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The Elusive Buddy Bolden

 The following post is by David Sager,  Processing Technician in the Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress.

Buddy Bolden, detail, unknown photographer, ca. 1903.

Buddy Bolden, detail, unknown photographer, ca. 1903.

This post is in commemoration of the 84th anniversary of Buddy Bolden’s death and the never-ending discussion of his legendary lost cylinder recording.

Charles “Buddy” Bolden, 1877-1931, often referred to as the “first man of jazz,” holds an esteemed place in recorded sound lore, despite the fact that no sound recording of him exists! His legend contains many myths and exaggerations about his powerful music and rough and tumble lifestyle. One especially tantalizing notion is that he made a phonograph record–a cylinder–with his band, during the brief period that he was musically active, before being institutionalized in 1907. In the years following Bolden’s death, as jazz scholarship was beginning to take shape, rumor of the cylinder’s existence caused a stir among researchers, who searched for it in vain.

Bolden appeared on the New Orleans music scene rather suddenly–around 1900–and immediately became fodder for folklore. He played the cornet in a loud, expressive way and many who knew Bolden said that his music combined ragtime and the blues for the first time. He played in smoky, stuffy dance halls with colorful names, such as the Union Son’s Hall, informally, but permanently renamed “Funky Butt Hall,” where he excited his dancers with his low-down, blues-drenched music. It was said that he blew so loudly that when he played outdoors his cornet could be heard for ten to twenty-five miles away! And as suddenly as he appeared, he left the scene. A heavy drinker, Bolden began to show signs of unreliability and unruliness in 1906. He was arrested on two occasions for violence and it was ultimately ruled that Bolden was insane. In June of 1907 was committed to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum at Jackson, Louisiana, where he frittered away his final 24 years, dying on November 4, 1931.

For years the persistent rumor that he recorded a wax cylinder with his band kept New Orleans jazz aficionados and collectors on the lookout. According to the band’s trombonist Willy Cornish, Bolden and his group made the cylinder around 1898. In the 1950s, jazz writer Charles Edward Smith, who had been the first to hear about the cylinder upon interviewing Cornish, offered a reward to any person who could bring it to light. Eventually, facts behind the cylinder and its whereabouts began to emerge.

Most of what we know to be true about Bolden is the result of the painstaking research of Donald M. Marquis, whose 1978 work In Search of Buddy Bolden did much to clear up the many misconceptions about this man. Marquis subsequently learned that it was a local saloon operator named Oscar Zahn, who recorded the Bolden Band on his Edison phonograph. Zahn’s business was in the vicinity of Bolden’s musical activities and apparently they became acquainted. It was not unusual for people who owned Edison phonographs to make home recordings. These machines were routinely sold with a recording attachment for this purpose, and many home recordings survive to this day. The Bolden recordings were thought to have been made after 1900.

Unfortunately Zahn’s collection of cylinders languished for years in a storage shed that was torn down in the early 1960s. Even if the cylinder had been recovered in time it would no doubt be unplayable due to the ravages of New Orleans humidity and mold.

There are, however, contemporaneous recordings that reflect the Bolden’s repertoire. His most-often played and requested number was an old melody that his bandmate Willy Cornish christened “Funky Butt.” The same melody appeared as part of a copyrighted composition entitled “St. Louis Tickle” in 1903. Here is a 1906 recording of “St. Louis Tickle,” performed by the Ossman-Dudley Trio. The “Funky Butt” theme appears at 0:39.

Buddy Bolden's band, unknown photographer, ca. 1903.

Buddy Bolden’s band, unknown photographer, ca. 1903.

We can glean from dance orchestra recordings made during the early 1900s a sense of the tone produced by the Bolden band. In the photo above of Bolden’s band we see that it was a typical stripped-down dance orchestra common to New Orleans, and known locally as a “string band.” String bands consisted of the essential voices needed to realize a publisher’s stock dance orchestration, with guitar substituting for piano. Recording dance orchestras of the time were similarly pared down to minimal and essential voices in order to be accommodated by the limited efficiency of the acoustical recording horn. The Victor “Metropolitan Orchestra” was one such ensemble and their informal, unpolished style adds to the fire of our imaginations as we muse about Bolden and his group. As a professional organization, Bolden’s band would have been expected to play marches, waltzes and other hits of day the Metropolitan Orchestra did in the recordings below.

Recordings made in Havana, Cuba, approximately 700 miles to the southeast of New Orleans, offer yet another facet to understanding the kind of effect Bolden may have put forth. Many of the danzon orquestas recorded there prior to 1910 feature a potent, “hot” style of cornet playing, somewhat reminiscent of the kind of style featured in early proto-jazz ensembles.

Although the facts of Buddy Bolden’s life have been largely clarified, the sound of his music remains a mystery. Along with sound recordings we can use contemporaneous orchestrations, photographs and recollections of folks who knew him to help pull into focus a semblance of his style and effect. Still, we will never really know just what Bolden, his band, and the late nineteen century origins of jazz sounded like.

One Comment

  1. Albert Haim
    November 7, 2014 at 10:15 am

    A couple of sections of the recording of “Punto Cubano” remind me of Angel Villoldo’s famous tango “El Choclo.”. And the general sound during the first 20 seconds, in particular, reminds of early tangos recorded in Buenos Aires in the first decade of the 29th century.

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