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Buddy Bolden

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Charles Joseph (1877 - 1931) Cornetist and bandleader

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Morning Edition: Buddy Bolden
Tom Vitale reports on the legend of coronetist Buddy Bolden, one of the earliest jazz musicians. Vitale speaks with writer Michael Ondaatje and musician Jerry Grinelli.

Buddy Bolden
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
The first of the New Orleans cornet "kings," Buddy Bolden was highly regarded by contemporary black musicians in the city, who in their reminiscences embroidered his life with a great many legends and spurious anecdotes. A careful sifting of such data and contemporary records reveals that Bolden, unlike many of his peers, came late to music, adopting the cornet around 1894 after completing his schooling, and that he emerged not from the brass marching-band tradition but rather from the string bands which played for private dances and parties.

By 1895, he was leading his own semi-professional group with Frank Lewis (clarinet) and, later, Willie Cornish (valve trombone), though city records continued to refer to him as a plasterer. By 1901, when his name first appears in city directories as a professional musician, his group had stabilized into a six-piece unit with cornet, clarinet, valve trombone, guitar, double bass, and drums. Bolden's rise to fame coincided with the emergence of a black pleasure district — Storyville — at South Rampart and Perdido streets, where he soon became a local celebrity playing in the dives and tonks (but not the brothels).

By 1905, when his fame was at its peak, his group performed regularly in the city's dance halls and parks, and undertook excursions to outlying towns. In the following year, Bolden showed distinct signs of violent mental derangement, and his band rapidly disintegrated, eventually passing to the leadership of the trombonist Frank Dusen. In 1907, in a state of hopeless indigence and alcoholism, Bolden was admitted to a mental institution in Jackson, where he spent his remaining years. His life formed the basis of M. Ondaatje's novel Coming through Slaughter (New York, 1976).

Contemporary musicians universally praised the power of Bolden's tone, his rhythmic drive, and the emotional content of his slow blues playing, often contrasting his performances with those of the more genteel Creole bands of John Robichaux and others. Bolden apparently did not improvise melodies freely in the manner of later jazz musicians, but found ingenious ways of ornamenting existing melodies, often incorporating a distinctive lick which functioned as a signature. Although he left no known recordings (a cylinder allegedly recorded in the late 1890s has never been located), Bolden undoubted had a formative influence on Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson, and other New Orleans cornetists and, by his example, helped to standardize the New Orleans jazz ensemble and repertory.

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