“Oh, I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say,
Aww! Funky butt! Funky butt!
Take it away!”—New Orleans carnival ditty, believed authored by Buddy Bolden; also known as “the funky butt song.”
The odd thing about this love we have of Buddy Bolden is that we know so little of him. And perhaps, in true New Orleans style, that is why we hold him dear. What we do know is spotty, sketchy, absurd even in its lack of clarity—and most of that contained in photographs that show him, even there, a shadowy figure. Manly? Cock-strong? Easily. And in that single portrait, the one everyone has seen by now—wise, a tad wicked, something of “the kid” we love to admit we know, and then laugh that knowing laugh of ours, the perfect balance of pride and of sheepishness in our grin. “Buddy Bolden,” one says with shaded meaning. “Buddy the King!” the other obliges. And we are content, our step surer, our day rounded and more like right.
There has been at least one novel based on imagined and improbable incidents in the life and death of. And one author has found sufficient documents and documentation, and has hunted down such few remaining blood relatives as could be found and were willing to be identified to fill all of two volumes. But none of this gives any indication as to his real value, that one thing that made him Buddy the King. In none of this has been located his elusive soul.
And in true native fashion, we have been more interested in the myths, and the shapes the myths have taken, and the life of their own that the myths have gained these so many years since his death in that insane asylum up the road. Sisters and brothers born a half-century or so late, we are equally as culpable in his madness and death as those who knew him perhaps too well. And the one way by which we might know him and truly know him—his music—is gone from us, perhaps forever. Even old Danny Barker is dead; too dead to entrance us with his tales of Bolden’s sound carrying over the water like some holy or otherwise all-but-eternal thing. Is it there, perhaps covered over in one of many dustbins of some blind, white widow-woman, whose husband, long dead now and a Negrophile of the old school, collected such things? And if that is the case, was it ever even intended for so lapsed a posterity as we? But perhaps, secretly, in our heart of hearts, we are glad of what we do not, cannot, know.
It was not at all unusual for black families in New Orleans in the years between the ending of the Civil War and the closing of the 19th century to relocate frequently, setting up households with family members who could (or really could not) afford to take them in, or else moving on to less expensive quarters on their own. Still, families compelled by whatever circumstances to change households tended not to move too far from their neighborhood of origin. Often, they moved only a street or two away; and sometimes they were lucky enough to find a better rent deal on the same street, in the same block even. The first 10 years of Buddy’s life were busy. Following the death of his father at an early age, the Bolden family relocated several times before settling at the First Street residences with which the family would for many years be identified.
There will always be some question as to the date of Buddy Bolden’s birth because there is no birth certificate. Baptism and marriage records are hardly reliable, as people in New Orleans to this day are apt to push dates backwards or forwards for reasons that make sense at the time.
His grandfather, Gustavus Bolden, was born free at the turn of the 19th century. He worked in New Orleans as a servant along with his wife, Frances. Their son, Westmore, went into business as a drayman. Old man Bolden died in 1866, leaving his wife, his young son and a younger daughter, Cora. Five years after his father’s death, Westmore was doing well enough as a drayer to marry and support a family. Charles was the second child and only son of Westmore and Alice Harris Bolden. Their first child, a daughter called Lotta, died of an early childhood illness. The younger daughter was named Cora, after her aunt. And Charles was called Buddy.
As a youngster, Buddy would have accompanied his father to work, just as Westmore had worked with Gustavus. The two would have watched and probably followed in the wake of the numerous funerals, parades and other processions wending their way through the neighborhood in those days. The many church and benevolent societies, the workmen’s and social aid and pleasure clubs routinely hired marching bands to advertise, to “drum up” memberships and subscriptions. This was especially true of uptown New Orleans. And Bolden was, of course, an uptowner. That is part and parcel of what little is discernible through the mythic armor encasing his very real person.
The broad thoroughfare of Canal Street was as much a dividing line between uptown and down at the beginning of the 20th century as it is now. The very real difference is that where department stores and city administration, banks and the Central Business District now serve as a kind of common ground for two very distinct cultural territories, then, of course, it was Storyville which played that role.
While the downtown Creoles continued at this late date to nurse memories of lost economic and class advantages both real and imagined, the uptown Negroes tended to embrace and pride themselves in the lingering newness of Americaneity. It opened to them pathways to progress and expression and influence they certainly had never known under the old regime. And it is only mildly unfair to say that while the downtown Creoles frequently took second jobs as musicians to stave off indebtedness and want, Negroes from uptown as frequently took on second jobs as laborers in order to support themselves as musicians.
The whole parading tradition, beginning as it did with Reconstruction, was itself the natural progression from the earlier confinement of Congo Square, another way of subverting white authority and control over black expression. It was a newer and bolder and more physical way of loosening up, publicly, without dangerous repercussions. And it is somewhere very close to the root of the New Orleans usage of the verb “to perform” to mean “to misbehave, show off or behave wildly in public.”
Storyville played a determining role in jazz history precisely because it functioned as a bridge between the Creole Faubourgs and the American Sector. Downtown, below Canal Street and deeply engraved in the city’s past, lay Congo Square. Uptown, and as freshly encoded onto the bold new sound then in progress, was the aptly named Lincoln Park.
The city square block bounded by Carrollton Avenue, Forshey, Short and Oleander Streets, was owned by a man named Poree. He had for some time been using the space to store his animals, wagons and equipment. In the 1890s, he hit on the notion of turning it into an entertainment site, dubbed it “Lincoln Park,” and added bleachers for seating. Picnics, ball games, boxing matches, circus acts and vaudeville shows were held there. But it was the dances sponsored by the many civic, social aid and pleasure and benevolent society groups that turned it into a regular hot spot. To keep all this action going, Poree hired a band, and soon the dances held there made it part of New Orleans music legend. For it was there at Lincoln Park that King Bolden turned his silver cornet skyward and called his children home from every corner. It was from there that he could be heard, blowing over and above any and all would-be competitors from the other parks and halls and clubs nearby. It was to Lincoln Park that men, women and children ran to cut loose beneath his clarion call and to cheer him on.
He often played also at G.W. Johnson’s nearby Johnson Park. But it is to Lincoln that Bolden’s name is most often tied in early jazz memoirs, formal and informal. And there is in that fact a simple poetic symmetry. He had been born during Reconstruction, the period that, not surprisingly, witnessed the early years of the New Orleans brass band sound.
By his late teens, he was, in true New Orleans fashion, living and working as a musician. Like many early jazz musicians, he naturally aspired not only to true musicianship but to being a band leader as well. For to lead a band, more so in New Orleans than elsewhere during this period, was to be a leader of men; to be admired and well-thought, well-spoken of, sure; to be imitated and copied, it’s easily understood. But most of all, to be a truly great lead musician meant, in New Orleans, to be well-loved, well-remembered.
Of his early musicianship, we here in New Orleans in fact know very little; nor do we much care. What has always fascinated the native, and fascinates us still to this day, is that most elusive attribute: the sound that made Buddy Bolden his own man and a leader of the confraternity of musicians. Apart from all of the many musicians of his period with whose work we are very much familiar—because they lived long enough to record; because their friends and compatriots lived to tell about it; because they themselves lived well and long enough to tell us of their own greatness—Buddy Bolden contained and expressed not only the sounds of the military-style bands of the Reconstruction years; not merely the ability to “rag” the sound well before anybody had even begun to talk of ragging; nor the uncanny ability to synthesize even the whole of Congo Square with its equally solid and multi-layered Africaneity. No. Buddy Bolden possessed all of this and something besides. His own thing. His own sound. And central to that sound, say those who knew him and heard him and peopled his bands, was not his ability to create harmony among those dissonant sounds, but to call forth that very dissonance, to hone in, as it were, on the dissonance itself, to erupt in the passion, the madness. All that fury. All that funk.
He came by the title “King” not through the maneuverings of club owners and promoters, nor even because he took it on himself. It was bestowed on him, naturally, lovingly, and as his due by the crowds who turned out to hear him, both the regulars who filled the halls where he gigged and the street revelers who followed in his wake, who waited out of doors on street corners whenever word was out that King Bolden would play. He was, tradition has it, the first New Orleans musician so dubbed. We would later learn that he was, in fact, the only wearer of that crown in his lifetime. Other musicians took it on only after his death. And to hear tell from those who lived long enough to hear them all, not one of them came even close to deserving to wear it at all.
The women, they say, loved him beyond reason; beyond his undeniable good looks, his style; beyond the fact of his being a musician and almost naturally thereby something of the ladies’ man, the dude, the kid, the sport. And not only prostitutes and easy women of the District. Good women, church-going women, found him equally irresistible. For he embodied the music he made; embodied the sound that made you throw back your shoulders that way. The same sound that loosened fast women’s hips and thighs made good Christian girls sweat at the temples as they felt their knees try to spread and their backs start to hump. It had in it the very essence of everything any good, upright, God-fearing woman of whatever faith knew perfectly well was downright shameful, altogether natural and undeniably real. Even the word used to describe this music was itself a direct reference to the unspeakable. Jass. It was at the same time very clearly first cousin, or even closer, to everything they knew to be sacred and holy and true. To whisper it, even to think it, could make you looser than you had cause for. Jazz.
What historians seem never to grasp is that for the rest of us, history is much larger, more intriguing and far more elusive than the information they locate and dole out to us. It is also so narrow and particular as to be completely dependent upon human interaction. And while it is fine to gather data, it is natural and often better to glean impressions. In the final analysis, we have “only” the impressions Buddy made upon his contemporaries, many of whom envied and even resented not him so much, nor even the love and admiration the public so generously bestowed upon him.
What put the bad taste in the mouths of such showmen as Mister Jelly Roll was the apparent ease, the effortlessness with which he wore that mantle. Which is to say that the people had not actually made Bolden king; they recognized what was in him, to hear tell of it, both imperial and imperious, and simply gave him his due. Which of them who came later or lived longer—Morton? Keppard? Oliver?—which of them could ever lay claim to that? The simple fact is that not one of them ever did. Bolden had critics and enviers aplenty but no rivals. They themselves said as much.
The idea that Buddy Bolden went mad has always been an essential part of the legend his name conjures. The more vivid version holds that it was during a second line that he “went off”:
That would have been Labor Day 1905, ’06. Close to the end. There was a line coming up from Saratoga about to join the parade over on Rampart heading toward Canal Street. And you could hear him. You knew it was him. Could tell his sound over anybody else’s. Maybe it was the heat. Or the way the crowd was all packed in. But this was different. He hit a note and kind of threw up the other hand, as if to wave the rest of them back. Like he was saying, “Here I come! Hold it, just hold up. I’m coming on through!” Next thing we knew, there he was ,playing his own thing.
He stepped out of line: just stepped out of line then, band and all. Seemed like he was way away from everybody. The people started to quiet down some. And there was King Bolden, playing one-handed cornet in the middle of South Rampart Street. Well, a street crowd is a street crowd. They’d stopped a minute or two to look, but when they didn’t get it, didn’t get what he was doing, they just went on.
Whenever he played, the people used to call out, “King Bolden! Aww, play it, Baby!” But not this time. When he hit that note and didn’t let go, they stopped and clapped for a while, but then they didn’t get it and so they went on down the line. And he was out there all alone like that, playing his own thing.
Believe it started to drizzle some then.
The less dramatic rendering holds that he drank himself into dementia. He was already “going down” by then, and he had always had a penchant for drink. And his wife had left him.
Nora Bass was a good woman. And, they say, she was good to Buddy. Maybe too good. She was a Christian woman and didn’t hold for the kind of sporting life King Bolden knew. She went to church, and she kept a quiet house. She held herself apart from his life as a “musicianer” and the friends who went with it, which, incidentally, would have been quite the norm. When Nora left him, he naturally went back to live with his mother and sister. Though he drank before, it is not difficult to understand his drinking more.
But rumors of Bolden’s insanity and his inability to hold his own as leader stem from around the same time. There had been several changes in the makeup of the band. This in itself would not have been out of the ordinary. The last changes in personnel, however, had a dramatic effect on Buddy’s career as a musician and his reputation as a bandleader.
There are reports that he became confused, distracted, that he missed playing dates, failed to pay the band, and was, in fact, sat down by new band members who usurped his authority and then derided him in public. He had for some time been prone to what people at that time called “fits” or “spells.” He was subject to moodiness, withdrawal, intervals of gloom and depression, and, finally, violence. According to newspaper accounts, on a Monday morning, after a protracted illness, he struck his mother a glancing blow over the head and was arrested and charged as insane.
How did they come by that initial determination? Who decided? The arresting officers? The precinct captain who booked him? Was it perhaps the result of a family member’s casual use of the word “crazy?” Twice before he had been arrested and charged with violence. The third and final time resulted in the institutionalization that would last a quarter of a century and end only with his death in 1931.
There is little doubt that Buddy Bolden had indeed begun some kind of downward turn in the last two or three years leading up to his being committed to Jackson. But can we ever know the real nature of that descent? The cause of his insanity is listed simply as “alcoholism.” It hardly takes a genius to figure the likelihood that a primitive medical establishment, rendered still cruder by Jim Crow racism and a recent record of arrests on similar charges, perhaps compounded by a quite reasonable fear and sense of desperation on the part of his aging mother and sister, made such a diagnosis too cut and dried, too pat.
By early spring of 1906, he had begun to suffer what people then referred to as “sick headaches.” Migraine is a serious ailment usually affecting one or the other side of the brain and marked by recurring headaches, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision and other sensory disturbances. Did Bolden suffer migraines? Or some other, perhaps even more severe condition for which the medical establishment had yet to discover a sane form of treatment? It is headache that is always mentioned in any recounting of his tale. And with good reason. For in addition to the awful effect on his general health, the headaches had disastrous effects on his sense of reality, his equilibrium and, quite naturally, his ability to play. Perhaps, too, he was already trying to take the music out and away from the realm of entertaining and good-timing and into a deeper expression of personal and group sensibility. Is it likely that was the true source of his Labor Day impasse?
New Orleans just then was going through a somber period that paralleled Bolden’s own. If the end of the 19th century was a welcomed and much awaited coming for black New Orleans, the start of the 20th boded nothing less than evil. On July 27, 1900, one Robert Charles took up a Winchester and shot down 24 whites in addition to the three he had killed earlier that same week. Of the total 27, exactly seven were police. In addition to those seven, he had forced another five to retire from the department, under reprimands for cowardice, for fear of meeting his “bloodthirsty African” wrath head-on.
The shootout began and ended on Saratoga Street. Though a native of Copiah County, Mississippi, the uptown stretch marking his martyrdom was dubbed “Robert Charles Alley” almost overnight. It was around the corner from Buddy Bolden’s First Street home.
With Storyville gigs in the heart of town as plentiful as ever at the start of 1900, uptown witnessed the stomping-death of a man who took on Jim Crow all by himself, with a Winchester rifle and his own private stash of homemade bullets. (He had shaped and fired them right there in his hideout, in a portable furnace made for just that purpose.) If the new century had seemed one of promise, by midyear, the city was reeling. It was indeed a good time to be anxious and depressed, angry and very much alone.
Only in the state of Louisiana is a ruling of insanity made by the coroner. A trained pathologist, the coroner here is more attuned to the needs of the community of the living than the dead. Under the Napoleonic Code (1804), the primary responsibilities of the coroner include the health care of the imprisoned, medical determination of rape and sexual abuse, as well as diagnosis and commitment of the mentally ill. Under the French civil code of New Orleans then, determination of cause of death is a relatively minor and far less time-consuming concern.
The New Orleans coroner’s office now includes a large general staff and a team of medical doctors and psychiatrists. In order for a determination of insanity to hold, two of five staff psychiatrists must agree on the diagnosis upon examination of the patient. The patient is then admitted to a psychiatric ward for a brief period, at the end of which time a new examination is conducted, with regular examinations over time.
Formalized in Europe in 1847, psychiatry was in 1907 still very much an infant science and, like most innovations, probably took its time reaching New Orleans. Diagnosis then was less structured, more subjective. What is more important is that an initial determination of insanity was virtually permanent and binding. Certainly no one ever returned from the state mental facility at Jackson.
In Bolden’s day, the coroner provided at least one additional community service of special interest. He performed monthly examinations of the Storyville prostitutes, each of whom was required to present to the chief of police a card verifying that she was free of venereal disease and, therefore, medically and legally fit to continue working the red-light district. Syphilis, in its advanced and untreatable stage, was, of course, a major cause of insanity at the turn of the century. The group of inmates held at the House of Detention to which Bolden belonged in the weeks prior to his commitment included two syphilitics, at least three prostitutes and a large number of alcoholics. Buddy was among this last group and one of 15 out of 21 detainees found insane. By the time the coroner arrived to examine him, he had been held without counseling or any other care for about three weeks. It was another month before he was actually removed to the state hospital for the insane at Jackson.
Frank Minyard, who has been coroner for the city of New Orleans for the past 20 years, is also a professional musician—a trumpet player with an avid interest in the life and works of Buddy Bolden. Early in his career, and hot on the trail of his hero, he made contact with surviving family members of Dr. O’Hara, the coroner whose examination of Bolden resulted in his commitment. Minyard spoke at length with O’Hara’s widow, who alluded to her husband’s having kept private records, or perhaps having confiscated some papers upon leaving office.
Coroners records dating from 1840 are part of the city archives housed in the Louisiana division of the main branch of the New Orleans public library. These are accessible, by permission of the senior archivist, for research only. The only documents available, however, are the certificates showing admission and cause of insanity. There are no further records of Bolden’s confinement while here in New Orleans prior to institutionalization. Unless O’Hara himself made and kept such records. And his widow, who was in her 90s when Minyard spoke with her in the early 1970s, seemed to be indicating that he had probably done just that.
We do know that care was minimal; that jails, hospitals and mental facilities were segregated; that the lives of African-Americans on the inside were a simpler, more grotesque reflection of their lives in the larger world of Jim Crow social codes.
Bolden and the other inmates traveled from New Orleans to Jackson as a motley caravan. A sad community of unfortunates bound to a common fate, most were destined to anonymity. Bolden would spend the remainder of his days among them, a few hours’ drive from the world he had held so briefly in the palm of his hand. How brutally appropriate that King Bolden’s reign should end so.
To “turn [someone’s] head” or to “set [it] off,” to “bring confusion” or “create disturbance”—these expressions all mean roughly the same in traditional New Orleans parlance: to drive mad by means of Voodoo. And the possibilities here seem endless. Needless to say, we in New Orleans are more practical in this area than the usual woman-scorned scenario. Since the religion really is the purlieu of women—whom we call “Mothers”—it’s unlikely we’d be sympathetic to any such view. And, sensitive as we are to the powers of the spirit world, we also hold to the saying: “Qué’fois, complot plus fort qu’Ouanga.” [“Sometimes, conspiracy is worse than Voodoo.”]
No. King Bolden’s trouble lay within his very own realm. And the world of early New Orleans music was a world fraught with fierce competition born of bitterness carried over from the old days. The tradition of “cutting” contests and of hornists blowing one another off the stage derives from the old uptown-downtown rivalries so deeply imbedded in New Orleans cultural convictions.
The downtowners prided themselves in their classical training and their ties to the white French Opera House teachers, while uptowners took equal pride in their readiness to experiment with new sounds. But when economic woe grabbed the whole of black New Orleans by the craw in the 1870s and showed no signs of letting go by the 1880s, the two groups found themselves competing for the only work available. Out of this rivalry were born friendships as well as any number of uptown-downtown, cross-turf bands. Bolden himself employed such downtowners as clarinetist George Baquet and drummer Henry Zeno. But he also developed much of his reputation by competing against downtown crews such as Manual Perez’s Onward Brass Band, and the old Excelsior Band, originally headed by Baquet’s father, Théogene (or T.V.) Baquet. At the height of his career, he thrived on the kind of competition that could make and break reputations overnight. Orchestras, brass bands, street “spasm” bands, pick-ups—no one was exempt from Bolden’s challenges. And none boasted of having beaten him in those early days until years after he was no longer on the music scene.
If Bolden had enemies, we look to his fellow musicians. All those men who stroked and flattered and called him king coveted and begrudged him the easy love and admiration they granted was his due. At some point, the very qualities that made him the toast of the bandmen somehow failed to bolster him. It was the envy and deceit, the conniving and underhandedness of his fellow musicians, and especially those he took under his guard, that interned him to a vicious kind of solitude for which he could not have been prepared, and in which, social creature that he was, he could neither create nor flourish. And he hadn’t a clue as to how to wait it out.
It was with the arrival of Dusen and Staulz that Buddy first started going down. Frankie Dusen entered the Bolden band when Buddy was in his prime both as musician and bandleader. He was hired in 1905 to replace one of Buddy’s closest friends, Willie Cornish, on valve trombone. At that time, “Tig” Chambers played cornet, Frank Lewis clarinet, Brock Mumford guitar, and Henry Zeno was the drummer. It was Dusen who brought guitarist Lorenzo Staulz and bassist Bob Lyons into the band. It was Dusen who berated Buddy in public, generated rumors of his unreliability, and then conveniently stepped in to take over the band when he was committed to Jackson in 1907. He even went so far as to rename the group “The Eagle Band.” In spite of an already well-established reputation, he is best remembered by those who knew him in his heyday for having patterned himself after Bolden. And the public apparently continued to think of the group as Bolden’s band. In fact, the new band played Buddy’s standards so well that many devotees of those early days claimed not to have known that Buddy had left the scene. Certainly few, if any, knew the real circumstances under which he had been forced to surrender the only living he had ever known.
Bob Lyons had worked any number of uptown bands long before signing on with Dusen and Staulz. He managed Kid Ory’s band for a time and then created his own Dixie Jazz Band in 1918. In 1925, he was badly injured in an auto accident and was never able to play again. His last reported work was as a shoeshiner.
Staulz wasn’t with the band for long. He worked for a while with Kid Ory’s crew during World War I. He was a drunk and was known to fight and “cause commotion” on the bandstand. He did, however, work steadily until his death in 1924.
Frank Lewis, Buddy Bolden’s first clarinetist, left New Orleans during the war and played with his own small bands for some time. He, too, worked right until the end, dying in 1924 in Bogalusa, La.
Tig Chambers left Dusen in 1910 and organized his own group. He died in Chicago in 1950 of alcohol-related causes.
Brock Mumford had been Buddy Bolden’s first guitarist. He is credited with introducing the uptown style—playing all six strings on every beat. He stayed on with Dusen’s Eagle Band into the 1910s and died in 1937.
Henry Zeno, considered one of the great New Orleans drummers, stayed on with Dusen for a bit, then moved on to Piron’s Olympia Orchestra. He was one of the founders, with Papa Celestin, of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band in 1917, and he died later that same year.
Willie Cornish was, by all accounts, Buddy Bolden’s closest pal. He was a strong, free-wheeling trombonist who used an empty bottle as a mute. After leaving Bolden, he played on and off with a number of bands. He tried to sign on with the WPA marching band but wasn’t a strong enough reading musician to hack it. It’s never been clear whether he left Bolden of his own accord in 1905, or whether Bolden, in a fit of paranoia or rage, fired him. At any rate, it was his exit from the Bolden band that cleared the way for Dusen and Staulz. Willie Cornish died in poverty in 1940.
When Dusen took over the band, he also took over Bolden’s Lincoln Park gigs. No one denies that the band did well over the next few years. So well, in fact, that Dusen was one of those who left New Orleans in 1917 to join Jelly Roll Morton in Los Angeles for what seemed a sweet deal. The story is that Mister Jelly Roll so derided him and the others for their “backwards” ways that they left the West Coast in a huff, swearing to kill Jelly Roll if ever he set foot in New Orleans again. Dusen’s days as band leader were well over by then, and he pretty much knew it. The war years had scattered New Orleans musicians around the country and the globe, but Frankie Dusen was not to be one of the lucky ones.
Upon returning home to New Orleans, he played on and off as hornist for one band and another, sometimes on steamboats or over at West End, the Lake Pontchartrain resort then in its heyday. Unlike Cornish, Dusen was taken on by the WPA. But he read so badly that he was paid the lower wage of a non-reading musician. And even in Depression-era New Orleans, it was difficult to support a wife and two children on the $25 a month that the WPA gig grossed him. Oscar “Chicken” Henry, a trombonist from uptown, who was always able to land a paying job, tried to help him out by teaching him better reading skills. Chicken’s efforts failed. Dusen dropped from sight and lived his last years in abject poverty. Frankie Dusen died sometime around 1940.
The rest of us can say what we like. But jazz musicians have always settled their own scores. They have generated for themselves the standards by which a player or composer is admitted to the corps. Its similar to the old guild system, under which a young hopeful apprenticed himself to a master craftsman, becoming a master only when he and his master agreed that it was so. The road to mastery of one’s particular trade was long and torturous and perhaps even unfair, but its yield was permanent—perfection of an art, a skill, a trade by which to earn one’s bread.
Unlike the man who simply worked a job at another’s pay, a tradesman set his own rates and standards and earned his living through his hard-won, unquestionable and much needed skill. The old folk were always saying, “Get yourself a trade, son. That’s something nobody can ever take from you.” Only a master tradesman could ever say for sure whether it was, in the long run, worth all of whatever particular hardship he had endured. And no true master ever said.
The building we have always called the old Musicianers’ Union Hall still stands, a bit precariously, at the corner of Columbus and Claiborne avenues. It was not until 1926, however, that black musicians in New Orleans were able to establish a professional musicians’ union, though the structure itself dates from around the 1850s. In Buddy Bolden’s day, it was a whorehouse.
Bolden’s understandable, if unforeseeable, nadir may well have set the standard for much of what eludes the uninitiated whenever one musician says knowingly of another, “He’s paid some dues.”We layfolk may not know the score, but we know they’re not talking union. Friendless, womanless, without a band to call his own, Buddy Bolden had come to the end of a road that heretofore had been bound straight for glory. There was, however, music there as well. Though we’ll never hear it.
Bolden continued to play while confined to Jackson. Though Louisiana was almost certainly less than current in terms of medical care for the mentally ill, some advances arrived, as many still do, by happenstance.
Dr. E. M. Robards had previously been assigned to the “colored ward,” where there was already a band that performed regularly. In the years leading up to the Great Depression, the hospital came under his direction. The doctor was a violinist and jazz pianist who took a special interest in those patients who showed any musical skill. Under his leadership, music therapy was introduced at Jackson.
More importantly, Robards knew of Bolden. And though Bolden was not a regular member of the hospital band, he is remembered as having soloed frequently. As usual, special mention is made of his playing better, louder, far “above” the other musicians. Even in this bleakest of environments then, Buddy Bolden’s sense of himself as a lead musician and a man apart remained intact.
As for the rest, what more is worth knowing? There is the general assumption that he never recorded. But there was also, for many years, a small school that held the exact opposite to be true. “Buddy Bolden recorded a single side,” they said. “And what became of it, we’ll never know.” These few, all musicians and all, clearly, natives to the core, I trust and respect over and above the absence of any documentary evidence.
The nature, the very purpose of any mythology is not so much to explain as it is to provide the necessary accompanying narrative of the inexplicable, the sacred, the impassable. It is akin to what the elders mean when they speak of summoning up the power to “make a way where there is no way.”
For true natives, the mythic power of that name—with requisite hush, the knowing smile conjured with only this simplest of incantations—is sufficient cause both for celebration and for devotion. “Buddy Bolden!” one says as a test of fidelity, of birthright really. “Buddy the King!” the other obliges. Buddy the King.