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New Orleans Jazz: I wish I heard Buddy Bolden say

Updated on July 10, 2009
The Buddy Bolden Band
The Buddy Bolden Band

Many believe Buddy Bolden to be the father of New Orleans Jazz (and some believe the little known Louis Gottschalk, the grandfather). A few go so far to say that Buddy Bolden was the inventor of Jazz.

That is probably farfetched but there is no doubt that Buddy Bolden was an important innovator in the evolution of New Orleans music at the turn of the 20th century. More than likely everyone was learning and innovating from each other. There was a significant number of dance bands in New Orleans in 1900, though they did not play in the famed brothels of Storyville. They did play in the honky-tonks and dance halls throughout the city and region including those in Storyville and black Storyville.

Buddy Bolden was born in 1877. He lived his life in uptown New Orleans. He was not part of the 7th Ward black Creole society, descendants of French speaking slaves and mistresses of New Orleans white Creole society. His heritage probably affected his music. Before Jazz dominated New Orleans music, when ragtime and dance music was dominate, black Creole bands considered themselves and their music somewhat more refined than the crowd across Canal Street. Bolden felt no such self-imposed limitations.

There was plenty of music in New Orleans the late 19th century. Brass bands were common on the streets. These were the inheritors of a European musical tradition especially in the Mediterranean countries. They were often associated with ethnic benevolent associations. They played at association events, funerals, weddings, and parades. There were the 7th Ward black Creole dance bands. Leaders and members could often read music and they played all sorts of dances and were fairly refined. The same was true of white bands. And there were the hotter bands, ragtime dance bands – black and white.

Buddy Bolden played the cornet, the common high note instrument of brass bands. Today, most often trumpets play the cornet's part. But in early jazz, the cornet was king, played by Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. Like King Oliver, Buddy Bolden was part of jazz royalty and often called King Bolden.

Bolden is said to have added blues to ragtime and playing a more improvisational and looser combination of the two. He was supposed to be the first to play blues with brass instruments. He could not read music so his interpretations were original. String instruments became the rhythm section. The cornet, trombones, and clarinets fronted the band. If all of this is true, he probably can be called the inventor of jazz.

More likely the form evolved, though too much is credited to Bolden for him not to have been a key player in the creation of the form.

Buddy Bolden's career was short-lived. His band was at the top from about 1900 to about 1907. He was an acute alcoholic, and in 1907 he was packed away to a mental institution diagnosed with a form of dementia now commonly termed a form of schizophrenia.

He died in 1931 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Holt Cemetery, a city owned cemetery in New Orleans. His actual grave site in not known although a monument to Bolden was erected in the cemetery in 1998. This is an in-ground cemetery that sadly has been badly neglected by the city since Hurricane Katrina.


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