Lincoln Park and parachuting back to earth, playing his cornet during the descent. This scenario seems to be a conflation of two popular entertainments at the time: the musical performances of Bolden and his band, which played regularly at Lincoln Park; and the feats of a man named Buddy Bartley, who leaped from a dirigible at the park around the same time.
Other oft-repeated myths are that Bolden cut hair at a barber shop in New Orleans, and that he moonlighted as the editor of a scandal sheet called The Cricket. Marquis’ landmark biography went a long way toward quieting down these legends, but it didn’t extinguish them.
The truth is strange enough, of course. Bolden began to have acute mental problems around the time his family moved away from 2309 First St., first to 2302 First St. and later to 2527 First St.
On March 25, 1906, Bolden was arrested for perhaps the first time. He had been bedridden for several weeks, according to newspaper reports on the incident from the time, including one recently discovered by this writer. In a fit of psychosis, Bolden became convinced that he was being drugged or poisoned, and he attacked his caregiver, who was either his mother or his mother-in-law. He was booked on a charge of being insane, and alcohol abuse was cited as the reason for his insanity.
Marquis writes that Bolden probably spent just a couple of nights in jail. But things went downhill from there. Bolden’s relationship with the band deteriorated as he became erratic and unreliable, and eventually he had to quit playing. He apparently made his last public performance as a musician, at least before his institutionalization, during a parade on Labor Day 1906. He dropped out before the finish.
Two more arrests followed in 1907. After the third arrest, on March 13, 1907, Bolden was committed to the institution known as the State Insane Asylum in Jackson, La. He would spend the rest of his life there.
The asylum had a music program, but the extent to which Bolden participated is not clear. Marquis writes that Bolden probably played the cornet at the asylum on occasion. But his career was essentially finished.
About six months into Bolden’s institutionalization, a group of musically inclined mental patients were taken from the asylum to Baton Rouge to pose for a photograph on the steps of the old State Capitol and to perform at the Elk Theatre. The group was made up almost entirely of white men and women, but there was one black man who played music with the group. Whether that man was Bolden is not clear. None of the patients has been identified yet, and the photograph is not known to exist.
Buddy Bolden lived with his mother and sister in the right side of this double shotgun house on First Street. Photo by Liz Jurey.
Bolden was a distant memory by the time the new music coming out of New Orleans was christened jazz in 1916. He had been in the mental asylum for more than a decade by the time the first jazz record was released in 1918. He was at the institution when Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five became world famous in the mid-1920s. And in 1931, the same year Armstrong made his triumphant return to his hometown for the first time since leaving for Chicago in 1922, Bolden died at the mental institution. His music legacy had been mostly forgotten, except by the men and women who remembered being there when he took New Orleans by storm around the turn of the century.
Eventually many of the sites associated with the early years of jazz were forgotten or forsaken too. Lincoln Park closed around the time of Bolden’s death. Union Sons Hall, also known as Funky Butt Hall, a famous Bolden venue, was turned into a church and later torn down to make way for government offices. Armstrong’s birthplace was demolished unceremoniously after the building had been sold and plans were made to relocate and preserve it.
But the nondescript shotgun home at 2309 First St. where the first king of jazz lived for nearly 20 years remains. The Bolden house can be thought of as the spot where jazz was born and nurtured, where the daring and creative artist who reshaped the course of American popular music honed his chops and experimented in private, where he laid his head at night and reflected on his successes and failures, and where he found comfort in a world in which he desperately needed stability.
James Karst is a journalist and historian in New Orleans. He can be reached at [email protected]
Save Buddy Bolden’s House Block Party
May 2, 4-7 PM • 2309 First Street
Celebrate the upcoming renovation of the Buddy Bolden House at a block party hosted by PJ Morton and special guests. The event is free to the public.