The People of Traditional New Orleans Jazz:
If music is the essence of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, then people are the heart of our story.
Charles “Buddy” Bolden was born to Alice and Westmore Bolden in uptown New Orleans on September 6, 1877. Little did his mother know her son would soon grow up a young man whom everyone called “King”. A sturdy young man who would sport expensive suits and was often escorted by several women who liked to carry his horn. A young man whom, for a period ranging from around 1898 until 1906, reigned as the undisputed King of black New Orleans music.
Buddy Bolden played the cornet (an instrument similar to the trumpet) like no one before him. He stirred his dancers into a frenzy, some simply shouted out, “Aw, play it King Bolden!” Bolden led a band during this time that is generally considered the first group to play what would later be called jazz music. He forged his reputation with the power of his horn, said to be heard miles away, and his proficiency playing the blues. Musicians who were old enough to have heard Bolden perform described his band as playing a whole lot of blues. More polite and polished dance bands like John Robichaux’s orchestra played a smoother style of popular dance music. It wasn’t that King Bolden and his band didn’t perform other numbers, they played waltzes, ragtime, and popular songs of the day, it’s just that nobody laid into the blues so down and dirty like the king. Blues numbers played at medium tempos, some with raunchy lyrics, soon had black patrons of the South Rampart/Perdido Street area (known as “back o’ town”) dancing a new beat. King Bolden took the guttural moan of the blues, mixed it with the spirit of the black Baptist church, and applied a ‘ragged’ rhythmic feel to his songs. The result was an all new sound that was perfect for dancing and quickly caught the attention of young African Americans in New Orleans.
King Bolden’s sound appealed to a new generation some thirty three years removed from the end of the Civil War. His devoted followers loved to dance. Many originated from the underbelly of New Orleans’ Black Storyville neighborhood as hustlers, prostitutes, and pimps who lavished their praises onto the dapper King. Others simply found Bolden’s band irresistible but made their exits earlier in the evening, before the dances started getting too rowdy. Often, members of King Bolden’s flock followed him to Lincoln and Johnson parks to hear his band perform at dances held there. A whole lot of fun in those days could be had in either of these uptown parks. After the baseball games, greased pig chase, and the infamous hot air balloon rides, King Bolden would sound his horn and “call his children home”. He would often blast his signature call from Johnson Park, to let folks know in Lincoln Park that his band was about to play. Some of the patrons dancing to the John Robicheaux orchestra would scurry over to Johnson Park once King Bolden started up.
As with many iconic figures in American history, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction, especially in the relatively new field of jazz history. One of the popular Buddy Bolden myths was that he worked as a barber in addition to being a musician. He never did work as a barber or own a shop but he did hang out at a friend’s barbershop because it was a meeting place where musicians networked. Just as barbershops in many African American neighborhoods funtion today, the shops in Bolden’s neighborhood served as a social hub of sorts. A place where folks got the latest news in a pre-CNN era. There is no doubt however as to the manner in which King Bolden thrilled his crowds, always entertaining them with his exciting new sound, full of the blues. Sadly, there was never a recording made of the first king of jazz and we will never know exactly how Bolden sounded. We can only imagine what it must have felt like on a hot and sweaty night at places like the Union Sons Hall on Perdido Street. As Bolden would stomp out a song’s tempo, the dancer’s seemed to suddenly come to life. Before long the whole room would be swaying along to Bolden’s hypnotic beat. One of Bolden’s musicians improvised the lyrics “Funky Butt, Funky Butt, take it away, open up the windows and let the bad air out”, apparently referencing the cramp confines in which the sweat and whiskey soaked dancers grooved to. The song which became know as Buddy Bolden’s Blues, served as a kind of theme song for King Bolden. With dances at the Union Sons Hall (informally renamed “Funky Butt Hall”) often lasting until 5 a.m. it is probable that this was the roughest place Bolden played. The same hall also ironically served as a Baptist church on Sunday Mornings. The dichotomy that the Funky Butt Hall and the Baptist church would seemily represent instead coexisted within the same building. Bolden himself may have grappled with the contradictions of his Baptist upbringing and the new life that music led him too. Not unlike the Funky Butt/ Baptist church connection, King Bolden’s music brought a seemingly spiritual fervor to the low-down blues songs the band was fond of performing.
The high flying sporting life that the first king of jazz led did not come without a price however. Bolden, always described as a playboy and a heavy drinker, gradually began to lose his grip on reality and his health began to fail. In 1906, the king of black New Orleans began exhibiting unpredictable behavior, filled with paranoia and headaches. Several incidents occurred in which neither Bolden’s mother or sister felt safe around him and police were called. Eventually King Bolden’s mother signed papers to have him committed to the Louisiana State asylum in Jackson where he would reside until his death in 1931. His mental illness was said to have been triggered by alcohol. Some even claimed Bolden was the recipient of a voodoo curse. His diagnosis never the less remains cloudy as psychiatric care was not what it is today. King Bolden would never be interviewed or recorded while at the asylum where he only occasionally exhibited brief glimpses of his former self. The first definitive figure in America’s most recognizable art form, jazz, would disintegrate in the prime of his popularity and career.
King Bolden’s legend lives on though, through every young musician pressing a trumpet to their lips, attempting to evoke the same feeling Bolden had. Today’s musicians have the first king of jazz to draw upon as inspiration if they shall ever doubt the power of music, all they have to do is picture the king “calling his children home”. Maybe they too will one day be able to recreate the electrifying feeling that Buddy Bolden brought to black New Orleans.