Bolden, Buddy

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Buddy Bolden

Jazz musician, bandleader

Buddy Bolden is known to jazz enthusiasts as the "Father of Jazz." He was the originator and leader of New Orleans' first jazz band, the first prominent New Orleans jazz musician, the first to play blues for dancing, and the first King of Jazz. The stories about Bolden are legendary; some have claimed that when Bolden blew his horn it could be heard across the Mississippi River, and still others have asserted that the clarity and loudness of each note could be heard for ten or twelve miles in all directions when he blew his horn in the center of town at the park.

Charles Joseph "Buddy" Bolden was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on September 6, 1877, the son of a domestic. He had a sister who died of encephalitis when she was five years old. Two years later, his thirty-two-year-old father died of pneumonia. Much of Bolden's life story is shrouded in mystery because what survives about him comes via oral tradition. Contemporary black musicians, such as Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory, Bud Scott, and Louis Armstrong, among others, have kept Bolden's memory alive with their recollections, stories, and anecdotes. Consequently, there are a number of discrepancies that surround relatively minor facts about his life, such as whether he graduated from high school, whether he had an occupation as a barber, whether he ever made a recording at the beginning of the twentieth century, and whether it was his mother or mother-in-law who was injured when he became violent during a mental breakdown.

Bolden is said to have been inspired by the music of a "holy roller" church and by gospel music heard in uptown African American Baptist churches. By 1895, he had organized the hot-jazz ensemble which became the standard for bands in New Orleans. The ensemble was comprised of six or seven men who played one or two cornets, the clarinet, the trombone, the double bass, the guitar, and drums. As a professional bandleader, Bolden and his group played in New Orleans dance halls, in Johnson Park, and in surrounding communities. In the 1890s bands in New Orleans were skilled enough to play tunes to the variety of dances that reflected the racial, cultural, and ethnic mixture of the city. Thus, music was played to accompany such dances as the waltz, polka, schottische, and mazurka. During the mid-1890s the two-step, a dance performed with ragtime tunes, also became popular.

Bolden's first horn did not come from a music store; rather, he found it in a New Orleans gutter. The broken instrument helped Bolden begin his musical career. Other than a neighbor's tutelage, Bolden had no formal training for playing the cornet.

Persons closest to Bolden say that he could read some music, but to what degree is unknown. In any event, he preferred to disregard written music and play by ear. What he lacked in formal training, he made up for in passion, style, and embellishments. Bolden's music inspired subsequent jazz greats such as King Oliver, Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet. According to Donald M. Marquis, New Orleans jazz historian and author of In Search of Buddy Bolden, the early jazz player's greatest contribution was that he played blues and stomps for dancing and that he led a band ensemble that drew and engaged all the people of New Orleans regardless of class or race.


Born in New Orleans, Louisiana on September 6
Leads his own band
Begins to have headaches and show signs of erratic behavior
Admitted to insane asylum in Jackson, Louisiana
Dies in Jackson, Louisiana on November 4

Bolden's improvisation as a cornetist issued in a new era of dance music. He played both traditional and popular melodies, turning them into his own creations by means of "paraphrasing and decorating them with personalized twists and turns rather than inventing new melodies over the fundamental harmonies," according to Don Heckman in The Oxford Companion to Jazz. Bolden's music was a departure from bands organized by John Robichaux, a black Creole violinist, and William Braun, both of whom organized bands composed of classically trained musicians. Bolden's band became so popular that these and other musical ensembles found themselves having to compete. In fact, Bolden eventually became Robichaux's fiercest rival. Thus, Robichaux's orchestra and other musical ensembles began to play like Bolden. Bolden became so popular that he organized several bands at one time. He would make appearances at half dozen or more engagements throughout the city on any given day or night. Bolden's signature musical selection was "Funky Butt," which was recorded as "Buddy Bolden's Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton. Other Bolden favorites include "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor," "B-Flat Society Blues," "Careless Love," "Tiger Rag," "Sugar Blues," "Oh, Didn't He Ramble," "Just a Little While to Stay," and "Lord, Lord, Lord, You've Sure Been Good to Me."

It is unfortunate that apparently there is no recording of the bandleader's music. A prevailing rumor is that Bolden recorded a cylinder in 1894, but scholars, researchers, and jazz enthusiasts have been unable to locate it. Though there is no known recording of Buddy Bolden's music, some approximations exist. Such contemporaries as Bunk Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton recorded some of Bolden's most popular tunes.

Bolden's Illness

Bolden's rise to popularity and fame came quickly. It appears that the extremely handsome man was being pulled so many different ways that he had little, if any, time to assess his situation. His good looks and talent made him especially attractive to women whom he allowed to complicate his life. Bolden played in the famed Storyville district of New Orleans but never in the brothels. In this district, the cornetist became a local celebrity. Bolden indulged in an excessive lifestyle. He became known as quite a womanizer, and he drank too much. Bolden was also flamboyant. In essence, he lacked ordinary restraint and lost his moral compass.

According to his contemporaries, Bolden began suffering from headaches in 1906, at the height of his career. Accounts about Bolden's illness suggest he began to demonstrate erratic behavior. In March 1906 Bolden believed someone had laced his medicine with poison. As his mother (at least one account says his mother-in-law) was attending him, Bolden attacked her with a water pitcher which left her with a superficial head wound. The police were summoned and Bolden was jailed for a short time. On September 9 of the same year, Bolden was arrested again and was charged with insanity. His third and final arrest occurred on March 13, 1907. Following this arrest, the judge signed papers that ordered the thirty-year-old Bolden to be committed to an insane asylum. On June 5, 1907, Bolden was transferred to the mental institution in Jackson, Louisiana where he spent the rest of his life.

Much speculation has surrounded the cause of Buddy Bolden's mental breakdown. Alcoholism, syphilitic dementia, migraine headaches, and an untreated ear infection have been offered as possible explanations. According to Frederick J. Spencer in Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats, the diagnosis recorded by physicians at the asylum was "dementia praecox, paranoid type," commonly known as paranoid schizophrenia. Bolden was allowed to move about the asylum because he was not considered dangerous. He is known to have played his horn on occasion. As time progressed, however, Bolden's condition deteriorated. His mind was full of voices talking constantly, and he responded to them vocally and by vehemently waving his hands about the air. Following a stroke, Buddy Bolden died on November 4, 1931, having spent twenty-four years, nearly half of his life, in an institution for the insane.



Crow, Bill. Jazz Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Hasse, John Edward, ed. Jazz: The First Century. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2000.

Heckman, Don. "The Saxophone in Jazz." In The Oxford Companion to Jazz. Ed. Bill Kirchner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Marquis, Donald M. In Search of Buddy Bolden. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Robinson, J. Bradford. "Buddy Bolden." In The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Ed. Barry Kernfield. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Spencer, Frederick J. Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2002.

Yanow, Scott. The Trumpet Kings. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2001.


Radlauer, Dave. "Imagining Buddy Bolden (1877–1931)." Jazz Rhythm. (Accessed 30 January 2006).

                                   Jewell B. Parham