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Buddy Bolden

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Charles Buddy Bolden
Bolden c. 1905
Bolden c. 1905
Background information
Birth nameCharles Joseph Bolden
Born(1877-09-06)September 6, 1877
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
DiedNovember 4, 1931(1931-11-04) (aged 54)
Jackson, Louisiana, U.S.
Years active1890s–1907

Charles Joseph "Buddy" Bolden (September 6, 1877 – November 4, 1931) was an American cornetist who was regarded by contemporaries as a key figure in the development of a New Orleans style of ragtime music, or "jass", which later came to be known as jazz.


When he was born, Bolden's father, Westmore Bolden, was working as a driver for William Walker, the former master of Buddy's grandfather Gustavus Bolden, who died in 1866. His mother, Alice (née Harris), was 18 when she married Westmore on August 14, 1873. Westmore Bolden was around 25 at the time, as records show that he was 19 in August 1866. When Buddy was six years old, his father died, after which the boy lived with his mother and other family members.[1] In records of the period the family name is variously spelled Bolen, Bolding, Boldan, and Bolden, thus complicating research.[2] Buddy likely attended Fisk School in New Orleans, though evidence is circumstantial, as early records of this and other local schools are missing.[3]

Musical career[edit]

Bolden was known as "King" Bolden[4] (see Jazz royalty), and his band was at its peak in New Orleans from around 1900 to 1907. He was known for his loud sound and improvisational skills, and his style had an impact on younger musicians. Bolden's trombonist Willie Cornish, among others, recalled making phonograph cylinder recordings with the Bolden band, but none are known to survive.[5]

The Bolden band around 1905 (top: Jimmy Johnson, bass; Bolden, cornet; Willy Cornish, valve trombone; Willy Warner, clarinet; bottom: Brock Mumford, guitar; Frank Lewis, clarinet)

Many early jazz musicians credited Bolden and his bandmates with having originated what came to be known as jazz, though the term was not in common musical use until after Bolden was musically active. At least one writer has labeled Bolden the father of jazz.[6] He is credited with creating a looser, more improvised version of ragtime and adding blues; Bolden's band was said to be the first to have brass instruments play the blues. He was also said to have adapted ideas from gospel music heard in uptown African-American Baptist churches.[7]

Instead of imitating other cornetists, Bolden played the music he heard "by ear" and adapted it to his horn. In doing so, he created an exciting and novel fusion of ragtime, black sacred music, marching-band music, and rural blues. He rearranged the typical New Orleans dance band of the time to better accommodate the blues: string instruments became the rhythm section, and the front-line instruments were clarinets, trombones, and Bolden's cornet. Bolden was known for his powerful, loud, "wide open" playing style.[8] Joe "King" Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson, and other early New Orleans jazz musicians were directly inspired by his playing.[9]

One of the best known Bolden numbers is "Funky Butt" (later known as "Buddy Bolden's Blues"), which represents one of the earliest references to the concept of funk in popular music. Bolden's "Funky Butt" was, as Danny Barker once put it, a reference to the olfactory effect of an auditorium packed full of sweaty people "dancing close together and belly rubbing."[10]

Bolden is also credited with the invention of the "Big Four,"[11] a key rhythmic innovation on the marching band beat, which gave early jazz more room for individual improvisation. As Wynton Marsalis explains,[12] the big four (below)[13] was the first syncopated bass drum pattern to deviate from the standard on-the-beat march.[14] The second half of the Big Four is the pattern commonly known as the hambone rhythm developed from sub-Saharan African music traditions.

    \new Staff <<
       \relative c' {
           \clef percussion
           \time 4/4
           \repeat volta 2 { g8 \xNote a' g, \xNote a' g, \xNote a'16. g,32 g8 <g \xNote a'> }
           \repeat volta 2 { r8 \xNote a'\noBeam g, \xNote a' g, \xNote a'16. g,32 g8 <g \xNote a'> }

Physical and mental decline[edit]

Bolden had an episode of acute alcoholic psychosis in 1907 at age 30. With the full diagnosis of dementia praecox (today called schizophrenia), he was admitted to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum at Jackson, a mental institution, where he spent the rest of his life.[8][10] Recent research has suggested that Bolden may in fact have had pellagra, a vitamin deficiency common among poor and black groups in the population, which in 1907 swept through the southern United States.[15] His death on November 4, 1931, was caused by cerebral arteriosclerosis according to the death certificate.[16]

Personal life[edit]

In 1895–1896, Bolden began a relationship with Harriet "Hattie" Oliver, a woman several years his senior who lived in the same neighborhood. Their relationship was brief, and though they never married, she gave birth to their son, Charles Joseph Bolden Jr., on May 2, 1897.[17]

Further life and legend[edit]

While there is substantial first-hand oral history about Bolden, facts about his life continue to be lost amidst colorful myth. Stories about his being a barber by trade or that he published a scandal sheet called The Cricket have been repeated in print despite being debunked decades earlier.[18]



Statue commemorating Bolden in Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans


Bolden has inspired a number of fictional characters with his name.

  • The Canadian author Michael Ondaatje wrote the novel Coming Through Slaughter, which features a Buddy Bolden character who in some ways resembles Bolden, but in other ways is deliberately contrary to what is known about him.
  • The character of Buddy Bolden helps Samuel Clemens solve a murder in Peter J. Heck's novel A Connecticut Yankee in Criminal Court (1996).[20]
  • He is a notable character in Louis Maistros' novel The Sound of Building Coffins,[21] which contains many scenes depicting Bolden playing his cornet.
  • Canadian author Christine Welldon wrote the novel Kid Sterling (2021),[22] which centers on the character of Buddy Bolden and his life, based on the author's archival research.
  • Nicholas Christopher's historical fiction novel Tiger Rag (2013) [23] centers around the legend and repercussions of a wax cylinder recording by Bolden's band as well as Bolden's later life.

Plays and films[edit]

  • Bolden is featured in August Wilson's play Seven Guitars. Wilson's drama includes the character King Hedley, whose father named him after King Buddy Bolden. King Hedley constantly sings, "I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say..." and believes that Bolden will come down and bring him money to buy a plantation.
  • A biopic about Bolden with mythical elements, titled Bolden!, was released in 2019. It was written and directed by Dan Pritzker. Gary Carr portrays Bolden.[24][25]
  • During the 1980s, an adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter was staged at Harvard's Hasty Pudding Theater. The music was scored by Steven Provizer and the production was directed by Tim McDonough.[26]
  • In 2011, Interact Theater in Minneapolis produced a new work-in-progress musical entitled Hot Jazz at da Funky Butt in which Buddy Bolden was the feature character. The music and lyrics were by Aaron Gabriel and featured New Orleans musicians and collaborators Zena Moses, Eugene Harding and Jeremy Phipps. In 2018, Interact Theater premiered the production renamed Hot Funky Butt Jazz at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN. The song "Dat's How Da Music Do Ya" quoted the "Buddy Bolden Blues."
  • A three-channel video installation, "Precarity", was created by the British experimental filmmaker John Akomfrah in 2017 as a commissioned piece for the Ogden Museum and the Nasher Museum, exploring themes related to the life of Buddy Bolden.


  1. ^ Marquis 2005, pp. 11–18.
  2. ^ Marquis 2005, p. 19.
  3. ^ Marquis 2005, pp. 29–30.
  4. ^ Greenberg, Blue, "New exhibit on jazz 'King' Buddy Bolden at Duke's Nasher Museum is a story of the South", The Herald-Sun (Durham, North Carolina), May 21, 2018
  5. ^ See Marquis 2005, p. 107: "on that fabled cylinder, according to Willie Cornish, they [Buddy Bolden's band] had recorded a couple of marches." In the 2005 epilogue to the book, Marquis also discusses these recordings that have not been found (Marquis 2005, pp. 158–159). On pages 44–45 of the same book the question is discussed in detail (Marquis 2005, pp. 44–45). Marquis concludes: "That the cylinder was made is quite believable; that it is gone forever is even more believable..." (Marquis 2005, p. 44)
  6. ^ Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. Oxford/ and New York, 1997. p. 34.
  7. ^ Daniel Hardie, The Loudest Trumpet: Buddy Bolden and the Early History of Jazz (Self-published using iUniverse, 2000), 86–87. ISBN 9781583486078
  8. ^ a b Barlow, William. "Looking Up At Down": The Emergence of Blues Culture. Temple University Press (1989), pp. 188–191. ISBN 0-87722-583-4.
  9. ^ Marquis 2005, p. [page needed].
  10. ^ a b "Two Films Unveil a Lost Jazz Legend". National Public Radio. December 15, 2007. Retrieved April 14, 2008. By most accounts, a mix of alcohol and mental illness sent Bolden into an asylum in 1907; he stayed there until his death in 1931.
  11. ^ Burns, Ken, and Geoffrey C. Ward. Ken Burns' "Jazz: The Story of America's Music." New York: Sony Music Entertainment, 2000. Sound recording. Episode 1
  12. ^ "What Is the Big Four Beat? - Jazz & More". Jazz.nuvvo.com. November 24, 2008. Archived from the original on September 21, 2013. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  13. ^ "Jazz and Math: Rhythmic Innovations", PBS. The Wikipedia example shown in half time, compared to the source.
  14. ^ Marsalis, Wynton. Jazz. (DVD, n. 1). 2000. PBS.
  15. ^ Karst, James. 2020. 'Buddy Bolden's blues: did a simple vitamin deficiency cause the jazz pioneer's mental illness?' 64 Parishes.
  16. ^ "Louisiana, Orleans Parish Death Records and Certificates, 1835-1954", database, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:ZNTN-3XMM : 27 May 2020), Charles Bolden, 1931. The death certificate is filed at the Louisiana State Archive and Research Library, in Statewide Deaths for East Feliciana Parish, 1931, Vol. 32, Pg. 13491.
  17. ^ Marquis, Donald M. (2005). In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press. p. 46. ISBN 0-8071-3093-1.
  18. ^ See Marquis 2005, pp. 58, 92: "In asking questions about Bolden, if the barbershop, the Cricket, girls, loudness, and "Funky Butt" are all that is mentioned, one can surmise that rather than actually having known Bolden the person has merely read Jazzman" (the rather inaccurate account, as Marquis proves) by Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsay Jr., the editors of that book; see Marquis 2005, pp. 3–4.
  19. ^ "Hop Along's 'Painted Shut' Invokes Two Mysterious Musicians". NPR.org. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  20. ^ Heck, Peter J. (1996). A Connecticut Yankee in criminal court : a Mark Twain mystery (1st ed.). New York: Berkeley Prime Crime. ISBN 0-425-15470-X. OCLC 33439081.
  21. ^ "Welcome". Louis Maistros. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  22. ^ "Kid Sterling | Detail". www.reddeerpress.com. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  23. ^ "Tiger Rag". Goodreads. Retrieved October 7, 2023.
  24. ^ Fleming, Mike Jr. (May 28, 2014). "Seven Years After Production Began, Dan Pritzker's 'Bolden' Skeds New Shoot, Sans Star Anthony Mackie". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved October 9, 2014.
  25. ^ "'Bolden': Film Review". The Hollywood Reporter. May 7, 2019.
  26. ^ Provizer, Steven. "Madness and Creativity: on Buddy Bolden and Staging "Coming Through Slaughter"". The Syncopated Times. Retrieved November 1, 2019.

Further reading[edit]

  • Barker, Danny, 1998, Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville. New York: Continuum. p. 31.

External links[edit]