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The Elusive Buddy Bolden

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 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.

Comments (10)

  1. 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.

  2. Soon will be a movie about Buddy Bolden. I loaned my expertise, and studio recording cylinder phonograph and newly made wax cylinder blanks, that I make from raw materials,mold and shave. The Phonograph that recorded Bolden exists, a model B Standard manufactured from 1906-1908. I also believe that the humidity and being in a shed, would have made the recording hard to play. I have read “In Search of Buddy Bolden” I though have cleaned cylinders with Labtone, and de-ionized water, that had caked on white mold, 10 thousandths of an inch thick and they were playable enough to discern what the record was.

  3. I have been involved in jazz since 1952 -53, played trombone in a band and have collected 78’s since 1953. I have read a lot about Buddy Bolden, but nowhere can I find the members of his 1895 band. Who were they?

    • According to Bolden’s biographer, Donald Marquis, the members of the Bolden band shown in the famous photograph are – Willie Warner and Frank Lewis – clarinets; Willie Cornish – valve trombone; Bolden – cornet; Brock Mumford – guitar; Jimmy Johnson – bass. Of these, the only member to have made phonograph records was bassist Johnson, who recorded with Don Albert’s Orchestra in the mid-1930s.

      Marquis’ book In search of Buddy Bolden is still in print.

  4. Good blog you have got here.. It?s hard to find high-quality writing like yours nowadays.
    I honestly appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!

  5. re Jimmy Johnson, also recorded with the KXYZ band, also San Antonio, for Bluebird, in 1935

  6. If the machine was a 1906 that puts it almost a decade after the remembrance of Cornish who said it was before he went into Army in 1898.

    • Thank you for commenting. Regarding the comments from Shawn Borri and John, the Edison phonograph referred to did belong to Oscar Zahn. What we do not know is whether or not it is the machine on which he recorded Bolden. The fact that it is a model that came out during Bolden’s last year and a half of non-institutional life, suggests that Zahn probably had an earlier model phonograph whe he recorded the Bolden band.

  7. Since its first publication in the book Jazzmen (1939) the famous Bolden band photo has been a cause of debate. The photo was originally reproduced as seen above, with bassist, Jimmy Johnson, at the viewers left. Arguments soon arose that it had been printed the wrong way round. Problems arise whichever way round it’s printed, principally to do with the way the band members are holding their instruments. Personally – for reasons which lack of space do not permit me to go into here – I believe the photo as reproduced above is, indeed, the wrong way round. But there’s a secondary mystery attached to the photo. When reproduced uncropped – as above – an object can be observed in the foreground. This object appears to be made of metal and circular in shape, only the top part being visible, the remaining portion being cut-off by the picture plane. The shading on the object would indicate that it’s conically tapered, in either a straight or slightly curved fashion, and a lip or rim can be seen at its outer edge. Over the past eighty-odd years since its first publication a lot of ink has been spilt and some ludicrously far-fetched explanations for the curious posing of the musicians have been put forward. As to the mystery object in the lower foreground the suggestion has, in all earnestness, been made that it’s a bucket; included in the picture because it must be a part of the trap drummer’s percussion outfit(!) Nuts! Whatever the object is it appears to be a few feet in front of the band and slightly raised. In my opinion we’re looking at the top rim of a phonograph horn. Compare the object with photographs of phonograph horns – there are plenty on the web – especially photos that show the back of the horn, and you’ll see what I mean. I put this suggestion, in email correspondence, to David Kunian, Curator of The New Orleans Jazz Museum. Mr. Kunian concurs with my opinion.

  8. I have also heard Bolden might have also recorded in the early 1890’s for The Louisiana Phonograph Company, which was a regional branch of the North American Phonograph Co. My fear is that some collector said What is this? and shaved it off. Original owners of Class M phonographs, a battery powered (the first popular phonograph, the class M, was run by a 2.5 volt 2 amp battery!) could easily shave off cylinders and record on them, up to about 20 times before it was too thin to use. It is interesting that the cylinder for the first movie soundtrack circa 1895 exists though cracked, but was able to be put together and synchronized with the film. Yes, the model B in the “In Search of Buddy Bolden” book is about a 1906 Edison Standard.

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