I’m a Preservationist
Big Sam Williams is a trombonist and band leader with Big Sam’s Funky Nation. In the June issue of Preservation in Print, he explains his connection to Buddy Bolden, and why preserving New Orleans’ jazz history matters.
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We’ve heard that Charles “Buddy” Bolden — the founding father of Jazz — is your paternal great-grandfather but that you didn’t know of the family connection until you were an adult. How did you find out, and how did that make you feel?
I found out about my connection to Buddy Bolden after I graduated from John F. Kennedy High School (the BEST Band in the Land!) and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. I did a year at the University of New Orleans before going out on tour with the Dirty Dozen at the age of 19. I was on the road 300 days a year, and my family wanted to know why they didn’t see me as much anymore. That’s when I found out about my connection to Buddy Bolden. I was in shock. But it explains where I get my lungs from. I didn’t have anyone in my family performing professionally prior to me, not to my knowledge, until I found out about Buddy. It’s crazy how the world works because now I have first cousins on both sides of my family performing professionally. They’re all younger than me.
Bolden’s former home at 2309 First St. has been vacant for several years. Now musician PJ Morton plans to renovate it into a museum dedicated to Bolden’s legacy. What do you think of his plans?
I think PJ’s plans for Buddy’s house are great. I wish the city would follow in his footsteps and preserve as much history as possible. Our culture is so rich here in New Orleans, and it’s sad that a lot of it gets forgotten and is under appreciated. We need to value what we have and make sure that our unique city and culture stays on the map. Buddy used to perform at The Eagle Saloon, and that’s being preserved as well. So we’re headed in the right direction.
You performed with PJ at his block party last month to kick off the fundraising for the Bolden house renovation. What was it like to be on stage just a few feet from where your great-grandfather once lived and played?
I’ve done a couple of interviews right on his porch, so to perform with PJ at the same location and bring awareness to what’s going on was truly powerful. I can’t wait until everything is done so I can check it out. There’s not much information on Buddy except for what’s out there already. I’ve been trying to dig deeper for some time now, but there’s just not a lot. I’m glad he’s getting the recognition he deserves as the first man of Jazz. We shouldn’t stop with Buddy, though. Like I said before, we should preserve as much history as possible so the next generation and the next will know where they came from and the history of this city.
Why is it important to preserve physical jazz landmarks like Bolden’s house?
There’s no other city in the world like New Orleans. We have our own food, music, culture, holidays, slang — everything. If we don’t preserve what we have, then who will? It’s important to keep it going and try not to leave anyone behind. Someone’s small contribution could have made a major impact on someone else’s career. We need to document everything so we can follow the trail and know what’s what — ya dig?
Photo courtesy Big Sam’s Funky Nation